Non League Club

Ut victor spolia sunt tam dulcia nectar

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on April 13, 2013

All you Premier League pansies out there don’t know what you are missing. Whilst you are being told to sit in your plastic seat, drinking your club-branded fizzy pop and eating your bland, dubious quality burger, thousands of other football fans are enjoying the game in its most purest sense. The beautiful game exists many leagues below the Emirates or Stamford Bridge, with more people watching grass-roots football than in any other country around the world.

I’m not here to tell you about the joys of having a beer when you are watching the game, eating freshly cooked food locally sourced (Sussex Stilton on your venison burger sir?), whilst taking part in the age-old tradition of changing ends at half time. We all know that is what makes watching non league football so great. Nope, I am here to extol the pleasures of one feature of the game at this level. Something that all you Premier League or nPower followers simply cannot understand the pleasure it brings us, whether our team is winning or losing. Two words. Golden Goal.

8646641948_4d203636b8_bWhether you be 8 or 80, punk or rocker, innie or outie, Beatles or Stone, rich or poor, you have as much chance as winning as your mortal enemy. To me, it is quintessentially Non League, summing up the proximity the fans can get to the players themselves. The volunteers who man the buckets on the other side of the turnstile don’t need a long-winded sales pitch. A simple shake of the bucket and the utterance of those two words are enough to have even the tightest fan handing over a pound or two. Pure love goes into the preparation of the tickets – each is hand cut, hand folded and hand blessed, ready for the game.

Some, like Cynical Dave would never dream of opening their ticket until that first goal goes in, unwrapping the carefully folded piece of paper as if it were the last present under the Christmas tree. Others know their lucky minute from the first kick, caught in a dilemma if the ball is in your penalty area when the big hand ticks over to the right minute. Surely it’s OK to secretly hope for a goal, even if it’s at the wrong end if it means winning £25? Twenty-five pounds. A Pony. That’s a full day out in the non leagues and enough for your bus fare home where as that would get you little more than a seat behind a concrete post for thirty minutes at Loftus Road.

Some fans will always buy their tickets from the same person, digging deep into the bucket to secure their chance of winning. For me? I’m easy. I will often wait until kick off, relishing the fact that few tickets are left. There are, of course, some tickets you don’t want. I have pulled out nil-nil just once, which at this level is as good as throwing your money away (Lewes play out one per annum on average at The Dripping Pan). The 1st minute is also not a very good bet, as few teams tend to attack from the first whistle, although that would have been a winner twice this season. The 45th or 90th minutes are of course the best tickets as these give you the respective injury time as well – as we saw on Thursday against Margate.

And then there is the definition of the goal time. A ticket for the 30th minute could mean anything from 29 minutes and 1 second, or 30 minutes 59 seconds depending on who announces the goal time. On the occasions I have held the microphone I define the goal in the former, rather than the latter.

8646642950_e3b0fff2ea_bOften, holding out hope for winning the golden goal is the best part of the match. Surprisingly, non league games can often be dire. But having that potential small pot of gold in your hand, or pocket is often enough to get you through the worst.

So let’s look at the real life emotions of the Lewes fans as they took their place on The Jungle for the first half of the game against Leiston. Ah yes, Leiston. It is a dirty word down in these parts. Whenever things are looking bleak, you can snap out of it with the sentence “remember Leiston”. Whilst the two teams are today playing at the same level, back in October 2008 they were separated by four divisions. The teams met in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, one step away from the first round proper. After a surprise draw in Suffolk, few gave the Suffolk side any hope of victory in the replay. But not only did they win, they won easily, setting up a tie with Fleetwood Town. Don’t mention the word to captain Chris Breach who played on that night.

So four and a half years later we were meeting as equals. In fact Leiston were as good as safe as you could be for another season when they arrived in monsoon-like conditions.  Lewes needed the points. Badly. All of us would of course swap not winning the golden goal for three points, right? Dave….RIGHT?  At 2.45pm the main concern was whether the game could actually start at all.  It looked like the Golden Goal tickets would all be null and void, unless someone had slipped in one that simply said “cancelled”.

Lewes 0 Leiston 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 13th April 2013
To the victor, the spoils of war are as sweet as nectar, so says my headline today.  Alas that wasn’t any of us today.  In fact with teams around Lewes pulling off more amazing results (bottom of the table winning at title-chasing Lowestoft Town would have busted on coupons), we could only grumble at the full-time whistle that the game should never have been completed.  Conditions were poor, but were the same for both sides as they tried to play the ball through the puddles.  Standing water made running, let alone passing almost impossible and so it was no surprise that the winning goal came from a weather-assisted mistake.

20130413-205622.jpgBy the time Gareth Heath had seen his corner fly into the net, thanks to the strong wind which took keeper Tom Betts by surprise I had already lost any hope of winning my Golden Goal.  For my piece today I had bought 5 (five!) tickets, ranging from 5 to 72 minutes.  Most of the 400 plus crowd were resigned to seeing a goal-less draw as neither team could beat the elements.

Lewes came out for the second period wearing last season’s home kit such was the state of their attire after 45 minutes.  Chances were few and far between.  The Rooks had a good shout for a penalty as a Leiston player slid a dozen yards into the ball, clearing making contact with his arm but that would have been harsh.  Only the brave (Dave Lamb), foolish (Nick Williams) and the Scots (Cynical Dave) braved the Jungle in the first half as the rain lashed down.  For the second half not one person stood on the open terrace – a sight that has rarely been seen at The Pan.

The eyes of many in the Philcox were glued on their smartphones as events elsewhere started to unfold.  A draw wouldn’t be a disaster for Lewes, even if most of the teams around us were at least getting a point.  In fact with twenty minutes to play we had moved up to 4th from bottom.  Who needs to win the golden goal when life is good.  But then Leiston, on a rare venture into the Lewes box gained a corner.  Heath swung it in, looking for the onrushing players on the edge of the six-yard box.  However, the strong wind took hold of the flight and the ball arced under the bar, despite Betts desperate attempts to keep it out.

20130413-205711.jpgFull time saw the players get a standing (well, we were hardly likely to sit down on the wet terrace were we?) ovation.  You could not fault the spirit or the effort today.  The elements (and Leiston) had won.  The fight for survival would take us to Earlsmead, north-west London, home of Harrow Borough in seven days, themselves not quite safe from the drop zone where the Rooks would have to fight for the golden goal and more importantly, the platinum three points.

Beach Boys enjoy a day out in Sussex by the Sea

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on February 9, 2013

“Essex has the sunshine
And the girls all get so (fake)tanned
I dig a French bikini on Canvey Island dolls
By a palm tree in the sand”

IMG_2605What relevance is current form in Non League football?  Saturday’s visitors to Lewes, Concord Rangers, came into the game in 2nd place in the Ryman Premier League with five wins on the bounce, scoring fifteen goals in the process, conceding just one goal, but that illusive 100% record taken from the previous six games (why is current form always taken over past 6 games?) had been broken when Lewes visited Canvey Island back in December and came away with a remarkable 6-3 win.  Results since just show how unpredictable this league as the Rooks had only won once (although that was on Tuesday) but have spent the last five weeks on the road.  Home is where the heart, and in theory three points is, and with a very impressive record at The Dripping Pan against teams at the top, confidence was high for three points.

Today was an early start for me.  Putting my directors hat on as I left the house it was annual appraisal time for Simon Wormull, the Lewes manager.  We try to do things differently from other clubs at the Dripping Pan.  In any company, annual appraisals, or PDR (Personal Development Reviews) should form part of good governance so why should football clubs be any different.  The process gives Worms the opportunity to say what’s going well (big tick for the flapjacks), what could be better (need to sort out the toilets) and what his plans are for the pre-season schedule (front row tickets for Mumford & Sons already sorted) as well as giving us the opportunity to give him feedback (don’t play yourself at left-back) on the job he was doing.   As Brian Clough once famously said, “We discussed the situation for 30 minutes and then decided I was right”.

photo (1)Today was a 2pm kick off to accommodate a few more fans who will be heading to the Amex for Brighton’s 5.20pm televised kick off.  Some may question whether it is worth it, bring the kick off forward by an hour.  In truth, even if it puts an extra 20 on the gate, then yes it is.  The past 5 weeks have been quite interesting in terms of attendances.  Boxing Day saw the biggest Ryman Premier League attendance of the season with 883 in the Pan for the game versus Bognor.  Just three days later, with the rain lashing down that attendance dropped to just 493.  A few days later 771 saw the game at Hastings United, the fourth biggest attendance in the league this season.  And then there was 493 at Whitehawk last season, their biggest ever league crowd.  Love us or hate us Lewes still bring in the locals.

So today?  If I was allowed to bet on football I would go for a 480+ crowd today and after seventeen goals in the three previous games between the two sides, a nil nil draw obviously.  Injuries and suspensions had decimated plans for our global domination this season but the good news was that 50% of the Lewes squad for the game were products of the youth team, currently riding high in the Ryman Youth League.  Now that is something to be proud of.

Everything was going like clockwork in the run up to kick off.  And then in the warm up one of the linesmen went down injured.  Non League games do not have fourth (or fifth) officials and so a mad panic started in trying to find a qualified candidate.  Kick off came and went without any solution.  Finally a candidate was found in the local supermarket doing his weekly shop, went through the 8 items or less with his trolley (sorry Daily Mail readers) and headed down to the Dripping Pan.  All systems go.  What could possibly go wrong now?

Lewes 0 Concord Rangers 3 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 9th February 2013
Sometimes you just know when an injury is serious.  The initial stillness of the stricken player, the reaction of the other players and then the concern over everyone’s face.  After 32 minutes with the game poised at nil nil, Lewes centre back Callum Donaghey went up for a header and then fell awkwardly.  No one else was close to him but he immediately signalled to the bench for help, holding his knee.  Within a few seconds an ambulance had been called and the rest of the players had discreetly made their way to the sideline.  Callum, who has been outstanding since joining the club late last year essentially as cover for the long-term injury Steve Robinson, left the pitch in distress on a stretcher.

Such is the age we live in that once he was made comfortable with gas and air, administered by a Paramedic, Callum asked for his phone and showed his spirit with a series of tweets:-

“Laying on a stretcher absolutely f@cked….3 points would cheer me up.  Come on Lewes”

His next tweet of “Cone b Leered” perhaps displays the effects of the pain killers more than the previous one.  He then sent a final tweet from the ambulance, complete with a picture that simply said “F@ck this, I should be on the pitch playing.”

Nobody wants to see a player injured, especially at this level when football isn’t the way they earn their living.  If you have a spare moment, sent Callum a tweet (@callumdonaghey) – he will really appreciate it.

photo (2)Prior to the incident it had been quite an even game.  As predicted the goal mouths appeared to be sacred, with neither keeper particularly busy.  However, after the injury Lewes actually stepped up their attacking intention and Layton Schaaf went desperately close with an excellent header.

As the players departed at half time they couldn’t help but see Callum still being treated close to the edge of the pitch, which would have once again brought their footballing mortality to the forefront of their mind.  This made Simon Wormull’s half time speech all the harder and perhaps it was no surprise when just three minutes after the break Hallett opened the scoring for Concord.  Despite having scored eighty-nine goals between the two sides this season the game simply never kicked into first gear.  With Donaghey finally departing in an ambulance, Lewes started to boss the midfield.  A substitution brought Ryan Fergany onto the pitch meaning that by joining his brother James in midfield they became the first set of brothers to play in the Rooks team together since records began, and by records began we mean before Club Sec Kev started using his KevPad to record stats.

Unfortunately the Rooks couldn’t convert any possession into chances with Concord looked dangerous on the counter attack and added a second in the 83rd minute when Gordon scored.  Game over as far as Lewes were concerned and whilst a third Concord goal, scored in injury time by Spendlove capped a fine away performance, it is hard to know what effect the injury to Callum had.

Concord Rangers are certainly a club to admire at this level, located in an area where they have to compete with dozens of other Non League clubs, managing on crowds of just a few hundred, yet still managing to keep an upward momentum (and being a jolly nice club too).  We wish them well for the rest of the season.

So what next for Lewes?  The Rooks fell two places in the league, too close to the wrong end of the table, with another addition to the injury pile.  With no first choice centre-back available for the next five games, perhaps it’s time to dust off the Puma Kings once again. For God, Wormy and Saint George!

A knee jerk reaction?

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on January 7, 2013

Footballers don’t have the best reputation out there.  I say that whilst watching Luis Suarez clearly handle the ball in the process of scoring against Mansfield Town, prompting even the commentator on ESPN to remark “Once a cheat…”  . Whilst a star at one club will be idolised by his own fans (in most instances – even some Liverpool fans are embarrassed by his antics now, ditto Balotelli at Man City), anyone outside of that bubble will need no invitation to abuse or ridicule a player should any misfortune befall him. The irony of this is that most of the abusers, if they saw one of these players, would fall over themselves to get an autograph or a photo with him (assuming they are wearing the “right” brand, of course). And of course you have the whole international parody where a player from your biggest rival can be a star one day wearing his national colours, but the biggest villain the next when he returns to club duties.

Few players are genuinely loathed universally. I’m not sure there is an El Hadj Diouf or Robbie Savage fan club anywhere, unless of course they created it himself. I do not think there is anything he could do which will put him in a good light so late in his career. The toxic twins are still loved down at The Bridge but for how much longer? Both have shown over the years their repugnant side, preferring to live their lives on the front rather than the back pages.

rioOver New Year Rio Ferdinand tweeted to his 3.7 million followers that we should feel sorry for him spending the night alone in a hotel room in preparation for a Premier League game, whilst the rest of the world was out partying. Was that a sensible move? Of course not. Someone who earns five times the average annual salary IN A WEEK is in no position to ask for pity in such a circumstance. Misguided Rio and only fuels the fire of people who believe there is an us and them culture between players and fans.

Few players genuinely want to be around fans. Once the first big pay cheque arrives, the camouflaged Bentley is ordered and the mansion shaped like a Nike logo is built in Essex, they want a new set of friends, normally blonde, with significant amounts of silicon already built in. Fans are an annoyance. I’ve seen in first hand from my travels with England, where fans who have spent thousands getting to the likes of Tel Aviv, Baku and Skopje have been contained in remote car parks at airports just so they cannot “bother” the players as they leave.

But surely the Non Leagues are different? Surely these are all good guys, right? Well on the whole most of the people I have met in my capacity as a fan and a club official are good people. They play football for the love of the amateur game and not because they believe football owes them anything. Fair assessment? Most players and managers will socialise in the bar after the game, even happily putting their hand in their pockets to buy complete strangers a drink (thumbs up to Thurrock management team for that gesture last Saturday). If they are not playing they will readily come to games and stand with the travelling support. Autographs and photos? No problems, irrespective of what brand you are wearing

But occasionally Non League football gets it wrong. Player, managers and even directors sometimes let greed and personal vanity get in the way of the best interests of the going concern of a football club. We all know that times are tough, and every football club needs to fight for every penny, yet still there are some who have unrealistic expectations and their actions put the very survival of clubs at jeopardy. Why do they do it? Probably because after all the outgoing show of love and affection for a club and its fans, deep down they are frustrated wannabe professional players, managers and directors who feel Non League football actually does owe them something.

4549340428_577d1749be_bLewes’s visitors for Saturday afternoon’s game were Hampton & Richmond Borough, a club I’ve enjoyed visiting over a number of years. When previous manager, ex-West Ham United legend Alan Devonshire was in charge, he would be in the bar after the game, happily talking about the glory days to anyone who asked. Under his stewardship the club rose to the second step in Non League football, a mighty achievement. Last season they lost their fight against relegation, which for us Lewes fans wasn’t a bad thing as we’ve always enjoyed playing the Beavers.

But after a good start to the season, with a decent squad including an ex-Lewes “marquee” player, Gary Holloway, recent form has been poor. One win from their previous six games, including a home defeat to bottom of the table Carshalton Athletic (with Holloway missing a last minute penalty), sparked an unusual response from the board. In a public statement published on their website they said:-

“Whilst we still support Mark Harper and the players and believe that they can turn the current slump round we expect to see an immediate improvement over the next three league games as they are crucial for the club in achieving our aims this season and Mark has been informed of our expectations of both him and the squad .We are constantly monitoring performances and results and will make whatever decisions we believe are in the best interest of the club in order to fulfil our ambitions for the season.”

So game one saw a draw against Kingstonian. Game two was against Lewes. Reading the literal meaning of their statement, a draw would be an improvement for them, but would it be enough for Harper? Or would the knee jerk upwards?

After the warm up act down the road at the Amex, we arrived at The Dripping Pan just in time to grab a Pint of Best, a home-made Chilli Beef Pastie and sign SuperHans up as our first Belgian owner.

Lewes 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 5th January 2012

Twenty minutes after the end of this tie I sat upstairs in the office as I normally do, talking through the game with Manager Simon Wormull and his assistant Nick Brown.  It is always useful to get their view on how things went, and vice-versa from the terrace view.  A draw was a fair result against a team who had looked at one stage like they would run away with it.  Worms had started the game at left-back, due to the injury problems.  I asked him about the second Hampton goal, which had been headed home by Jo Turner.  “It was my fault, but when have you ever known me to jump to head the ball?”  And that is the honesty that rarely exists in any level of football.

photoThat goal had put Hampton & Richmond 2-1 up just before half time, a fully deserved goal based on the dominance of the visitors in the first period.  Lewes had started brightly, although it was a patched up side thanks to injuries and sickness.  In the 19th minute those 550-odd souls in the ground witnessed some sheer magic.  A flowing move that started with an interception in the Lewes penalty area saw the ball quickly played between half of the team before Crabb somehow got a cross in from the dead ball line and it bounced up kindly for Steve Brinkhurst who jumped and perfected an overhead kick that looped into the net (see Boysie’s excellent picture of the moment here).

We all jumped around like loons, having witnessed on of the best goals that had graced The Pan for sometime.  Alas, the feel good factor didn’t last too long as ex-Rooks full back Marvin Kamara fell over an outstretched Simon Wormull leg and Charlie Moone dispatched the penalty.

HandR knee-page-001After a panic at half time when I realised I had thrown away my winning golden goal ticket, we expected the visitors to kick on and over run the heavy legs of the Rooks.  Whilst most clubs in the division had been affected by the weather in the past ten days, Lewes had managed four league games, with a thin squad.  Their sterling efforts were now beginning to catch up with them.  But for some reason Hampton didn’t regain any of the fluidity of the first half.  Holloway, perhaps subdued by the stick he was getting from the home crowd about his 8 months at Lewes without once kicking a ball.  The Rooks looked more dangerous as the half progressed and it was no surprise when Layton Schaaf equalised after some good approach play from Jack Walder.

So honours even once again with Hampton & Richmond Borough.  Whilst the point didn’t really help in our push for a play off spot, Lewes once again stepped up against a team at the top of the table.

We never know what goes on behind all of the closed doors in football but it is a shame to sometimes see the Corinthian spirit forgotten in the pursuit of ultimately flawed dreams.  But then again, that’s just football.