Non League Club

When the Drip became a Torrent (Pan)

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on December 27, 2012

8312079464_a9194695b4_bWe like things continental style in the Fuller household, celebrating Christmas with a huge family feast on the 24th rather than the 25th December. Over a glass or two of port, my Dad started regaling us of a trip to watch Blackpool versus Portsmouth in the mid-1950’s on Christmas Day, taking the first train out of Euston and getting the last one back. It seems amazing to think that football could ever be played on the one sacred day of the year – the only day today where major shops don’t open (but for how much longer I wonder).

Since 1965 Christmas football has been the preserve of Boxing Day. However, with recent poor weather and lack of public transport, how long before this tradition disappears from our fixture lists. Every December there is a call from various Premier League managers that they play too many games and that there should be a winter break. Today the BBC News reported that “Even Premier League players had to train on Christmas Day”. So , someone who is paid up to £500k a month (and the rest!) has to work on Christmas Day? How is that a story? Policemen, nurses, firemen and soldiers also had to work. Did they get a mention? No of course not.

But let’s go back to the idea of a mid-season break again. Perhaps they should pursue the idea. After all, the football-starved public may just realise that Non League football is for life and not just Christmas. Titles aren’t won or lost at Christmas despite what the likes of Wenger or Ferguson may say. In act by introducing a two-week Christmas break will mean they will have at least three further midweek games – and where would they fit those in? In fact they should play MORE games at Christmas to try to alleviate any potential end of season fixture congestion. Nearly twenty years ago in the embryonic stage of the Premier League, teams actually played on the 26th AND 27th December.

But back to the Non League scene. The Boxing Day game can sometimes make a season for a club if they get the right game. This is local derby day, the most anticipated on the fixture calendar.

8311032041_8b7a762ab4_bOf course for some teams there isn’t a local derby. Gateshead face a long haul across the A66 to literally the other side of the country to face Barrow, whilst in the Ryman Premier League for every Thurrock v East Thurrock United (actually not as close as you may think) or Concord Rangers v Canvey Island (El Grande Island Classico) there is a Leiston v Enfield Town (only 101 miles) or Margate hosting Cray Wanderers (70 miles). With little public transport on Boxing Day it can be a logistical nightmare.

For Lewes we had four strokes of luck this season for our Boxing Day clash. Firstly, the Ryman fixture computer was very kind to us for once in giving us a home game. Our last scheduled Boxing Day home game was against Ebbsfleet United in 2010 which was postponed due to a frozen pitch. Instead if a potential 1,000 plus crowd on Boxing Day, there was less than 400 for the re-arranged midweek fixture on a chilly February night.

Secondly, we were paired with Bognor Regis Town, the pride of West Sussex from 35 miles down the A27. We could have been drawn to play Whitehawk who are our nearest rivals, or Hastings United but The Rocks from Bognor are one of the best supported in the league and would bring a few fans irrespective of the lack of trains. Originally, Brighton & Hove Albion had also been drawn at home against Millwall which would have been a bit of an issue. But with no trains the police didn’t fancy a couple of thousands Lions fans walking down the A23 and so the game was re-arranged, giving us our third stroke of luck, meaning potentially hundreds of Seagulls fans could make the trip to the Pan.

And finally, number four. The weather. Exactly 24 hours prior to kick off I surveyed the scene in the TBIR Arena. The ground wasn’t just waterlogged, it could be used for full-scale naval battle re-enactments. Yet here we were, Christmas jumpers all round ready for the best day ever with the pitch in immaculate condition. Whilst the Premier League players had turned up at the training ground for 30 minutes of hoofing the ball around Peter Kay style, Roger and co had worked tirelessly on the pitch to make sure it was fit for festive fun.

After having a free weekend last week when the game at Wealdstone was cancelled, the players had an extra few days rest, although conveniently it gave the players an excuse to start their Christmas period. Few hours early (as if they needed an excuse). Their last game was the remarkable 6-3 win over Concord Rangers, the first time they’d scored six since Boxing Day 2009 when Dover Athletic had been put to the sword 6-2.

We’d been working hard behind the scenes for weeks for this game. From the bumper double edition award-winning programme (well, it was in our book) to a specially recorded Christmas message from the players, nobody wanted to miss this one. Bognor had finally managed to escape from the Ryman League South last season and were making a good fist of this season. The form book had gone out of the window and no bookie in town wanted to call this one (or bother to open….)

8312799972_51620cf9fa_bThe rain held off….until 2.30pm and then it started sheeting it down. Twenty five minutes later, with the teams taking their place at the top of the steps ready to do battle, the referee decided to do his check on the player’s various piercings. Unfortunately youth team player, and excited first team debutant, Dom Ozga had screwed his latest piercing into his ear a bit too tightly and couldn’t remove it. The referee patiently waited as various attempts were made to remove the jewellery.  As I stood outside the dressing room a call went out for some bolt cutters.  I assume that was for the ear-ring and not the whole ear.  Alas, nothing could be done and Dom’s first team League debut ended before it had started as he was replaced in the starting XI by Joe Kay.

Lewes 1 Bognor Regis Town 0 – Dripping Pan – Wednesday 26th December 2012
Sometimes there are wins, and then sometimes there are fist pumping, chest thumping, lion roaring wins.  And this game was one of them.  At the final whistle the Lewes team weren’t just celebrating a good win against an organised Bognor side, but a victory against the elements that had conspired to try to stop the best attendance in the Ryman Premier League this season from seeing 90 minutes of festive football.

8311751955_f3cbe281f2_bDespite all the efforts of the Lewes groundstaff, they couldn’t prepare themselves for the deluge that hit Lewes during the game.  The crowd though was lapping up the game in spite of the rain.  Bognor had brought a big following, who never failed to stop cheering and encouraging their team.  They had welcomed the sides onto the pitch with an old-fashioned volley of toilet rolls, and continued to follow it up with more as I tried to clear the goalmouth of wet, sodden paper.

After the pre-kick off drama both teams soon settled into a rhythm, making the best of the poor conditions.  Defence splitting balls either held up on the pitch or skidded of the greasy top.  Even Worm’s normal pinpoint passes were not finding their men. The first thirty minutes saw both keepers called into action although without really being troubled.  And then the defining moment of the half came when Bognor were awarded a penalty.  Would the offence happened if the surface wasn’t so greasy?  Hard to say but that was certainly a factor.  However, Lewes keeper Thorp had kept his focus, guessed right and palmed the spot kick away.

8312813730_24bc182aa3_bThe second half saw the rain get even harder.  Lewes should have had a penalty on the hour mark when Brinkhurst was clearly taken out as he beat his man going for the by-line.  However, the referee and the linesman (standing just a few yards away) didn’t see it as an offence on the defender but rather on Brinkhurst who was amazingly booked for diving.

The referee kept glancing skywards and rumours were travelling around the terrace that the game wouldn’t be completed.  But then came the defining moment.  Karl Beckford sent in a free-kick, in form Nathan Crabb stooped and connected with the ball and it skidded off the wet surface and into the net.  The delight was clear to see.  The relief was palpable and the dampness I felt on my feet was Deaksy’s beer.

8311765705_f7cbffb921_bThe hero of the game was Keiron Thorp though as he followed up on his first half penalty save with a fantastic double save in the final few minutes before the referee finally brought the game to an end.  A win, a brilliant win against our West Sussex neighbours and above all the elements.  Take that Mr Monsoon.

As the fans cleared the pitch one of the fantastic Bognor fans decided to really enjoy the elements by stripping naked and sliding across the middle of the pitch.  I’m sure they will feel hard done by, leaving empty-handed but this was one game that the 12th man was the weather.

The crowd – a season best 883, not only Lewes’s best but the best in the Ryman Premier League so far this season.  Who knows what it would have been if the trains were running and Mr Sunshine was smiling on us.

A Harrowing experience

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on November 17, 2012

Just under twenty fours prior to the Saturday’s home game with Harrow Borough I got a text.  Nothing unusual about that – I tend to get a couple of dozen a day.  But this one requested my services.  Again, nothing unusual about that as I am a talented chap in the world of Brand Management, but this one was a demand for my voice.

It’s been a few years since I prepared to go onstage and sing to a crowd.  Back in the early Nineties, my chum (In)Active Matt and I regularly used to wow crowds in the pubs and clubs of Chiswick.  It was a way to earn some extra cash but the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle wasn’t for us.  We had artistic differences around whether we should become a tribute act.  I quite fancied turning our act into a Proclaimers Tribute act (Againstclaimers), whilst Matt wanted us to be Michael Bolton & the Wanderers.  So we split, agreeing never to pick up the microphone again.  But nearly twenty years later I was agreeing to step back onto the stage again, albeit as match day announcer for Lewes’s game against Harrow Borough.

With Bob away, nobody fancied doing it.  “Hang on”, said Charlie “We have a Communications Director.  This is all about communication and directing so it is Stuart’s job”.  End of story.

So I had a few hours to come up with some “patter” and “banter”.  Crowd engagement increases the audience experience, as I have always said.  So I put my thinking cap on, and remembered one of the best ever pieces of football commentary.  Let me take you back to September 1981.  The place?  Oslo.  The event?  Norway versus England.  The result?  Norway, ranked somewhere in the 60’s in world football took on and beat Ron Greenwood’s England.  To say it was a shock in world football is an understatement.  But it was the passionate reaction from a virtual unknown outside of the fjords, Bjørge Lillelien that would go down in history.  His 45 second rant against the English after the game is now legendary (you can hear it here) and my inspiration.

His speech went down in history as a battle cry for David against Goliath. And with our form so far this season being in the “could do better” category, what better way for me to take the microphone and rally the Lewes fans after a win against Harrow with a slightly edited version, focusing on those famous residents of HA1.

“We’re the best in the Ryman Premier League. We’ve beaten Harrow Borough. It’s completely unbelievable. Harrow, birthplace of giants. Todd Carty – you needed Tucker’s luck today? Where was it?We have beaten them all. We have beaten them all. Benedict Cumberbatch – You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to realise your boys were second best today. Patrick Moore – no use turning your eyes skywards, today’s defeat stares you in the face. Linsey Dawn McKenzie – what a set of tits your defence were this afternoon. We’ve beaten them all. We have beaten them all.

Barbara Windsor can you hear me now? JLS I have a message for you. We have knocked you down a few places in the Ryman Premier. Peter André – as they say in your language in the wine bars around Harrow on the Hill – your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took one hell of a beating.”

I couldn’t wait to stand in the middle of the pitch rallying the fans….of course we had to win first but that was long overdue.  What could go wrong?

It had been a long week in TBIR towers. I was forced to sit out the nil nil draw with Hendon on Tuesday, although it didn’t sound like I missed much. Morale boosting trips to the troops in Stockholm and Copenhagen had seen delays of over 5 hours due to fog, and even the debut of the Tuborg Julebryg, the Danish Christmas beer, didn’t lift spirits (OK so it did for an hour or two). The Movember moustache was at the difficult point of being constantly moving in the corner of my eye, leading to excessive top lip wiping and to top it all I found out that I hadn’t actually won €67 million in the European Official Lottery despite the email I received from David Cameroon (sic).

A pint of Harvey’s, a Rooks Pie and a chance to deliver my speech when we won would be the perfect tonic. Not too much to ask for is it?

Lewes 1 Harrow Borough 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 17th November 2012
As Meat Loaf famously sang, “Two out of three ‘ain’t bad”.  But in this case I would have traded the Harvey’s Blue Label and the Steak and Ale encrusted in pastry for the win.  It was a frustrating afternoon, summed up by the fact that there were goals galore everywhere else in the division, yet at The Pan the game’s two decisive moments both came within ninety seconds of each other, and both definitely down to big defensive mistakes.

The first half saw both teams create a number of good chances.  Harrow’s centre forward was Danny “The Unit” Buckle, a player who had a spell at Lewes a few years ago and earned legendary status for his mobility and first touch.  It was good to see that he showed no sign of losing his instinct for goal, blazing wide after five minutes when the whole net gaped open.

At the other end, all the talk of the Jungle was the various Movember moustaches on offer.  We had ex-Lewes Director Nick Williams’s Hulk Hogan effort, Cynical Dave’s Ron Jeremy but the star of the show was undoubtably Dave Lamb.  Not only was he sporting a Clark Gable, but had also slipped on a smoking jacket and a snazzy scarf.

Twenty minutes in and Lord Plumpton remarked how poor Lowestoft compared to their league position.  Puzzled faces all around..”You mean Harrow?”..”No, I mean Lowestoft.  Don’t you know who we are playing today?”.  When we told him, he asked if he could get his money back as he was here on false pretence. Jim is a Stoke fan.  Let’s leave it at that.

Despite striking the post and seeing the Harrow keeper Elvijs Puntins pulling off a couple of good saves, it somehow remained scoreless at the break.  I did my announcements and filled my pockets with boardroom sandwiches ready for the second half.  I didn’t have to wait long for the first piece of action to announce.  After spending a minute or so eulogizing the form of Lewis Hamilton this season he then under hit a pass-back to Thorp.  Thorp tried to clear his lines but his kick was charged down by Harrow Borough’s Akinola and the ball rebounded off his shins and into the empty Lewes net.

No sooner had I completed my announcements about the golden goal than I turned around to see the ball rolling very slowly towards an empty Harrow net.  I had no idea what happened.  I waited for the announcement to tell me who scored, then realised people were looking at me.  Shit.  I had no idea who scored, so I told it like it was….”And the scorer of the equaliser for Lewes was….” I paused, looked towards Deaks, Dave, Kev, Jim…anyone…but they hadn’t seen it either…”I don’t know but what the heck, it’s one all!”.

It turned out it was Anthony Thomas, capitalising on a mix up between the keeper (Elvijs had certainly left the building) and the defender.  This was a winnable game.  It became even more so when the Harrow skipper Burgess was sent off for a second (harsh) yellow.  He was soon joined by BBC Non League Show’s and Harrow Borough’s manager, Dave Anderson, sent to the changing rooms by the referee.  His crime?  He said to the referee “You are like a kid on Christmas Day”…Abuse?  Threatening?  Racial?  Offensive?  None of the above.  Poor decision.

Harrow finished the game the stronger and whilst Lewes had the man advantage, they couldn’t force the possession.  So it was another win-less game, although it meant our unbeaten league run at The Pan now stretched back to August.

But my most disappointing part of the afternoon was that I couldn’t deliver my eulogy.  Instead I had another pint of Harvey’s thrust into my hand in terms of payment for my service.  Perhaps it’s not too late for me to make it as a performer..on second thoughts, I couldn’t cope with all that underwear being thrown at me – you never know where its been!

Lewes show their Sunday best

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on September 30, 2012

After last week’s defeat to Hendon in the FA Cup we had to watch through our fingers as the draw for the next round inevitably paired the Dragons with Eastbourne Borough.  The biggest game the Rooks could get – hammering home the disappointment even further of the exit in the shadow of Wembley Stadium and the loss of prize money.

But a week is a long time in football and at this stage the cup competitions come thick and fast.  As one door to Wembley slapped shut, another bursts open.  Who needs the FA Cup when you can have the Trophy instead.  Sure, the cup is a bit smaller but it still has a lid you can put on your head when you dance around the pitch at Wembley Stadium.

Lewes’s record in the competition hasn’t been great.  They’ve never been passed the 3rd round, and the last occasion they got that far it all ended in a bit of a bizarre game.

The date will forever be fixed in the memories of those who braved the cold to be at the Pan on Saturday 14th January 2004.  FA Trophy fever had reached Lewes, with the club progressing to the 3rd Round of the competition for the first time in ages.  Their reward for a 4-3 win away at Cinderford Town in round two was a home tie with Weymouth, managed at the time by Steve Claridge.  Nothing out of the ordinary about that you may think, but 90 minutes later most of the thousand plus crowd had to have their jaws physically closed and their eyes popped back into their sockets after a thirteen goal thriller.

I’ve seen close to 1,500 games in my life in some of the most bizarre locations.  I’ve seen David meet Goliath and Goliath thumping David but never have I seen 13 goals in a game. Occasionally you hear about complete thrashings, such as Arbroath’s 36 goal victory over Bon Accord back in 1885, or Australia’s World Cup qualifying win over American Samoa by 31 goals in 1986.  But this wasn’t a thrashing.  This was an end to end classic.

Coming into this game, Weymouth were riding high in the Dr Martens Premier and their form soon showed as they took the lead when Claridge himself scored after just four minutes.  The next fifteen minutes saw a further four goals – 0:1 became 1:1, 1:2, 2:2 and then 2:3 to Weymouth.  Unbelievably there was no further goals until the hour mark when Lewes equalised.  The next ten minutes saw four more goals with Weymouth taking a 6-4 lead.  Weymouth then scored to surely settle the tie at 7-4 but back came Lewes with another goal.  With just a few minutes to go, it could have gone either way but a final Terrors effort from Philips made the final score 8-5.

You can only ever pray to see a game with as many goals as that (As I opened up my Non League Paper today I of course noted with irony that the nearest Non League ground to TBIR Towers, Park View Road in Welling hosted a game yesterday which also finished 8-5).  But who knows what magic the cup rubs off and that was why a few hundred good men, women and children had gathered at the Pan ready for their Sunday Best.  With Brighton at home on Saturday, we approached the visitors Lowestoft Town and asked whether we could experiment with a Sunday game – the first time the Rooks (rather than the Rookettes or Junior Rookies) had played on the day of rest for many a season.  They said yes and so whilst the rest of East Sussex were sitting down to their meat and two veg, The Mighty Rooks would be wrestling the fishermen from North Suffolk for a prize pot of £2,550 and a place in the 2nd Qualifying Round.

Lewes 1 Lowestoft Town 0 – The Dripping Pan – Sunday 30th September 2012
This will go down in the folder “in the next round”.  Simple as that.  It wasn’t a classic, certainly not anywhere near the excitement that those fans saw back in 2004, but it was a well deserved, hard-fought win that took the Rooks into the next round and added £2,550 to the bank balance.

Manager Simon Wormull had almost his whole squad to choose from for the game, welcoming back Chris Breach from his dodgy neck and Jake Conroy from his Triathlon activities.  It wasn’t hard for Worms to get the team motivated for this one, reminding the team of the pain felt by everyone at the club after the defeat to Hendon last week in the FA Cup.

Talking of pain, we didn’t need reminding that this was an FA Carlsberg Trophy game.  Which of course means, as with all other FA competitions (ironically virtually all sponsored by brewers), beer couldn’t be drunk on the terraces.  Quite how this would be any different from our game next week (which was supposed to be against Lowestoft again) I do not know.  In fact, with the game being played on a different day, the 350-odd mile round trip for the opposition and the Ryder Cup on TV, expectations were for a 400 attendance.

The Trawler Boys are a good side.  In the past two seasons they had reached the play-off final, losing in 2010 to Tonbridge Angels and 2011 to AFC Hornchurch.  Could it be three-times lucky this season?  They certainly started this cup side as if they meant business, although fielding Robin Tweet (aka John Clive from Carry on Abroad) with his 70’s bubble perm up front was a distraction for the Lewes centre backs, Chris Breach and Steve Robinson (now having raked up 350 appearances for the Rooks between them).  But after weathering the early storm, Lewes came into the game.  It was Jack Walder who turned up the tempo in the centre of the park, harrying and hustling the Lowestoft team who probably hadn’t come across a team that worked so hard all season.

Lolly broke the cardinal rule of watching Lewes.  Never open your Golden Goal ticket until there’s been a goal.  Her eyes lit up as it said 37 minutes.  As the clock ticked onto 36:01 a ball was played over the top of the defence, Nathan Crabb pushed the ball past the Lowestoft keeper and was brought down.  She jumped for joy but her happiness was short-lived.  The referee had given a corner kick.  How? Why?  Crabb clearly had the last touch.  It was either a penalty (which even the keeper thought it was based on his sheepish reaction) or a goal kick.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time we would see some bizarre decisions by the official.

The clock ticked onto 45 minutes and we prepared to tuck into the fine spread in the boardroom.  But as we moved down the terrace Steve Brinkhurt hit a hopeful ball into the box, new signing Ben Godfrey got a head to it and the ball looped, almost in slow motion, over the Lowestoft keeper and into the corner of the net.  In a half that was relatively devoid of goal mouth action, it came as quite a shock there had been a goal.

Half time sustenance onboard we returned to the terrace sans beer.  The nightmare scenario for Lewes was a Lowestoft Town equaliser.  This is the issue that Non League teams face up and down the country every week.  A draw would mean a replay at Lowestoft on Tuesday night – 170 miles and a 5 hour journey up to the deepest, darkest corners of Suffolk.  Such a journey would mean a 1pm departure from East Sussex.  Most of the team (as most of the players at this level do) have day jobs.  They simply cannot pitch up at work tomorrow and expect their employers to give them a day off at such short notice.  However, the club has to fulfil the fixture or face FA sanctions.  Fair right?

But back to the game.  Lewes built on their first half domination and continued to hassle the Trawler Boys.  Crabb had another good shout for a penalty when he was bundled over in the box by Greg Crane.  Crane wasn’t having a particularly good afternoon, chasing the shadows of Godfrey and Crabb.  At least it was better than the one he had on the opening day of the 2011/12 season when he scored an own goal for Lewes and was then sent off on the half hour mark.

Despite some neat play around the edge of the box, Lewes didn’t really force the Lowestoft keeper into a save.  However, at the other end anything that came within catching distance of Kieron Thorp was snaffled with ease.  Even the five minutes somehow conjured out of thin air by the referee didn’t bring the same nervousness that we had seen last season from the Rooks, and a calm maturity of the young side rode out the added time to move into the next round of the club.

So not the most memorable game for the 407 fans (so close to my 400 estimation) but it was a) a win b) a place in the next round c) made us £2,550 richer and d) showed that this Lewes team has the ability to beat one of the best sides in the division.

As a West Ham fan for over 30 years I am used to exciting but ultimately losing football.  Whilst it gets you plaudits, it ultimately doesn’t win trophies.  So for today, it was all about the result and not the performance. Oh, and £2,550…