Non League Club

No fairytale ending for the Bromley Boys

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on May 4, 2014

“It’s a marathon not a sprint”.

The favourite line of football commentators, players and managers when they lose a game during the season.  The season isn’t won or lost over 90 minutes but over the course of nine months.  Technically that is true, but when it comes to play off time, then the previous efforts go out of the window and it all comes down to ninety or in some cases, one hundred and eighty minutes of football.

7228388842_a8a95e8d49_bThe end of season play offs are the high point of the season.  Two teams essentially fighting like gladiators in the Coliseum.  Only one can walk away a victor, battered and bruised ready for the next opponent, whilst the loser has nothing but memories of a successful league campaign that ultimately led to nothing to console themselves with.  People who say the play-offs are unfair are either a) play-off losers or b) anti-football fans.

Yes they are incredibly harsh sometimes.  Take FC United of Manchester.  In with a shout of the Evostik Premier title until the final day of the season, they finished 16 points above 5th place Ashton United this season, yet in front of nearly 3,000 home fans this week, they lost in extra-time.  Their dream of moving up to the Conference North for the first time in their history was dashed by a 120th minute goal by Ashton’s Jack Higgins.  In the Ryman Premier League, the teams finishing 2nd and 3rd, Bognor Regis Town and Kingstonian respectively, both lost their home play off matches this week.

I can still remember the pain of 2004 in Cardiff when West Ham lost to Crystal Palace in the Championship Play Off final.  Palace had come from nowhere to sneak into the play offs at the last gasp and feeling the injustice of the fact that without the play offs we would have been promoted in third.  The following season it was our turn to sneak in at the last-minute and were promoted after beating Preston North End having finished twelve points behind 3rd placed Ipswich Town.

I’d still like to see a team from the division above thrown into the mix as it used to be the case when the play offs were first introduced into English football back in 1987.  In that season Charlton Athletic had finished third bottom in what was then Division One, and then beat Ipswich Town, fifth in Division Two, to play Leeds United for the place in the top tier.  After two 1-0 wins for the home sides, the game went to a replay which the Addicks won 2-1 after extra-time and thus retained their place in the top division. In the league below the story was slightly different as Sunderland were relegated from Division Two after losing a humdinger of a tie against Gillingham, who finished fifth in the third tier on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate score.

13912890359_f1ae9a728c_bThere can be few things more dispiriting in football than being roundly beaten in the first leg of a play off game.  On Tuesday night, Bromley FC, who had led the Conference South table for the best part of half the season, only relinquishing control for the last time in March traveled down the A2 to face Ebbsfleet United who only secured their play-off spot with two weeks to go.  Bromley would have fancied their chances to have come away from Stonebridge Road with at least a draw, especially as their coach, Hugo Langton is a master of preparation and would have had a game plan nailed on.  However, fate can sometimes be a fickle friend.  Ebbsfleet opened the scoring after just 60 seconds and then less than ten minutes later Bromley’s Ashley Nicholls was sent off for deliberate handball and Ebbsfleet were 2-0 up from the resulting penalty.  Two further goals proved the David Pleat theorists wrong in the perfect storm – i.e “Playing against 10 men is often harder than 11” and “2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline in football”.

But Bromley do at least have a second bit of the cherry.  Miracles do happen in football (just look at the fact Sam Allardyce is still in a job, or that Stoke City now play attractive football) so it was with the hope of a reversal of fortune that I planned my last Saturday of domestic action of the season.  They were desperate to have a shot at the Conference Premier, having never ventured so high in their history.  The excellent book, The Bromley Boys by Dave Roberts (coming to the silver screen soon) highlights the time when, in Roberts’s eyes, they were the worst team in England.  They have got better since those days, and now with one of the finest Non League grounds in England, they had all their ducks in a row to have a crack with the big boys of the Non League.

13913036890_ddcae1e47d_bEbbsfleet on the other hand were past masters of the Conference Premier.  The one consolation they could take if they somehow lost this game was that they would have two local derbies against Dartford to look forward to, after the Darts relegation from the Conference Premier last weekend.  But that would be a small moment of happiness.  They drove up the A2, around the M25 and then followed the A21, making sure to watch the speed camera at the Michelin-starred Chapter One, with more than hope in their hearts.  They could almost smell the final where Sutton United or Dover Athletic would be waiting.

Bromley is only a bus ride away from TBIR Towers so it would be rude not to let such a potential momentous occasion pass by.  The core of the LLF were also en-route, fuelled by Terry’s 50p off beer vouchers for Wetherspoon’s and the prospect of no footballing action in Sussex. The sun was shining so it was undoubtably going to be the best day ever.

Bromley 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – Hayes Lane – Saturday 3rd May 2014
This wasn’t a thriller to be honest.  Both camps said as much in their post-match comments to the press.  Bromley had to come out of the blocks flying and try to make an immediate impact into the four goal deficit.  They couldn’t.  The very big and strong Ebbsfleet defence held firm, using delaying tactics when they could to take the sting out of the Bromley momentum, whilst every so often using their wide men to push the home team onto the back foot.

13912982527_b78776790c_bWith a quarter of the game gone Ebbsfleet appeared to have taken the lead.  A fifth goal over the tie would have had the fat lady on the pitch singing her heart out but the referee deemed that the scorer, Ben May, had used a hand instead of his head.  Harsh from our angle.  The scare seemed to shock Bromley into life and within two minutes they had taken the lead with a cracking strike from Danny Waldren.  Every long journey starts with one small step – but would this be too little too late in the tie?

Bromley really needed a second before half time to stand any chance of turning the tie around.  Higgins went close with another strike from distance which Fleet keeper Edwards did well to push away but I think the visitors back four have had harder afternoons this season.

The second half saw Ebbsfleet slowly start to press the Bromley midfield and thus back into their own half.  The home side simply could create anything of note bar a Waldren header.  Ebbsfleet could have had a goal themselves when the impressive McMahon fired his shot narrowly wide.  A brief moment of hope appeared with ten minutes to go when Rance was given a straight red for his challenge on Goldberg but the numerical advantage lasted all of three minutes when Bromley’s Holland received a second yellow.

14100063954_fa5a40aa86_bDespite five minutes of injury time being played, Bromley knew the game was up.  It had been a long, hard season where they had fought and won for the most part.  Their fans stayed behind to salute the team, but the feeling of despair was clear to see as they slowly walked off the pitch for the final time this season.  Ebbsfleet would now be hosting Dover Athletic in the Final, who had surprisingly beaten Sutton United 3-0 despite playing for 80 minutes with ten men.

Ebbsfleet suffer at the hands of a wayward Cook

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on November 1, 2013

Few people will have been happier with the result on Saturday from the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Tie between Ebbsfleet United and Dartford than I was  (For Ebbsfleet, read Gravesend).As soon as the draw was made this tie caught my eye, but of course being on a Saturday I was loyal to my own club Lewes and enjoyed a pint of Harvey’s (just like Her Majesty did this week) on the terraces as we beat Margate.  As the news filtered through that the North Kent derby had ended all-square my Tuesday night’s entertainment was sorted.

The game had been seen by nearly 2,900 fans, more than the combined average attendance for both clubs and had provided its fair share of drama as Ebbsfleet missed an early penalty after the Dartford keeper had hauled down Cook.  Red card?  A split opinion based on which set of fans you listen to.  Instead, Alan Julian stayed on the pitch and Ben May put the ball high over the bar.  Dartford then took the lead against the run of play, and the reverse happened in the second half when Anthony Cook equalised.  All’s fair in love, war and local derbies.  72 hours later the action moved five miles down the A2 to Princes Park, a world away from Ebbsfleet’s Stonebridge Road.  Not that there is anything wrong with either ground – they are simply at the end of the non-league ground spectrum.

photo (58)I grew up equidistant between the two towns and have an affinity for both towns.  I went to school in Gravesend, played football and rugby on the pitches around the town and spent my formative and most impressionable years in the pubs and clubs of Windmill Hill.  Come summertime and we headed to play cricket in and around Dartford, often ending our nights, bat in hand, box in pants at Zens, also know as the kidney donor factory. When I wasn’t a young tear-away at Upton Park or Priestfield then I would head up to Watling Street to watch Dartford.  As a teenager, the old Dartford ground was the best place in the world.  You could hide under the main stand, as long as you avoided the legendary Monkey Alan who lived in the catacombs of the ground, browse for hours in the programme shop or simply watch the tear-ups on the terraces which were relatively frequent.  On occasions even the players got involved, hoping over the barrier and joining in the fun.

Those halcyon days vanished for the Darts when they were made homeless from Watling Street in a tale of tears, tantrums and treachery.  They became nomads, rising through the leagues as they called Cray Wanderers, Erith & Belvedere, Thurrock and finally Stonebridge Road home.  Slowly but surely they worked their back up the leagues.  As success arrived on the pitch then the local council started to take the club more seriously, finally agreeing to the funding of a new ground barely a mile from Watling Street.  In November 2006 they were finally given the keys to Princes Park, the greenish, most ecological football stadium in Europe.  Dartford fans would be able to stand under a roof made of sustainable material which rainwater being recycled and being held up by an 18 feet wooden man.

photo (59)Back down the A2 time seems to have stood still at Stonebridge Road.  The name may have changed to a more “European” Ebbsfleet, but it’s still Gravesend and Northfleet to me.  The rickety old main stand where when the ball lands on it you get showered with “stuff”.  The toilets, where if you position yourself correctly you can still watch the game “hands free” and the slowest refreshment bar in the world, where Cynical Dave once bought a frozen chicken pie and was then questioned when he returned it if he wanted it heated.  Do the Ebbsfleet fans crave grass rather than moss growing on the roof of the stands? Do they want a wooden man rather than scaffolding holding up their roof?  Do they want a stadium surrounded by trees or one by industry?  Progress is great but sometimes the comforts of familiarity are all football fans crave.

I had the day off.  Not through any other reason than I needed to use up my annual leave so I was going to make a day of it.  Where better to start than an afternoon at Crayford Dogs.  The place was packed, with free admission tempting the full spectrum of North Kent’s population.  Nothing better than a bit of dog racing, even if it’s the same 6 dogs running in each race, simply changing the lane jackets.  Six winners put a spring in my step and some cash in my pocket.  Next stop the Magic of the FA Cup.

Dartford 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – Princes Park – Tuesday 29th October 2013
If you were writing a book on the 180 minutes (plus injury time) these two teams played out this week, it would have to be titled “Three Kicks”.   It would also be a pretty long, dull book. The reason why Dartford won this tie and Ebbsfleet lost in its simplest terms boiled down to the ability to take a penalty.  In the two games Ebbsfleet were awarded two and missed both, whilst Dartford scored the one they were awarded.  Ebbsfleet fans will argue, and quite justifiably, that the Dartford keeper should’ve been sent off in the first game (and thus subsequently banned for the replay if the result would have stayed the same) and they can feel aggrieved that in this game he was the difference between a place in the 1st Round of the FA Cup and a short disconsolate walk back down the A2.

photo (61)The Ebbsfleet fans were in fine voice as they walked to the ground. It is amazing how adaptable football chants are these days.  One terrace favourite still advocates the use of firearms to commit Grievous Bodily Harm and was sung with lust by the group as they marched along the suburban streets of Dartford.  No one liked them, they told everyone who was listening as they made room on the pavement for an old lady coming the other way and despite them telling everyone that “Dartford was shit” they spoke about the post match plan after the game to go to Breathe, Dartford’s “premier” night club.  Inside the ground the away fans took up a position at one end, singing a chorus about Dartford having a “shit ground and no fans”.  Just as a reminder, the Darts do average over 300 more fans than The Fleet.  In all seriousness, the Ebbsfleet fans created an atmosphere that is probably rarely seen from away fans in these parts and certainly got behind their team from the first minute.

I was joined by the edge of the pitch by a Dartford-supporting groundhopper.  He was a tad deaf, meaning he shouted at me despite our proximity.  He had given up watching Dartford, he told me, because all they did was play “long ball rubbish”.  “We only score from set pieces” he told me, bemoaning the lack of creativity in the team.  “Watch our number 7, Hayes.  He’s a bottler” he shouted, loud enough for the player himself to hear and immediately go to jelly.  Sure enough, every time there was a 50/50 ball, Hayes would jump out of the way.  “Watch the full back Burns.  Great at getting forward, but takes ages to track back”.  Sure enough, with Burns out of position, Ebbsfleet created the first good chance of the game which the Dartford keeper had to tip over.  Impressed with this perceptive view of the game I asked him for his final score prediction.  “Oh we will win, probably from a set-piece”.

The first half was goal less and with the Dartford fans positioned next to the Ebbsfleet ones there was a fair amount of “banter” between the two sets.  But then at half time the Dartford fans went and took up position at the other end and all of a sudden that extra special cup atmosphere disappeared.

Ten minutes into the second period and Lee Noble was brought down in the Ebbsfleet box by Osborn.  A clear penalty despite some limp protests.  However, Bradbrook stepped up and made no mistake.  Ebbsfleet responded and pressed forward, their fans raising the volume to a new level.  The away side soon had a chance to draw level when Rance was brought down in the box.  May shook his head, passing responsibility to Cook but his effort was saved by the Dartford keeper.  The ball fell loose and a powerful Ebbsfleet strike was blocked by the chest of Dartford’s captain Bradbrook.  “Handball” went the collective shout from players and fans alike, although the fact Bradbrook ended the night in hospital with suspected fractured ribs from the block is probably enough proof for most the referee got it right!

photo (60)Despite all of their efforts Ebbsfleet simply couldn’t find a way through the Dartford defence.  Six minutes of injury time were added and despite the most ludicrous booking for time-wasting I have seen in a long time from the Dartford keeper (he really should have been sent off for two yellows for the same offence in less than a minute) the game ended 1-0.  Dartford’s prize was an away trip to Salisbury City in the next round – hardly one to set the pulses racing but there is always the hope of a better tie in the next round.

Fans of both sides made their way out of the ground and into the night without any animosity.  There hasn’t been many opportunities to play each other in recent years, and many fans (and players) will not remember the days in the 1970’s and 80’s when things were a bit more volatile.  In fact most of the post-match chat was of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and even VCD Athletic.  Old rivalries never die but they certainly mellow over the years.

Lose your pounds or lose your club

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on February 2, 2013

We all know that Non League football is going through a tough time.  At the top end of the pyramid, clubs like Luton Town, Wrexham and Grimsby Town are operating almost as League clubs still, whilst the “upstarts” of Forest Green Rovers and Newport County have wealthy owners who are gambling on the next step.  The crowds are comparable with their Football League cousins as too are the wage bills.  But even in the top division there exists the “have” and “have-nots”.  This season the Blue Square Bet Premier features ten clubs who have Football League experience in the past.  Most of these still retain a Football League business model.  But at the other end of the spectrum the Conference hosts teams such as Braintree Town, Hyde, Nuneaton, Alfreton and Tamworth.  Clubs who survive on crowds as low as 600 in the case of some of these, competing with full-time outfits.  Even in the Premier League the comparison between the likes of Man City and United and Fulham and Wigan Athletic is not so stark.

8436784684_1952d040f1_bMany clubs reach the Blue Square Bet Premier, but soon slide back down, with the financial burden simply too much.  The season Lewes spent in the top-level of non league football some five years ago almost cost the club its very existence.  Forced to put in additional turnstiles, segregation and other ground-grading criteria, the clubs fail to see additional fans come through the turnstiles to prop up the other side of the balance sheet.  No investment on the pitch soon sees a season long fight against the drop, and with four going down it is hard to escape.  Some clubs are simply too good for the regional Blue Square Bet North/South but not able to compete in the league above.  One such club is Ebbsfleet United.

Last weekend the Chairwomen of the club made a dramatic appeal to the fans:-

“In all seriousness and joking aside, now is the time to stand up and be counted. Whether you are MyFC, Fleet Trust, both or one of our loyal supporters who just enjoys watching the Fleet, please lose your pounds now!

The unfortunate timing of the weather and home fixtures being cancelled has really left the club strapped for cash and the coffers are bare!

LOSE YOUR POUNDS OR LOSE YOUR CLUB!!!!!

The Football Club is asking EVERY MyFootballClub member, EVERY Fleet Trust Member and EVERY Supporter near and far to donate a minimum amount of £30.00 or as much as you can afford to save the club.

Please do not ignore this plea, it is very real and has been decided as a last resort today here at the club.”

Crowds have rarely broken the four figure mark, apart from the two thousand who came to see the long-awaited return of the Dartford “A2” derby.  With Charlton Athletic back in the Championship and still running their coach travel from Gravesend, as well as the High Speed rail line to St Pancreas, and thus almost on Arsenal’s doorstep, fans are choosing alternative Saturday afternoon destinations.  The bad weather had caused postponements, which means the club, like many others, has no income to pay the expenditure of club wages and other bills.  Will such stark appeals work?  In most cases no.  Fans already feel they contribute enough by attending games and buying a beer, or a pie.  The emotional attachment in non league football simply isn’t as strong as we like to think, especially if at £15 for entry when economic times are still tough, other entertainment options are more appealing.

Despite trying various tactics to get Brighton fans along to Lewes this year, our crowds have fallen slightly.  Fans, whilst they may have an “affection” to a non league club, their hearts lie elsewhere.  A short-term cash injection may starve off the wolves today, but unless a club fundamentally changes the way it runs, they will be back,, hungrier than ever in a few months time.  One aspect that has helped boost attendances has been the kids go free scheme.  I still find it amazing to see the amount some clubs in the Non Leagues charge for the next generation of football fan – Borehamwood charge a whopping £6 for an under 12 for instance.

8435699769_04e7b6d2e9_bA Friday night game was a different approach.  The visitors were going to be Macclesfield Town, a club who have got their share of back page headlines this year for their remarkable FA Cup run.  Of course there was a common interest for me.  Town’s manager was none other than Steve King, who up until a year ago was in the hotseat at Lewes.  Since parting ways, King has changed virtually the whole squad at The Moss Rose in an attempt to get them back in the league at the first attempt.  Whilst their league form has been patchy to say the least, his cup exploits have kept the detractors off his back.  Despite the rallying call from the club, there appeared to be little effort to try to get more people through the gate.  No special promotions, no “kids go free”, no “Premier League/Football League Season Ticket Holders get 50% off”.  Whilst this would reduce the revenue per head, it would increase the total revenue as more people who come through the gates.  Logical?

This game couldn’t have been more perfect for me.  My weeks now end with a trip to our French office.  Whilst it’s not Copenhagen, with its fine food, fine location and even finer local scenery, Paris is growing on me.  Eurostar is a civilised way to travel and with my train arriving into Ebbsfleet at 7:15pm it would have been very rude not to walk across the car park and pay my £15 to watch the game against Macclesfield Town.  Unlike the fools at South Eastern railways I could rely on Eurostar to deliver me on time, which they did, and even allowed me to park free (technically not free but a football match loophole meant I didn’t have to pay to park for the whole day).

Ebbsfleet United 0 Macclesfield Town 4 – Stonebridge Road – Friday 1st February 2013

Shall we start with the positives? The club had done well to get the game on, especially with the wet weather in these parts in the last few days.  The pitch looked good although was wearing badly by the end.  The official attendance of 799 (which seemed high compared to eyeballing the crowd) couldn’t complain they didn’t see any action although apart from the 50 or so Macclesfield Town fans they wouldn’t have been best pleased at where it all came.

I’d only just walked through the turnstiles before Town took the lead.  Kieran Murtagh lined up a free kick on the edge of the box and drilled the ball through the wall and into the net.  A big sigh went around Stonebridge Road and the regulars in the Liam Diash Stand though “here we go again”.  But to give them credit Ebbsfleet battled in the first half, and could have equalised had the ball been played into the box earlier.

8435706945_7cd57ebe10_b (1)Just before the break I bumped into “Game a Day” John.  You can be sure if there is a game on any midweek night around London, John will be there.  He say’s it’s all about research (he works for one of the High Street betting companies) but I have a sneaky feeling he is addicted to football.  Always pleasant to chat to him though and we discussed the major issues of the day whilst Macclesfield flattened Ebbsfleet in the second half with some powerful counter attacking.  First Fairhurst scored from close range in an almighty scrap and then Mackreth finished a fine move with a Messi-esque finish.  The fourth, almost on the final whistle again summed up the difference between the two sides in attacking abilities, again scored by Mackreth.

So what can we take away from this game?  Ebbsfleet do seem to be in that state of limbo.  Probably too good, and dare I say it, too big for the Blue Square Bet South, but not quite able to cut it in the Premier.  Travelling costs, as Lewes found, in the Conference National are massive – away trips to far-flung places such as Barrow, Gateshead and Hyde are not cheap days out.  Many clubs are now taking the full-time plunge and that means the opportunity for clubs like Ebbsfleet to make a challenge towards the top of the table is very limited indeed.  They must be looking on with envious eyes at the progress local rivals Dartford are making.

Thumbs up for the Friday night football, but perhaps a few more incentives to get more floating fans through the gates wouldn’t go amiss in future.