Non League Club

Bulls create FA Cup history in the sun Shine

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on August 21, 2016

CqN87_iWAAAabgoThe was the top FA Cup tie in the Preliminary Round.  That was undisputed as AFC Mansfield were first in alphabetical order.  It was also another first for AFC Mansfield as this would be their first ever home tie in the world’s oldest cup competition.  In fact, this would only be their second ever FA Cup tie, after last season when they lost 2-1 to today’s visitors, The Shiners from South Normanton.

It has only been four years since they were formed as a community club by a splinter group of Mansfield Town directors, who were unhappy with the direct that the Stags were going.  They found a home at The Forest Town Arena, a cycling track 2.5 miles north-east of Field Mill.  Since then they have won promotion twice, taking their place in the Northern Counties East Premier League, or step 5 of the Non-League pyramid to me and you and reached the 5th round of the FA Vase two years ago.

Whilst The Bulls will probably never gain the same profile as other “protest” clubs such as FC United of Manchester or AFC Wimbledon, their progress so far has to be admired.  Funds are tight in the grass-roots of the game but focusing on the community aspect will win them friends and enable them to find their level.  Oh, and their manager is called Rudy Funk which makes them a winner in my book.

I’d manage to escape from Centerparcs for a couple of hours, leaving the Fuller girls high up some trees, tied very tight to some ropes.  A few weeks ago when I looked at potential “diversions” the one that stood out was a potential tie at Clipstone.  Alas, they lost at Brigg Town and I had a moment of panic where I thought I may have to spend the whole afternoon in some sub-tropical biosphere carnage, without a game within a “reasonable” distance.  By reasonable I had been told I could go AWOL for three hours maximum.  “Why don’t you go to AFC Mansfield?” Suggested Lolly.  “What? Why do you say that? I scoffed, after all what does she really know about the East Midlands Non-League scene?  “Well, they are the first game on the list and Mansfield is just *there* on the map”.  Whilst I didn’t let on, she was onto something.  Clever girl my eldest daughter sometimes.

So at 2.30pm I headed out of Centerparcs, passing the Workshop Van Hire Stadium home to Clipstone FC, the headstocks of the former Clipstone Colliery that dominate the skyline, a boarded up pub called The Olympic Spirit and a pet grooming parlour (I think) called Doggy Style.  A couple of miles down the B6030, take a left and there was the Forest Town Welfare with the Arena behind it.

29011184182_fc9c5632a5_kWithin two minutes I had spent £10.50 on admission, a programme, a beer and a chip “cob”.  Ten Pounds Fifty.  That wouldn’t even buy a programme these days at Wembley on Cup Final day. Ah yes, The Emirates FA Cup, two organisations that have pots of cash have come together.  What interest do they really have in these early rounds?  Zero really.  736 clubs enter the club, £30 million was the reported fee the FA have received yet the level of prize money on offer in the early rounds of the club has not changed since last season.  Today’s winner would receive £1,925.  The prize money on offer in the latter stages of the tournament means almost nothing to be big clubs.  I’m sure that the £1.8m Man Utd won by beating Everton in last year’s final was a footnote in the bank account, whereas the prize money in the early rounds really means something for the little clubs.

So here is a suggestion.  Reduce prize money for Premier and Football League clubs by 50% and use that as a pot for the losing teams in the Qualifying Rounds to soften any blow of elimination.  Or perhaps use the money to fund a “kids go free” scheme in the cup for all Step 7 and below clubs?

So armed with food, drink and programme I took my seat on the concrete steps of the Arena, watching the teams warm up.  To my right Mansfield’s substitutes and a man dressed as a bull peppered the reserve keeper with shots, with the Shiners subs tried to boot the ball as high in the air as possible.  Ah yes, the South Normanton Athletic nickname.  Up there with the best in my view.

29116468405_34ff130dd5_kThe nickname ‘Shiners’ derives from the mid-1750s when South Normanton was at the heart of the ribbed stocking industry. The people involved in this craft worked long hours sitting at their windows on wooden stools, so much so that the backsides of their trousers became very shiny making them instantly recognisable as coming from the South Normanton area; since then local people have been referred to as ‘Shiners’.  Not my words, but those of Wikipedia so it must be true.

AFC Mansfield 2 South Normanton Athletic 0 – The Forest Town Arena – Saturday 20th August 2016
They were certainly dancing in the streets of Forest Town after AFC Mansfield won their first ever FA Cup tie, easily beating the conditions and The Shiners thanks to two second half goals from Gary Bradshaw and earning a big cheque for £1,925 in the process.  Wouldn’t it be more fun if at the end of the game they got a small FA Cup (one that gets bigger depending on the round you are in) and a cheque (again getting bigger in size depending on the round) presented on the pitch?  They could even have someone by the side of the pitch engraving their name in the trophy, just like at Wembley, but perhaps using a compass or a large safety-pin.

The strong wind caused both teams issues but it was the home side that always looked the more comfortable as they created a number of first half chances but a combination of the bobbly pitch, the strong wind and comical attacking somehow kept the game goal less.  The club offer a strange twist on the golden goal where you can buy two tickets, one for each half.  The chap next to me saw his luck wasn’t in when he drew minute 1 and 90.  I was relatively happy with my 73rd minute ticket though.

The Welfare Club was relatively full as the crowd ventured in a half-time to escape the rain.  Sky Sports on the TV’s, decent bar and a couple of snooker tables.  Years ago the locals would have been protecting their pints of mild.  Today it was all bottles of rosé in ice buckets on the tables and talk of  The Great British Bake Off.

29011200432_cec726563c_kThe second half saw the home side take a more direct approach, with the wind behind them.  Finally the deadlock was broken when striker Gary Bradshaw poked home in what I thought was the 73rd minute.  Alas, the official time-keeper ruled me a minute out.  My career record of winning the golden goal still stands at one (Cray Wanderers v Lewes in April 2012 if you ask).  The South Normanton manager was not impressed with his defence, nor the officials a few minutes later when his centre midfielder was flagged offside.  It seemed that he had done his homework and was quoting chapter and verse on the new regulations to a bemused linesman.  He was right too.

AFC Mansfield wrapped the game up with ten minutes to go as that man Bradshaw picked up on sloppy defending and rounded the keeper to slot into an empty net.  The Shiners would be heading back to Derbyshire empty-handed whilst The Bulls would be able to look forward to another home tie in two weeks time as they would be hosting Stratford Town.

The magic of the FA Cup had come to Forest Town.  It’s just a shame that the powers that be still aren’t taking the qualifying rounds seriously.  Good luck to AFC Mansfield and let’s hope that the prize money they earn will help them build on and off the pitch.

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With am or without you

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on September 28, 2014

Every Non-League club starts the season with a dream of progression in the FA Cup.  For the players it is the thought of walking out at a Premier League (or Championship) ground, or pitting their wits against professional players.  For managers it is the thought of adding a famous scalp to their CV.  For the fans it is the thought of supporting their team in places or against clubs they would never have thought of and for the club owners it is the thought of the pot of gold that grows with every win.  More often than not all of those dreams are brought crashing down to reality by the end of September, with 540 clubs already “concentrating on the league”.  For those that have progressed from the Extra Preliminary Round, played in late August, the chances of them making it through three rounds is less than ten percent (7.3% based on last season to be precise).

IMG_1305However, those odds didn’t frighten us as we headed up the A12 to Witham for the second time in just seven weeks.  Back in August we were undone by a stand-in referee who seemed to have forgotten his cards (and rule book) and a pitch that looked as if it had gone through the same type of treatment as an Elton John hair weave, coming away with a point from our opening game.  Since then it has been a story of injury, suspension and some down-right poor refereeing.  Yes, we can all find excuses to explain our poor league form but this is the FA Cup.  Success is simply based on progression.

As a club we never budget for cup runs.  That would be a foolhardy approach, although many clubs fact in a win or two and the associated prize money into the budget.  An away draw is never a good thing at this stage in the competition (in most instances).  Despite the clubs sharing the gate receipts, attendances tend to be much lower in the cup than in the league. It seems that the magic of the FA Cup fades in the Extra Preliminary Round these days.  It seems that someone at the FA seems to have it in for Lewes when it comes to home FA Cup draws.  Out of 25 initial games we have played in the competition in the past decade (not including replays) we have been drawn at home only 8 times and only once in the past four seasons (eight ties). The good news is that we have a higher than 50% win rate on our travels in the cup.  What could possibly go wrong today?  However, whilst we still believed in the magic of the FA Cup, has it disappeared elsewhere?

On Non-League day back in early September over 2,800 squeezed into Champion Hill to see Dulwich Hamlet take on Hampton & Richmond Borough, one of the biggest attendances in the Ryman Premier League for many-a-year.  Seven days later they hosted Worthing in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Cup yet only 489, including a fair few from the South Coast, watched the game.   In Manchester, England’s biggest fan-owned Non-League club, FC United of Manchester struggled to break the 1,000 mark for their tie against Prescott Cables, almost 50% down on their average Evostik Premier League crowd. Likewise on the same day at Nywood Lane, just over 400, with a significant following from Lewes, watched Bognor Regis Town’s local derby.  Last season the corresponding league game saw 603 watch the Boxing Day game.

Football doesn’t exactly get the pulses racing in these parts – in fact the sheer number of clubs playing at this level in the area probably hinders rather than helps them.  Just a short drive away from the Village Glass Stadium there is Heybridge Swifts, Maldon & Tiptree, Burnham Ramblers and Ryman League North new boys, Brightlingsea Regent.  However, surely the whole village of Witham (population 25,532) would be out supporting their side today?  Who knows, perhaps the town’s most famous residents, Olly Murs and Dotty Cotton would come along, rattle in hand to cheer on the The Town?  I don’t think so but the FA Cup can do strange things to teams and their fans.

IMG_1294After Wednesday night’s game against VCD Athletic, it was hard to see how Lewes could actually put a team out based on the number of injuries they had.  I think it was touch and go whether Garry Wilson considered giving me the nod although my knee operation on Monday would have put pay to my long-overdue FA Cup debut.  However, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe would be out in force, putting the indifferent league form to one side and dreaming of a home tie against East Preston in the next round.  The script was all but written.

Witham Town 4 Lewes 2 – The Village Glass Stadium – Saturday 27th September 2014
What did I write earlier?  Ah yes, “What could go wrong?” Well how about everything!  The FA Cup holds no magic on days like these.  Played off the park by a team who had 10 men for a third of the game, scoring one of our goals because an idiot of an official decided to give a penalty (to us) for an offence that nobody in the ground saw and seeing players bicker with each other.  It wasn’t a good day.  Take nothing away from Witham – they kept their shape, played to their strengths, were as hospitable as they come and their goal-keeper once again got stuck into the banter with us from the first whistle – Martyn Guest always a pleasure.

Thirty minutes after the final whistle, the Lewes team were still sat on the pitch, taking part in an “interactive” heart to heart.  Under normal circumstances this was a bad day, but defeat in a winnable game cost the club £4,500 in prize money as well as the possibility of a decent home tie in the next round.  Whether all of the players really understood what was at stake when the game kicked off is unclear.  However, Lewes started sharply and should have been ahead early doors when Terry Dodd flicked an effort over the bar.

Boysie, the club snapper,  turned up late.  We pretended that we were already 1-0 up, all sticking to our story.  Of course he didn’t believe us, and soon we were 1-0 down.  One became two when Brinkhurst clattered into a Witham forward in the area.  No question that it was a penalty, although the referee, who whilst he didn’t impact the final score was as poor as you will see at this level, booked Rikki Banks for kicking the ball back to the centre circle which hit a Witham player on the way.  He soon angered the home fans by giving a penalty to Lewes – I cannot even speculate what it was for as no one saw any offence.  Dixon stepped up and made it 2-1 at the break.

IMG_1296One bright spot for the travelling Lewes fans was the appearance of Jack Walder at the start of the second half.  Walder had been out since he dislocated his ankle at Thamesmead Town back in March and his return would surely lift the team?  Alas a few minutes later a mix up between Brinkhurst and Banks that will be a cert on one of those crap “guffs” DVDs voiced by Chris Moyles gave Witham a 3-1 lead.  Three one?  Make that four minutes after the home side were reduced to ten men.  Game over, start the bus.

We still had time to miss a couple of sitters before Blewden pulled a goal back to make the score line a little more respectable.  But this defeat hurt.  More so than any other game this season.  Not just for the financial consequences but because of the performance.  The magic of the FA Cup certainly wasn’t floating around the Lewes dressing room today.

So Witham Town join a growing list of teams who have embarrassed the Rooks in recent years in the FA Cup.  Still, there is always the Ryman League Cup to look forward to.

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.