Non League Club

No sixth sense in the FA Trophy

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on November 30, 2014

15726618097_9f4d2dcc05_k (1)When the fixtures are released each summer we instinctively look for when we will be able to visit somewhere new.  A new ground, new pubs, new fans to banter with, new pubs, new cultural experiences and of course, new pubs. When you’ve been in the same division, like Lewes, for a number of years the excitement of visiting Margate on New Years Day or Leiston on the 6th Janaury doesn’t really cut the mustard.  As much as we love wandering along the seafront with Tel wearing his “kiss me quick” hat, or watching Deaksy’s hair stand on end as we near The Vulcan opposite Sizewell B nuclear reactor, we want to try something new.

This season we have already visited the delights of Witham (twice), where the main attraction is the Olly Muirs walk of fame (being the town and football club’s most famous son), Tonbridge Angels and our old friends at Leatherhead.  We still have the delights of Crayford in the spring to come when we visit VCD Athletic for the first time as well as a very short hop over the downs to Peacehaven & Telscombe.

Of course the real excitement comes when the respective cup draws are made.  Our run in the FA Cup lasted all but as we crashed out away at Witham Town. The Ryman League Cup saw a home defeat to Peacehaven & Telscombe.  A home victory in the Sussex Senior Cup versus Brighton & Hove Albion has seen us drawn away at Horsham YMCA, a ground we’ve visited on many occasions.  But in the FA Trophy is where our current interest lays. Not that there are thousands of pounds at stake for each round we reach – oh no, it’s not all about the money at all.

After a 3-2 win at Heybridge Swifts on Tuesday night, Lewes would be travelling to Oxford City of the Conference North.  Finally, a proper away day.  No disrespect to Witham or Heybridge, but the local hostelries can’t really hold a candle to the dreaming spires of the land of Morse, Bannister and Lawrenson.  The Lewes Lunatic fringe would be out in full force for this one, with Linda having the job of making extra rounds of cheese and pickle for the long train journey.

Whilst we were all excited about the big day out, it was water off a duck’s back to our Vice-President, Terry Parris. “Did I tell you about the time Bobby Moore offered to put my disclosed finger back in place at Oxford City, Stu?” Now that’s a way to start a conversation.  For those who don’t know Terry then you obviously don’t know anything about Non-League football.  Terry has held virtually every position in the Lewes team and subsequently in the club itself,  He’s played more games than anyone else in the club’s 129 year history (over 650 times), managed the club, been the groundsman, commercial manager, secretary and even run the line.  He has the east terrace at the ground named after him and until last month was the club’s chairman.  He is full of stories that would put some of the banal, bland best-seller “expose’s” of today’s players to shame.

Back in the early 1980’s, a new chairman took over at Oxford City.  Jealous of the success of United on the other side of town, who were just starting their march up the divisions that would ultimately see them winning the League Cup at Wembley, the then chairman managed to persuade former England captain and one of the legends of the English game, Bobby Moore to manage the club.  City had just been relegated to the Isthmian Second Division and played Lewes for the first ever time in 1980/81.  Moore recruited a former team mate from West Ham to be assistant, a young chirpy chap called Harry Redknapp.  In the game in February 1981 against Lewes, Terry managed to injury his finger and ever the gentlemen, Moore offered to put it back into place.  Terry declined and headed to hospital, although Moore still took the time after the 3-0 defeat to find out how he was later in the evening.

15911801292_1e0dfbe78a_zToday City haven’t really met the expectations set 35 years ago.  Playing in the second tier of Non-League football is the highest level they’ve played at. Whilst they came within touching distance of neighbours United a few seasons ago during their brief foray into the Non-Leagues, they are still miles away in and off the pitch today.  Whilst both clubs have moved to new stadiums, the money pumped into United by former owner Kassam has seen them take up residence in a 12,500 seater stadium in whilst City have moved to a very rural location close by the A40 – by rural we mean there are no pubs within a 15 minute walk.

Promotion to this level has been bitter sweet for City. Every club wants to progress but being bumped into Conference North must be hard to stomach.  Whilst they have localish games at Worcester City (45miles) and Gloucester City (47 miles) away trips to Barrow (250 miles), Harrogate (190 miles) and Fylde (180 miles) put a huge burden on the club.  Incidentally, Maidenhead United and Wealdstone (40 and 42 miles away respectively) are their nearest Conference rivals, both playing in the Conference South.  With average attendances rarely breaking the 400 mark, there is a big price tag on progress and the club should be applauded for doing everything they have not only to hold their own in the league but to start to push for the play-off spot.

The odds certainly appeared to be stacked against Lewes.  However, a seven game unbeaten run had given everyone at the club confidence despite a mounting injury crisis that would have seen both Baz Collins and Big Deaksy in the squad for the game if they hadn’t both been cup-tied after playing for Lewes on FIFA14 (damn rules, as Club Sec Kev told them). Avoiding defeat here would mean we would have remained unbeaten for a whole calendar month – the last time that had happened was in June when we didn’t play anyone.

We would travel to parts we’d never traveled to before with hope in our hearts, a bellyful of ale and pockets full of Scotch eggs. There is nothing better than a proper football awayday.  There was talk of a coach, rosettes, a special squad-sung version of Sussex By The Sea to mark the occasion but that would be presumptuous (and we’ve heard Nathan Crabb sing!).

Saturday morning, London Paddington station.  As we wait for the 11:15 Great Western service to Great Malvern via Honeybourne, Charlbury and Pershore, we see other groups of fans.  We are all a band of brothers, off to do our bit for our own clubs.  It doesn’t matter what race, sex, creed or colour we are, we are all football fans, prepared to travel to the four corners of this country to support our team, even if they are a step seven club like Lewes. Alas our attempts to engage with Crystal Palace fans on their way to Swansea didn’t work – “who are you?”, “small town in Brighton” and “you’re going to get your head kicked in” suggested that perhaps we weren’t as welcome as we thought we would be.  Even the Met Police fan heading to their game at Maidenhead blanked us.

Deaksy had done his research and eight minutes after getting off the train, we were in pub number 1 – The Four Candles (not to be confused with the Fork Handles obviously).  37 minutes later we were in the Grapes and then 26 minutes after that, Far From The Maddening Crowd.  Military precision from Deaks.

Marsh Lane is some distance from the city centre – a £10 cab ride distance to be precise.  It seemed that few of the locals had been gripped by FA Trophy fever, and as the two sides took the pitch a quick scan of the ground saw less than 100 fans ready for the game.

Oxford City 6 Lewes 1 – Marsh Lane – Saturday 29th November 2014
15911798662_b10d63841c_kOK – let’s start with the positives.  The City Banger, a roll with three local sausages in for just £2.50 was outstanding.  We ate about a dozen between us.  The Lewes support was close on a third of the whole attendance and we scored a goal.  They were my three positives.  That’s not to say the rest of the afternoon was bad – we were clinically undone by a team who play in a way that is alien to our lowly Non-League position.  What was interesting was hearing some of the comments of the locals who didn’t particularly like the number of overseas players being brought into the club under Head Coach Enrique Guillen.  The starting XI contained five Spanish players, brought in by Guillen.  Talking to some of the fans it seemed that not everyone was happy with the direction the club were going in.  Could some external forces be pulling the strings here?

Oxford City have a style of play that either reduces teams to gibbering wrecks, or is like defending the Alamo.  A 1-8 home defeat to Fylde earlier this season was proceeded by a 7-2 away win the following week at Boston United.  5-0 away win at Bradford Park Avenue, then a 4-0 defeat to Guiseley seven days later.  Today they were on the back foot from the first minute and Lewes had two golden chances to take the lead in the first five minutes.  Ten minutes later and Oxford City were 3-0 up.  Fast, counter attacking play, moving the ball from wing to wing that undid our 3-5-2 formation.

15290184084_9c7d6db89d_bBut then Lewes came back into it, forcing the Oxford defence onto the back foot.  Nicky Wheeler’s excellent effort reduced the arrears and a few minutes later his lob looked to have made it 3-2.  Lewes certainly ended the half on top.  But less than five minutes after the restart we were 4-1 down – again another fast counter attack and the ball was in the back of the net.

That goal was the final nail in the coffin. We pushed forward more in hope than anything else and did force the keeper to make a couple of smart saves. However, two further goals by Isaac and Benjamin gave the final score an unfair look.  Oxford has certainly been the better side but not by a five goal margin.  But that’s football. It had been a decent day out and we can have no complaints at the result.  Now it is all about Wednesday night and the visit to the Pan of bottom of the table Bury Town.

Bad, Thriller? Beat It MJ – this was Off The Wall

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on October 31, 2012

“The demons squeal in sheer delight
It’s you they spy, so plump, so right
For although the groove is hard to beat
It’s still you stand with frozen feet
You try to run, you try to scream
But no more sun you’ll ever see
For evil reached from the crypt
To crush you in it’s icy grip.”

Sixty years ago, the second domestic game played at Wembley Stadium each season featured the likes of Willington, Pegasus, Crook Town and Walthamstow Avenue. Today, these teams can be found in the backwaters of the lower divisions of the English Non Leagues (in Walthamstow’s case they actually went through various mergers and can now be said to be part of Dagenham & Redbridge FC) but in the 1950’s they were responsible for filling our national stadium with crowds of 100,000.

Let me take you back to 1953 when Sir Winston Churchill was smoking his cigars and giving his ‘V’ signs on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Just eight years after the end of the war, football was going through a boom period. The British public simply couldn’t get enough of the beautiful game. Fortunately it was still considered to be the people’s game and so admission was affordable for all, and not just those who liked a prawn sandwich or two (in those days hospitality would have been a pint of Mild and a Woodbine, possibly with a banana thrown in). With just two competitions for professional clubs to play in (The League Cup was still seven years away, whilst European competition would not feature until 1955), Non League, or amateur football had a huge following. Back then, the second biggest cup game in England was the FA Amateur Cup Final.

Sixty years ago, the final of what we basically call the FA Trophy today (sponsored by Carlsberg lest we forget)  was a 100,000 sell out at Wembley Stadium. The two teams involved? Pegasus and Harwich & Parkeston. Household names right? Well, no actually. Neither were big teams like previous winners Bishop Auckland or Wycombe Wanderers but they reached Wembley all the same and the crowds came flocking to North London to see the team made up of Oxford and Cambridge Students win their second Amateur Cup in just three years, beating the Essex side 6-0.

Today Harwich & Parkeston still exist, playing in the Essex & Suffolk Border League, step eleven of the English football pyramid. Pegasus flew off the footballing map back in 1963. But the cup sort of still lives on. The Amateur Cup was last played in 1974 when Bishops Stortford beat Ilford at Wembley. In the summer of 1974, the FA abolished the amateur status of football in England, replacing the tournament with the FA Vase and Trophy.

So today, that once noble tournament has been replaced by a competition that few really care about. Last season’s final between Newport County and York City, two ex-proud Football League sides, attracted less than 20,000. Whilst every team at level five to eight of the pyramid is eligible to take part, only a small number know they stand a chance to reach Wembley.

After Saturday’s draw at Brentwood Town, Lewes could still at least dream of a trip to Wembley, thankfully. They went into the game in deepest, darkest Essex as favourites, but three times had to come from behind to earn a replay, with the Essex-side’s danger man Alex Read scoring a fully deserved hatrick. Our re-arranged league game versus Lowestoft Town would have to wait – the magic of the FA Trophy was back in town.

What did we expect from this game? From an attendance point of view I plumped for a 300-ish crowd. As Lloyd Grosman says, “Let’s look at the facts”. The crowd at Brentwood on Saturday was 118. I counted 45 Lewes fans. There were a few floating fans, officials and players relatives. So the core home support was about 30. Assume that 10% travel away then Brentwood would be bringing 3 fans. As this was a cup game it was “all pay” for Lewes fans and that would drag the number down significantly. Throw in half-term, a dull Reading V Arsenal cup game on the TV, little time for any promotion of the game around the town and it was going to be a game we simply wanted to get out-of-the-way, taking a scrappy 1-0 and progressing into the next round where Kingstonian waited for the winners and thus be one step closer to Wembley.

For once it would be an excuse to leave work on time and head down on the commuter special to East Sussex with all of those happy people and their fold-a-way bikes. Are they the most ridiculous contraptions known to man? After spending an hour getting to known someone’s armpit, why would you then want to get all hot, sweaty and polluted trying to avoid being killed by a lorry in and around London’s choc-a-bloc roads? Surely a £2 Oyster tube fare is a better option? But they are a strange lot down in the countryside so let’s hope that the locals also took an early train, changed into something more suitable and headed on down to the Dripping Pan for some Halloween Eve treats.

Lewes 0 Brentwood Town 3 – The Dripping Pan – Tuesday 30th October 2012
As Vincent Price once rapped on Thriller, “although you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver. For no living mortal can resist the excitement of a Thriller”…well nearly. I’m personally a big fan of the “lost” second verse, repeated in its entirety at the top of this article and so much more relevant to the night us Lewes fans experienced. With Autumn arriving with a bang we prepared to watch events unfold with frozen feet, with the pitch heavy meaning it was the players unable to run. But scream we did when the visitors took the lead in just the third minute.

To paraphrase some more classic Jackson, this was Bad.  Another Part of Me wanted to be sitting on the sofa watching Reading thump Arsenal (well if games were 45 minutes they would’ve).  The simple fact of the matter was that Brentwood wanted this game much more than Lewes, looked more Dangerous and won handsomely.  This Is It in terms of our road to Wembley this season.  Even a Beckford free-kick which almost beat the keeper after coming Off The Wall couldn’t liven up the spirits of the 330 attendance.  As 2 minutes of injury time were announced, there was a collective sigh from the crowd on the Philcox as they said “We’ve Had Enough” and disappeared home.

Pre-match plans were disrupted by illness to keeper Thorp, Chris Breach and manager Simon Wormull.  But even still it appeared we had learnt nothing from the game on Saturday.  Just three minutes were on the clock and I had hardly taken a sip of my Blue Label when stand-in keeper Szelemej brought down a Brentwood player in the area.  Cohen stepped up and it was 1-0.

Crabb and Godfrey tried to liven up the game but it was to no avail.  Crabb “did a handstring” according to Lolly and was out of the game.  Szelemej gave away a second penalty mid-way through the second half after that man Read once again beat the defence for pace.  Cohen made no mistake from the spot kick.  Read then added a third with a fantastic solo effort where he slipped through the defence like a knife shaping a pumpkin and smashed the ball home.  Three-nil.  Even the normally positive Dave Lamb was left speechless.

It was a night to forget.  Well played Brentwood and those fans still left at the final whistle gave them a fully deserved round of applause.  But this was no Thriller, it was a Monster of a performance and one I do not want to remember.  Lewes’s habit of being embarrassed by lower league teams continues.  And of course, as if we needed any reminding, we travel to Leiston on Saturday – ah yes Leiston.  The word that every Lewes fan fears and truly leaves us reeling in horror.

Four seasons in one day…

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on October 27, 2012

For my regular readers from California, Brentwood is not just a posh suburb in West Los Angeles, once the home of the world’s most desirable women, Marilyn Monroe. It is also a small commuter town just on the outside edge of the M25. Do not be confused that the wide palm-lined, posh houses and exclusive country clubs are interchangeable between California and Essex. Orange juice is almost on tap in LA; in Essex Orange juice is the default colour of the girls fake tan.

Ever since Lewes had been drawn against Brentwood Town in the FA Trophy (sponsored by Carlsberg lest we forget), I’d been looking forward to this trip more than my annual visit to Los Angeles. Well, nearly. Playboy Mansion (have I ever told you I’ve been there?) or Kelvedon Secret Nuclear Bunker? Difficult toss up I’m sure you will agree. One is full of hidden secrets down below, and the other is a secret nuclear bunker…boom boom. But I still get a wee bit excited about visiting a new ground, and The Brentwood Sports Arena ticked that box.

I’d only been to the town once before – a job interview in the Forte Posthouse just off junction 28 of the M25 but had never sampled the delights of the home of The Only Way Is Essex. With cup fever gripping Lewes, we came in expectation rather than hope. Brentwood Town had been mainstays in the Ryman League North for a number of seasons, one level below Lewes. Whilst the Rooks league form had been patchy to say the least, this was the cup and the smell of Wembley was in our nostrils. Not that horse-shit, greasy burger smell but the whiff of a day out in the sunshine and a chance to wear our rosettes and hold young George’s tinfoil cup up with pride.

Whilst Lewes had overcome a tough-looking tie against Lowestoft in the previous round, Brentwood’s had been a bit more controversial. After their win at Walton & Hersham in the previous round an altercation in the attendance of just 79 led to eight police cars, including police dogs, having to attend the ground to restore order. Yep – you read that right. Eight police cars to deal with an incident in a crowd of 79. Must have been a slow day in south-west London that day. Who said passions don’t run high even at this level?

This game was also the first anniversary of appointment to the board of Lewes FC. The annual elections this week had seen two of the original Rooks125 group stand down (Patrick and Nick), with three new faces taking their place around the boardroom table. I’m often asked what it’s like to be a director of a football club. Well, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions most of the time – decisions like funding for the new toilet block do not happen on their own you know. I’m still mighty proud of my role at the club and what we are trying to achieve. The road is long but worth it in the end. And an opportunity to advance in a cup competition is what the job is all about. Oh, and of course the prize money will come in handy for the kids Christmas presents.

Saturday morning dawned and after a visit to the temple of the retail Gods at Lakeside, a sneak early morning screening of Bond and then a visit to the Secret Nuclear Bunker (don’t worry kids I bought a map off a bloke in a rain mac in the pub to find it), it was game time. Brentwood is one of the top 20 richest towns in England and is home no less to Amstrad. back in the day, that was considered a luxury brand. you were a nobody jn the 6th year at school unless you owned a ZX Spectrum +2, manufactured here in deepest, darkest Essex. Sir Alan Sugar’s old factory is now a Premier Inn and if you ask nicely you can stay in the Satelitte Dish suite, or the Video Phone lounge. it is also home to such D-list stars as Jodie Marsh, Amy Childs and of course the birthplace of Sir Trevor Brooking, who is still the king of stooping headed cup final goals – a title he is surely never going to lose. Contrast that with Tom Brady, Reese Witherspoon, Fergie and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the US version…hmmmm.

The early morning sunshine had been replaced by torrential rain as I arrived at the pub to meet the Lewes Lunatic Fringe.  We drove up to the ground, feeling the anticipation of the locals and the smell of cup fever. Then Deaksy pointed out the slurry pit in the distance.

We headed into the Sports Centre, assuming there would be a bar in there.  Right?  Nope – just a massive Bring and Buy sale going on and a coffee shop.  The look on Dave’s face was akin to him parting with £50 to watch a Premier League game.  So off we went into the “Arena”, being the first paying spectators to enter the ground. It is a remote venue, with countryside all around. The largest attendance at the ground in recent history was in 2007 when over 1,200 for a charity game West Ham Boys of ’86 (Parkes, Cottee, Devonshire and the like no WHU team has seen since). Today it looked as if the attendance would struggle to break the three figure barrier.  But they did have a nice three-piece suite behind the goal.  They have missed a trick by not naming this the DFS Stand though.

Brentwood Town 3 Lewes 3 – The Brentwood Sports Arena – Saturday 27th October 2012
Rain, Sleet, Sunshine and goals – for seasons in one 3 hour spell in deepest, darkest Essex.  Not that our visit will stay long in our memories.  It certainly wasn’t a six goal thriller, more like a lesson in how not to defend.  Three times Lewes fell behind to poor errors of judgement, three times they hauled themselves back into the game, earning a replay on Tuesday back at The Pan.

We were lucky enough to start in sunshine, although the rain was never far away.  A gloriously muddy pitch was certainly a leveler, with both teams trying to play the ball wide to avoid the boggy central area.

The home side took the lead half-way through the first period when the back four simply fell asleep and let a long ball sail over their heads and the Brentwood players were quick onto it, crossing low for Alex Read to stab home.  Fortunately, the lead only lasted ten minutes.  Beckford’s free-kick was swept into the area and as Breach went to head it, his shirt was pulled.  Referee looks at linesman, he raises his flag, penalty given.  Or was it?  Brentwood’s players claim the linesman was flagging for offside, but the referee was having none of it.  Not the first time this afternoon the officials would have no idea what was going on.

Anyway, penalty to Lewes and Beckford stepped up and smashed it home – one all.  However, the major talking point came a few months later.  A long through ball saw Thorp come out to claim the ball at the feet of the onrushing Brentwood forward.  Instead of pulling out of a challenge he was never going to win, the forward simply slid in with both feet raised.  He missed the ball, now in Thorp’s hands and slid into Thorp studs raised.  We all heard a crack and the keeper lay motionless.  The referee tried to restore some order as the players reacted on both sides.  He consulted his linesman who had a perfect ball and returned to the pitch to issue a….yellow card.

There was few people who saw the incident who could have expected anything less than a red card.  Fortunately, the crack we heard was Thorp’s shinpad snapping, not his leg.  The linesman told us that he only got a yellow because “he went for the ball”.  The ball was a) already in the keeper’s hands b)a yard away from where he slid into Thorp with both feet up.  A case of a refereeing completely bottling a decision.

After an aborted attempt to get any food or drink at the most chaotic refreshment kiosk ever, we restarted the second half full of hope.  Alas that hope lasted just a few minutes as Read was sent clear, seemingly a few yards offside and he slotted home.  Surely this wasn’t going to be another Leiston/Chertsey Town/Harlow Town?  It certainly looked that way for twenty minutes when Lewes huffed and puffed without really creating a chance.

But then Wormull pulled his masterstroke, bringing on the dynamic duo, Crabb and Godfrey to play down the middle.  Within minutes they had combined to draw Lewes level, when Godfrey had received the ball with his back to goal, turned and scuffed his shot which rolled painfully slowly into the net off the post.  Phew, we’d played our Get Out Of Jail Card.  Well, at least for a minute as Read once again exposed the Lewes flat back four and he slotted into the corner.  Have I mentioned Harlow and Chertsey yet?

But in a game that had a little slice of everything, Lewes once again came back and scored a third equaliser when Chris Breach smashed home the ball from close range after some penalty area pinball.  Three-three and we’d have to do it all again on Tuesday.  Sorry Lowestoft Town but you’ll have to wait for another day to visit us.  Lewes were in the hat for the next round at least, albeit after living on a wing and a prayer.  The team certainly couldn’t complain about the lack of support.  By my rough count in the second half I counted 43 Lewes fans/officials in an official attendance of 118.

Who needs the beaches of Santa Monica, the glitz of Hollywood and the glamour of Beverley Hills when you can have a cold cup of tea in the freezing rain of Essex?

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