Non League Club

All time Har Low

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on November 5, 2011

When I turned ten I was allowed to stay up until 9.30pm on School days. Not that there was much to amuse you during those early days of the Eighties. We only had three (THREE!) TV Channels to choose from, the Sinclair ZX80 with its 1KB of processing power and its £99.95 (£319 in today’s money) price tag was the gadget to dream of whilst we played Atari Pong, and Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall was the song on everyone’s radio…still. Thank God my brothers were unimaginative in hiding their copies of Razzle and Whitehouse under their mattress otherwise those long winter nights would have just dragged by.

Football on TV was restricted to Match of the Day on Saturday and The Big Match on Sunday tea time. Occasionally, we were also treated to extended highlights on Sportsnight, presented by Harry Carpenter, during the week if there was an England game on or some FA Cup replays. Back then the football authorities were sensible. None of this “we need 10 days to sort out replay days” malarkey. It was as simple as “if we draw on Saturday, we replay on Tuesday”…and if that one is a draw then we will toss a coin to determine where the 2nd replay will be two days later (or on some instances the 3rd and 4th replays).

In the 1979/80 season a little team from Essex surprised the footballing world by making it through to FA Cup First round. Harlow Town were celebrating their centenary and this was the furthest they had ever got in the cup. They were playing in the Isthmian Premier League at the time and hoped to draw a big league club such as Blackburn Rovers, Sheffield Wednesday or Portsmouth who all languished in Division Three and Four at the time. Instead they drew local rivals Leytonstone & Ilford FC – hardly the reward they were looking for. But after beating them they got a plum draw against Southend United who were dispatched 1-0 in a replay in front of 5,000 fans at Harlow’s Sports Centre (trivia fact: The Sports Centre was in fact the first sports centre to open in the UK back in 1960). With all ears pressed to the radio for the Third Round draw in early December, the club were drawn away at Leicester City.

Ah Leicester City. Filbert Street, Keith Waller and his white tights and a young Gary Lineker. A very young Gary Lineker. Full of goalscoring promise long before the biggest crisp brand in England was Golden Wonder, and Walkers were simply a brand of Zimmer frame. Saturday 5th January 1980 was the date for the 3rd Round tie, just 24 hours before my tenth birthday. I was expecting a brand new Raleigh Grifter but for an early treat I was taken to watch West Ham play West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup. However the talk of the North Bank that afternoon was “plucky old Harlow” who had nicked a last minute equaliser at Filbert Street.

So three nights later the Second Division big boys (who would later go on to win the league) came down the M1 and across the A404 to Harlow. Nearly 10,000 fans crammed in the stadium to be joined by BBC World Service and the Sportsnight cameras. This was the biggest football match of the season and I was allowed to stay up to watch. On a quagmire of a pitch John McKenzie’s goal was enough to send the non league side into the record books. Of course they lost in the next round in an anti-climax but they will always be spoken about in the same breath as Hereford United, Leatherhead, Blyth Spartans and Woking as great non league teams in the FA Cup (I have of course omitted Crawley Town for sporting reasons from this list).

The following thirty years have been your typical story of non league struggles. Promotions, relegations, financial woes and ground relocations. Today Harlow Town would say, to coin a Partridge-ism, have “bounced back”. They play in a smart newish stadium, Barrows Farm, which is one of the best you will find at this level. Another fact that Alan Partridge would not be happy about is the pedestrianisation of Harlow town centre, which was the first of its kind in England as part of the whole New Town development idea.

So why were we here on Bonfire Night? Well it’s the magic of the Cup (part 8) of course. Lewes had overcome Cray Wanderers in the last round and were pleased to be drawn away. Few clubs would say that but with the annual Bonfire celebrations in Lewes essentially closing it off to the outside world for the day, playing a football match would have been very difficult. They love their bonfires down in Lewes, mark my word and outsiders aren’t always welcome.

So the travelling Rooks fans were characterised by essentially being those who didn’t live in Lewes, and thus had no real interest in setting fire to a few bits of wood and an effigy of a man with a pointy beard. And that mean no James Boyes behind the lens. So I was going to have to combine my duties as chauffeur to the Lewes Lunatic Fringe, with being the ambassador for the club in the board room as well as getting my long lens out. Confused? Yep, I was. Oh, and taxi driver for the Lewes Lunatic Fringe.

The FA Trophy was just one of three trophies the Rooks were still in with a shout at, although only two clubs from outside the Conference Premier had won the competition in the past twenty five years. Even so, the prize money at stake could make a huge difference to a team who is able to go on a bit of a run (£3,000 for the winners of this tie plus 50% of the gate is essentially a week’s operating revenue for most teams). We were under orders to bring the cash back in used £20’s in a brown envelope should we be successful.

Harlow Town 3 Lewes 2 – Barrows Farm – Saturday 5th November 2011
The road to Wembley has officially been closed for this season.  After the capitulation to Chertsey Town in the FA Cup back in September, the Rooks crashed out of the FA Trophy to another lower league team who simply wanted it more than they did.  It is also worrying that for the second Saturday in a row they conceded two penalties in the second half of the game.

Steve King was able to field a stronger squad today, with Jamie Cade making a welcome return to the bench after some weeks absent through injury.  However, it was Michael Malcolm who missed out today, with Booth and Mini-Booth (aka Draycott) leading the line.

For once we played away from home with some decent noise from the crowd.  We remember the great support Harlow brought to Lewes last season in the FA Cup and at home it was double that.  Constant singing, friendly abuse of our players and  encouragement of their own side, including a classic “We’ve gone Continental, we’ve gone Continental” as they all lit sparklers.  However, after an open half an hour it was Lewes who took the lead when Draycott bounced on a well saved header by keeper Bossu to drill the ball home.  Against the run of play maybe, but a goal is a goal.

For some strange reason as the clock got to 3:55pm we were still playing the first half.  There hadn’t been an injury, and whilst we had a minute’s applause pre-match for the commemoration of a local fan’s death/life, it was only a minute.  It wasn’t the only bizarre decision from the official during the afternoon as we would soon see.

After a welcome cup of tea and a Nice (or is it Nice?) biscuit in the boardroom I just got out in time to see Draycott fire in a magnificent second from the edge of the area.  Two nil flattered Lewes and so it was no surprise when thirty seconds later the home side got a penalty. Apparently the official had seen skipper Steve Robinson handle the ball, although few else in the ground had and Danny Brown smashed the ball home.

Now it was the turn of Lewes to be on the back foot.  Harlow had a goal disallowed before another soft penalty was awarded, this time by the linesman for a push-come-shuv in the area by Hamilton, and yet again Brown dispatched the penalty into the back of the net.

With Sussex Senior and Ryman League Cup games coming up in the next few weeks Lewes could’ve really done without another replay but the dozen or so Rooks fans expected our side to go on to try to win the game.  Instead the midfield pairing of Nicholas and Somner were simply over run by Harlow and with just ten minutes to go James Bunn found himself one on one with the Lewes keeper and finished with style.  Bugger – two-nil up, three-two down.

With full time whistles gone all the way up and down the country, and James Alexander Gordon already through the first reading of the results, we were still playing.  Ciardini had hit the bar in the second half but apart from that we couldn’t think of one other chance we had mustered.  The Harlow celebrations at the final whistle were well deserved.  They had beaten a team from a higher division and where £3,000 better off.

For us it was time to leave the quest for silverware for another season.  Our trip back to SE25 took us two hours, which wasn’t painful enough so we put on Stan Collymore, “urging” us to call him and tell him about the game.  Even Stan wouldn’t have wanted to hear about this one.

More pictures from the afternoon can be found here.

DIB DIB DIB – Bethnal Green United

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on September 14, 2010

After a weekend of FA Cup excess I returned to the office on Monday, looking forward to my next game, the class of the titans in the Swedish Allsvenskan when 1st place Malmo were due to take on 2nd placed Helsingborgs.  Whilst I love my non league games, and all of the quirkiness that comes with it I do enjoy returning to a packed stadium full of atmosphere (you can see why I stopped going to West Ham now!).  At 11.30am I had a routine email from Mr Boyes informing me that Lewes had been drawn at home in the FA Cup 2nd Qualifying round to Bethnal Green United or Harlow Town who had drawn 1-1 on Saturday.

Now I knew that because I noticed that this was the only replay in London and the South East from the crop of games played on Saturday which was in itself unusual.  For a few seconds I contemplated going to the game as it was so close to home but thought a third game in as many days, coupled with my weekly trip to Scandinavia may result in a straight red from CMF and a subsequent ban from the “bottom draw”.  And of course this particular Monday saw the long long awaited return of the Inbetweeners on E4.

But then my life turned upside down.  A simple email from Mr Marber.  “Could I just pop along to the game and take a few notes?”.  Of course I could.  He said an email would follow from Ibbo (The Lewes Manager) with what was required, and he kindly sent a “get out of jail free” email for CMF that read:-

“Dear CMF.  It is not your husband’s fault that he has to go to football.  The Club Board insist that he goes.  He has no choice in the matter.  He didn’t want to go to a football match on such an important night but circumstances commanded it”

She couldn’t refuse, and with a promise of some petrol station flowers, my pink note was duly signed.  I then got my instructions from Ibbo.  So much for “a few notes”.  He even sent me a template to fill in.  Of course not knowing who we could play I would have to complete one for each team until it became obvious who the winner would be.  Some of the things he wanted were:-

  • Formation – 4-4-2, 4-5-1 or 4-3-3
  • Attacking corners – Danger Men?  Anything special they do – e.g short corners
  • Attacking free kicks – anyone with a special shot or talent?
  • Defending corners – Any weaknesses? How do they handle different attacking styles?  What does the keeper do?

This was on top of a breakdown of strengths and weaknesses for each player plus a comment on their type of play – direct, physical, counter attacking.  And there was me thinking that all of these options in Championship Manager were irrelevant.

Bethnal Green United 0 Harlow Town 4 – Mile End Stadium – 13th September 2010
So at 7.30pm I walked into the Mile End Stadium, home of Bethnal Green United.  I put on my special Lewes hoodie to add some authenticity to the night, as well as carrying my clipboard.  Oh how well prepared I was – apart from one item.  My glasses.  I can see well enough on a bright sunny afternoon with a nice elevation in the stands, and the pitch close to the terraces.  But put me at pitch level, at night in an athletics stadium and I struggle a bit.  Well, OK not a bit, a lot.

The Mile End stadium is one of the most basic grounds you will see an FA Cup game being played at.  Bethnal Green were playing regional football until a few seasons ago, moving up to the Essex Senior League after only 10 years in their existence.  This is essentially level 5 of the non league pyramid.  Facilities are in keeping with the status of the club.  So it was with some surprise that I entered the ground to find a programme and printed match tickets.  I went in search of a team sheet so I could start preparing my reports but was told there wasn’t one.  Instead a chap from the Essex Senior League wrote the numbers down in my programme – useful if it wasn’t for the fact that he listed visitors Harlow Town with two number 9’s and a number 31.

The original game had been Harlow’s for the taking, and it was only a last kick/head of the game that salvaged a draw for Bethnal Green.  The Isthmian League North team had obviously been firm favourites for the game and were probably none too happy to have to replay the game.

The game kicked off and I furiously started to take notes on both teams, on formations and who was playing who.  With a severely restricted view my eye sight stretched to about half way across the pitch and no more.  Fortunately a night in shining armour arrived, as long time fan of the blog Vinny turned up, shortly followed by his wife (what else would you do on a Monday night in London apart from come to an FA Cup 1st Round Qualifying replay eh?) who helped me on the simple things like shirt numbers.

The worst thing that could happen was of course a close game that went to penalties after extra time as I would have to continue to take notes on all 22 players throughout the two hours.  Certainly for the first half an hour it seemed like that would be the case as both teams.  I duly noted the formations and then tried to put shirt numbers against positions, only to realise in Harlow’s case that according to my notes they had 10 men.  I made extensive notes for the corner formation for Bethnal Green, describing their approach of all standing on the corner of the box and running into as the ball was delivered as a Shambolic shotgun tactic, and I described the home team’s as fat Peter Cech simply due to his luminous orange kit.

I was under no illusions about the importance of my task with emails flying in from Patrick, James Boyes and even Danny Last over in Spain, reminding me that the accuracy of my report could be worth £4,500 in prize money in the next round, and to “remember Leiston” from the Eastern Counties League who had beaten Lewes two seasons ago when they were a Blue Square Premier club.

It was certainly an interesting crowd.  Nearly 200 people squeezed into the old stand and along the side of the pitch and were certainly vocal.  The unusual but easily recognisable smell of cannabis was also a feature of most of the game, perhaps relaxing me more than normal as I soon got into the rhythm of delivering stinging critics on all of the players.  The first goal came just after the half hour mark.  A Harlow corner (big men up from back, man to man marking) was met by Jon Stevenson, not with his head as he initially intended, but with his knee – hmm how do I write that one up?

I had imagined half time would be spent with some of the big wigs from other clubs in a room somewhere discussing players and tactics but instead it was spent queuing up to use a vending machine for some cold tea.  I have seen on TV countless times Premier League managers at other clubs “having a look at future opponents” but none of them ever seem to be scribbling furious notes; Capello is always at games yet he just goes to look like a miserable Italian.  Who takes notes for him?

The second half started, fortunately with no changes on either side and gave me the opportunity to fill in the other half of the pitch on my sheets.  Harlow had adopted the traditional 1-11 numbering with the defenders using 2,3,4 and 5 but throwing in a spanner with their play maker and central midfielder Danny Cowley wearing number 9.  Bethnal Green, well let’s just say I used the word “fluid” to mask my deficiencies.

Fortunately my work got a little easier in the 47th minute when Cowley scored a magnificent free kick from 25 yards right into the top corner of the net.  A box ticked for me for “men to look out for at free kicks I think”.  He then added a third ten minutes later, finishing off a nice move that ran from box to box in just 5 passes (Counter attacking style – tick).  Vinny’s wife Becky provided the commentary as I was hastily scribbling down the defensive formations, trying to find other words for “He hoofs it”.

Three nil up and soon playing against ten men, when Bethnal Green’s captain Lee Ryan was sent off for dissent meant I could rip up one of the forms and just concentrate on Harlow for the last fifteen minutes, a fact further underlined by a fourth a minute later when Clark Akers slotted home from just inside the penalty area. But what else could I write?  The full backs “got up and down the line well”, the central midfield “has a good engine on him”, the centre forward Akers “held the ball up well”.  Let’s face it I was out of my depth.  There is a website called Zonal Marking.  It is one of the finest pieces of work known to man, dissecting every game in terms of positional play.  Do you know what I don’t understand a word of it.  I am not cut out to watch a game in such a theoretical way.  To me football games are won on a) luck, b) referees decisions and c) one team being better than the other.  I am sure tactics play a massive part – its just I cannot get how.

So a successful evening?  Well I was home in time for Inbetweeners at 10am but from a scouting point of view?  Ask me in two weeks when hopefully Lewes have beaten Harlow Town, are in the draw for the 3rd Qualifying Round and are £4,500 better off.  If not then I can see my new career coming to a premature end.