Non League Club

We’ll never get closer to Wembley than this…

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on September 23, 2012

The road to Wembley is not paved with gold.  In fact for 99% of teams (well, actually 98.8% now that the FA Cup Semi-Finals are played there), the nearest they will ever get to the home of English football is a small non-league ground at Vale Farm which is in between Sudbury Town and North Wembley tube lines.  Vale Farm is the home of Wembley FC, the controversial non league club who have been the beneficiary of the Budweiser dollars in their attempt to engineer a “rags to riches” story.  But for all of the branding, FA-endorsed news stories and publicity stunts, there is another team that plays here – Hendon FC.

On the last warm sunny day of 2012 I sat on the Bakerloo line with Patrick Marber, one of my fellow board members at Lewes FC as we passed the Arch of Wembley Stadium.  We both paused our conversation about the pre-match meal we had enjoyed in Farringdon including a Nutella pizza and chocolate salami and silently looked in awe.  We knew this would be the closest we would get to the famous stadium wearing our Lewes FC badges with pride.

Our journey to north-west London in the FA Cup was being made in good spirits.  Despite the Rooks shaky early season form, this was the FA Cup and everyone from Pav the kitman to Terry Parris the chairman knew that the prize pot was very important in the journey to a self-sufficient club.  The prize fund had risen to £4,500 for this game, around 15% of the season’s budget.  Small potatoes?  Hardly.

It was a lovely afternoon.  We walked across the park from North Wembley tube station, pausing to take in a few overs of cricket, was full of hope.  After all, Hendon had started the season indifferently too, and on paper Lewes should have this one in the bag, especially with the solid spine of the team, Robbo and Beckford, back in the starting XI.

Lewes had last visited Vale Farm a year ago.  Since then Budwesier had obviously sent in their branding team with full effect.  Every surface had been painted red and rebranded.  The bar was brand new, obviously was Budweiser on tap and even the pool table was covered in a Budweiser baize.  Apparently Hendon also played here too, although not for much longer as next year they were heading west to share with Harrow Borough.  Few concessions had been made to the Greens, with a token couple of boards around the edge of the pitch.  But for one afternoon it was all about the FA Cup (with Budweiser) and the eyes were on the prize.

Hendon 3 Lewes 0 – Vale Farm – Saturday 22nd September 2012
I am not taking anything away from Hendon, but Lewes were shocking.  In the few years I have followed them I have rarely seen them play so badly, surrendering their place in the next round of the FA Cup without so much as a whimper.  This was a game that Lewes should’ve won – that was until a ball was kicked.  From the moment the referee started the game, Lewes weren’t at the races.  As one of the loyal few fans who had made the long trek to this game I felt gutted.  As an owner of the club I felt annoyed that the prize pot had slipped through our open hands.  As a director of the club I stood and watched, knowing that I had to shoulder some of the blame as a custodian of the club.

Lewes should have sensed that they shouldn’t underestimate Hendon as early as the third minute when the ball flashed across the box and the forward narrowly failed to put the ball into an empty net.

The Rooks actually then got on top, with Beckford pulling the strings, Walder putting in the tackles and Nathan Crabb causing a nuisance to the Hendon back four.  Beckford came the closest to breaking the deadlock when his shot from distance was tipped over the bar by the keeper.

Deaks and I headed to the bar to get “some nondescript” beer as Dave called it. A pint of fizzy, weak American beer was the high point of the half.  At least it was nil nil.  Wrong again.  As we took the first sip of nothingness Hendon scored.  A poor defensive clearance found its way to Dean Cracknell and he slotted the ball home.  Hmm, not quite in the plan Patrick and I had on the way up.

Still, forty-five minutes to get back on course and get our name in the draw on Monday morning.  Alas it wasn’t to be as Elliot Charles and then substitute Michael Murray put the Greens into the next round, leaving the Lewes travelling band of 25 Lewes fans scratching their heads as to what had gone wrong.  You don’t get a second chance in the cup and it was now dawning on us that not only would we have a free weekend when the 3rd Round would be, but Wembley Stadium would never be this close.

I have the ultimate respect from the small band of volunteers who keep clubs like Hendon running.  The official attendance was just 166.  Take away the 25 or so Lewes fans and around the same number of Hendon officials.  You are left with a very small number of fans who will have contributed to the revenue of the club.  The FA Cup money will come in very useful for the club, but when it runs out, what then happens? As their Chairman wrote on their website – “And then there’s the final group of fans ? who no longer attend home matches, no longer pay (or have never paid) their Trust memberships or do not participate in the Snowball lottery. They “look out” for our results on the website or via Twitter. They “like” our Facebook page.”

“We need people to come to home games and encourage their friends to come too. We need people to buy season tickets even if they are only going to get to the occasional game. We need people to join (or rejoin) the Trust. We need people to take a Snowball (or two) and encourage their friends to do so too. We need people to sponsor match balls and players? kits. We need people to make donations. We need people to volunteer for match day duties.  In short, we need people to do more than they are doing. Otherwise, there might not be any more results to look out for on the website or via Twitter and there may be no Facebook page to like.”

I applaud his words 100% and this should be a message every club takes to heart.  As a fan of Lewes I know we are in a better position than most clubs at our level thanks to our home support and backing of the town.  As a member I am also eternally optimistic that the club is genuinely owned by people who care and as a Director of the Club I am grateful that we have a plan for the future.  So why did we get today so wrong on the pitch?  Who knows.  I do not believe in bad luck (as Adrian said to me near the end of the game “There is no such thing as bad luck in football, just bad technique), nor do I buy into the “bad day at the office” theory.  Games are won and lost in the preparation for the game and that is why Hendon won, and Lewes lost.  There will be other cups (starting next Sunday in the FA Trophy at home to Lowestoft Town) but it is the dream of every single Non League club to reach the 1st Round (or further) and draw a Sheffield United or a Portsmouth this season. That dream will have to be put back in the box for one more year.

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One beer, two pies, three goals, four minutes

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on April 1, 2012

In the past two weeks Lewes have dropped 3 points in injury time against teams in the top 3. After the heartbreak of a home draw against Lowestoft Town came the sickening blow of a 93rd minute winner for league leaders Billericay Town last Saturday. However, it is a mark as to how far the team has come that we look back at these results with frustration rather than embarrassment. Last week in Essex, Billericay showed that the teachings of the likes of Charles Hughes (former performance director of the FA who preached the direct long ball game) and ex-Cambridge United manager John Beck are still alive. Not only did Lewes come away with zero points, but two players with facial injuries one of which was serious enough to require hospital treatment. Win at all costs? Certainly not a motto I’d like my team to follow.

The dropped points had been a blow in the fight for a play off spot. But redemption comes quickly in a tight season and so the visit of 6th place Hendon would give Lewes a great chance to “bounce back” as Mr A Partridge is so fond of saying.

Hendon had been a surprise package this season. Not tipped amongst the favourites back in the pre-season, they started off like a train and topped the table in September when Lewes visited Vale Farm. Since then they unsurprisingly fell away, but recent form and the taking of a few big scalps has seen them jump back into the play off spots. Could they compete in the Blue Square Bet South? Well, many people thought exactly the same of Tonbridge Angels this time last year and they seem to be holding their own in the higher league, whilst the likes of Braintree Town and Hayes & Yeading were surviving against all the odds in the Blue Square Bet Premier on crowds of less than 400. (more…)


Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on October 10, 2010

Integrity versus loyalty.  Always a very difficult decision.  For the TBIR team we faced a big dilemma this weekend as to where we should nail our FA Cup colours.  Our heart said Lewes v Thurrock, our head said Whitehawk v Hendon.  We are committed to bringing you the best in the Non League action across the country and the qualifying rounds of the biggest cup competition in the world allow us to rove to pastures new.  The 3rd Qualifying round was a perfect example of this, but we now have our deep affiliation to Lewes and so when the draw threw up a winnable home tie with Thurrock I felt a pang of guilt that I wouldn’t be going.

But then the full draw became clear in the FA’s crystal ball and just 6 miles away as the Rook flies was a new ground, a new club and potentially a new adventure.  Whitehawk.  We immediately contacted our Head of Research and Development as to how we could be at two places at once without affecting the Time/Space Continuum and after a few Fuller’s Honey Dew Ales he came up with the solution.  Unfortunately a pending patent stops us revealing the actual solution here, but rest assured there was no smoke or mirrors.

When I told people I was heading down to Whitehawk everyone who knows Brighton looked at me as if I was mad and shook their head.  “Lock your car doors“, “Make sure you don’t wear your watch“, “Don’t forget your bullet proof vest” were three such comments.  But as a veteran of Zagreb, Bratislava and Arbroath it was water off a ducks back to me.

We drove down the Falmer Road, past the impressive new American Express Community Stadium which will be Brighton & Hove Albion’s new ground in just a few months time on a beautifully sunny day.  The road takes you high above Brighton, with the road falling down towards the sea.  A quick right along the top of Brighton racecourse and the a left literally across the track and down the hill.  So far all I saw was neat bungalows and smiling children playing in the sunshine.  As you get near the bottom of the hill you through a left, drive past the Caravan Club (a code word for a massive orgy according to Jay in the Inbetweeners) and there is the ground, hidden behind the trees.  So where exactly was this war zone?

We parked, paid our £8 and walked into one of the most rural grounds in England.  From all parts of the ground you simply cannot see anything apart from greenery.  The club after nearly 50 years since their formation had at last left the county leagues, having won the Sussex League last season.  They were also just one game away from Wembley in the FA Vase last year, losing to Wroxham in the semi-finals.  They were also managed recently by ex-West Ham legend George Parris.  This game against Isthmian Premier League Hendon marked their joint furthest progress in the competition.

Fanny’s was the obvious choice for a quickie prior to the game, and full sated we took our place behind the goal.  The pitch must be a nightmare to play on.  It seems to slope in all directions, and is bloody wide – a fact that the home team tried to exploit from the first minute with long cross pitch balls.  FA regulations meant that no alcohol could be taken out from the bar, but that didn’t stop a number of fans who simply brought out the cans from their bags as if it was part of a normal country picnic.

Whitehawk 1 Hendon 2 – Wilson Avenue – Saturday 9th October
The game started at a pace with some full blooded tackles flying in.  The winners of the game would get £7,500, which is the equivalent of an additional 10 games gate receipts for Whitehawk and they made the best of the early play, putting the young Hendon keeper Laurensin under pressure.  Whitehawk’s main threat up from came from Joe Gatting, son of Steve and nephew of Mike giving him something to live up to.  He had the first chance of the game after being put clean through in the tenth minute he let the ball over run and couldn’t get his shot in.  Almost immediately Hendon went up the other end, and with their first chance Ate-Ouakrim slotted home when given too much room in the area.

One thing that did strike me as unusual about the ground was the “paddock” area in front of the main stand.  This fenced off area simply caused problems when the ball bounced into it, and no one could get it back easily.  It was almost like a gold enclosure at Ascot with us mere silver ticket holders having to stand outside it to watch the game.  But five minutes before half time the home fans forgot about such trivialities as Paul Armstrong levelled the scores.

Lewes 2 Thurrock 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 9th October
So whilst the sun was shining in East Brighton, just across the downs Lewes were kicking off against fellow Blue Square Bet South strugglers Thurrock.  The Rooks only league win this season was against “The Fleet” back in August, and they intended to do the same, starting with two men up front for the first time in a while.

And the tactical switch worked early on as Tom Murphy headed home a pinpoint cross from Kane Wills.  Director Patrick Marber whispered in my ear that Lewes haven’t lost after taking a lead for six months and thoughts started turning to the next round, and the dilemma of a winnable tie, or a big team at home such as Luton Town or Cambridge United. The atmosphere had been boosted by the presence of the Cliffe Bonfire Society drummers, who drummed their life out, taking the team into half time with a slim lead.

Back over in Whitehawk it was Hendon who started the second half the stronger and substitute Aaron Morgan put the greys ahead before many of the fans had withdrawn from Fanny’s.  Morgan then picked up an injury and was replaced by Michael Peacock.

In one of those amusing for the fans but bloody annoying for the team moments, Peacock lasted just three minutes before he picked up an injury, and the player we had all come to see play came on – Danny Dyer.  Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on what you think of his work) it was not the cockney actor who thinks every situation is going to get “a bit naughty soon”, but Hendon’s midfielder.  There was time though for Jamie Busby to pick up a second yellow in injury time and give Whitehawk a glimmer of hope but it was not to be.  With the afternoon walkers descending the hill above the ground, the referee brought an end to proceedings and the hopes of a famous home win.

Meanwhile, back in Lewes City (a nod there to Batman for those not old enough to remember Adam West in tights), the Rooks were still playing with confidence.  In a day for namesakes, Lewes full back Lewis Hamilton fell awkwardly and was taken off with his arm in a sling (later diagnosed as a break).  Our sponsored man David Wheeler came on as sub, himself still getting back to full fitness after a stop/start campaign and teed up Tom Murphy perfectly for the second goal with fifteen minutes to go.  The Wheeler curse struck again a few minutes later as he was injured in a tackle with the Thurrock left back, and Lewes were down to ten men to hang on.

Every Thurrock attack was greeted with mass nail-biting but Winterton in the Lewes goal seemed to be unbeatable.  It would take something special to beat him, and that is exactly what happened in the 87th minute.  James Boyes, Lewes’s man on the ground summed it up perfectly – “It was a goal fit to grace any level of football, with the winger chesting the ball down in a goal-mouth scramble, before sending an unstoppable overhead kick past Winterton to give the visitors hope of snatching an underserved replay.”

Four minutes of added time were announced and we counted down every second.  When finally the whistle went, the 850+ crowd raised the noise another notch and the new owners of the club celebrated with the fans, as well as a big group hug.  This was progress, and whilst the Que Sera chants of Wembley may be a bit premature it could well be “Whatever will be, will be, we are going to Grimsby Que Sera, Que Sera.”

Two winners, two losers and a break through in trans-space particle acceleration.  Not a bad afternoon’s work!

More photos from our day of time travel can be found at our Flickr feedhere.