Non League Club

TALES OF A NON-LEAGUE CHAIRMAN – PART 2 – THE AWAY GAME

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on March 15, 2015

This week I’m on the road with The Rooks, making the relatively short journey to the fantastic Gallagher Stadium, home of Maidstone United. Turn right out of TBIR Towers, left onto the A20 and 25 mins later I’m pulling up outside The Flower Pot, one of the best little real ale pubs in Kent for a quick pre-match strategy session with the Lewes Lunatic Fringe before I head into the boardroom at The Gallagher Stadium.

16607855597_8626c47328_zYou may be disappointed to know that I’m not “suited and booted”. As I approached the gate I was looked up and down and expected to be ushered towards the turnstiles due to my dress code. The world has moved on in most places, and the sight of directors in jackets and ties is relatively rare these days, something that has mirrored real life and especially at The Dripping Pan. I’ve worn a tie once in just over a year for work purposes and on that occasion it lasted about an hour. Most companies now have a more relaxed dress code, with ties today becoming a more fashionable item to wear around the wrist than the neck, thanks to the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. I fail to see why wearing a tie makes me more acceptable as a club official, a sentiment shared by everyone else on the Lewes board. One club in our league insist on the stuffy dress code to enter their boardroom. One or two give you a funny look when you wander in in jeans but don’t say anything but most give you a warm, hospitable welcome irrespective of what you are wearing.  Not that we are a scruffy bunch, mind. So once you have passed the dress code test, what actually happens in the inner sanctum at other clubs?

Some clubs put on hot food pre-match, others offer a decent fayre post match (nods to East Thurrock United, Billericay Town and Leiston in that area). Pre-match talk will be centred on recent form, perhaps a brief fact-finding interrogation about budgets (as ours are published on our website we don’t have to resist for long) or the good-old British conversation staple of the weather. Half-time is a time for inflection, a cup of tea and shaking you head at the latest scores. Nobody wants to be too cocky at this stage, irrespective of the score “just in case”.  Full-time is about putting on your noncommittal, neutral game face irrespective of the result. A win and you need to hide the smug grin. A defeat and you need to hide your disappointment, blaming it on the ref. I’ve yet to be offered a cigar and only once been given a brandy.

You don’t get a guidebook on how to be a chairman.  I’m lucky that I have chairman mentors in two generations of Parris’s and Peter Hiscox who have coached me in what to say and when.  There is a whole lexicon of boardroom speak.  When asked if I’d like a beer before the game, you should say “No thank you.  I want to stay sharp just in case I need to come on!” (then laugh out loud).  You need to remember to shake everyone’s hand when you arrive, and when you leave, not forgetting to wish them well for the rest of the season.  If you are visiting a club where you have had problems in the past then you should talk about the weather, how bad the England cricket team is and whether Man Utd are a spent force (unless of course you are in the boardroom at Old Trafford).

Few would have thought a few weeks ago that The Rooks would be travelling to The Gallagher Stadium with a better current form record than The Stones. In the last four Ryman Premier League games, the Rooks can boast two wins and a draw, whilst Maidstone United, like the other teams at the top of the league are on a bit of a wobble. Draws against Leiston and Harrow Borough, a defeat against Hampton & Richmond Borough with just a single win against Billericay Town. Is there a better time to visit the league leaders?

16627583818_ab7da6e214_zDespite their current form, the league title appears to be theirs to lose. Who can really deny them their success after over twenty years of struggle. Eight points clear of Margate and due to play their nearest rivals in an already sold-out game at The Gallagher in two weeks time, many will feel a win in that game will be one hand on the trophy.

Where there’s time, there’s hope, and with 90 minutes ahead of us that’s the best we can wish for. The Stones have only lost once at home this season, a 3-0 reverse to Enfield Town who ironically recorded the same result last week at Margate. That has been the only home game so far this season where they’ve failed to score in and they have the best home record in the Ryman Premier League. They average 2.17 goals per game at home, conceding less than 1. The Rooks on the other hand have struggled away from home this season, taking just 11 points on the road, the second worse record in the Ryman Premier League. Our 11 away goals is the lowest total out of all 24 clubs. It’s not hard to draw a depressing conclusion from these stats, but football is a beautifully unpredictable game.

Maidstone United 2 Lewes 1 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 14th March 2015
16629030429_90a5890105_zIn the end, Lewes left the pitch pointless.  Up until the 75th minute this result was never in doubt, despite the home side rarely getting into third gear.  Two May goals, both tapped home from a few yards were early Christmas presents for the home side but then a late rally, thanks to a superb free-kick from James Fraser made the last fifteen minutes interesting for the away fans and very nervous for the 1,950 home fans.

The afternoon started very well – a visit to the Flower Pot was, as expected, superb.  They only had 10 guest beers on tap.  As we left we expressed our regret at this being our last visit for a few years due to Maidstone’s pending promotion. “Don’t worry lads – we’ve got a beer festival with even more guest beers on in late July”.  As chairman, I have now arranged a friendly here for that date.

The welcome in the boardroom was warm.  The lovely ladies who were looking after us, once I had managed to convince them I was chairman, quipped I must be the money man as I didn’t look like a former player. We were wined (well tea’d) and dined (biscuited) and then it was kick off time.  You cannot fail to be impressed by the Gallagher and the passionate fans inside.  This isn’t a Ryman Premier set up – in fact it is hard to imagine it in the Conference South.  There are League One and Two clubs that would die for the facilities (obviously, less the pitch) and passion the Maidstone fans show.

Despite injuries,suspensions and absences, Lewes battled well in the first twenty-five minutes, adapting to the pitch well and playing a passing game.  Heck, we should have even taken the lead when Matt Crabb’s shot almost saw the Lewes faithful drop their pints of Whitstable Bay Oyster Stouts (another tick in the box).  Then a dangerous free-kick flew into the Lewes box, keeper Rikki Banks came flying out and was a second too late getting in front of a Maidstone player who headed on and May had the easiest job of tapping into an empty net.  It was disappointing that the Maidstone player didn’t get down on all fours and head it home, just like you used to in the playground before you got a kicking for being so cheeky.

16627584528_c146b3d66f_zLewes went two down in the 52nd minute when May once again tapped home from three yards out after a great cross from Collin had eluded the Lewes defence.  Time to tighten things up?  Not really. Faint heart won no fair maiden so they went onto the offensive.  With fifteen minutes to go James Fraser stuck a beautiful free kick into the top corner and all of a sudden Maidstone started to wobble.  Worgan was the busier of the two keepers and made a couple of good stops.  However, the home side hung on for all three points.  There was no shame in losing this one, and the Rooks showed some real fight.

We headed back to the boardroom, shook hands with our victors, craning our heads to look at the results flowing through on Sky Sports.  “How about Dulwich Hamlet, eh?” was the standard line as everyone came into the room.  Homemade pea and mint soup, a bottle of Spitfire and a trip down memory lane to the dark days at Watling Street were the order of the day before it was time to depart.

Obviously we wish Maidstone every success in the future.  Their fans have been through the mill, sticking by them and now reaping the reward.  But we will miss this away day – it never fails to deliver on every level (apart from the result of course).

A rolling Stone gathers all the moss

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on September 20, 2014

There are three ways to win the league in my view.  It doesn’t matter what the league is, essentially the characteristics are all the same but to be successful you have to either a) Have someone (individual or group of people/company) who are willing to spend significantly more than anyone else; b) Invest heavily in the best infrastructure you can that will then work your assets (players) more effectively or c) find a way of playing that other teams simply cannot handle.

There have been lots of examples of A’s in our time, few of whom ever last the course.  Titles may be won but after a while the money dries up (or disappears), the investors realise that there is no Return on Investment or simply get bored.  Remember Gretna?  Probably not.  But they went from the Junior Leagues in Scotland all the way to the Premier League (and Europe) off the back of one man’s money.  When he died, so did the dream and ultimately the club.  The Non-Leagues are full of stories of blind ambition, foolhardy investments and ultimate failures.

In the case of B’s sometimes the success takes longer but when it arrives it gathers pace.  Good players do not always want to play for the money (shock, horror).  They will join teams with ambition but also those with the best facilities.  Swansea City are a good example here.  Part fan-owned, they have risen through the leagues not off the back of massive investment, but with the help of improvements in their infrastructure.

Finally, the C’s.  Much harder to find these days when every move on the pitch is watched by hundreds of eyes (in the case of Non-League) and smartphones.  Wimbledon and Cambridge United are two clubs that rose up the leagues and became massively successful by playing in a particular style that other teams were too unprepared to handle.

IMG_1194Today, Lewes host Ryman Premier League leaders Maidstone United.  They are most-definitely in the B catagory.  Having fallen as far as they could after a brief spell in the Football League, they are now on the rise again thanks to the facilities they have built.  The Gallagher Stadium is their kingpin.  A 7 day a week, 52 weeks of the year money making machine.  The cash is invested in improving facilities, developing the academy side of the club and of course on player wages.  Sustainable growth that was only halted last year by the narrow-minded, selfish views of the Conference clubs in voting against 3G pitches.  Less than a year later and the sentiment has changed and they are all of a sudden welcome again (noting to do with the Football League and FA clarifying their positions of course). With promotion now a possibility is it any wonder that the Stones have won 10 out of their 11 league games this season?  Oh, and recorded a 10-0 win in the FA Cup.  When we hosted Margate (definitely in the A catagory by the way) a few weeks ago their post match celebrations weren’t for the 5-1 over us it seemed but for the fact the Stones had lost away to Tonbridge Angels.  Four games into the season and such paranoia?

Last season Lewes took 4 points off the Stones, keeping two clean sheets in the process.  It is fair to say that in the game at their place in August, with the traditional summer rain putting the completion of the game in doubt despite the artificial surface, we parked the bus.  Not taking anything away from the Lewes back four, which included two centre-backs who had a combined age of nearly 75, but we put men behind the ball and played on the counter attack.  It worked.  In the reverse fixture Maidstone were well and truly beatenn, their game plan cruelly exposed by some scouting information (ahem).

IMG_1193Whilst Maidstone’s form was stellar, Lewes’s has been too shabby either.  Unbeaten in five games with four consecutive clean sheets is certainly rare for us Lewes fans, and with some of our long-term influential absentees returning soon from injury and suspension, things are looking up.  With the thunderstorms clearing and the promise of Stoke City v QPR on the TV as pre-match entertainment a bumper crowd was expected.  This was our first clash with Brighton & Hove Albion this season as they were taking on Blackpool.  We try our hardest to avoid such clashes, knowing the impact it has on our friends down the A27 but sometimes they just wont listen and move their fixture.  We track our attendances closely and whilst we would lose around 50 fans to the Amex, Maidstone’s travelling support would more than make up for the short-fall.

Lewes 0 Maidstone United 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 20th September 2014
“I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life. ” A quote that sums up the afternoon but not from Garry Wilson or Danny Bloor but from Mohammed Ali. There was no shame in being defeated to The Stones this afternoon, on a beautiful sunny afternoon although Lewes will be disappointed that the possession they enjoyed for most of the first half  didn’t lead to anything.  A decent, season-best, crowd of 621 saw a finely matched first half, although it was the 150 or so travelling fans who celebrated at the final whistle, finally breaking the seal over the Lewes goal that had lasted for over 7 hours.

The first half saw possession switch between the two teams, with Rikki Banks being the busier of the two keepers although the main talking points, alas, were around the performance of the officials – a referee who couldn’t see incidents happening in front of his eyes and a linesman who seemed to think he could make decisions whilst being 30-40 yards away from the action. 0-0 at half-time was a fair score but we knew that unless we scored early in the second half, Maidstone would rise like a wounded animal.

IMG_1195And so it was.  A poor headed clearance from a Stones corner saw the ball fall to Alex Flisher who smashed the ball across the area into the bottom corner.  Lewes responded quickly and the main talking point was a bizarre decision when Nicky Wheeler’s beautiful chip hit the inside of the post and seem to be over the line before Worgan grabbed it.  The linesman, mirroring the performance of his colleague in the first half, raised his flag which at first we assumed was to signal a goal.  Yet it appeared he was flagging for offside.  Let’s rewind.  Wheeler is 15 yards out, with defenders and the keeper in front of him when the ball falls at his feet, he beats the defender before chipping the ball to the far post.  No other Lewes player is near the ball as it sails over the keeper or when it hits the post.  So exactly who was offside?

Maidstone’s second comes from another strange decision, when Wheeler was fouled yet the referee saw the offence the other way.  Ten seconds later Phillips had buried the ball in the Rooks net.  Game over.  The Stones go rolling on.

The defeat sent Lewes back into the bottom four.  Has the panic button been pushed? Not at all, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and get ready for the visit of VCD Athletic on Wednesday.

 

Artificial Intelligence

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on February 9, 2014

It’s the second weekend of February. I’ve just returned from a business trip in Copenhagen where the snow lays fresh on the ground and the temperatures barely broke freezing point. Whilst people’s perception of Denmark is that at this time of the year it is a frozen wasteland, the snow has arrived nearly two months later than normal – hardly ideal when their football league is coming towards the end of their winter break.  A few inches of snow doesn’t stop sport in these parts. A few years ago I experienced the lowest temperature I had ever experienced at a football match in Randers, in the north of Denmark when the FC Copenhagen were the visitors in a game played among piles of snow and temperatures as low as minus 15. It was November. Today it is February and we are still yet to see any of the white stuff.  We know though that when it arrives it will be the worst winter ever .

Because we need more issues with the weather right? I can’t remember a day when it hasn’t rained this year.  On Friday I was supposed to be heading for the bright lights of Newport County but their game against Fleetwood  Town fell victim to the rain.  To add insult to injury (as well as the reported £180,000 the club has lost since late December) the Football League had written to the club to “express concern” at the fact their last four (now five) games had fallen victim to the weather.  Really?  As if the club needed any reminding! They even approached AFC Wimbledon, opponents for their next home game on Tuesday night to see if the game can be played in Kingsmeadow, but I am sure there is a rule somewhere the footballing authorities have saying they can’t.

12389182495_f6f185ee43_bBut what about further down the leagues?  Some County League clubs haven’t seen any action since mid-December.  In the Ryman League once again over 80% of the games this Saturday were cancelled.  Of course the league authorities are all over the situation, giving help and support to the clubs who are suffering.  Yeah, right.  Not a word apart from a reminder that when a game is cancelled, we need to re-arrange it as soon as possible.    Our postponement count so far has now reached eight games. Eight games that we now have to fit in somehow, somewhere. And that is before any of the potential white stuff arrives causing more chaos. Our game today away at Enfield Town was called off DESPITE the pitch being playable when the pitch inspection was carried out.  The referee decided, without any consultation with Lewes, that conditions would get worse and it would be an issue for us to travel at 9.15am.  Thanks for that. If he would have bothered to ask he would have found out we were willing to travel.

With clubs up and down the country in a similar position surely the leagues need to start taking action now? We already have nine games scheduled for March. Who benefits from that? Certainly not our attendances as fewer away fans are able to travel during mid-week, certainly not our finances as non-season ticket holders can’t afford to attend all the games (we currently have 4 homes games in 11 days), certainly not our pitch which is already suffering from constant pools of water sitting on the surface for weeks on end and certainly not for the players who face a strain on their normal working lives in playing all of those games.  But there is a proven answer.  Two letters – 3G.

Anyone who watches games in the Non-Leagues in the south of England knows about the success of Maidstone United and their Gallagher Stadium.  They took a risk in building a 3G pitch and it has paid off.  Regular crowds of over 2,000 at Step 7 of English football, higher than many teams in the Football League have supplemented the income generated by having an asset that can be used for 10 hours a day, seven days a week.  Whilst other fans are forced to head to Ikea on a Saturday afternoon at the moment, Stones fans cram into the Spitfire Lounge, spending their cash over the bar before watching their team lead the Ryman Premier League.  Life is good in Kent.  Or so it should be.

Alas, Maidstone’s charge up the leagues ends here.  Two weeks ago the Conference sides met to discuss the prospect of allowing 3G pitches in their structure.  They voted against allowing them, thus denying Maidstone any chance of promotion.  However, Maidstone aren’t taking this laying down, and quite rightly so.  The voting process was not representative of all of the clubs.  Whilst the Conference Premier clubs each got a vote, those in the North and more importantly, the South where Maidstone would be promoted to, had just four votes for the whole league.  Second class citizens? Absolutely. The vote was in favour of not-allowing 3G by 21 votes to 11.  Conference South clubs like Sutton United are championing the cause as they are very keen on installing one themselves.  Their manager, Paul Doswell, summed up the situation clearly:-

“It is all about promotion to the Football League, where 3G pitches are not permitted. Most Premier clubs have ambitions of promotion so they are not going to vote in favour because it does not suit them.

“They are not going to consider the clubs further down the pyramid and do us a favour – this is just them looking after number one.”

With no sense of irony today, 9 of the 11 games in the Conference South (and 7 out of 11 in the Premier) were postponed whilst the Stones welcomed Canvey Island and 1,794. spectators, a bigger attendance than at every game in the league above bar one.

Maidstone United 1 Canvey Island 1 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 8th February 2014
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With Lewes’s game being cancelled I took the opportunity to slip on my scout’s coat and head down the M20 to take a look at The Stones. We are due to play them in 4 weeks (another re-arranged game) so you can never watched enough of an opposition – well that’s what I told The Current Mrs Fuller anyway.  This was my third visit to the Gallagher and on the previous two occasions (in July and August), the torrential rain had put the completion of the games in doubt.  Third time unlucky? It certainly appeared that way as I headed down the motorway.

The ground was buzzing when I arrived at 2.15pm.  The bar was rammed with people enjoying the Arsenal thrashing on the TV and the number of fans with various other club’s coats, hats and scarves suggested that once again this was the last cab on the Non-League rank.  Whilst our cupboards have been bare for weeks, Maidstone have been dining on fillet steak – and they deserve a bit pat on the back for that (and Harlow Town in the Ryman North who also have a 3G).

As if my divine request the rain held off for nearly two hours whilst the game was played.  Dare I say it that the sun even made a rare appearance.  Your remember the Sun?  Big yellow ball of fire in the sky?  That’s the fellow.  Well, he seemed to enjoy his afternoon out even if the Stones fans didn’t.

12389164285_dd39af8e3e_bThe club had recently brought in Luke Rooney, the ex-Gillingham wide midfielder.  Playing week in, week out in front of four figure crowds means that they can afford to bring in players of his calibre and manager Jay Saunders changed his formation to accommodate Rooney.  The Stones got out of jail late in the game when Collin converted a penalty after Attwood was brought down by the Canvey keeper in a game that they were second best in most areas.

Canvey had begun with John Sands in their starting XI, the man who scored a 20 minute hatrick against Lewes just a few weeks ago and the striker was a constant thorn in the side of the Maidstone back-line.  The home crowd groaned in frustration as the away side’s sturdy defence held firm on the perfect surface.  Half-time, with the game scoreless, the crowd headed for the bars and catering facilities to boost the finances even further.

The visitors took the lead early in the second half when Curran’s near post run wasn’t picked up and he had the easiest job to head home.  Maidstone huffed and puffed but simply couldn’t break down a determined Canvey side who looked rejuvenated since Sands joined them at Christmas.  But they couldn’t hold out.  With their goal under siege, Attwood burst into the area and was brought down by keeper Chalmers-Stevens who could be thankful he only got a yellow and Collin smashed home the spot kick.

The rain started falling again just as the final whistle blew.  Over 1,700 fans may not have seen the best game of the season but it was a game and in the current scheme of things that is as rare as our footballing authorities doing something to help clubs at this level.  The Conference may think they have won the 3G battle but I think the war hasn’t yet started.