Non League Club

Welling up the table

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on November 3, 2013

The debate about the status of the Conference Premier has been raging for many years.  Take a look at the league at the moment and you cannot fail to notice some very familiar names.  Cambridge United were once a few minutes away from the top-level of English football and after what seems like years in the Non-League, are now leading the pack in the Skrill Premier.  Not far behind them are fellow Football League exiles Grimsby Town, Luton Town, Kidderminster Harriers and Barnet.  All of these clubs could essentially slot straight back into the world of the SkyBet, or whatever it is called, League tomorrow, competing on and off the pitch.

Take a look at the average attendances in the league so far this season and the best eleven supported teams are all ex-League teams.  In fact all of these apart from Halifax Town have a higher average attendance than Accrington Stanley, Dagenham & Redbridge and Morecambe (all of who were until recently, Non League sides).  But there are a couple of new names appearing towards the top of the table.  Alan Devonshire’s Braintree Town are punching well above their weight in 4th place, surviving on crowds of around a thousand.  Salisbury City and Nuneaton Town are new-boys in the league but both have relatively good catchment areas, free from the distractions of bigger sides.

10635884434_1e8b74840d_bAnd then there is Welling United.  Sitting in ninth place in the league, just one win off fourth place, the Wings are enjoying life back in the top-level of Non-League football.  Whilst they have been here before, from 1986 to 2000, the world of Non-League football has moved on, so their achievements in winning the Conference South last season was remarkable to say the least. I say that based on some local knowledge.  Living just 4 miles away I have been a regular visitor at Park View Road over the years.  Earlier this year I was at the top of the table clash with Chelmsford City.   Whilst Welling were demolishing a fellow title-contender on the pitch, off it were collection buckets encouraging fans to “dig deep” for Jamie Day’s, the player-manager’s budget.  A year on from play-off final defeat away to Dartford, Welling won the Conference South and took their place with professional clubs who had tasted victory at Wembley when they were Football League sides.  With average attendances of just over 800, few expected anything more than a season-long fight with relegation.  Instead, impressive form at Park View Road has seen them already find their feet in an ultra-competitive league.

Today was one of those strange days when your own side doesn’t have a game.  Due to Lewes’s exit in the FA Trophy at the first hurdle a few weeks ago we found ourselves without a game.  A perfect opportunity to spread my wings and try somewhere new surely?  Exactly – until Northern Steve decided to pay a visit.  Northern Steve lives in Lincoln and is a Lincoln City/West Ham/Lewes fan.  Coincidently, the Imps were playing at Welling United.  Funny that.  I gave him the option of paying £50 to go to Upton Park, but like me he isn’t a big Allardyce fan, nor one of 4-6-0 formations and so Welling was the choice.  If you are coming to a Saturday game at Welling then you have to do it in style.  So it was a no brainer that we would go to Crayford Dogs, have a few beers, hop on a bus to Welling and cheer on the Imps.

Unfortunately, we were not going to be able to enjoy all of the delights of Park View Road.  Welling had announced this would be a “segregated” game.  I’m not sure if this was a club decision or one based on Police advice.  Many football fans choose non-league football because they are free from the restrictions of the modern game.  Having a beer on the terrace and being able to change ends at half-time are two joys of the game at this level.  Welling have never (as far back as I can remember) had an outdoor alcohol licence which I still fail to understand.  Clubs like Lewes can serve beer outside but Welling can’t?  Similar sized clubs and support.  So are the footballing authorities being discriminatory based on the location of a club?  People from East Sussex behave better after a beer than those of the London Borough of Bexley? Always a mystery to me.

10629983344_c2333a661f_bLincoln were likely to bring a fair few fans so perhaps Welling felt it would be easier to “control” if the Imps were given half the ground.  Whilst I can understand that, I do feel segregation for run-of-the-mill league games is anti-non-league.  We arrived at 2.15pm and paid £15 (fifteen!) to get into the away bit.  All around us were very glum away fans as the club house on this side of the ground was firmly locked shut.  Across the ground the home fans were enjoying a special beer promotion yet the away fans had to make do with a cup of tea.  Good to see fans being treated equal.  A steward told us that the bar on this side was operated by Erith & Belvedere and they had said “someone might turn up to open it” but they hadn’t. On one hand clubs moan about lack of cash and fans attending games, and then you see situations like this. Let’s assume half of the 200 Lincoln fans bought one beer in the club house – that’s £600 for doing what exactly?

Welling United 1 Lincoln City 0 – Park View Road – Saturday 2nd November 2013
I don’t think this game will live in the memories for long.  Despite both teams wanting to play attacking football, a petty refereeing performance killed the game as a spectacle by half time, leading to a second half that was as exciting as watching X Factor.  Welling probably just shaded it and will be happy with the three points, delivered by Jake Gallagher not long after half time. Despite Welling’s keeper Lee Butcher being the busier of the two, he was only called into action on a couple of occasions.

10635870245_a2a4c96ce0_bIt was good to see that neither team had come to defend and Lincoln quickly found joy down the left hand side where Lincoln’s right back Franks was exposed for pace time and time again.  Some desperate early defending kept the visitors out yet as the half went on it started to become clear that the referee wanted to be the centre of attention.  Constant whistling for minor infringements, yet letter the more serious ones go unpunished frustrated both sets of fans.  Whilst the 300 or so Welling fans got to change ends at half time after a trip to the bar, the away fans had to sit put, hoping that a long journey south would give them some reward.

10630258773_02826116a3_bAlas it wasn’t to be.  In the 52nd minute, Healy set up Gallagher who slotted the ball home from 10 yards.  The away fans tried to raise the spirit of the team but after the goal they seemed to resign themselves to defeat, letting all of the positive attacking effort seen in the first half drift away.  With ten minutes to go quite a few away fans headed for the exit, going in search of a beer to dull the pain.  As the referee blew the full-time whistle virtually all of the Lincoln side couldn’t get off the pitch quick enough, completely ignoring the fans who had made the 150 mile trip down south.

Three points for Welling took them up to seventh in the table, and just one point outside the play-offs.  Despite the positivity on the pitch, home fans hadn’t exactly come out in numbers.  This is Charlton Athletic territory and the Addicks were away in Birmingham so it’s hard to use that as mitigation.  So what can the club do to attract more through the turnstiles?  Living only 4 miles away I never seen any local marketing activity to encourage people to attend games.  From my vantage position there didn’t seem many kids at the game, yet the club offer free admission to Under12’s – could that be marketed better in local schools (again, having a child in a school relatively locally it is all about Charlton)?  There were around 200 people at the dog racing at Crayford just a couple of miles down the road on Saturday lunch time, and treble that in the evening.  What about a joint marketing campaign with them? How many away fans will say they enjoyed the trip and will come again next season with the segregation and lack of a warm club house and a bar?

Good luck to Welling for the rest of the season.  Home form like this will ensure you will live to fight at this level next season.  For Lincoln City?  There is certainly something missing if they have short-term ambitions of a return to the Football League. With the league becoming harder and harder to get out of each season they may be facing a long, hard fight to return to the glory days of Wembley Play-off finals.

The Darts hit the bullseye of promotion after 26 years of hurt

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on May 14, 2012

I’ve never really hidden my admiration for the progress Dartford have made on and off the pitch in the past few seasons.  Just a year or so ago I waxed lyrical about my upbringing just down the road from Watling Street and my afternoons spent running around the terraces here..  Back in “the day” they were one of the top Non League teams in England, along with the likes of Wealdstone, Altrincham and Weymouth.  In an age when there wasn’t any automatic promotion to the Football League, the top non league clubs had to apply for election to the League each season and hope that the Football League Chairman were satisfied with the contents of the “envelopes”.  Consequently only seven clubs were elected into the league by this method, the last being 1978.

Dartford came close to making the step from the Non Leagues to the Football League on a number of occasions, the last one was in 1974 after they won the Southern League, and reached the final of the FA Trophy.  Ten years later, after the formation of the Football Alliance (basically now the Blue Square Bet Premier), they finished third, the highest place they have finished in their history.  Since then it was a tale of woe that saw them penniless and homeless in a space of a few years.  A nomadic existence followed at places like Erith, Thurrock and Gravesend before a local council with a vision stepped in, finding them a home back in the town.

Not just any old home though.  Must has been written, and awards have been won for the 4,100 capacity Princes Park, just over half a mile away from the old ground (now of course houses) in Watling Street.  You can read all about what makes the stadium so different here but suffice to say its bloody marvellous.  Just a few months before the ground was opened in 2006, Terry Burnham was re-appointed as manager with the club in the lower reaches of the Southern League.  Since they have never looked back, rising through the leagues until they reached the Blue Square Bet South for the start of the 2010/11 season.

This season has been their best yet.  An epic battle with eventual champions Woking went to the last games of the season, whilst average attendances have top 1,200 – the best the club has had for three decades.  But it is still not a finished job.  One game is left.  One game that would shape the season.  One game that would take them back to where they were nearly 40 years ago in that elite group of Non League clubs.

Standing in their way was Welling United from just down the A2.  The Wings themselves were looking to return to the top level of Non League football where they had played for a magnificent fourteen seasons up until 1999/2000 season.  They had a corker of a season as well, finishing in third place under the guidance of highly rated manager Jamie Day.

To say this was the biggest game Kent had seen in years was an understatement.  As soon as the two clubs won their semi-finals against Basingstoke Town and Sutton United respectively, all the talk was of this one.  Tickets went on sale for just 10 hours.  4,100 of them were snapped up, making it the first sell out at the ground since the opening fixture back in November 2006.

Fortunately, CMF had been employed to camp out at the ground all night to be one of the first to get our tickets.  Don’t worry – I made her some soup and bought her a copy of Women’s Own to read.  It didn’t rain that much anyway so all was well as she came home on Wednesday, slammed four tickets on the table and disappeared up to the bedroom.  Danny, Deaks and Dave would be pleased.

Win this game and you would be swapping an away trip in front of 200 to the likes of Weston-super-Mare or Thurrock for Lincoln City, Grimsby Town or Hereford United.  The revenue gap between the two leagues is huge, and that is why it is sometimes a step too far for some clubs, such as Bath City and Hayes & Yeading, although both Dartford and Welling United can take comfort from the excellent progress made by Braintree Town this season in the Premier after promotion.

For such a local game it we were letting the train take the strain.  Just a twenty minute from TBIR Towers to Dartford would give us plenty of time for a spot of culture.  Perhaps a visit up to East Hill to see the site of the former City of London Lunatic Asylum (they called apples, apples back in the day), then onto York Road where the Duke of York surrendered to King Henry VI and finally to Powder Mill Lane, where of course we all remember John Spillman set up the first paper mill in England back in 1588. Alas, we had tried to get access to the little known Dartford Cable Tunnel, which runs under the Thames to Essex and is owned by the National Grid but our request to “leapfrog the Thames” had been flatly refused.  So instead we had to make do with such fine historical establishments as the Malt Shovel, The Wat Tyler and the Rose which was once owned by larger than life Darts player Andy Fordham.

Dartford 1 Welling United 0 – Princes Park – Sunday 13th May 2012
I am always confused as to in which games it is the performance or the result are more important.  This was certainly one game where it was all about the result, which was quite fortunate because as a spectacle it failed to live up to the pre-game hype and the explosive start that Dartford made.

The game had been sold out for days and to be honest we expected some sort of chaos outside the ground.  Being English we of course left the pub with twenty minutes to go and got to the ground with a few minutes to spare.  But it seemed that the vast majority of the 4,088 crowd were already in situ.  For the first time in what seems like months I was going to be watching a game in England with the sun shining.  After all, the cricket season was only 6 weeks old!

As soon as we found a spot on the terrace underneath the big wooden man Dartford took the lead with a goal worthy of winning any play off final.  Lee Noble picked the ball up in midfield after just two and a half minutes, took the ball forward and fired the ball from 25 yards into the bottom corner of the Welling net. Bosh…First blood to the Darts.

One should have been two a few minutes later when the direct approach from the home side saw the ball find Bradbrook unmarked in the six yard box but he headed wide.  Welling then found their rhythm although it was a little bit in the style of Stoke City.  There seemed to be far too many end passes hit long and high to no one in particular and whilst Welling won the half in terms of percentages, the score reflected the chances on goal.

We headed up in the Princess Suite for some half time refreshments.  The licencing laws in this country are truly bizarre.  Whilst beer could be served in this huge bar, blinds were pulled down to stop anyone looking at the game.  You could peer around the edge of the blinds and get a sneak view, but woe betide anyone who tried to raise the blinds even an inch.  Tut tut.  With one of the most exciting Premier League campaigns unfolding on the huge TV screens quite a few fans decided to stay in the bar, meaning we got their front row seats. Nice!

The second half was more of the same.  Welling tried to push forward but the solid Darts defence more often than not repelled borders. Despite player/manager Jamie Day trying to change the rhythm of the game, Dartford looked too strong.

Despite our intention not to let events elsewhere affect our viewing pleasure, it was hard not to keep an interested ear and eye on the top of the Premier League.  Even the Darts players had an interest as one of them asked what the latest scores were when he came over to take a throw, looking in disbelief when we told him QPR were winning at Man City.  Four minutes of injury time were displayed and despite a late rally by the Wings, Dartford held firm and I do not think I have seen anyone run so quick as the referee as he headed for the tunnel, blowing the whistle as he ran down the tunnel.  Good to see solidarity with his linesmen who stayed on the pitch trying to retrieve the ball.

Dartford were promoted.  They had finished second on merit and were now going up to the top level of non league football after a 26 year gap. Manager Tony Burman has very carefully and cleverly built a team that can compete at every level they have played and you can see that some of the work is already in place for next season.

As for Welling? Another great season punching above a number of teams who have more financial resources (Chelmsford City and Havant to name but two).  They would be back I am sure next season when the competitive landscape without Woking and Dartford (and with Bath and Hayes coming in opposite direction) is easier.  But who knows what Non League football will throw up.

CHatham AVerage they aren’t

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on August 6, 2011

In my misspent youth I was a frequent visitor to the Medway towns.  Being just a few stops down the line on the train meant there was ample opportunity to hop on and off the train to avoid the conductor in the “toast rack” trains that used to be common in the 1980’s.  For some it was easier to everything in Chatham and Gillingham.  Easier to buy beer from the off licence, easier to buy 10-packs of Marlboro’s and easier to get lovebites off the girls.  Perhaps coming from Longfield was deemed “exotic” to the local girls but whatever it was, a swig of Diamond White and a quick drag on a cigarette and they were putty in our hands.

“One of many suggested ‘origins’ for the word ‘Chav’ was that it is an abbreviation of ‘Chatham Average’, alluding to a public perception of a segment of Chatham residents as tracksuit-wearing, gold hoop-earringed common people with a penchant for hard drinking, recreational drug use, and aggressive and anti-social behaviour. The word ‘chav’ was retroactively deemed an acronym for ‘Council House And Violent’. “Chav Culture” was first evident from a website about “Chatham Girls” which received a huge amount of media interest.” Not my words but those of Wikipedia.  It certainly rang true.

At the time I had no knowledge Chatham had a football team.  Everyone came here to watch Gillingham right?  In fact in 1986 I came to every home game bar one as powered by the goals of Tony Cascarino and Dave Shearer they reached the Play Off final (beating Sunderland in the process) where they lost in a replay to Swindon Town.  But they did.  Chatham Town were formed just a few months after their illustrious neighbours but have not enjoyed anywhere near the success of the Gills.

Their best league performance has been 7th in the Southern League, Eastern Division and even last season as Gillingham were enjoying a charge to a play off spot, Chatham were rooted firmly at the bottom of the Ryman League South.  However, the club were reprieved at the end of last season by the usual end of season re-organisation and now find themselves in the Ryman League North.

Chatham has a number of other interesting links to football.  Local MP, Tracey Crouch (no relation to Peter) is a qualified FA Coach, as well as a Spurs fan which shows how much she really knows about the beautiful game (joke Tracey), and of course the town once joined as one to celebrate winning the FA Cup.  Well, sort of.

Back in 1875, Royal Engineers brought the cup back to their Great Lines ground after beating Old Etonians in a replay at Kennington Oval. The team were seen as the best the armed forces could muster and as well as their Cup win, they were runners up on four other occasions in the first ten years of the competition. Today nothing much is left of their original grounds in Great Lines, well apart from a military housing estate.

But back to the football at hand.  Chatham had proudly announced their new Adidas kit online this week, AC Milan (and Lewes) style at home, Inter Milan away. Times are a-changing in the Non Leagues and if you cannot play the part, at least you can look the part these days. What was also welcome was a very sensible £5 for Adults and £1 for kids to get in.  With Gillingham opening their League Two campaign just a stone’s throw away it was always going to be a bit of a losing battle on the crowd front, and when we entered the hallowed portal a few minutes before kick off the grounds was, shall we say, spartan.

Chatham Town 0 Welling United 2 – Maidstone Road – Saturday 5th August 2011
Of course.  Everyone was in the bar! After a week of Championship, Premier League and various Welsh grounds it was good to be back at the heart of the grassroots game.  As the teams took their place in the strange fencing-cum-tunnel structure behind the goal all of the fans drifted out to take their place around the rustic venue.

This was more of a test for the home side rather than the visitors.  Welling had exceeded all expectations last season , finishing just outside the play off spots after a great second half of the season.  Player/manager Jamie Day is still getting rave reviews and you cannot rule them out of the race for promotion this season as well.  So it was no surprise that they took an early lead when Jack Parkinson scored after being put clean through.

The one man at the centre of the action was actually the referee, Mr Brown who failed to control the game and punished the wrong tackles at the wrong times. However, it was interesting to hear the “respect” he got from both sets of players.  So much for the success of that campaign.

The second half was more of the same with the Welling United keeper Whitehouse not really having a save to make, whilst his opposite number Kessell had to be at his best to keep the score just at one.  That was until centre forward Loick Pires broke free from his marker and drilled the ball home.

One notable player who made an appearance in the second period for Chatham was Jack Jeffrey. Born down the road in Gravesend, Jeffrey was on West Ham’s books for awhile, although never made the first team squad. He then went on to play for Leyton Orient and Cambridge United on loan, but since then his career as nosedived, last season ending up in the Kent Premier League with Sevenoaks Town.  Let’s home he does find some luck with Chatham.

With Welling opening their Blue Square Bet South campaign next weekend it was a useful run out, but for Chatham Town it is hard to know where this season will take them.  Last season Ryman South was considerably stronger than the North so there is hope that after a season of turmoil it could at last be a season of promise. And as for the Chav’s?  Well the term may have come from Chatham, but every town up and down our fair land has their own version so perhaps they should thank Chatham’s youth for Vauxhall Novas, fake Burberry and Elizabeth Duke every day.

For more pictures from the afternoon, head off here.

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