Non League Club

Diwrnod mawr y tu allan (A Grand Day Out)

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on May 5, 2013

On Friday night I made my long-awaited return to a football pitch as I turned out for the Lewes FC Elite team in a post-season friendly.  As I crawled off the field with 75 minutes on the clock I made a vow never to criticise a non league player again.  Most have full-time jobs (like me), a family (like me) and have to travel to get their fix of football (delayed, like me, on the ever unreliable trains).  Yet they still manage to keep themselves fit enough to effortlessly manage 90 minutes.  Whilst I have my age as my defence, I was on my knees.

8706968606_e138ee798b_bYes, I could blame the dust-bowl of a pitch, the lack of match fitness (or fitness in its entirety) or confusing tactics (I have to blame someone, so sorry Kev as I missed the pre-match briefing due to said train issues) but the simple matter is my days of playing the game are well and truly over.  So never again will I criticise these fine players, who play not for money, but for love.

Forty eight hours later I am sitting at a desk at the most famous stadium in the world, waiting for twenty-two Non League players to take the field in the biggest game in their lives.  For one of these teams, they can look forward to hosting Portsmouth and Scunthorpe United next season, for the other it would be Welling United, Hyde and Braintree Town.  For one afternoon this would be a battle between North and South Wales as to who would be joining Mansfield Town in the nPower League Two next season.

8710566644_a31d5ffe5c_bWhilst never an easy way to get promotion, the Play off is the biggest and much lucrative lottery in English football.  Either Newport County or Wrexham would be waving goodbye to the smelly toilets of Ebbsfleet, the constantly waterlogged pitch at Braintree and the bacon rolls at Cambridge.  And of course there was also the lucky charm of the Play Off winners.

The Conference National Play Off was introduced at the end of the 2002/03 season and in the nine seasons since, the winner has gone on to cement their place in the Football League.  In fact ten years ago the first winner was Doncaster Rovers, who have gone onto the Championship and now have a shiny new ground as a keepsake.  Contrast this with the fortunes of the actual Conference winner.  Sure, there are the success stories of Crawley Town and Stevenage (Borough) but also in the past decade there has been Barnet, Aldershot Town and Chester City, all of whom will meet again in the Conference next season.

It’s been written a million times already, but what the heck, let’s make it one million and one.  It’s been a brilliant year for Welsh football.  Whilst Wrexham fans won’t forgive me for saying this, but I hope Newport win.  That way, each of the four biggest Welsh teams will have each won a major honour this season, three of which here at Wembley.  The fact that Wrexham didn’t let the small matter of a FA Trophy final victory distract their league form is testament to their focus on returning to the football league.

8709441477_a8ecf8f465_bI remember Newport County of old.  They first really came to my attention back in 1980/81.  As West Ham were battering all comers in the then Second Division (dropping just 3 points at home all season), Newport County were hanging around mid-table in the league below.  But come midweek it was a different story.  Both clubs were representing their countries in the European Cup Winners Cup (kids – ask your Dad), a trophy that was taken deadly serious and only had one entrant per country.  This was the competition dreams were made of.  Sportsnight was often a heaven just out of reach for us children at the time, but when we were allowed up late, the names of the foreign teams held our imagination, and made the following day’s games in the playground just a little more continental.

The first round saw some big names exit the tournament after two legs.  Celtic, Legia Warsaw, Roma, Monaco and Dinamo Zagreb.  The next round, Sparta Prague and Valencia were gone.  And then it was the last eight.  West Ham United, the mighty and mysterious Dinamo Tblisi, Benfica, Carls Zeiss Jena, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Slavia Sofia, Feyenoord and Newport County. Little Newport County, with the legendary strike force of Tommy Tynan and John Aldridge, taking on Carls Zeiss Jena in the quarter finals of a major European competition.

Nearly 18,000 Welsh fans saw their team come so close to a famous result, managing a 2-2 in East Germany and thus only needing a clean sheet back in Newport.  But it wasn’t to be and Jena won 1-0 and went onto lose to the conquerors of the Hammers, Tblisi in the final.  Less than 10 years later and the same club that had competed with such greats of European football were no longer.  County were relegated from the Football League in 1988 and less than a year later were bankrupt, withdrawing part way through the following non league season.

The long and often dark road back to the Football League for the exiles started the following year and progress has been steady.  The club have been through the rain, and now can see the rainbow (thanks Dolly Parton for that one).  Justin Edinburgh has built a strong squad that for a while this season looked like they may go up automatically but had to make do with a spot in the play offs.  The future looks bright for the club, especially when we factor in the “elephant in the room” of Chairman Les Scadding and his £45 million he won on the Euromillions lottery.  Scadding only became involved in the club in August and so the full effect of his investment is yet to be seen.

8710864374_30755cc2dd_bAt the other end of the stadium were the massed red ranks of Wrexham, themselves European Cup Winners Cup quarter finalists back in 1976 where they lost to eventual winners Anderlecht.  The Dragons, twenty-three times winners of the Welsh Cup as well as winners of the Football League Trophy back in 2005 (aka The Leyland DAF, Johnstone Paint et al) when Sir Alex Ferguson’s son Darren scored in a 2-0 win over Southend United were attempting to get back into the league after a five season hiatus.  Two years ago the club were served with a winding up order and the future looked very bleak indeed, despite finishing in the play off spots.  Since then the club has been taken over as a Supporters Trust (big tick) and this was to be their second trip to Wembley in a little over two months after winning the FA Trophy final against Grimsby Town in March.  It is also the third consecutive

Yesterday the stadium hosted the FA Vase when nearly 17,000 fans saw Spennymoor Town beat Tunbridge Wells 2-1.  Tickets were a sensibly priced £15 (£5 for kids).  Today, that price had risen to £39 on the gate (including a reported £3 admin fee) for this game between the two Welsh sides.  Consequently from our seats, the game was to be played out in front of a backdrop of empty red seats.  Whilst these are once-in-a-decade (or more if you are a fan of the smaller club) occasion, wouldn’t it be better to lower the prices and get more people through the gate?  I knew of many football fans who came yesterday, happy to pay £15 for the game but baulked at playing over £35 for today’s game (the official attendance when announced was a good few hundred LESS than the FA Vase final).

Moan over.  Stand up and be counted, for what you are about to receive as AC/DC would have sung at this point.  Welsh pride rained down onto the hallowed turf, like fire being spat from the mouth of an angry dragon.

Newport County 2 Wrexham 0 – Wembley Stadium – Sunday 5th May 2013
The opening exchanges were understandably cagey.  In previous play off finals the game has taken a while to really get going, with the weight of expectation being felt by the players.  Sixteen minutes in and the first chance of the game was created by the veteran Brett Ormerod who beat his man in the area before seeing his shot hit the wrong side of the post and go wide.  Ormerod again came close just after the thirty minute mark, firing a half-volley over the bar after good work to get to the byline from Johnny Hunt. Newport’s only response was the long throw in into the area but Chris Maxwell had them all covered, leading to frustration from Edinburgh on the bench as his side seemed happy to allow Wrexham far too much space in midfield.

8710863386_841af277e1_bIt took nearly to half time for County to produce a decent chance.  Christian Jolley, the forward signed from AFC Wimbledon in November found some space and curled a beautiful effort just wide.  Jolley, wearing gloves (and a short-sleeve shirt) on the hottest day of the year so far had drifted out far too wide during the first half, rarely in the game despite his pace.

The first five minutes of the second half produced more action than the whole of the previous 45 with both teams obviously being told in the dressing rooms that they had to try to attack to win the coveted prize of a place in the Football League.  With both teams kicking towards their own supporters the atmosphere kicked up a gear, with the Wrexham fans around me showing real passion .  Ormerod again should have scored on the hour mark, blazing over the bar after player/manager Andy Morrell’s shot had been beaten into his path by Lenny Pidgeley.  The excitement proved to be short-lived as the game went back into its shell and the predictable substitutions started to arrive with both benches having an eye on a potential additional thirty minutes.

And then it happened….85 minutes on the clock…a hopeful ball over the Wrexham defence saw Jolley take the ball in his stride, hold off a defender and lift the ball over the on-rushing Chris Maxwell.  Deserved?  Probably not on the balance of play but it was a very well taken goal.  Wrexham to their credit didn’t let their heads go down and roared on by the fans at that end of the stadium laid siege to the Newport goal, sending up Maxwell for a couple of corners but it was not to be.  Despite a Ormerod header then couldn’t create anything, and then to add insult to injury Newport scored a second in injury time when Aaron O’Connor smashed the ball home after his first effort was saved by the feet of Maxwell.  Game over, Newport County were on their way back to the Football League after a quarter of a century.

8710236187_8fd0657f32_bAll that was left was for the Wrexham fans to salute their team.  It has been quite a season for the Dragons, and they will feel disappointed to get this close to a return to the Football League.  Whilst they can point to the FA Trophy victory here a few weeks ago as a good return for the season, the ultimate prize was just out of their reach.

For Newport County, the planning for next year can start in earnest.  Their rise from the ashes will give heart and inspiration to many teams who today are down on their luck.  With the cup in their hands, the champagne corks popped, the celebrations began that would ultimately last long into the night all the way down the M4.

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.

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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