Non League Club

With am or without you

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on September 28, 2014

Every Non-League club starts the season with a dream of progression in the FA Cup.  For the players it is the thought of walking out at a Premier League (or Championship) ground, or pitting their wits against professional players.  For managers it is the thought of adding a famous scalp to their CV.  For the fans it is the thought of supporting their team in places or against clubs they would never have thought of and for the club owners it is the thought of the pot of gold that grows with every win.  More often than not all of those dreams are brought crashing down to reality by the end of September, with 540 clubs already “concentrating on the league”.  For those that have progressed from the Extra Preliminary Round, played in late August, the chances of them making it through three rounds is less than ten percent (7.3% based on last season to be precise).

IMG_1305However, those odds didn’t frighten us as we headed up the A12 to Witham for the second time in just seven weeks.  Back in August we were undone by a stand-in referee who seemed to have forgotten his cards (and rule book) and a pitch that looked as if it had gone through the same type of treatment as an Elton John hair weave, coming away with a point from our opening game.  Since then it has been a story of injury, suspension and some down-right poor refereeing.  Yes, we can all find excuses to explain our poor league form but this is the FA Cup.  Success is simply based on progression.

As a club we never budget for cup runs.  That would be a foolhardy approach, although many clubs fact in a win or two and the associated prize money into the budget.  An away draw is never a good thing at this stage in the competition (in most instances).  Despite the clubs sharing the gate receipts, attendances tend to be much lower in the cup than in the league. It seems that the magic of the FA Cup fades in the Extra Preliminary Round these days.  It seems that someone at the FA seems to have it in for Lewes when it comes to home FA Cup draws.  Out of 25 initial games we have played in the competition in the past decade (not including replays) we have been drawn at home only 8 times and only once in the past four seasons (eight ties). The good news is that we have a higher than 50% win rate on our travels in the cup.  What could possibly go wrong today?  However, whilst we still believed in the magic of the FA Cup, has it disappeared elsewhere?

On Non-League day back in early September over 2,800 squeezed into Champion Hill to see Dulwich Hamlet take on Hampton & Richmond Borough, one of the biggest attendances in the Ryman Premier League for many-a-year.  Seven days later they hosted Worthing in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Cup yet only 489, including a fair few from the South Coast, watched the game.   In Manchester, England’s biggest fan-owned Non-League club, FC United of Manchester struggled to break the 1,000 mark for their tie against Prescott Cables, almost 50% down on their average Evostik Premier League crowd. Likewise on the same day at Nywood Lane, just over 400, with a significant following from Lewes, watched Bognor Regis Town’s local derby.  Last season the corresponding league game saw 603 watch the Boxing Day game.

Football doesn’t exactly get the pulses racing in these parts – in fact the sheer number of clubs playing at this level in the area probably hinders rather than helps them.  Just a short drive away from the Village Glass Stadium there is Heybridge Swifts, Maldon & Tiptree, Burnham Ramblers and Ryman League North new boys, Brightlingsea Regent.  However, surely the whole village of Witham (population 25,532) would be out supporting their side today?  Who knows, perhaps the town’s most famous residents, Olly Murs and Dotty Cotton would come along, rattle in hand to cheer on the The Town?  I don’t think so but the FA Cup can do strange things to teams and their fans.

IMG_1294After Wednesday night’s game against VCD Athletic, it was hard to see how Lewes could actually put a team out based on the number of injuries they had.  I think it was touch and go whether Garry Wilson considered giving me the nod although my knee operation on Monday would have put pay to my long-overdue FA Cup debut.  However, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe would be out in force, putting the indifferent league form to one side and dreaming of a home tie against East Preston in the next round.  The script was all but written.

Witham Town 4 Lewes 2 – The Village Glass Stadium – Saturday 27th September 2014
What did I write earlier?  Ah yes, “What could go wrong?” Well how about everything!  The FA Cup holds no magic on days like these.  Played off the park by a team who had 10 men for a third of the game, scoring one of our goals because an idiot of an official decided to give a penalty (to us) for an offence that nobody in the ground saw and seeing players bicker with each other.  It wasn’t a good day.  Take nothing away from Witham – they kept their shape, played to their strengths, were as hospitable as they come and their goal-keeper once again got stuck into the banter with us from the first whistle – Martyn Guest always a pleasure.

Thirty minutes after the final whistle, the Lewes team were still sat on the pitch, taking part in an “interactive” heart to heart.  Under normal circumstances this was a bad day, but defeat in a winnable game cost the club £4,500 in prize money as well as the possibility of a decent home tie in the next round.  Whether all of the players really understood what was at stake when the game kicked off is unclear.  However, Lewes started sharply and should have been ahead early doors when Terry Dodd flicked an effort over the bar.

Boysie, the club snapper,  turned up late.  We pretended that we were already 1-0 up, all sticking to our story.  Of course he didn’t believe us, and soon we were 1-0 down.  One became two when Brinkhurst clattered into a Witham forward in the area.  No question that it was a penalty, although the referee, who whilst he didn’t impact the final score was as poor as you will see at this level, booked Rikki Banks for kicking the ball back to the centre circle which hit a Witham player on the way.  He soon angered the home fans by giving a penalty to Lewes – I cannot even speculate what it was for as no one saw any offence.  Dixon stepped up and made it 2-1 at the break.

IMG_1296One bright spot for the travelling Lewes fans was the appearance of Jack Walder at the start of the second half.  Walder had been out since he dislocated his ankle at Thamesmead Town back in March and his return would surely lift the team?  Alas a few minutes later a mix up between Brinkhurst and Banks that will be a cert on one of those crap “guffs” DVDs voiced by Chris Moyles gave Witham a 3-1 lead.  Three one?  Make that four minutes after the home side were reduced to ten men.  Game over, start the bus.

We still had time to miss a couple of sitters before Blewden pulled a goal back to make the score line a little more respectable.  But this defeat hurt.  More so than any other game this season.  Not just for the financial consequences but because of the performance.  The magic of the FA Cup certainly wasn’t floating around the Lewes dressing room today.

So Witham Town join a growing list of teams who have embarrassed the Rooks in recent years in the FA Cup.  Still, there is always the Ryman League Cup to look forward to.

Back on the long and winding road to ultimate disappointment

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on August 9, 2014

It’s a glamorous life sometimes.  Commonwealth Games one week, the luxury of being a guest in an executive box at the Schalke Cup, a visit to see the New York Cosmos and then hobnobbing with the world’s press fawning over Gareth Bale in the Super Cup final. Hard life, some may say.  But I’d swap it all for a bit of Non-League action.  Well, maybe not all of it.

14872309423_d2ca07abff_zSo sandwiched between the MetLife Stadium, New Jersey and the Cardiff City Stadium, in er Cardiff, is a trip to the Village Glass Stadium, Witham.  I can imagine your thoughts are racing, heartbeat speeding up and a few more butterflies fluttering in your stomach. Or is it just me.

The new Ryman Premier League season is upon us once more and The Mighty Rooks are on the road on day one, travelling down the A12 to visit newly promoted Witham.  Let’s get the main fact about ‘The Town’ out of the way early shall we? Olly Murs once graced the turf here in his pre-billy big balls days.  Few Non-League teams can boast an X-Factor runner-up as one of their old boys but that’s no excuse for playing his songs as part of the pre-match entertainment. That would just be cruel on us visitors.  Just like those 100,000 Chelsea fans who were all in the Allianz Arena two years ago when they won the Champions League, thousands of Murs fans saw him make his September against Waltham Abbey six years ago and double that witnessed his one and only goal for the club a week later at Potters Bar Town. Perhaps one day there will be a Louis Tomlinson-style take over the club (or not)? Stranger things have happened.

After a shaky couple of pre-season results, the Rooks new-look team began to gel, earning very credible draws against big sides like Eastbourne Borough and Charlton Athletic. Oh, and Whitehawk.  However, the side that would take the field today against Witham would look very different due to injuries to key players like Jack Walder, still getting back to full fitness after his horrific injury at Thamesmead in March, and the impressive Henry Muggeridge.  Also missing in the centre of the park would be the suspended Jack Dixon.  Still we always had Fraser Logan as cover there….except judging by his Instagram snaps, Fraser was a few hundred miles away in a sunny beach with his family. That is of course unless it was Clacton-On-Sea rather than Kos.  We were also going to be missing our physio Natalie who chose to get married instead of working at our game last week at Eastbourne. Priorities, eh!

14869072015_fd1bc59c90_zThis is the best Saturday of the year in Non-League calendar.  All of the hopes and dreams of a record-breaking season are still alive at 2.59pm – longer in a number of cases.  The sun is shining, the banter is fresh, we can excuse a bad pass or two and even Terry’s jokes are bearable.  We all know that it will never last and soon we will be caught up in a spiral of frustration as our dreams, in the words of many a West Ham fan, “fade and die”.

My long journey to Essex started at midnight when I boarded a flight from JFK to Heathrow.  Six hours later and I was kissing the tarmac in London.  If only our transport network was so efficient.  Three hours, FIVE trains later and I was back at TBIR Towers.  A short re-introduction to the family and I was back in the car, this time re-acquainting myself with the M25 as it crawled at 10 miles per hour north. When I eventually arrived at the, deep breath, Village Glass Stadium, I had spent six hours travelling since landing early.  But I’m sure come 5pm it would all be worth it.

Witham Town 1 Lewes 1 – The Village Glass Stadium – Saturday 9th August 2014
You can look at this result in one of two ways.  Any draw away from home when the conditions aren’t suited to your style of play and you have a number of key players missing, is a good result.  Alternatively, you can look at the balance of play and the fact you had the best chances and go away disappointed.  On the whole I would say that our view moved from the latter at full time to the former on the long journey home a view shared by the Lewes Manager, Garry Wilson twenty minutes after the final whistle.

We all gathered in hope behind the goal as the Lewes team, wearing their new “bright” kit that brought Barcelona so much luck a few seasons ago.  The pitch, to coin a James Boyes, was like a “deep shagpile carpet made of straw”, seeming to be suffering from the effects of the sun so early in the season. Lewes had managed to extract Fraser Logan from a bar in Kardamena at 3am and he anchored the midfield, allowing the new strike force of Blewden and Dodd to run the two centre-backs ragged in the first twenty minutes.  Both defenders were yellow carded for heavy tackles in the first half an hour, one of which forced Ross Treleaven out of the game, adding more woes to our midfield situation.

Lewes started well, using Wheeler on the wing to get behind the defence and putting the balls into the box for Dodd and Blewden although their efforts were well saved by the Witham keeper, who was firmly in the banter bracket, enjoying giving as good as he got with the travelling fans.  Nothing nasty, all good-hearted and of course he was clapped off the pitch by us all at the end of the game.

14682454688_29960b2b9b_zThe club had recently had the bad news of the death of their chairman and he would have been proud to see how resolutely they played in the remainder of the half.  The home side should really have scored themselves when Ryan Blackman blazed over the bar from eight yards out with the goal at his mercy.

After a swift slice of cake, served with a cheeky smile by the ladies in the boardroom we were back at it.  Finally Lewes broke the deadlock when Dodd’s effort was blocked and strike-partner Blewden smashed it home from close range.  Alas, the lead just lasted seven minutes when Banks hesitated and Godbold headed home.  Witham were now holding their own, looking dangerous when they came forward and being cheered on by the hundred or so home fans.

The drama was over though.  As the clock ticked towards the 90th minute a high ball over the top of the Witham defence saw Nathan Crabb get in from of Ruel who appeared to deliberately run into the Lewes forward felling him in the penalty area.  The Witham defender, using every trick in the book stayed down until the referee stopped play as Lewes were preparing another assault on the Town goal.

That was the last chance.  The Rooks had to make do with a point, coming away from Essex with another injury that will hamper team selection for the two games coming in the next week against AFC Hornchurch and Billericay Town, two sides who tend to play on the physical side.  But football is BACK.  Who cares about traffic jams, delayed trains and bobbly pitches.  The season is well and truly underway once again.

Every rain cloud has a silver lining

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on March 16, 2013

8562024643_b5e486dda7_bWhen a complete stranger addresses you for the first time with “Are you a copper?” you immediately think that you are definitely in the wrong place. Welcome to Ilford FC. Not the normal welcome you would expect from a turnstile operator, but this one was giggling away, sipping a Stella. A huge grin spread over his face as he then said “I’m guilty of being an Ilford fan”. I breathed a huge sigh and handed over my £10.

I’d been to Ilford FC before for twenty minutes. It was enough time. A dull 0-0 draw back in September against Thamesmead Town played in an unloved athletics stadium. I didn’t think I would be back here in a hurry but here I was walking into the Cricklefield Stadium.

Beggars can’t be choosers in the non leagues these days. Winter, which started back in October still had its grip firmly on the fixture list. I was supposed to be standing on the terraces at Hayes Lane, watching Lewes take on Cray Wanderers. But I wasn’t. I was here. I was loving life. My plan B (Corinthian Casuals), C (Walton & Hersham), D and (Lordswood) had all gone the same way as Cray. Scrambling around for another option at 2pm my eye was drawn back to Ilford. Had I been a bit too harsh before? I’m all for giving someone a second chance and so I headed east to the metropolis known as Ilford.

8563133430_67f68e22d8_bIlford – literally translated from latin as “Bad Bridge” have been a fixture in the non leagues for over 130 years. Whilst they may have never hit the heights of neighbours Dagenham & Redbridge (who they can lay some family tree claim to through the numerous mergers that have taken place in the area over the years) they can lay claim to two Amateur Cup Final wins in 1929 and 1930 when they beat local rivals Leyton and the wonderfully named Bournemouth Gasworks Athletic. But the current edition of the club have only been around since 1987.

Times are hard for Ilford. They survive on crowds of less than 50 on most occasions, battling for the title of “least supported team in the league” with tenants Waltham Forest, and fellow relegation candidates Redbridge. Whilst West Ham play in the richest league in the world just a few miles away, Ilford survive on a tiny budget and a massive dollop of hospitality.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. I had mentally programmed myself not to enjoy the afternoon, rather using the opportunity to get in a game of football after a two-week hiatus. But something was making me smile. Deep down inside I had a feeling that this would be a good afternoon.

8563134488_8d6096f214_bThe visitors from down the A12, Witham Town, had come with a decent following. All bar two fans were standing by the main stand and it soon became apparent why. On the far side, surrounded by a number of flags was Witham’s number one fan, James. Remember him from a few weeks ago when we saw them play at home versus Sudbury. Who needs a microphone when you have a super fan like James. He is a true non league legend, never giving up his vocal encouragement. At one point whilst I was next to the Witham dugout one of the substitutes craned his neck to see how many away fans were making the noise. He looked at me and said “Is that just him?” Of course it was.

Whilst Ilford were looking nervously over their shoulder about a return to the Essex Senior League, Witham were still stubbornly refusing to give up on their play off hopes. A win here would put the pressure back on those above them, although goal difference was a concern – they simply didn’t score enough goals.

Ilford 2 Witham Town 7 – Cricklefield Stadium – Saturday 16th March 2013
Wow, where do I start with this one? Nine goals, three penalties and a good old fashion playing surface from the 1970’s. It must have been touch and go whether the game went ahead but I for one are really glad it did. Hats off to Ilford for approaching football with a Corinthian spirit of hospitality ahead of victory. I’m sure that is no consolation when looking at the result in the cold hard light of day, but that is football. Everyone needs to get down to the Cricklefield Stadium to watch a game.

Unfortunately it seems that neither team had anyone who uses Twitter and so I have no idea who scored any of the nine goals in this pulsating game. Witham were the better team but perhaps not by that margin. I can tell you the visitors took the lead from a header after 10 minutes or so. The Ilford manager laid into his captain – “You are the tallest person on the pitch but you cannot head the ball…you muppet”. Of course five minutes later when he went up the other end and equalised with his head the manager was a tactical genius for sending him up for the set piece.

Goals followed every ten minutes or so, with Witham having packed their shooting boots, or rather their heads. The poor Ilford keeper was powerless with each of the three Witham goals in the first half, before being sent the wrong way from a harshly awarded penalty on the stroke of half time to make the score 4-1.

I headed upstairs into the Olympic Bar and fell in love with this place. West Ham memorabilia lined the walls, including a rare copy of the squad’s 1975 FA Cup Final ALBUM (not just a single back in those days) Hail to the Hammers. Food was on sale at bargain prices. Pukka Pie? £1.50 Sir. Heinz Chicken Soup with a roll? £1.50 Sir. Gingsters Steak Slice? £1.50 Sir. I think you can see a pattern here. And the view of the ground? Well, floor to ceiling windows certainly gave you a panoramic view of proceedings. Best non league bar of the year (bar the Dripping Pan, of course).

8562135679_d9f94a643a_bThe second half was just a minute old when Witham were given another penalty. Up stepped the number 7 for the second time in just a few minutes of game play and once again sent the keeper the wrong way. Five became six when a shot from distance nestled in the back of the net. The keeper by this stage simply wanted the game to end. He laid on the ground, not wanting to get up and had to be helped up by his centre-back.

Game over. Six-one. But then the sun came out, illuminating the Witham goal and Ilford started to attack once again. As if guided by some guilt at the two he had given at the other end, the referee awarded Ilford a penalty for a soft challenge. Not often you see three penalties in one game, especially with all three converted. Any hope of a comeback were then snuffled out by Witham who scored a seventh to wrap up a good day on the road for them, but one to forget for Ilford.

$(KGrHqV,!jEFDrLpLMUTBQ7ZOBhhdw~~60_12I consider myself lucky to have seen this one, along with 55 others. Clubs like Ilford have to battle every day for survival, and it is the little touches like the amusing welcome from the chap on the gate, the warming soup served with genuine hospitality and the handshake from a fan as I left, asking me to come back one day soon, that mean so much.

Every cloud has a silver lining and for me it was listening to that inner voice on a day when said cloud dumped the Atlantic Ocean on South East London. The same voice that also told me to buy THIS shirt. Still can’t always be right.