Remember my article from Tuesday night about The Nowhere Men and the dark secret world of the football scouts? Well, here comes the litmus test. Just how good was my intel when it mattered when Dulwich Hamlet arrived at the Pan for today’s game. Firstly we should all raise our glasses to the immense work carried out by the Pitch Team (groundsmen sounds so web 2.0) who once again performed miracles in getting the game on. In fact, on Thursday it was almost as good as a goner, but then they found a machine in a locked cupboard at the ground which was basically a big sponge on wheels and used that to mop up the water.
We needed to get today’s game on. Not only would the Dulwich fans be travelling in big numbers to see their table-topping side, but with only one game having been played at The Pan since Christmas, we could have really done with some gate receipts. Some Premier League fans may not realise that it’s not all Official Partnerships with fizzy drinks companies, or selling media rights to Uzbekistan in the Non-Leagues. We actually need paying fans through the gate on a regular basis so that we can do little things like pay players, utilities and maintain the ground. With no chance of any help from our dear leaders at the league, Lewes, like virtually every other club at our level (and below) have had to pray daily for an end to the rain.
There was also the small matter of the leftovers from the Lewes Beer Festival that needed finishing off. Not that football fans need an excuse to have a beer, especially as at The Dripping Pan you can have said beer whilst watching the game. Twenty guest ales, some of course exclusively provided by club sponsor and world-famous brewery, Harveys had been lined up for Friday night, and whilst the locals did serious damage to the volumes of beer, there would be some left over for today. Left over beer? No such thing. Just beer that hasn’t yet been enjoyed.
So a perfect combination of football and beer was on the cards. And to celebrate the sun even decided to make an appearance. Terry had kindly pulled my lucky number out of the monthly Panning For Gold draw so I arrived at the ground £60 better off. Could the day get any better? Well if the Lewes side that traveled to Cray last Sunday made an appearance rather than the one that took the field at Grays on Thursday then this could be the best day ever.
Lewes 2 Dulwich Hamlet 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 1st March 2014
Sometimes you just want to bottle a feeling and smell it every day forever. Not only did Lewes put on their finest performance of the season, nor did my scouting plan demonstrate the exact weaknesses that we exploited. It wasn’t just the fine beers that were still left over from the Beer festival or the £60 I had in my pocket from the Panning For Gold. It was a mixture of all of those elements plus the sun shining for the first time in months. Heck, Piers Morgan could have been standing next to me today and I would have probably shaken his hand at the end of the game.
As we walked away from The Jungle at the end of the game we tried to decide who was our man of the match. And therein laid the beauty of the day. We couldn’t agree. We couldn’t agree because to a man, every player who took part could have been in with a shout. Football is a team game and that is how Lewes won. Team work makes the dream work, so they say and that is what happened today.
We almost didn’t have a game at all. Despite the efforts of the pitch team it seemed that the perfect playing surface wasn’t good enough for the referee when he arrived at the ground at 1pm. He was “concerned” about a couple of areas of the pitch and ordered some sand. Do you know how difficult it is to find sand in Lewes, on a Saturday, at 1pm when you have a 15 minute deadline. Fortunately, Homebase had some sandpit sand that did the trick and we had a game.
Lewes started brightly with the three central midfielders, Dixon, Walder and Logan pushed up the pitch to stop the dangerous Dulwich midfield having time on the ball. They weren’t hunting alone. Every time one of them got the ball, the three Rooks surrounded them, hassled them and unnerved them. Balls were played in behind the Dulwich full-backs thus stopping them getting forward. Pressure was put on Chico Ramos in the Dulwich goal when he had the ball as he didn’t like to kick the ball. All in the report lads.
Best chance of the first half fell to Blewden who saw his header hit the post. Half-time and all square. But that changed in the first 90 seconds of the second half. Wheeler’s corner was caught by Ramos, who inexplicably dropped the ball over the line under no pressure at all. Of course we went easy on Ramos for the rest of the half especially when ten minutes later he could only parry a Blewden shot that slowly trickled towards the empty net only for Adeniyi to make it back to clear.
If the referee was proving unpopular with the players, benches and fans alike due to some strange decisions (over ruling his linesmen on numerous occasions when they were better placed) then the build up to the Lewes second goal with ten to play saw him removed from the Dulwich Hamlet Manager’s Christmas card list forever. Dulwich’s right-back Boyer left the pitch as part of a substitution but his replacement wasn’t quite ready. The ball went out of play but instead of now allowing the replacement full-back on, he waved play on. Lewes broke, Brinkhurst ran through the empty space, rounded Ramos and slotted the ball home. The Dulwich manager was incensed and play was held up for six minutes whilst he argued with the officials despite being sent off. At one point the referee and linesman retreated a good 20 yards from the bench and we feared he was going to abandon the game.
Finally we were back underway. That lasted 30 seconds before he saw another offence that no one else did and booked a player from each side whilst everyone was scratching their heads. The second goal gave us some comfort as we played out the six minutes of injury time. Full time, job done.
One final word on the afternoon. Dulwich Hamlet’s fans came in numbers (about 150), saw their team underperform, but conquered with their non-stop singing and assisting in finishing the last barrels of beer from the Beer festival. So in many ways, they were winners to. Hats of chaps and the best of luck for the rest of the season.
There comes a point in life when you just need to give up on something. It doesn’t matter how many times you repair the holes in your lucky pants, you are simply kidding yourself – they aren’t fit for purpose. The late, great Roger Lloyd-Pack in his famous role as Trigger once said he had used the same broom for 25 years, albeit that in that period he had replaced the handle 1o times and the brushes even more. Tonight Lewes travel north of the Thames for the fifth time of asking to take on Grays Athletic in the Ryman Premier League. The teams were due to meet back in early November, then again in December, January and finally last night. As the rain started to fall around lunchtime today we all looked skywards. Someone up there simply didn’t want this game to ever take place. If it was cancelled a sixth time apparently both teams got a crystal decanter from the Isthmian League.
Grays, more than any other team in our division, have suffered during the past few months of poor weather. The problem they have is that they share facilities with Aveley at Mill Field, possibly the most exposed football ground in England which means the slightest bit of rain and the ground is waterlogged. Whilst they sit just above the relegation zone, they have played a whopping nine games less than the leaders Dulwich Hamlet and could still conceivably make a push for the play-offs, although having a minimum of three games per week from now until the end of the season could be a tall order for a squad of their size not to mention the lost revenue from these home games.
Just 12 months ago life looked so different for the club. After falling down from their Conference Premier league pomp, and finding themselves homeless, the club were hurtling towards promotion in the Ryman Premier North, playing at somewhere they could call home at the former ground of Ford United at Rush Green. Whilst it was a fair few miles away from their roots, it seemed to be somewhere that could be developed. Promotion was secured in the summer and then West Ham, being that generous community club that they are, decided to re-appropriate the ground at Rush Green to use for their Development Team, despite the promises made to Grays and the money they had spent to improve the facilities that had been neglected.
Grays went into this season with a groundshare with Aveley and for the first few games continued their promotion form, topping the table in September before their alarming slide down the table. Without a game for many weeks, the club did at least have the Ryman League cup run to fall back on which saw them ease into the semi-finals with wins against their landlords and then Chatham Town where Maidstone waited. Alas, any hopes of further glory were destroyed on the fantastic plastic at The Gallagher as the Stones ran out 6-0 winners on Tuesday night.
So what sort of team would The Rooks find when they made the trip across the Thames?I wish them well for the rest of the season of course but for tonight, Matthew, I’d like them to be tired and demoralised.
Grays Athletic 4 Lewes 2 – Mill Field – Thursday 27th February 2014
Alas Grays were neither tired nor demoralised. In fact they were positively flying as they dominated the first hour of this game. This wasn’t in the game plan as we arrived at Mill Field, one of the biggest grounds in English football. The footprint of the ground is huge, with a good 25 yards between the edge of the stands and the actual touch-line. Lewes tried to use the full width of the pitch, soon realising that it was almost as wide as it was long whilst Grays simply played the ball straight through the middle with better effect. 1-0. 2-0 (break for a cup of lovely soup in the board room) 3-0…it wasn’t going to be our night. Grays could even afford to field 37 year old Leroy Griffiths for the third time (only his 16th club of his long career), albeit sporting the cardinal footballing sin of a short-sleeve shirt and gloves.
I’m not going to mention that first fifty minutes anymore, suffice to say that the soup was the stand-out highlight! However, we did win that last forty minutes 2-1, and that’s what matters. Something clicked when we went 3-0 down and we sprung into life with Luke Blewden converting the best (and hardest) change he had of the evening and Jack Dixon scoring again. Thirty minutes to play and we had Grays on the ropes. Even Cynical Dave was on the phone to his bookie putting his ‘baccy money on a draw.
Alas it was not to be. Lewes huffed and puffed around the goal but found the Grays keeper in great form. Our two month unbeaten run had come to an end. With games against the top two coming in the next five days it was hardly the best preparation. But that’s why we love football. The unpredictability, the drama, the excitement, the chance to visit such places as Aveley on a Thursday night in February. Football was once again the winner.
After four weeks without a ball being kicked today looks like the day when we finally get to see some silky-smooth Lewes football. The Rooks have seen their last six games cancelled which now means they face 17 games in 8 weeks in March and April. Not that they are alone but it does reduce the concept of a league season from a marathon to a series of shuttle runs. In normal circumstances you wouldn’t bet against the teams with games in hand, but when you are forced to play 2 or 3 games a week most clubs would rather have the points in the bank.
However, you can never accuse the masters of our league of sitting on their hands and doing nothing. Oh no. This week they allowed VCD Athletic to play at home instead of away against Brentwood to avoid another cancellation (VCD sit top of the Ryman North with just the six games in hand over second place Soham Town Rangers). Respect.
Due to Bromley’s game scheduled for yesterday, our match against tenants Cray Wanderers had been shunted 24 hours later onto a Sunday. Now this was unusual. I had to consult with ClubSec Kev on the last time we played on a Sunday (Hendon away 2010). Personally I’m all up for Sunday games as it means I can slip in a bonus game on a Saturday – oh, sorry I meant do some scouting on the Saturday.
It was 40 years ago last month that league football (bar the Sunday League-type stuff) was held on a Sunday. Millwall may be called a lot of things, but trendsetters isn’t normally one. However, on Sunday 20 January 1974 The Lions welcomed Fulham at The Den in what was the first of a dozen games played on that day. On police advice the game was to kick off at 11.30am and admission was by buying a programme as it was illegal at the time to sell tickets for sporting events on a Sunday (one of the reasons at the time why Test cricket had a rest day) thanks to the Sunday Observance Act of 1780.
However it was really until the mid 1980′s that games were regularly played on a Sunday, when the first major TV rights deal was signed. ITV used to show a live game on a Sunday as part of the 2 year deal signed in 1983 for just over £5million, or 16 weeks of Wayne Rooney’s wages in modern monetary terms.
Time has moved on thankfully and Sunday’s now offer us all the same perks as the rest of the week. All day drinking, the ability to wash our cars on the drive (still outlawed in some European countries) and of course wall to wall football coverage on TV. It was therefore rude not to head to Weatherspoon’s at Bromley South, after getting the jet washer out, for a few beers with the Lewes Lunatic Fringe whilst watching Livorno v Hellas Verona on the big TV, followed by Rayo Vallecano v Sevilla and then the swift walk to Hayes Lane.
Cray Wanderers weren’t having the best of season’s. With four clubs due to be relegated this season they sat rock bottom coming into this game. They say it’s better to be in the gutter looking up at the stars than the other way round but that’s not a good look at the end of a Saturday night (apparently). The Non-Leagues today are full of examples of have and have nots. If the rumours are to be believed, one Kent-based club now has a weekly budget in excess of £5,000 per week which is crazy money at this level. Cray would simply love a place they could call their own home – a dream that every year takes one step forward and two steps back. Their latest attempts to get permission to move back to their homelands of the Cray Valley has met resistance from various factions.
Cray Wanderers 1 Lewes 5 – Hayes Lane – Sunday 23th February 2014
We can dress this game up any way you want but ultimately it was a walk in the park for Lewes. The fear we had walking to the ground from our colossal Sunday lunch and a few £2 (Two!) beers at Wetherspoons was that the players may have also indulged a little too much after the enforced break. Heck, it’s been so long since we say them play some may have even completed degrees with the Open University in Astrophysics.
But as the two teams lined up our fears subsided. Bromley FC has a strange beer zone in front of their main stand where you can consume a beverage. A row of tape and a steward marks the point where drinking is deemed acceptable and when it becomes a problem. In fact Bromley has more warning signs about not being allowed to do things than most Premier League grounds. My favourite is the warning about a “deep crevice” at one end of the ground. Picturesque as the ground is, it loves a queuing system as well with tape delineating the queue for food, beer and the toilets. Fun is OK, as long as it’s controlled and takes place between the line of tape
But we didn’t need tape or any silly rules about where we could and couldn’t drink because we had goals, and bags of them (assuming your bag could only hold a maximum of 4 goals). Ben Austin’s towering first half header from a Nicky Wheeler cross (“full-back not comfortable when wide player cuts inside” – tick) was merely the Hors d’oevres to a second half feast.
Luke Blewden doubled the lead with one of those near-post headers on the run that make even the most resolute fan punch the air in delight. Number three came from Jack Dixon’s penalty kick which had us scampering down the terraces to get an action shot and then Dixon scored his second with a screamer from the edge of the box. His early season goals had been vital in our challenge near the top so who’s to know what another purple patch could deliver now.
The fifth arrived when Sam Crabb played a neat one-two on the edge of the area, found some space and slotted the ball home. Cruel as it may be we urged the team on to score more, knowing that the home side were only 2 goals shy of conceding a hundred so far for the season.
A fine win, indeed the biggest win in the top 10 divisions of English football today, that saw us move up the table. With uncertainty still over what will happen with Maidstone if they finish in the top five, our eyes could start to turn to the playoffs if results over the next 10 days go our way. Best day ever.