Every Non-League team dreams of a run in the FA Cup. The chance to take on a Football (or even Premier) League side, the presence of national media around the club and the chance to bask in the limelight for a period of time. There will be few football fans outside of Exeter, and probably Runcorn, who won’t have enjoyed seeing Warrington Town humble Football League Two Exeter City live in the BBC last night. The media lapped it up. “Plucky little Warrington”, “Goal scored by plasterer Craig Robinson”, “part-timers” we’re all common phrases being bandied about as the game progressed.
Nobody can begrudge the club their payday. The win over Exeter was their third consecutive 1-0 home victory in the competition, along the way beating teams in a higher division in each case including Conference North pre-season favourites North Ferriby United. The game was a 2,500 sell out and with the money from the BBC to televise the game, the club will have received over £50,000 getting to this stage of the competition. But is the money always a blessing for Non-League clubs?
The big challenge Warrington face is to try to get some of those local fans back in two weeks time when they host Radcliffe Borough in the Evostik Premier League North match, and those league games beyond that. So far this season only around 150 come to Cantilever Park to watch games. A big cash injection is never a bad thing at this level but the challenge is to try and use it to encourage more fans to come back. Warrington’s challenge is three-fold.
Firstly, they have to compete every Saturday with fans heading along the M62 to either Liverpool or Manchester to watch the Reds or the Blues. One of the positive factors that televised football has brought the game is when some of the Premier League games are moved to a Sunday or Monday night, the local Non-League teams can try to take advantage of those fans who still want to go to a 3pm Saturday kick off. This is one of the reasons why some clubs offer discounted entry for season ticket holders at bigger clubs, although in truth if you can afford the £700 plus ticket at Old Trafford or Anfield you are hardly likely to grumble at paying the tenner to get in at Cantilever Park.
Secondly, they are located in an overcrowded area of Non-League clubs of similar sizes. Within a twenty-minute drive there are over a dozen teams playing at the same level or just above Warrington. It is rare that Non-League leopards change their spots and so they will be fighting a losing battle trying to win these fans hearts and minds.
Finally they have the biggest challenge. Warrington is a Rugby League town, home of the The Wolves, one of the most successful modern era clubs who play in the 15,000 Halliwell Jones Stadium in the town. They tend to be very different sets of fans despite the fact that there is only an overlap of the two respective seasons for a couple of months each year.
Unfortunately, it is not always the case that Non-League clubs who benefit from a great FA Cup run can translate that into ongoing success in the league. The last headline club who did Non-League football proud in the FA Cup was Hastings United back in 2012/13. They reached the third round, finally losing to Middlesbrough at The Riverside in front of 12,500 fans. However, the cup run was to be the club’s undoing in the league as the fixture pile up caused by playing the FA Cup games and subsequent bad weather meant that they had to play 13 league games in just 28 days. With the transfer window for Non-League clubs closed, and league officials who had enjoyed riding on the coat-tails of the club’s success now cocking a deaf ear, Hastings buckled under the sheer weight of pressure and were relegated. Two seasons on and they have still not returned.
Forty years ago the Non-League team to hit the FA Cup headlines was Leatherhead FC who made it all the way to the Fourth Round, where they lost 3-2 to Leicester City at Filbert Street in front of the Match of the Day cameras. Along the way they beat Colchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion, and were leading The Foxes 2-0. Back then, when football wasn’t a 24 hours 7 day a week “in your face” event, the heroics of that Isthmian League side was headline stuff.
Today, Leatherhead are back in the same division as they were in 1974. They enjoyed some more of the limelight in 1978 when they reached Wembley in the FA Trophy final, losing to Altrincham but since then they have floated around the Isthmian leagues without being able to climb any higher. As with most of the cases of the “giant killers”, the revenue earned from the cup run didn’t lead to success on the field. Twenty five years after their cup exploits the club came close to folding, only saved by the actions of a group of fans who once again proved that Fan Ownership is the only real sustainable model for Non-League clubs.
Talking of Fan Ownership, who were Leatherhead’s visitors today? None other than the mighty Rooks, who were on their best run of form so far this season, coming off the back of two consecutive wins. We haven’t had a lot to shout about this season down at The Dripping Pan but things are changing. A new formation, some inspirational experienced players coming back into the team and fans who were behind the management 100% meant that we arrived in the rain at The Tanners with strutting confidence.
Leatherhead 0 Lewes 1 – Fetcham Grove – Saturday 8th November 2014
We came, we saw and we got very very wet. In front of the biggest away support so far this season the Rooks put on the kind of battling display that had been missing for so long in 2014. A change to 3-5-2 prior to the Met Police game worked wonders at the Dripping Pan but here it appeared to be ineffective in the first half against a confident Leatherhead team who passed the ball around well. The Tanners looked to stretch the game, trying to nullify the threat of Sam one and Sam two as our flying wing backs. The home side hit the inside of the post after twenty minutes which seemed to shake the Rooks into life and from that moment they never looked back.
Some comedy rolling around on the floor by the Leatherhead players did the job of conning the referee, who wasn’t helped by inept performances by his assistants who couldn’t have been anymore unhelpful in letting the game flow. Petty, niggly free-kicks sucked the life out of the game in the first half. Perhaps I was just in a bad mood as I had dropped my chips on the floor.
As the second half started, so did the rain. When it passed from torrential to monsoon setting, most of the 40-strong Lewes fans headed for the covered terrace, leaving the hardcore LLF on behind the goal. Our dedication was rewarded on the hour mark when Sam 1 (Crabb) beat his man on the right, crossed to the penalty spot where Sam 2 (Cole) met the ball on the volley and gave Louis Wells absolutely no chance.
Lewes started to take control of the game and always looked the more dangerous side, although some superb defending from Rowe, Elphick and Banks ensured that the Rooks goal went unbreached for another game. The final whistle was greeted with fist pumps, back slaps and even a hug or two. In the grand scheme of things it was only 3 points, but for Lewes it was another step towards redemption.
Forty years is literally a lifetime in football. Whilst both sets of fans looked on enviously at East Thurrock United’s result at Hartlepool United in the FA Cup, we knew that our time will come once again. For now, it was all about the magic of the Isthmian League. Cup football is so over rated anyway….
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).
However, 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.
After 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.
One 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.
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.
Today, 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).
Whilst 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.
And 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.