“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” sang Billy Ocean back in 1986 (trivia fact for you – the BBC banned the video as stars Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito were not members of the right union) he was obviously talking about the pain and hardship us football fans have to go through to adjust to the end of the season. That crushing realisation that saying “But we are away at Leiston” or “That could possibly be a Parafix Sussex County Cup game” no longer gives us an alibi to doing the gardening, or dare I say it, visiting a Craft Fair. Someone, somewhere must be playing a game on a Saturday afternoon. It is just finding the right reason to go.
I genuinely though my season was over last weekend. What a way to go out, spending the day with the Budweiser girls at the FA Cup Final. But no, it appeared not. I had a pass for this Saturday too. London Broncos v Wigan Warriors did tickle my fancy, but my rule is “No Rugby League if there is any chance of football”. So I found myself on websites I have never heard of, let alone visited, which were viewable in the front room rather than my office, and didn’t require anonymous browser capabilities. Bingo. The Haarts Kent County Premier League. Final two games of the season, and would you believe it, one right on my doorstep.
Metrogas FC play no more than a Delap throw-in from TBIR Towers – perfect. Except when I investigated further it seemed that the pitch had been booked for a cricket match and a wedding so they were forced to look elsewhere. The nearest pitch that hadn’t already been ploughed or have a big fat Gypsy wedding on it was at Colney Hall FC, some 9 miles away. Still doable, especially as the background to the game gave it even more flavour.
Yes this was step 6 of the Non League Pyramid (step 11 in total) and some 3 steps below the level I am used to at Lewes but it promised to be an historic afternoon. Metrogas needed just a point from the game against visitors Fleet Leisure to secure the title and move up into the Kent Invicta Football League where they could look forward to derbies against Henry VIII’s Eltham Palace and Seven Acre & Sidcup. Rivalries run deep in SE9 I can tell you, as anyone who has been in the Beehive on a Friday night will testify. However, promotion and relegation aren’t as straight forward at this level and even if you don’t finish in top spot (or even in top four for that matter) you can apply to step up and may well be accepted.
I genuinely didn’t know what to expect in terms of facilities or attendance, but on both fronts I was very pleasantly surprised. Add in the presence of 5 (FIVE) Non League Dogs and you had a very impressive backdrop to the game. Even more impressive on arriving at Colney Hall was the fact it appeared to also double up as the Playboy Mansion of South East London (Have I mentioned I’ve been to the real Playboy Mansion before), based on the secret symbol within their club badge. The thought of slipping into the grotto was never in my mind. Instead I slipped into the very well appointed bar, scored a pint of Carlsberg and took my place on the half-way line ready for the final act in the Non League season to be played out.
Metrogas FC 1 Fleet Leisure 2 – Colney Hall – Saturday 18th May 2013
As the final whistle blew a few of the Metorgas players stood motionless, completely unbelieving of the fact they had failed to score in the final 45 minutes of the season. They tried, they can never be accused of not giving it 100% but through a combination of desperate defending, bad luck and some wayward balls delivered into the box, but in the end they fell achingly short. Hopefully they can take consolation of promotion via the backdoor but this defeat will still hurt. Especially as they literally handed Fleet Leisure all three points with two defensive lapses leading to the two goals.
You can read a match report here but a picture can tell a thousand words so here is a short story on the game and our last Non League action of the season. Roll on July and the start of our Pre-Season training.
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.
Yes, 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.
Whilst 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.
I 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.
At 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.
It 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.
All 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.
I truly hate the last day of the season. For many it is a time to celebrate, but being a West Ham and now a Lewes fan, the end of season is normally a time to reflect on a relegation season rather than winning anything (Play off final at Wembley last year accepted). But to me, after planning my games with military precision for the past nine months I have nothing to look forward to. What will I do next weekend (OK, apart from going to the FA Vase and Blue Square Bet Premier Play off Finals)? Or in June when the sun is shining? Cricket? Rugby League? Gulp, family days out at the seaside?
Once the last ball has been kicked I will be counting down the days until clubs start to announce pre-season fixtures. My objective of a 100-game season may fall just short this season but I will be back next season, fitter, stronger and willing to travel to even more obscure places to see a game. But hang on, this season still wasn’t quite over yet. The sword of relegation was still hanging over The Dripping Pan. With just one game to go, there was still one spot in the relegation zone left to be decided and Lewes were technically still a “relegation contender”. Granted it would have to take an extraordinary set of results to see that happen, but I look at the fact Titus Bramble is still a Premier League football to prove that football is a funny game and anything can happen. So for those unaware of the current situation, or my visiting colleague from the New York office, here was the low down.
In order for Lewes to be relegated (a concept that would take a few thousand words to explain to any US sports fan) we had to a) lose to Bury Town, b) see Carshalton Athletic win away at Enfield Town, and c) see a seven goal swing to Carshalton Athletic. Possible? Yes. Probable? Even with our poor performances this season, we hadn’t been thumped by anyone this season (well, apart from the 6-1 defeat to Wealdstone). So this wouldn’t be an end of season party, rather a slightly nervous 90 minutes, looking at our phones at events from North London.
Come match day and the traditional end of season sunshine had appeared from behind the rain. The pitch looked fantastic, just two weeks after the game against Leiston which should have been abandoned. Ironically this was to be Roger, the groundsman’s, last game in charge of the turf after what was a lifetime. Never a more loyal and passionate fan you could want to meet and it is volunteers like Roger (or Boysie who was stepping down as programme editor) that keep non league football alive. Thankfully Roger’s departure will mean we can play some decent pre-match music, especially as Ed Ramsden is still serving his three year ban from the PA system after trying to slip on one too many Fall songs earlier in the season (the actual number was of course one). So next season there will be a new man on the seat of the lawnmower and in the editor’s chair for the programme. Who they will be is yet to be revealed, although I have a pretty good idea who the latter will be (The Pan is Round is a catchy title, no?).
The bumper crowd were showing no nerves as they tucked into the Harvey’s. In fact this had the optimistic feel of a first game of the season, rather than the last. Bury Town arrived in Lewes with nothing but some pride to play for, knowing that they had once again shown the league they were not to be underestimated. Whilst not quite making a second successive play off spot (they beat us to 5th place last season by just 2 points), they have once again been there or there abouts in a tougher league.
Luge and Andy were certainly enjoying their afternoon, tucking into the Harvey’s to go along with the various fizzy pop beers they had sampled on the train on the way down. This was all new to Andy, being a native New Yorker and used to his sport featuring no meritocracy, a franchise-based system, cheerleaders and breaks in play every 3 1/2 minutes. He’d been to a “soccer” game before, back in November 2009 when he was last in the UK and we took him to see Millwall, but that can hardly be called football can it? Little did the two know that they were also Match Sponsors and thus had to choose the player of the game. Andy was in his element as he pulled out his calculator to start working out the shots/tackles/passing averages for each player, finally looking disappointed when we said we just give it to Nathan Crabb every week to save the hassle.
Lewes 2 Bury Town 3 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 27th April 2013
As the game entered injury time the packed Philcox Terrace broke into song. ”We are staying up, I said we are staying up”. A draw here, coupled with Carshalton’s draw at Enfield Town meant Premier League football was secure for another season. Or was it? A rumour went around the stand that the ever reliable NonLeagueLive.com website was wrong, and Carshalton were actually winning. And then Bury Town scored. All of a sudden it was down to goal difference. How many were the Robins winning by? Was there time for Bury to score one, two or even three more than would have relegated us? Thankfully no. The referee brought proceedings to an end. We were safe. Let the party start.
Should we really have been so happy though? We certainly didn’t anticipate a relegation fight at the start of the season, especially on the budget we set. We were massively hampered by injuries to Steve Robinson, Callum Dunne and Jack Walder in the spine of the team, and it took Nathan Crabb some months in the middle of the season to find his shooting boots. We drew and lost too many games, always seeming to be one goal away from a point or all three.
We started this game similar to the one on Tuesday night at Cray. Full of midfield invention but nothing reaching the front two. We should have been one up and playing ten men if it wasn’t for a linesman who nobody really understood what game he was watching. Lewes were awarded a penalty only for him to rule the ball had gone out of play when nobody else had seen it (including the defender tracking back) and then he failed to see a punch on Ben Godfrey right in front of him. In between those two events, Bury had taken the lead when, perfectly summed up by Deaksy, a hopeful toe poke found the top corner. One became two from the penalty spot soon after as Bury scored from the penalty spot. It appeared they hadn’t read the script.
Again, just like Cray, Lewes came out for the second period all guns blazing. A text-book header from Steve Brinkhurst in the first few minutes of the half raised the spirits in the ground, and when Callum Dunne got some part of his body to a Crabb effort on goal and diverted it into the net there was a genuine feeling we would go onto win the game. Chris Breach then took a very painful whack to the nose, soon leaving the pitch with blood pouring from the wound, only to appear minutes later with a bandage around the centre of his face. We didn’t laugh, honestly, and neither did any of his team mates.
So the final act of the season was Bury’s Sands scoring in injury time. And then it was all over. Time for the end of season awards. No surprises that Nathan Crabb picked up a couple and Chris Breach the Player of the Year. It was disappointing though that Jack Walder didn’t pick up one for worst dressed player, choosing to join in the end of season squad photo trying to look like Olly Murs.
For the players it was time for a night out. Club Sec Kev had put on his best cardigan for the occasion and would ensure that they stayed on the straight and narrow, handing out fines along the way. For the officials at the club the long process of planning for next season was already under way. Non league grounds like the Dripping Pan do not clean, paint or repair themselves and so we need to sort this out, along with the pre-season friendlies, the commercial contracts and of course the all important budget.
But finally the end of the season means that the fans can get to know their loved ones again, reduce their mobile phone bills and cut the grass on a Saturday afternoon. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? No, it is a living hell. These fine words, good enough almost for Kipling himself sum up what a season means to us fans…I hand you over for one last time this season to Charlie Dobres:-