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.
There are some teams that whenever you play them, there is always something to talk about. Games between Lewes and Hampton & Richmond Borough can never be classed as dull and today was no different. Just six games into the season and the game between The Beavers and The Rooks was already being classed as a “six-pointer”. Both sides found themselves in the bottom four coming into this game. That certainly wasn’t in the plan for both sides at the start of the season. But then again, if life was predictable, we wouldn’t need bookmakers.
We’ve seen sending offs galore between the two sides, last minute winners, relegation-saving goals and strikes that would have won goal of the season if it was in the Premier League. Today, we would have swapped all of that drama for a dull 1-0 away win. Irrespective of the result, it would be one of the better away trips of the season.
Hampton & Richmond Borough 2 Lewes 1 – The Beveree – Saturday 30th August 2014
In the past few weeks we’ve been left ruing some bizarre refereeing decisions that have had a direct impact on our poor start to the season. Today, once again there was some poor officiating although none of the decisions could be said to have ultimately impacted the result. The Rooks only came to life when Hampton & Richmond’s full-back Ben Osman was sent off for a second yellow with twenty minutes to go.
Both sides looked nervous in the opening period with few chances on goal that worried either keeper. In fact the highlight of the first half was finding out they had garlic mayonnaise to put on the chips – such refinement is sadly lacking at Non-League grounds these days. But all of that changed within seconds of the restart when Lewes’s winger, Nick Wheeler was adjudged to have handled the ball on the edge of the area. Most of the crowd didn’t see the offence although the linesman was pretty quick in raising his flag. Of course it was Charlie Moone who stepped up and slotted the spot kick into the corner. Moone seems to have scored in every game he has every played against Lewes. In fact on the train on the way down I discussed the odds we could get on him as first goalscorer, that is if I was allowed to bet on football still.
One became two soon after when left-back Wells was allowed to head home unmarked. The day was going from bad to worse. But then, a ray of hope as Ollie Rowe pulled one back and then Osman was sent packing. Could we fashion another dramatic result at the Beveree?
Ten minutes later, Nathan Crabb got to the byline and pulled the ball back to Terry Dodd. Five yards out and Dodd managed not only to fail to hit the target but managed to clear the pretty high stand behind the goal. I repeat, from five yards. Hampton were now hanging on, although using as many time-wasting tactics as possible. Last season, the FA, under instruction from FIFA, instructed referees to only stop the game for an injury if it was clearly serious or a head injury. Yet today the referee kept stopping play every time a Hampton player rolled around on the floor. If we can be bothered to understand the rules then surely they can too.
With a few minutes to go Elliott Romain was wrestled to the floor by Hampton full-back Wells. Then, right in front of the “assistant” referee, they had a tussle that quickly escalated to a 18 man brawl. The officials completely lost control of the situation and it took a couple of players from each side (one being the Lewes keeper) to restore order. Wells was yellow carded as too was Romain, yet the original offence was worthy of a booking alone. In which case, what exactly did Romain do? A picture tells a thousand words so make what you will of this…
Alas, for all the bluster it wasn’t enough. A fifth consecutive defeat for Lewes was our reward for the long journey. You make your own luck in football, so they say but someone needs to tell us the recipe!