To be fair there was a dozen or so titles I could have used for this mini-blog about my visit to watch South Park. Not since Rhubarb & Custard Rovers went bust back in 1978 has a football club spawned its own animated show. Not even the Oil and Gas billions of Chelsea and Manchester City led to the resurrection of a new series of Hong Kong Phoey or Top Cat (rumours that Barcelona have signed a deal to remake that as “Top Catalunya” are yet to be confirmed). According to the Buzzfeed website, the catchphrase in the title is the most recognised line in the animated sitcom that has been running for 18 series since the late 1990’s. Oh how the fans of Ryman League South side South Park must laugh every time visiting supporters leave. The club apparently still has a ban on signing players called “Kenny” for fear of their lives.
The football club’s trajectory has been at the expense of the TV show. There could only be the place for one South Park in the media and it was the time of the football club to claim their rightful mantle. Just ten years ago the club were playing in the Crawley & District League. They didn’t play their first national cup game, the FA Vase tie against Shoreham, until 2006 and five years ago entered the FA Cup for the first time. In 2014 they won promotion to the Ryman League and more than held their own in their debut season last year, mainly thanks to the goals of Chris Smith (34 goals) who had now joined tonight’s opponents, Burgess Hill Town.
One of the keys to their success is having a 7 day a week facility that is used by the community. Whilst the clubhouse sits a couple of hundred of yards from the ground, it is used for all hospitality for the club as well as a cricket pavilion and darts. Dare I say there was a fast shoe shuffled there a few nights a week too. For those who don’t know where South Park is then let me enlighten you. Head around the M25 to junction 8, follow signs to Reigate, navigate the one-way system and then head down the narrowest, twisty country lanes for 1.4 miles and you have arrived at your destination.
Tonight’s game was a bit of a bonus as it gave me the chance to have a little look at one of our opponents next season, Burgess Hill Town who swept all before them last season and judging by their pre-season acquisitions will be quite a proposition this season. Not that you can ever learn anything from friendlies, apparently.
South Park 1 Burgess Hill Town 4 – King George’s Field – Wednesday 29th July 2015
The one vital component in scouting a team is a team sheet. It’s all very well in the professional era where all of the players have names on their shirts, but at a Non-League level it is neigh on impossible to find out who is who unless you know the club well. Which I didn’t. Still you can look at formations and style of play – that is until they change that two or three times in the game. Still, I had a nice bottle of Hog’s Back Brewery TEA which more than made up for my almost blank sheet of paper at half time.
This really was a game of two halves. It also broke my run of twelve consecutive games where both teams had failed to score, a run that had taken me across the world and back. South Park started the brighter and took an early lead and had the better of the midfield exchanges in the first period, then after the break it was a different story as Burgess Hill changed things around and scored four goals which their dominance deserved.
Time will tell how far the South Park journey will go. For now they seemed very much at home in their little country pad, with an excellent community facility, looking to upset the bigger teams in the league.
It started out with a miss
How did it end up like this
It was only a miss, it was only a miss
At exactly 11am 258 days ago we boarded a train at Liverpool Street station, heading east to pastures new with hope in our hearts. The new season was upon us and after a disappointing previous campaign we had rebuilt in the summer and quite fancied ourselves for a shout at the play offs. Of course, putting my official hat on we were “confidently optimistic of an improvement on last season”, but as we know there are only four objectives any club really sets out to achieve every season.
“Consolidation” – means avoid relegation but at least keep the interest of the fans up until Easter then we can slash the budget
“Pushing on” – means we’ve increased the budget to what the management team wanted so they better reach the play offs
“Challenging” – we’ve mortgaged ourselves to the hilt and sacrificed our first born for promotion and don’t want to think about not going up
“Happy with our lot” – we really have no idea which of the three above apply
We wanted to “push on”. We increased the budget, we brought in two or three players that had other clubs and observers suggest we were dark horses in a league that would be dominated by the two big spenders in Maidstone United and Margate. When Luke Blewden opened scoring on a dust bowl of a pitch at the Village Glass Stadium in Witham back on the opening day with twenty minutes to play, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe were in full voice. But football is a fickle mistress. Five minutes later Witham equalised to snatch a point. Five games later and we had two points from a possible fifteen. Five more weeks on and we had been dumped out of the FA Cup back at the Village Glass Stadium. Five months later and we felt we needed to change the management team to give us some fresh impetus.
We looked for crumbs of comfort. We had games in hand. We seemed to be on the end of every poor refereeing decision dished out. We had injuries to our key on the pitch leaders. Our much heralded, long overdue 20 goals-a-season striker suddenly developed an irrational fear of shooting. Whilst we have the responsibility of governance of a football club owned by 1,000 plus people across the world, we are also first and foremost fans. We see what everyone who stands on The Jungle sees or who travels up and down the rail networks as part of the Lewes Lunatic Fringe. Sometimes it’s hard we represent the hopes, dreams and fears of that group. We want to believe things will turn out “alright in the end”.
Sometimes you need to take a step back to see the reality. Despite what we are led to believe in the movies, there are no happy endings in life, especially in football. We can look back at a dozen or more incidents in the season with the “what if?” question. What if we hadn’t given the ball away so cheaply in injury time against Harrow a few weeks ago leading to them scoring? What if we had a competent referee in the home game against AFC Hornchurch who would admit he made a mistake in the lead up to their opening goal? What if Elliot hadn’t been sent off away to Canvey Island when we were in control of a 1-0 lead? What if is a game that any football fan can play for ever.
No one connected with the club expected our longest and last away journey of season to be so vital, even a few weeks ago. Destiny is always in our hands for the most part of the season, and our recent run of poor results has coincided with two of the four “dead and buried” teams going on championship runs. We imagined today’s visit to the picturesque Ram Meadow in Greene King country being a shorts and t-shirt day, looking forward to a decent drink and a mellow reflection on the season. Instead we go dressed for wind, rain and 90 minutes of keeping one eye on results elsewhere.
As an owner of Lewes Community Football Club I’m invested in the future of the team, both on and off the pitch. However, as Chairman I have to be 100% invested in what happens today. If results don’t go our way will it be catastrophic in the long term for the club? Probably not, but it will sure hurt and I have to bear some of the responsibility for that. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes being a fan can make you see things differently. If we get what we need today the euphoria will be short-lived. Yes, we did the short-term job, but what about our original goals for the season? We certainly haven’t progressed for a number of reasons that collectively aren’t any one persons fault. As a member of the elected board of directors we all have to shoulder the blame and responsibility. Time for reflection will come in due course.
For those who have been Lewes followers for a few seasons will know the drill by now. Five years ago we were dead and buried in the Conference South with five games to go. Somehow we managed to give ourselves a shot at survival on the final say, needing a win at Hampton and Richmond Borough. Nearly 150 Lewes fans descended on the Beveree that day to see The Rooks grab a 2-1 win and survive. Two years ago we needed at least a point as we trailed Cray Wanderers in injury time away to give ourselves hope of survival. The scenes when Nathan Crabb equalised will long live in the memory of the hundred or so fans at Hayes Lane that night. Few will remember the two games after that where we played for nothing more than a few more points for respectability.
But back to today. As our train passed the Village Glass Stadium on its way to Bury St Edmunds, via Ipswich, we raised a plastic cup of Jaipur to those halcyon days of summer and for one brief five minute spell where we saw a season full of 3 point away days, flowing football and an end of season promotion party.
This was to be our last league visit to Bury Town for the foreseeable future. Relegation had already been assured some weeks ago but instead of rolling over and sacking off for the rest of the season, they’ve started putting in some decent performances. In fact, in the current form tables Bury rank higher than Dulwich Hamlet and Margate. We certainly weren’t arriving expecting any favours. We knew that 3 points was our prize. We congregated in the Old Cannon brewery, just a five minute stroll from the ground. The mood was quietly confident. If it wasn’t for the need for three points this would be the best away day ever.
The final pre-match thought as we entered the delightful Ram Meadow come from Lewes-born US firebrand Tom Paine, which adorns the home team dressing room at The Dripping Pan “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”
Bury Town 0 Lewes 2 – Ram Meadow – Saturday 25th April 2015
With 5 minutes plus stoppages to go we heard the news that Peacehaven & Telscombe had lost 4-2 meaning our safety was assured. Lewes had dominated the game, scoring twice and retaining possession for the best part of 85 minutes. Rikki Banks could have joined us on the sideline for a pint from our hosts Beer festival and still kept a clean sheet. Two goals made by Nicky Wheeler, scored by Elliott Romain and Henry Muggeridge saw the Rooks home. The travelling fans basked in the Suffolk sunshine and celebrated with the players at the final whistle. Game over, job done.
3:09 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 1 Hampton & Richmond Borough 0 – Lewes drop into the relegation zone on goals scored
3:11 – Canvey Island 0 Wingate & Finchley 1 – Lewes climb to 19th as Canvey fall into bottom 4
3:18 – Tonbridge Angels 1 Dulwich Hamlet 0 – As you are
3:22 – Tonbridge Angels 1 Dulwich Hamlet 1 – No changes
3:22 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 0 – Nervous looks around the terrace
3:23 – Bury Town 0 Lewes 1 – Elliott Romain’s goal sends us up to 16th, Canvey still in bottom 4
3:27 – Leatherhead 0 Harrow Borough 1 – Harrow leapfrog Lewes into 16th
3:33 – Canvey Island 0 Wingate & Finchley 2 – Fat lady starting to sing at Canvey Island
3:35 – Canvey Island 1 Wingate & Finchley 2 – Nope, it was a whale in the Thames Estuary, sending VCD into the bottom 4
So at half-time the bottom of table looked like:-
16th – Harrow Borough 53pts (-13)
17th – Lewes 53pts (-23)
18th – Tonbridge Angels 52pts (-4)
19th – Peacehaven & Telscombe 51pts (-24)
20th – Canvey Island 50pts (-18)
21st – VCD Athletic 50pts (-19)
22nd – Witham Town 42pts (-22)
23rd – AFC Hornchurch 39pts (-23)
24th – Bury Town 32pts (-50)
Surely the second period couldn’t throw up as many twists and turns, could it? Well, how about:-
4:03 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 1 – Charlie Moone…of course Charlie Moone. No changes at the bottom though.
4:11 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 2 – Now this is interesting
4:12 – Bury Town 0 Lewes 2 – Muggeridge’s peach of a header gives us breathing space
4:12 – Canvey Island 2 Wingate & Finchley 2 – What a 90 second period – Canvey on a roll, Peacehaven wobbling
4:17 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 3 – What on earth is going on down there? Peacehaven fall back into bottom four
4:17 – Canvey Island 3 Wingate & Finchley 2 – The reverse comeback at Canvey Island..Only Peacehaven in the group of relegation candidates now losing
4:27 – Tonbridge Angels 1 Dulwich Hamlet 2 – Worrying glances at what’s going on at Peacehaven from the Angels
4:39 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 4 – All over bar the shouting as Peacehaven will have to score 3 times and hope that Bury or Wingate can muster two goals.
4:40 – Tonbridge Angels 2 Dulwich Hamlet 2 – Angels can party as it will take a miracle for them to go down
4:42 – VCD Athletic 1 Billericay Town 0 – VCD leave it late but that should put the final nail in the Peacehaven coffin
4:44 – VCD Athletic 2 Billericay Town 0 – And relax
So final table looks like:-
16th – Harrow Borough 53pts (-13)
17th – Canvey Island 53pts (-16)
18th – VCD Athletic 53pts (-17)
19th – Lewes 53pts (-22)
20th – Tonbridge Angels 52pts (-4)
21st – Peacehaven & Telscombe 48pts (-27)
22nd – Witham Town 42pts (-22)
23rd – AFC Hornchurch 39pts (-23)
24th – Bury Town 32pts (-50)
There wasn’t the same elation as we saw at THAT game at Hampton & Richmond Borough all those years ago, but the trip back to Liverpool Street was a lot more pleasant than the trip up. That was until when we looked forward three weeks to the Sussex Senior Cup final at The Amex against Whitehawk. Objective number 1 achieved. Hope had delivered.
This week I’m on the road with The Rooks, making the relatively short journey to the fantastic Gallagher Stadium, home of Maidstone United. Turn right out of TBIR Towers, left onto the A20 and 25 mins later I’m pulling up outside The Flower Pot, one of the best little real ale pubs in Kent for a quick pre-match strategy session with the Lewes Lunatic Fringe before I head into the boardroom at The Gallagher Stadium.
You may be disappointed to know that I’m not “suited and booted”. As I approached the gate I was looked up and down and expected to be ushered towards the turnstiles due to my dress code. The world has moved on in most places, and the sight of directors in jackets and ties is relatively rare these days, something that has mirrored real life and especially at The Dripping Pan. I’ve worn a tie once in just over a year for work purposes and on that occasion it lasted about an hour. Most companies now have a more relaxed dress code, with ties today becoming a more fashionable item to wear around the wrist than the neck, thanks to the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. I fail to see why wearing a tie makes me more acceptable as a club official, a sentiment shared by everyone else on the Lewes board. One club in our league insist on the stuffy dress code to enter their boardroom. One or two give you a funny look when you wander in in jeans but don’t say anything but most give you a warm, hospitable welcome irrespective of what you are wearing. Not that we are a scruffy bunch, mind. So once you have passed the dress code test, what actually happens in the inner sanctum at other clubs?
Some clubs put on hot food pre-match, others offer a decent fayre post match (nods to East Thurrock United, Billericay Town and Leiston in that area). Pre-match talk will be centred on recent form, perhaps a brief fact-finding interrogation about budgets (as ours are published on our website we don’t have to resist for long) or the good-old British conversation staple of the weather. Half-time is a time for inflection, a cup of tea and shaking you head at the latest scores. Nobody wants to be too cocky at this stage, irrespective of the score “just in case”. Full-time is about putting on your noncommittal, neutral game face irrespective of the result. A win and you need to hide the smug grin. A defeat and you need to hide your disappointment, blaming it on the ref. I’ve yet to be offered a cigar and only once been given a brandy.
You don’t get a guidebook on how to be a chairman. I’m lucky that I have chairman mentors in two generations of Parris’s and Peter Hiscox who have coached me in what to say and when. There is a whole lexicon of boardroom speak. When asked if I’d like a beer before the game, you should say “No thank you. I want to stay sharp just in case I need to come on!” (then laugh out loud). You need to remember to shake everyone’s hand when you arrive, and when you leave, not forgetting to wish them well for the rest of the season. If you are visiting a club where you have had problems in the past then you should talk about the weather, how bad the England cricket team is and whether Man Utd are a spent force (unless of course you are in the boardroom at Old Trafford).
Few would have thought a few weeks ago that The Rooks would be travelling to The Gallagher Stadium with a better current form record than The Stones. In the last four Ryman Premier League games, the Rooks can boast two wins and a draw, whilst Maidstone United, like the other teams at the top of the league are on a bit of a wobble. Draws against Leiston and Harrow Borough, a defeat against Hampton & Richmond Borough with just a single win against Billericay Town. Is there a better time to visit the league leaders?
Despite their current form, the league title appears to be theirs to lose. Who can really deny them their success after over twenty years of struggle. Eight points clear of Margate and due to play their nearest rivals in an already sold-out game at The Gallagher in two weeks time, many will feel a win in that game will be one hand on the trophy.
Where there’s time, there’s hope, and with 90 minutes ahead of us that’s the best we can wish for. The Stones have only lost once at home this season, a 3-0 reverse to Enfield Town who ironically recorded the same result last week at Margate. That has been the only home game so far this season where they’ve failed to score in and they have the best home record in the Ryman Premier League. They average 2.17 goals per game at home, conceding less than 1. The Rooks on the other hand have struggled away from home this season, taking just 11 points on the road, the second worse record in the Ryman Premier League. Our 11 away goals is the lowest total out of all 24 clubs. It’s not hard to draw a depressing conclusion from these stats, but football is a beautifully unpredictable game.
Maidstone United 2 Lewes 1 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 14th March 2015
In the end, Lewes left the pitch pointless. Up until the 75th minute this result was never in doubt, despite the home side rarely getting into third gear. Two May goals, both tapped home from a few yards were early Christmas presents for the home side but then a late rally, thanks to a superb free-kick from James Fraser made the last fifteen minutes interesting for the away fans and very nervous for the 1,950 home fans.
The afternoon started very well – a visit to the Flower Pot was, as expected, superb. They only had 10 guest beers on tap. As we left we expressed our regret at this being our last visit for a few years due to Maidstone’s pending promotion. “Don’t worry lads – we’ve got a beer festival with even more guest beers on in late July”. As chairman, I have now arranged a friendly here for that date.
The welcome in the boardroom was warm. The lovely ladies who were looking after us, once I had managed to convince them I was chairman, quipped I must be the money man as I didn’t look like a former player. We were wined (well tea’d) and dined (biscuited) and then it was kick off time. You cannot fail to be impressed by the Gallagher and the passionate fans inside. This isn’t a Ryman Premier set up – in fact it is hard to imagine it in the Conference South. There are League One and Two clubs that would die for the facilities (obviously, less the pitch) and passion the Maidstone fans show.
Despite injuries,suspensions and absences, Lewes battled well in the first twenty-five minutes, adapting to the pitch well and playing a passing game. Heck, we should have even taken the lead when Matt Crabb’s shot almost saw the Lewes faithful drop their pints of Whitstable Bay Oyster Stouts (another tick in the box). Then a dangerous free-kick flew into the Lewes box, keeper Rikki Banks came flying out and was a second too late getting in front of a Maidstone player who headed on and May had the easiest job of tapping into an empty net. It was disappointing that the Maidstone player didn’t get down on all fours and head it home, just like you used to in the playground before you got a kicking for being so cheeky.
Lewes went two down in the 52nd minute when May once again tapped home from three yards out after a great cross from Collin had eluded the Lewes defence. Time to tighten things up? Not really. Faint heart won no fair maiden so they went onto the offensive. With fifteen minutes to go James Fraser stuck a beautiful free kick into the top corner and all of a sudden Maidstone started to wobble. Worgan was the busier of the two keepers and made a couple of good stops. However, the home side hung on for all three points. There was no shame in losing this one, and the Rooks showed some real fight.
We headed back to the boardroom, shook hands with our victors, craning our heads to look at the results flowing through on Sky Sports. “How about Dulwich Hamlet, eh?” was the standard line as everyone came into the room. Homemade pea and mint soup, a bottle of Spitfire and a trip down memory lane to the dark days at Watling Street were the order of the day before it was time to depart.
Obviously we wish Maidstone every success in the future. Their fans have been through the mill, sticking by them and now reaping the reward. But we will miss this away day – it never fails to deliver on every level (apart from the result of course).