The end of a football season is a day of mixed emotions. For some fans there will be the euphoria of promotion, the nervousness of not wanting to be totally embarrassed playing at a higher level next season, whilst for others there is the dread of relegation, the gnarling feeling that your team is too good to go down and that immediate promotion is so much of a certainty they may as well not relegate you at all. For the vast majority of us though it is simply a time to breathe a big sigh of relief that another campaign of broken dreams and false hope has ended. “Next season, it will be all so different” we tell ourselves, knowing deep down that apart from the odd result here and there, it wont be any different at all. In fact it will be exactly the same, with only the players names being different.
In the Non-League world we have the added concern about whether the club we support will still be going come August. In the past nine months a number of teams have simply given up mid-season, realising there is no future for them. Spare a thought for the Eastwood Town or Rye United fans who would have started the season will hope in their hearts only to see the club they loved vanish before the first signs of Spring. You can’t be a glory hunter in the grass roots game that’s for sure.
Today was my last visit to the Dripping Pan for the season (for footballing reasons anyway). With a work trip taking across the Atlantic next weekend, the visit of Bury Town would be my sign-off for the season. The lot of being a Director of the club however, does mean I will still be involved in the club every day of the Summer break. And what a Summer it promises to be. We have some big plans this year, plans that will hopefully see us start the long climb back up the Non-League pyramid. For us at Lewes it has been all about stability in the past few years, picking up the pieces of the broken Non-League dreams of our fathers and patiently gluing them back together to make sure they don’t shatter again. Get the off the field stuff right and on the field it will click into place.
Our season has been no different to 75% of the rest of the Ryman Premier League clubs. We have had high points – a fourteen game unbeaten start to the season gave us all hope that this season could be the one, followed by six weeks without a game due to the weather that ultimately decided our fate. A mad March saw us having to play nine games, including matches against the six of the top seven in the division with a heavy injury list. Things got so bad that it was nearly time for me to polish up the Puma Kings. But our Premier League survival was ensured mathematically a week or so ago meaning that we would be living to fight another day next season.
Planning for the end of season period starts around Christmas time. We need to ensure we have budgeted for all the essential work that needs to take place around the ground, including the pitch. Many fans forget that we have zero income from the end of April to July when we start selling Season Tickets, yet costs are still incurred. The land grab of trying to find a “big” club to come down and play in a pre-season friendly often starts a year in advance, and this year, without mentioning any names, we think we have pulled the golden rabbit out of the hat – I would say more but fear for my life from the wrath of Garry Wilson. A game against a big name side can generate a huge amount of cash for a Non-League club – a crowd of even 1,500 paying an average of £10 (inc food and programme) would be enough to bring in two or three more decent players for a season. Yet it is the hardest job in the world to get any of the big clubs interested – they probably received dozens, if not hundreds of requests to play against Non-League teams every season, each one as deserving on paper as the next.
There’s no better place to watch a game when the sun is shining than at The Dripping Pan, and with Brighton not having a game today the hope was a decent attendance. Sure, there was nothing to play for but pride and a mid-table league position, but at least there are no dodgy dealings going on akin to a Biscotto, the Italian term used for convenient drawn games at end of season which hinders neither side. Our attendances this season had fallen in the past two months with so many midweek home games but still we would finish the season with an average just over 500 – a figure higher than more than 60% of the teams playing in the Conference North/South.
Everyone was looking forward to the game. After the win in midweek this was a banker walk in the park. And then our mood changed. At the side of the pitch was Patrick Marber. The doom-monger. The curse of the Lewes win. If we had any sense we would have left there and then and headed down the road to Whitehawk for the afternoon. His track record of not seeing us win this season played on all of our minds. Despite his place in the Lewes Hall of Fame somewhere in the past few years he had brought a curse across the Pan whenever he visited. Dave suggested we all pissed on him to remove the spell and had to be forceably stopped dropping his trousers on the Jungle as the game kicked off.
Lewes 1 Bury Town 4 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 19th April 2014
After 30 minutes there wasn’t anyone in the ground who thought this wasn’t going to be our day. Winning one-nil thanks to Joel Ledgister’s sixteenth minute headed goal, and Rikki Banks having saved a harshly-awarded penalty when the Bury forward ducked his head into Malins clearance, it was the best day ever. The sun was shining, the Harvey’s was a perfect temperature and even Patrick Marber was admitting the curse had been lifted. And then it went wrong.
Just before half-time Bury Town’s Wales stumbled into the area, picked up a deflection or two and manage to stab the ball passed Banks to equalise. It hadn’t been the best of halves, enlightened only by the goal, penalty save and the heated debate between Marber and Lord Plumpton about the fact both held the same Golden Goal ticket.
If the first half was low on excitement then the second was utterly forgettable, at least for the Rooks. Ten minutes in and Allen smashed the ball into the roof of the net to put the visitors into the lead. Five minutes later and the referee was once again called into action to make a big decision, this time deeming Jack Dixon’s tackle on Bennett was late and dangerous, although the influence of the two Bury centre-backs who ran 70 yards to give their opinion seemed to sway his opinion that is was a straight red and not just a yellow.
The goal meant Lewes had to throw on the not fully fit Nathan Crabb up front and pull Blewden into midfield. Bury simply stepped up a gear and scored two more without the Rooks ever threatening the visitors goal. Chants went from “sack the board” to “say away Marber”. But like water of a duck’s back he vowed to be back next week for the visit of Leiston.
It was a disappointing end to my Dripping Pan season but I would be back (well, I have to as we have bi-weekly Board Meetings) next season, which would undoubtably be the best season ever.
I’m heading towards Braintree on the A120 when I decide to engage my teenage daughters in polite conversation. Of course, being plugged into the Apple grid they huff and puff as they have to take out their earphones. “You know what Braintree is famous for?” I ask them. Within seconds they have Googled the answer and Littlest Fuller tells me to “Smack my bitch up, you Firestarter”. Yep, I walked into that trap didn’t I? The answer I was looking for was it was the ancestral home of John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, rather than the town that spawned The Prodigy.
The plan today had originally been to head to Yorkshire for an afternoon as a Brighton fan at The McAlpi..doh…Galpha..sorry John Smiths in Huddersfield. But eyebrows were raised by CMF, who politely pointed out the fact that “20 out of the next 30 days out of the country and you still decide to spend a bloody Bank Holiday driving 4 hours each way to watch a game involving two teams you care nowt about”. Granted, she did have a point and so I agreed to take the family shopping. “What about a designer outlet place? There’s one in Essex, only an hour away called Braintree Freeport”. “Braintree, as in Braintree Town?” She’s quick is CMF. “Erm, I think so”, “And I bet they are playing today aren’t they?”…Plan rumbled, but accepted. You shall go to the ball Cinderella, albeit one at the Working Mens Club rather than the Palace.
With just three games left in the Skrill Conference Premier, three of the four Play-off spots are still up for grabs. With Cambridge United confirmed as runners-up to Luton Town, five teams could realistically say they were still in with a shout at a shot at a place in the Football League. Four of the five had Football League pedigree, albeit in Gateshead’s case it was over fifty years ago since they failed to gain re-election. The fifth was Braintree Town. And next week, on the final day of the season, the five (plus Cambridge United) all play each other. No pressure at all then on today’s game.
When we last visited the Amlin Stadium (then Cressing Road) back in 2009 it was relatively basic for the Conference South. Five years on and a new stand had been added at one end of the ground in order to pass the ‘A’ Ground Grading meaning that they could host Football League games but it still retains that Non-League feel. There is space behind the south stand for expansion as well as land to the west. Talk of a new stadium off the A120 has disappeared although should they reach the promised land it would undoubtably return. Average crowds of less than 1,000 suggest that it may be an investment too far, but when was logic ever applied to football clubs (George Reynolds and Darlington anyone?).
Should the Iron reach the Football League they would join a small band of clubs who play in towns with a population of less than 45,000. Accrington (35,000), Morecambe (33,000) and Fleetwood (25,000) are all towns that support clubs who have risen through the Non-Leagues although it is still possible that either Accrington Stanley or Morecambe could well return back there this season. Braintree’s rise hasn’t been fueled by a rich benefactor in the case of Fleetwood Town but by hard graft and a manager who knows a thing or two about the game.
Alan Devonshire is a TBIR legend. We’ve met him on numerous occasions since he dazzled English football as a flying winger for West Ham back in the 1980′s through to his stint as manager at Hampton & Richmond Borough. Always willing to have a chat about football after the game over a beer, he doesn’t hold a grudge or any bitterness that his International career was curtailed by a serious knee injury, or that manager’s at clubs in the 92 haven’t had to learn their apprenticeship the same way he has, starting Maidenhead United fifteen years ago. He took over at Braintree Town in the summer of 2011 after the club had won the Conference South and has kept them in the top half of the table for the last two seasons. But this year could be the year that they move to the next level.
The visitors Dartford had their eyes on Premier League safety. After a horrendous run of ten consecutive league defeats in late 2013, Dartford have had to fight against the spectre of relegation. With a week of the season to go they were still in the bottom four, with a gaping goal difference that could be the deciding factor. The indulgence in chocolate over Easter would have to be put on hold for a few days yet.
With the female Fullers safely deposited at Braintree Freeport I walked to the ground, passing a police cordon (apparently someone was murdered close to the ground on Thursday night) and joined a long queue of fans at the turnstiles. Had football fever ignited the locals? Was Devonshire the true Firestarter? Which manager would be able to Breathe easily? With both teams desperate for a win for completely different reasons it was bound to be a dull scoreless draw.
Braintree Town 1 Dartford 0 – The Amlin Stadium – Friday 18th April 2014
As the game entered the 94th minute and the home side holding onto their one goal lead, Dartford threw the ball into the box once again. Suarez (Mikel alas not Luis) saw his shot deflected away by Iron keeper Hamann diving to his right. The rebound went straight to Jim Stevenson who forced a second outstanding save and potentially three points that would bring ultimate joy to Braintree and despair to Dartford. A Darts fan behind me turns to his mate “I’d rather we go down than bankrupt ourselves chasing an unsustainable dream”.
It wasn’t a classic, with some interesting tactics deployed by both teams that lead to frustration both on the bench and on the terraces. Braintree liked to get the ball wide but virtually every single cross into the penalty area was played over the lone striker to the far post where there was no one attacking the ball. Dartford on the other hand kept playing the ball through the middle where the two Braintree centre-backs snaffled out any threat. Either instructions from the respective benches were not getting through or they simply didn’t see the error of their ways.
The Braintree fans weren’t big in number but made themselves heard in the covered terrace that ran along the side of the pitch. Whilst the early possession gave them something to cheer about it took 25 minutes before the roof was raised when Kenny Davis picked the ball up 25 yards out and struck the ball sweetly, giving Alan Julian in the Dartford goal no chance.
At this time of the season fans are easily distracted by what is happening elsewhere. Standing between the two sets of fans I was getting the stories from both ends of the table. One set of fans were bemoaning the events unfolding at Alfreton Town where the Grimsby Town team coach had been delayed in traffic. “S’not right innit” said one. “They’ve got a competitive advantage ain’t they?”. “I reckon they should stop our game until they catch up” (which would have meant a delay of around 40 minutes). Of course our mastermind had forgotten the fact that Braintree play at 5:15 away at Barnet on Monday night, thirty minutes after all of their rivals games have finished.
Going back to the issue of the ground. The official attendance was 1,200 – boosted by a fair contingent from Dartford, but it did seem that the club struggled. Long queues to get in, get food, programmes sold out, a 15 minute wait for a beer at half-time. Whilst you can never deny a club a place at a higher level, the fans will notice a massive difference in their match-day experience. The club will have to jump through more hoops and comply to more rules (no changing ends at half-time for instance) than today. Some of the reasons why people love the Non-League game will be swiftly and sharply curtailed.
The second half saw both teams try to play with more positivity. The home side were causing Darts keeper Julian some concern, although not as much as the stick he was getting from the home fans behind the goal. Julian had made the mistake in the first half to respond to “banter” and that immediately made him a target for all the wit and wisdom of the fans. Any save was deemed a fluke or lucky. When he called for a ball and failed to get it, he was derided with donkey chants. The lot of a goalkeeper.
Scores elsewhere meant at one point Braintree had risen into the play-off spots, so the three points became vital. Despite the last-gasp scare they held on. Three points kept the dream alive for the Iron and the nightmare a reality for the Darts. It hadn’t been the best of games but it was a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine. Oh, and I managed to pick up a couple of bargains at Freeport too.
“Well I’ve been working hard to reach me sales target
To earn a few quid for an away trip down to Margate
I’m gonna blow my commission tomorrow on all me football family
We catch the train at eight so don’t be late, were off to see the sea”
We are the luckiest fans alive today. Who else wouldn’t want to be spending a day at the sunny British seaside today. It is fair to say that prior to the release of the fixtures back in July, Margate away in either the earlier part of the season or towards the end would have been perfect. In the last two season we had been down to the Isle of Thanet in October and January, so it was time that the fixture computer was kind to us. What better way to celebrate our promotion than a knees up on the golden sands and sewage outflow pipe of the Costa del Thanet.
Well, as our big sweaty transatlantic friend still warbles, two out of three ain’t bad. We were going to get our day in the sun in April at Margate, and ‘that’ sign was still warning us about staying away from the pipe carrying ‘stuff’ into the sea, but alas there was to be no promotion party. In fact our recent, and by recent I mean the last half of the season, has been a bit of a mystery. With a third of the season gone we were one place and two points outside the playoffs. However, the harsh weather, which first kicked in in October for us seemed to throw a spanner in the works and since then we have taken on average a point a game.
I still get the “sack the board” chants aimed in my general direction by those who still don’t quite get this community club aspect and realise that I can’t be sacked by the fans (voted out in October, indeed) but we will finish the season in a stronger position both on and off the field than last season and can look forward to next season when the regeneration project will commence on The Dripping Pan which will ultimately give us a new viable revenue stream.
Our hosts today will also be looking forward to next season. Next chairman Bob Laslett has already shown his intentions by bringing former AFC Wimbledon manager Terry Brown. Rumours of weekly budgets in excess of £5k will certainly make them the favourites come August, but I hope the club don’t go down the all too familiar road of Non-League boom and bust.
Whilst the ambition for the owners may be a rise up the leagues, it has to be sustainable. Redevelopment work continues at Hartsdown Park and that will give them a solid base, but if they do “build it” who will come? Only twice this season has the attendance at home broken the 500 barrier and both of those were due to the sizeable away support of Dulwich and Maidstone. Success on the pitch will bring people through the gate – in their one season in the Conference Premier where they played in Margate (as opposed to the two seasons in Dover) they did get over 1,100 on average, fuelled by away fans making a new ground visit. Today that number has decreased by 66%. With three other Ryman teams almost on their doorstep, plus Gillingham and Dover playing at higher levels close by, it is hard to see where these new supporter will come from.
“Along the promenade we spend some money
And Cynical finds a spot on the beach that’s simply sunny
Big Deaksy will enjoy himself digging up the sand,
collecting stones and winkle shells to take back home to Dan”
But today is all about a bloody good day out. With our final away game on Easter Monday at Harrow Borough not really ticking all of the boxes for a “Jolly Boys Outing”, today was all about a few beers, some sunshine, dare say a couple of giggles and if we were lucky, a Non-League dog or two. Heck, even a long overdue three points would be as good as a Kiss Me Quick hat, a lick of a lolly and memories of the Radio 1 roadshows down here as teenagers….happy days.
It is fair to say that the walk from Margate station to the town centre has seen better days. It is a crying shame to see so many places that I remember as a kid boarded up. Dreamland, still home to bits of the UK’s oldest rollercoaster stands desolate, like a Scooby Doo spooky location. There has been years of talk about turning it into an interactive museum of the rollercoaster but that day seems along way off.
Thanks to ClubSec Kev’s inside knowledge we bypassed the Pound shops and arrived at The Lifeboat pub, possibly the best secret in the town with its range of over 20 local ales. Lunch consisted of a few pints from the Westerham and Whitstable Breweries, sharing our memories of what we had been doing on the 15th April 1989, the day of the Hillsborough disaster which every club would be respecting today.
Margate 1 Lewes 1 – Hartsdown Park – Saturday 12th April 2014
One taxi ride later and we were at Hartsdown Park. You can see signs of the foundations being laid for the redevelopment and I’d hope they retain the existing structure at the Hartsdown Road, although essentially it is only a two-sided stadium with nothing at the far end bar the railing around the pitch and portakabins on the right hand side.
The minute’s silence was impeccably observed and it was fair to say that reflective atmosphere was adopted by Lewes in the first half as they struggled to make any impact at all on the game. They lacked fight, bite, bustle, hustle and thrust. Margate, with their megabucks budget didn’t really dominate, although they forced over ten corners yet really made little chances in the opening period. In fact their opening goal came direct from a Sunday League style mistake by Malins who perfected an air shot when trying to clear and 31-club (THIRTY ONE!) Jefferson Louis made no mistake from ten yards.
Lewes were forced to shuffle the pack once again with an injury to Andy Pearson meaning midfielder Logan had to drop to centre-back and Jack Dixon coming on. Sometimes such events turn games and this is exactly what happened in the second half. Lewes started to believe that they could get something from the game and pushed forward, using Crabb and Wheeler out wide. In the 65th minute the ball found its way to Wheeler on the edge of the box, he shimmied, twisted, turned and dropped his shoulder to confuse the defender, putting him on his arse and then slotting home.
Margate were rattled and Cynical Dave smelt victory and told the Margate keeper and centre-backs so. A few minutes later a miss hit shot from Dixon/Malins/Crabb (we can’t remember who exactly) bounced up on the hard surface and into the net. Referee gave the goal but the linesman deemed the retreating Nathan Crabb and Luke Blewden in an “active” offside position despite no appeals from the Margate team. Even the keeper agreed it was a harsh decision.
A point apiece was probably a fair result for a game of two halves. The Lewes Lunatic Fringe partied like it was 1999 on the way back to the station. It had been a great away day and our reward was a family size bag of imitation Frazzles and a few bottles of Pedigree whilst we reminisced about the season. Days out like this make the wind, rain, snow, sleet, floodlight failures, abject defending and poor refereeing decisions all worth it.
“Down to Margate, you can keep the Costa Brava, I’m telling ya mate I’d rather have a day down Margate with all me Lewes family”