The immortal words of JFK, who was killed 50 years ago next week sum up the feelings around the Dripping Pan this week. Today marks a welcome return to Saturday football for Lewes FC. It’s been three weeks since we saw such action thanks to our elimination of both national cup competitions and a postponement all too quickly last weekend at Grays Athletic. We’ve had some midweek action in that period, with one of the worst refereeing performances ever recorded on Tuesday night away to Bury Town seeing us fall to a 97th minute goal. But the mark of a great team is how they bounce back. As the 35th President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy was immortalised not for his good work as the most powerful man in the world, but rather by his public and contraversial death. However, whilst he was in office, he was the king of the one liners that are still used today to motivational effect.
“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction”
Since we were last here, beating Margate back in October, everyone at the top of the table have been busy having their apple cart’s upset, including the visitors at The Pan today, Lowestoft Town, who bizarrely lost 2-0 at home to Cray Wanderers last Saturday. Lewes’s next visitors at The Pan on Wednesday had just two wins prior to their visit to Suffolk last week and had conceded on average over 3 1/2 goals a game. AFC Hornchurch’s home defeat to Harrow and Maidstone’s home point against Leiston are further proof that no-one wants to win this league.
After the most pointless international break in the season, once again this was the opportunity for the half a million or so Premier League and Championship fans to get down to their local club. The annual Non-League Day campaign is a great success on the international break in September, but this is actually the fourth such break so far this season. So what impact has these enforced breaks have on Non-League attendances?
Let’s start with Non-League day in September. The total attendances in the Ryman Premier on the 7th September was 5,540, an average of 461. The biggest attendance was Lewes v Met Police at 788 and the lowest at Thamesmead v Wingate where just 64 came through the gate. The Lewes one was interesting and Met Police only appeared to bring 5 fans. The two Saturday attendances either side of this was versus Canvey Island (532) and Margate (570). Our average league attendance is 547 so you could say that Non-League day was a success at The Dripping Pan. Our visitors today, Lowestoft Town, average 504. On the two international break weekends they have played this season they saw 585 and 500 come through the gates of the New Meadow. Margate, also at home on two of the three dates had 491 and 401 respectively against their average gate of 427. In both the Lowestoft and Margate cases, the former attendance was on Non-League Day.
So, we can deduce that Non-League Day worked at our level. National press coverage and promotions saw new fans boost attendances to Non-League clubs by over 15% in all three cases. But looking at the October date, the attendances actually fell on average. Why? Because Premier League Championship fans don’t like the freedom of a Non-League game? Being able to have a beer on the terraces? Paying a third of the average cost of a Premier League seat? Being able to stand, sit, sing and shout what you want? I genuinely do not know. Perhaps attendances today will give us more of a guide into the mentality of these floating fans.
If there is one set of Ryman fans I feel for it is Lowestoft Town. Their rise through the leagues in the past few seasons has been impressive, but it seems that the Ryman Premier is one step too far to breach. Three successive Play-off final defeats where they have lost by the odd goal to Tonbridge Angels, AFC Hornchurch and Concord Rangers, the last two at the death. Crowds are down at Crown Meadow, and has been a matter of debate in recent weeks on the Trawler Boys forum. Some of their away travel, including today’s trip to Lewes, involve longer journeys than it takes most people to travel on their summer holidays. Their form so far this season suggests that their annual play-off appearance may be off the menu too although a win today would see them leapfrog the Rooks.
Lewes 0 Lowestoft Town 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 16th November 2013
Well that didn’t go according to plan did it? Lewes simply failed to build any momentum in the game, and were caught out twice in the second half by a more determined Lowestoft Town side, who could also afford to miss a second half penalty. However, few of the 706 fans who saw this game will remember this game for the performance of one man. The referee. It is all too easy to blame a defeat on the officials, who have a hard enough job as it is, but that’s not the case today. Lowestoft were the better team, hands down, but this game as a spectacle was killed by constant whistling and bizarre decisions by an official who seemed way out of his depth.
In the first half we saw a Lewes cross hit a Lowestoft hand (“ball to hand”) and seen by everyone in the ground. Penalty? Corner! Nope, goal kick. A few minutes later a similar incident saw a corner given when no Lowestoft player was near the final touch. During the game the Lowestoft keeper kept kicking from his hands, but carrying the ball outside the box as he did. ”LINO!” came the shout after the first couple of occasions, yet not once did he pick up on the offence. Even the Lowestoft bench saw it and sent messages to the keeper not to do it.
But the icing on the cake was a 21-man brawl in the second half. Lewes broke out of defence, a player from each side fell to ground and appeared to “tangle” on the floor. The ball was played behind the Lowestoft back four and Lewes were away. But the referee, having waiting a good 5 seconds after seeing the incident on the floor, blew his whistle to sort out the mess. He then decided to restart the game with a contested drop ball, irrespective of the fact Lewes had been in an attacking situation and in possession of the ball. From the restart the ball bounced about a bit, a Lowestoft player kneed Nathan Crabb and all hell broke loose. The officials simply had no idea how to restore order and it was left to the players to “police” themselves. The result was yellow cards for four players, including a second yellow for Crabb. But one bizarre fact remained. We all thought the Lowestoft number 4, Adam Fisk, had been booked in the first half. Yet before the referee had asked everyone what happened, Fisk had run over to the bench and put the number 20 shirt on. The referee then appeared to book the number 20, Fisk. That sums up his performance all afternoon.
The first half saw little to write home about, with Lewes perhaps just shading it, but come the second half it was Lowestoft who made The Rooks pay for some sloppy play with goals from Manny Osei in the 50th minute and then Robert Eagle who took advantage of a mis-timed overhead kick from a team mate to head home. In between Rikki Banks had saved a poorly taken penalty.
The highlights of the afternoon were the fact over 700 had taken advantage of the lack of Premier League and Championship fixtures, and the outstanding red and purple sunset. That means on the three instances where there had been an international break this season, we had had two crowds over 700, and one over 1,100 (which was an FA Cup game versus higher league opposition). So the lack of higher league football was certainly helping our attendances. It’s just a shame that we hadn’t been able to give those extra fans a victory to take home. But all teams are entitled to a bad day in the office. Let’s move on and concentrate on Wednesday’s visit of Cray Wanderers.
The last word on the day has to belong to John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
““…but defeat is an orphan”
The debate about the status of the Conference Premier has been raging for many years. Take a look at the league at the moment and you cannot fail to notice some very familiar names. Cambridge United were once a few minutes away from the top-level of English football and after what seems like years in the Non-League, are now leading the pack in the Skrill Premier. Not far behind them are fellow Football League exiles Grimsby Town, Luton Town, Kidderminster Harriers and Barnet. All of these clubs could essentially slot straight back into the world of the SkyBet, or whatever it is called, League tomorrow, competing on and off the pitch.
Take a look at the average attendances in the league so far this season and the best eleven supported teams are all ex-League teams. In fact all of these apart from Halifax Town have a higher average attendance than Accrington Stanley, Dagenham & Redbridge and Morecambe (all of who were until recently, Non League sides). But there are a couple of new names appearing towards the top of the table. Alan Devonshire’s Braintree Town are punching well above their weight in 4th place, surviving on crowds of around a thousand. Salisbury City and Nuneaton Town are new-boys in the league but both have relatively good catchment areas, free from the distractions of bigger sides.
And then there is Welling United. Sitting in ninth place in the league, just one win off fourth place, the Wings are enjoying life back in the top-level of Non-League football. Whilst they have been here before, from 1986 to 2000, the world of Non-League football has moved on, so their achievements in winning the Conference South last season was remarkable to say the least. I say that based on some local knowledge. Living just 4 miles away I have been a regular visitor at Park View Road over the years. Earlier this year I was at the top of the table clash with Chelmsford City. Whilst Welling were demolishing a fellow title-contender on the pitch, off it were collection buckets encouraging fans to “dig deep” for Jamie Day’s, the player-manager’s budget. A year on from play-off final defeat away to Dartford, Welling won the Conference South and took their place with professional clubs who had tasted victory at Wembley when they were Football League sides. With average attendances of just over 800, few expected anything more than a season-long fight with relegation. Instead, impressive form at Park View Road has seen them already find their feet in an ultra-competitive league.
Today was one of those strange days when your own side doesn’t have a game. Due to Lewes’s exit in the FA Trophy at the first hurdle a few weeks ago we found ourselves without a game. A perfect opportunity to spread my wings and try somewhere new surely? Exactly – until Northern Steve decided to pay a visit. Northern Steve lives in Lincoln and is a Lincoln City/West Ham/Lewes fan. Coincidently, the Imps were playing at Welling United. Funny that. I gave him the option of paying £50 to go to Upton Park, but like me he isn’t a big Allardyce fan, nor one of 4-6-0 formations and so Welling was the choice. If you are coming to a Saturday game at Welling then you have to do it in style. So it was a no brainer that we would go to Crayford Dogs, have a few beers, hop on a bus to Welling and cheer on the Imps.
Unfortunately, we were not going to be able to enjoy all of the delights of Park View Road. Welling had announced this would be a “segregated” game. I’m not sure if this was a club decision or one based on Police advice. Many football fans choose non-league football because they are free from the restrictions of the modern game. Having a beer on the terrace and being able to change ends at half-time are two joys of the game at this level. Welling have never (as far back as I can remember) had an outdoor alcohol licence which I still fail to understand. Clubs like Lewes can serve beer outside but Welling can’t? Similar sized clubs and support. So are the footballing authorities being discriminatory based on the location of a club? People from East Sussex behave better after a beer than those of the London Borough of Bexley? Always a mystery to me.
Lincoln were likely to bring a fair few fans so perhaps Welling felt it would be easier to “control” if the Imps were given half the ground. Whilst I can understand that, I do feel segregation for run-of-the-mill league games is anti-non-league. We arrived at 2.15pm and paid £15 (fifteen!) to get into the away bit. All around us were very glum away fans as the club house on this side of the ground was firmly locked shut. Across the ground the home fans were enjoying a special beer promotion yet the away fans had to make do with a cup of tea. Good to see fans being treated equal. A steward told us that the bar on this side was operated by Erith & Belvedere and they had said “someone might turn up to open it” but they hadn’t. On one hand clubs moan about lack of cash and fans attending games, and then you see situations like this. Let’s assume half of the 200 Lincoln fans bought one beer in the club house – that’s £600 for doing what exactly?
Welling United 1 Lincoln City 0 – Park View Road – Saturday 2nd November 2013
I don’t think this game will live in the memories for long. Despite both teams wanting to play attacking football, a petty refereeing performance killed the game as a spectacle by half time, leading to a second half that was as exciting as watching X Factor. Welling probably just shaded it and will be happy with the three points, delivered by Jake Gallagher not long after half time. Despite Welling’s keeper Lee Butcher being the busier of the two, he was only called into action on a couple of occasions.
It was good to see that neither team had come to defend and Lincoln quickly found joy down the left hand side where Lincoln’s right back Franks was exposed for pace time and time again. Some desperate early defending kept the visitors out yet as the half went on it started to become clear that the referee wanted to be the centre of attention. Constant whistling for minor infringements, yet letter the more serious ones go unpunished frustrated both sets of fans. Whilst the 300 or so Welling fans got to change ends at half time after a trip to the bar, the away fans had to sit put, hoping that a long journey south would give them some reward.
Alas it wasn’t to be. In the 52nd minute, Healy set up Gallagher who slotted the ball home from 10 yards. The away fans tried to raise the spirit of the team but after the goal they seemed to resign themselves to defeat, letting all of the positive attacking effort seen in the first half drift away. With ten minutes to go quite a few away fans headed for the exit, going in search of a beer to dull the pain. As the referee blew the full-time whistle virtually all of the Lincoln side couldn’t get off the pitch quick enough, completely ignoring the fans who had made the 150 mile trip down south.
Three points for Welling took them up to seventh in the table, and just one point outside the play-offs. Despite the positivity on the pitch, home fans hadn’t exactly come out in numbers. This is Charlton Athletic territory and the Addicks were away in Birmingham so it’s hard to use that as mitigation. So what can the club do to attract more through the turnstiles? Living only 4 miles away I never seen any local marketing activity to encourage people to attend games. From my vantage position there didn’t seem many kids at the game, yet the club offer free admission to Under12′s – could that be marketed better in local schools (again, having a child in a school relatively locally it is all about Charlton)? There were around 200 people at the dog racing at Crayford just a couple of miles down the road on Saturday lunch time, and treble that in the evening. What about a joint marketing campaign with them? How many away fans will say they enjoyed the trip and will come again next season with the segregation and lack of a warm club house and a bar?
Good luck to Welling for the rest of the season. Home form like this will ensure you will live to fight at this level next season. For Lincoln City? There is certainly something missing if they have short-term ambitions of a return to the Football League. With the league becoming harder and harder to get out of each season they may be facing a long, hard fight to return to the glory days of Wembley Play-off finals.
Few people will have been happier with the result on Saturday from the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Tie between Ebbsfleet United and Dartford than I was (For Ebbsfleet, read Gravesend).As soon as the draw was made this tie caught my eye, but of course being on a Saturday I was loyal to my own club Lewes and enjoyed a pint of Harvey’s (just like Her Majesty did this week) on the terraces as we beat Margate. As the news filtered through that the North Kent derby had ended all-square my Tuesday night’s entertainment was sorted.
The game had been seen by nearly 2,900 fans, more than the combined average attendance for both clubs and had provided its fair share of drama as Ebbsfleet missed an early penalty after the Dartford keeper had hauled down Cook. Red card? A split opinion based on which set of fans you listen to. Instead, Alan Julian stayed on the pitch and Ben May put the ball high over the bar. Dartford then took the lead against the run of play, and the reverse happened in the second half when Anthony Cook equalised. All’s fair in love, war and local derbies. 72 hours later the action moved five miles down the A2 to Princes Park, a world away from Ebbsfleet’s Stonebridge Road. Not that there is anything wrong with either ground – they are simply at the end of the non-league ground spectrum.
I grew up equidistant between the two towns and have an affinity for both towns. I went to school in Gravesend, played football and rugby on the pitches around the town and spent my formative and most impressionable years in the pubs and clubs of Windmill Hill. Come summertime and we headed to play cricket in and around Dartford, often ending our nights, bat in hand, box in pants at Zens, also know as the kidney donor factory. When I wasn’t a young tear-away at Upton Park or Priestfield then I would head up to Watling Street to watch Dartford. As a teenager, the old Dartford ground was the best place in the world. You could hide under the main stand, as long as you avoided the legendary Monkey Alan who lived in the catacombs of the ground, browse for hours in the programme shop or simply watch the tear-ups on the terraces which were relatively frequent. On occasions even the players got involved, hoping over the barrier and joining in the fun.
Those halcyon days vanished for the Darts when they were made homeless from Watling Street in a tale of tears, tantrums and treachery. They became nomads, rising through the leagues as they called Cray Wanderers, Erith & Belvedere, Thurrock and finally Stonebridge Road home. Slowly but surely they worked their back up the leagues. As success arrived on the pitch then the local council started to take the club more seriously, finally agreeing to the funding of a new ground barely a mile from Watling Street. In November 2006 they were finally given the keys to Princes Park, the greenish, most ecological football stadium in Europe. Dartford fans would be able to stand under a roof made of sustainable material which rainwater being recycled and being held up by an 18 feet wooden man.
Back down the A2 time seems to have stood still at Stonebridge Road. The name may have changed to a more “European” Ebbsfleet, but it’s still Gravesend and Northfleet to me. The rickety old main stand where when the ball lands on it you get showered with “stuff”. The toilets, where if you position yourself correctly you can still watch the game “hands free” and the slowest refreshment bar in the world, where Cynical Dave once bought a frozen chicken pie and was then questioned when he returned it if he wanted it heated. Do the Ebbsfleet fans crave grass rather than moss growing on the roof of the stands? Do they want a wooden man rather than scaffolding holding up their roof? Do they want a stadium surrounded by trees or one by industry? Progress is great but sometimes the comforts of familiarity are all football fans crave.
I had the day off. Not through any other reason than I needed to use up my annual leave so I was going to make a day of it. Where better to start than an afternoon at Crayford Dogs. The place was packed, with free admission tempting the full spectrum of North Kent’s population. Nothing better than a bit of dog racing, even if it’s the same 6 dogs running in each race, simply changing the lane jackets. Six winners put a spring in my step and some cash in my pocket. Next stop the Magic of the FA Cup.
Dartford 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – Princes Park – Tuesday 29th October 2013
If you were writing a book on the 180 minutes (plus injury time) these two teams played out this week, it would have to be titled “Three Kicks”. It would also be a pretty long, dull book. The reason why Dartford won this tie and Ebbsfleet lost in its simplest terms boiled down to the ability to take a penalty. In the two games Ebbsfleet were awarded two and missed both, whilst Dartford scored the one they were awarded. Ebbsfleet fans will argue, and quite justifiably, that the Dartford keeper should’ve been sent off in the first game (and thus subsequently banned for the replay if the result would have stayed the same) and they can feel aggrieved that in this game he was the difference between a place in the 1st Round of the FA Cup and a short disconsolate walk back down the A2.
The Ebbsfleet fans were in fine voice as they walked to the ground. It is amazing how adaptable football chants are these days. One terrace favourite still advocates the use of firearms to commit Grievous Bodily Harm and was sung with lust by the group as they marched along the suburban streets of Dartford. No one liked them, they told everyone who was listening as they made room on the pavement for an old lady coming the other way and despite them telling everyone that “Dartford was shit” they spoke about the post match plan after the game to go to Breathe, Dartford’s “premier” night club. Inside the ground the away fans took up a position at one end, singing a chorus about Dartford having a “shit ground and no fans”. Just as a reminder, the Darts do average over 300 more fans than The Fleet. In all seriousness, the Ebbsfleet fans created an atmosphere that is probably rarely seen from away fans in these parts and certainly got behind their team from the first minute.
I was joined by the edge of the pitch by a Dartford-supporting groundhopper. He was a tad deaf, meaning he shouted at me despite our proximity. He had given up watching Dartford, he told me, because all they did was play “long ball rubbish”. ”We only score from set pieces” he told me, bemoaning the lack of creativity in the team. ”Watch our number 7, Hayes. He’s a bottler” he shouted, loud enough for the player himself to hear and immediately go to jelly. Sure enough, every time there was a 50/50 ball, Hayes would jump out of the way. ”Watch the full back Burns. Great at getting forward, but takes ages to track back”. Sure enough, with Burns out of position, Ebbsfleet created the first good chance of the game which the Dartford keeper had to tip over. Impressed with this perceptive view of the game I asked him for his final score prediction. ”Oh we will win, probably from a set-piece”.
The first half was goal less and with the Dartford fans positioned next to the Ebbsfleet ones there was a fair amount of “banter” between the two sets. But then at half time the Dartford fans went and took up position at the other end and all of a sudden that extra special cup atmosphere disappeared.
Ten minutes into the second period and Lee Noble was brought down in the Ebbsfleet box by Osborn. A clear penalty despite some limp protests. However, Bradbrook stepped up and made no mistake. Ebbsfleet responded and pressed forward, their fans raising the volume to a new level. The away side soon had a chance to draw level when Rance was brought down in the box. May shook his head, passing responsibility to Cook but his effort was saved by the Dartford keeper. The ball fell loose and a powerful Ebbsfleet strike was blocked by the chest of Dartford’s captain Bradbrook. ”Handball” went the collective shout from players and fans alike, although the fact Bradbrook ended the night in hospital with suspected fractured ribs from the block is probably enough proof for most the referee got it right!
Despite all of their efforts Ebbsfleet simply couldn’t find a way through the Dartford defence. Six minutes of injury time were added and despite the most ludicrous booking for time-wasting I have seen in a long time from the Dartford keeper (he really should have been sent off for two yellows for the same offence in less than a minute) the game ended 1-0. Dartford’s prize was an away trip to Salisbury City in the next round – hardly one to set the pulses racing but there is always the hope of a better tie in the next round.
Fans of both sides made their way out of the ground and into the night without any animosity. There hasn’t been many opportunities to play each other in recent years, and many fans (and players) will not remember the days in the 1970′s and 80′s when things were a bit more volatile. In fact most of the post-match chat was of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and even VCD Athletic. Old rivalries never die but they certainly mellow over the years.