The Ball is Square

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 8 – Win or not quite bust

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on April 26, 2015

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

17267771231_2f0f73d226_zWe 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.

17080473148_1f2636ab18_zNo 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.

17266471962_aacd85df5d_zThis 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.

16645740604_08d43770f4_kIt wasn’t the easiest ninety minutes though when you have to keep an eye on scores elsewhere.  To give you a flavour of the afternoon, here’s what happened:-

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
17266415262_56d15160ba_z4:12 – 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:-

CDeKrBlWIAEyaV_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.

TALES OF A NON-LEAGUE CHAIRMAN – PART 2 – THE AWAY GAME

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on March 15, 2015

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.

16607855597_8626c47328_zYou 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?

16627583818_ab7da6e214_zDespite 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
16629030429_90a5890105_zIn 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.

16627584528_c146b3d66f_zLewes 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).

A kick in the privates – Goole AFC

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on January 2, 2015

Two facts that you may not know about Goole. Firstly, when you type it into any Apple device, it will try to suggest to you that you really meant Google, and secondly it’s bloody cold. I can’t help think that the club have missed a trick with this whole naming thing. Perhaps the town could create their own global search engine or an email service? Goole Chrome has a good ring to it, Goole Drive could be a new road name whilst the local newspaper could rebrand as Goole Buzz – bound to be more successful than Google’s attempts. The domain name, Goole.com has actually been registered since 1999, almost at the same time Larry Page and Sergey Brin started making their magic in a Stanford University dorm room, whilst the town itself can trace its history back to 1629. Any court in its right mind would surely side with the people from the East Ridings of Yorkshire.

As we leave the M62 Northern Steve asks the valid question, in my opinion, as to whether the residents of the town refer to themselves as “Goolies”? His motivation for the question seemed to be the phallic looking structure on the horizon, which after a quick “Gooling” (using my new local Search Engine website) turns out to be a water tower. Such architectural follies are so British, so Victorian, so wonderful.

15979360558_6b25b4746f_kWe were keeping the Victorian theme by heading to the Pleasure Grounds (using Goole Maps as our guide) as one should do on annual days of rest. Alas, the Pleasure Grounds here do not have the traditional bandstand, rides, an orangery, menageries or even a zoo for exotic animals, such as those that used to exist in 19th century London. Instead the Goole version has two goalposts, a stand, some beer and pies (always with peas in these parts) home not of fine Victorian gentlemen but The Vikings of the Evostik League North, First Division South. The water towers, nicknamed salt and pepper, that overlook the ground act as beacons, lighting the way to the ground from the M62. Hands up who thinks modern Britain is crap now eh?

Driving through the town on the way to the Victoria Pleasure Grounds suggests that few other people in these parts were heading to the big festive derby with Lincoln United. Goole is a town of nearly 19,000 souls, once an important port but now struggling to find an identity as is the case with hundreds of other British towns. The High Street (well, Boothferry Road anyway) is symptomatic with the failing British retail scene. Pound stores, Charity shops, Bookies and Weatherspoons. No problem with that, especially as we handed over our £2.50 for our lunchtime pint but Goole was losing its identity.

The history of the football club stretches back over one hundred years and various different entities. They started off with a plain old Town, then Goole Shipyard Football Club. When the hull fell out of the shipbuilding industry they found the Town down the back of the sofa which they held onto until financial problems saw the club go under. From the ashes came Goole AFC in 1997, the current version although the club tried to sneak the Town back a few years ago, enraging the West Ridings FA in the process who take such matters very seriously – sod trivial matters like racism, match fixing and respect campaigns, the serious business is about a town wanting to add the word “town” after their name.

15981017447_19a7bf7f8a_kWhilst progress hasn’t yet happened on the pitch, the club are still fighting. Quite apt that the current manager, Curtis Woodhouse, held the British Light-Welterweight boxing title until June, although perhaps too much of that fighting spirit rubbed off on former captain Karl Colley back in January when after being sent off for violent conduct in a game against Coalville Town decided to attack a fan. The club acted swiftly, sacking Colley who had previously been sacked by Belper Town for his conduct. I’m sure the West Riding FA will get round to adding their sanctions once they’ve dealt with other major incidents such as teams deciding which colours to play in or renaming a tea bar. Reading the programme notes it appeared that the club’s ownership was once again unclear. Being part of a community-owned club like Lewes does make me feel blessed at times. Perhaps this is the model that could work for Goole, bring the much-needed identity and inclusion to the local community that they talk about being missing.

“There is so little to cheer (about) in Goole alone that sport is a way of transforming the image of a place and sadly Goole football over the last 30 years has been unable to do so.” Tough words from the club in the match programme but they are 100% bang on.

Lincoln United are Northern Steve’s local team. They had lost the reverse fixture a week ago in Lincoln, so revenge was their primary motivation today. By attending this game he would be automatically elevated to the ranks of “hardcore” due to the unwritten code of football supporting. Talking of club names, the story behind Lincoln’s is a peach. Originally called Lincoln Amateurs, they signed a former Nottingham Forest professional in 1951, meaning they couldn’t keep their name. So the players had, according to the club’s own story, a “brainstorming” session in a pub in Sleaford and came up with the name United. The film rights to that story must have them queuing round the block at their Ashby Avenue ground.

Like Goole AFC, Lincoln United’s honours roster is modest to say the least. But that’s not to say they couldn’t serve up some silky football to warm up the hundred and fifty or so fans who had made the trip to the dockside. The exterior of the ground may have been stark but the welcome was warm. Pie, peas and mint sauce were the order of the day round these parts, perfect insulation against the hurricane that was blowing down the ground. Both teams would be fighting the elements as well as each other over the next 90 minutes. We took up our place opposite the main stand, still enthralled by the phallic structures behind the ground. Every 20 minutes or so a train passed by the ground, offering travellers a glimpse into the heart of grass roots football.

Goole AFC 1 Lincoln United 1 – Victoria Pleasure Gardens – Thursday 1st January 2015
With two minutes left the celebrations from the home side were as if they’d won the cup rather than just equalised against a mid-table rival. The goal, scored by Billy Law was completely unexpected and against the run of play – simply because of the conditions. The wind, coupled with the open aspect of the ground had led to some almost comical passages of play, with the home keeper struggling to kick the ball forward at all, whilst at the other end, the bookies had stopped taking bets on the next goal scorer being the Lincoln goalie.

15979399908_a05a84fab9_kBoth teams had started the game trying to keep the ball on the deck but the heavy conditions had made that problematic. Lincoln had set themselves up in an unusual 3-5-2 with the idea of getting their wing backs forward. Alas the wind blowing in their faces meant they spent most of the first half on their heels, trying to defend against lofted balls over their heads. Despite having the conditions in their favour, Goole struggled to trouble the away keeper Peet. Half-time and we were all square.

Lincoln opened the scoring ten minutes into the second half, making a meal of a clear-cut chance before Matt Cotton nudged the ball over the line. They immediately went on the front foot, playing the elements well. Whilst they hit the post twice and were denied by some astute goal keeping, there was only a few moments of quality. It took them eighty minutes to realise that placed rather than power was the key to using the elements for shots on goal.

15979358738_46b2a39bda_kWith time ticking away Goole tried to get the ball into the danger zone but were thwarted time and time again by the wind and a resolute defence. The post and Peet combined well to keep the ball out but they were powerless to prevent Law’s exquisite lob in the final minutes, timing it perfectly for a moment when the wind abated for a few seconds. Whilst they hadn’t used the favourable conditions to their advantage in the first period the goal was more than they deserved.

Goole probably wouldn’t have been many people’s preferred destination on the first day of 2015 but we had no regrets. Twenty miles down the road Hull City were celebrating their first Premier League win in front of 22,000, many of whom would have come from the terraces around the Victoria Pleasure Grounds. But were they really happy with their £35 seats? A tenner had given us a friendly club, a decent game, pie and peas plus a golden goal ticket. That’s the heart and soul of football. Let’s hope that Goole can engage the local community and grow as a result. If not then my search engine idea might just do the trick.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,337 other followers