At 5pm on St George’s Day there is only one place any rightful Englishman should be. In the pub. That’s the real castle for us dragon-slaying proud Englishmen. So here I was, in the most 21st century of English establishments, J D Wetherspoon. You cannot grumble at paying £2.29 for a pint of Blueberry Pie, a fruity English stout with a distinct purplish tinge. And what better circumstances than saluting our national saint and preparing to watch our national game.
So after the highs of the away trip to Harrow Borough on Saturday, we woke up on Sunday with a fuzzy head and a realisation that one more win could be enough to secure Premier League survival for another season. That game would be against Cray Wanderers, just one place and two points above us. Bromley (South) was our destination, and after a short hop, skip and a jump from JD Wetherspoon (Victoria Station) we were in JD Wetherspoon (Bromley). A first for me – two Wetherspoon’s in less than a hour.
Of course with wallet busting prices at £2.20 a pint I got the first round in. Clever thinking, eh. Ah yes, we only had time for one. Bugger. But still it was in jovial spirits that we left the pub for the short taxi ride to Hayes Lane, home of Bromley FC and their tenants, Cray Wanderers, the world’s third oldest football club.
These are testing times for Cray. Mr. Relegation has been hanging around outside Hayes Lane for the past few weeks, waiting for an opportunity to pop in. Their groundshare agreement with Bromley is due to end next year, and the prospect of a return to the heartlands of St Paul’s Cray seem further away than ever after Bromley council rejected their planning application for a new community stadium in September. You often have to wonder whether local authorities actually want to see local football teams survive. Despite all of the hard work of volunteers to secure a long term future for the club AND a benefit to the local community, Cray are back at square one, still having to worry about relegation just like Lewes.
I like going to watch Cray Wanderers and it will be a terrible shame if they are forced into a nomadic existence. Nice club, nice people, nice fans and more importantly just a short bus ride away from TBIR towers. It is a rare treat I have these days that I can use public transport to get to a game (well, yes there are the ones in Germany/Denmark/Sweden/every else apart from Lewes) so I was going to make the most of it.
The original game had been scheduled for mid-March but the rain had put pay to that game. But here we were, at the business end of the season with relegation still hanging over the heads of both teams. A draw may be good enough for both teams depending on results elsewhere, but nothing beats a win at this stage of the season to just relieve the nerves a bit.
Once again the Lewes fans had come out on a beautiful early Summer’s evening on the London/Kent borders. As I entered the ground I was greeted with a familiar sound. ”Golden Goal Sir”..how could I resist? Two pounds invested, let’s just hope the first one was a Lewes one. Next stop a pint of Asahi, a bacon and cheese burger and three points please?
Cray Wanderers 2 Lewes 2 – Hayes Lane – Tuesday 23rd April 2013
St George’s Day 2013 9:37pm. We are deep in injury time and Lewes are losing 2-1. This wasn’t in the plan. In fact I don’t think anything was in the plan. Tonight was just about getting a result and it looks like we are leaving empty-handed. Well, almost. I still have a smile on my face from the 35th minute. A real bitter-sweet moment for me when Cray took the lead with a huge slice of luck, the ball falling from a great height and hitting the completely unaware Bremmer on the head and bamboozling Keiron Thorp in the Lewes goal. Golden Goal time 35 minutes. Woo-hoo! The Cray stewards even went an collected my winnings. Top club as I said.
One became two on the stroke of half-time when another hopeful ball was played into the area and the Lewes defence decided to all stand around and watch whilst Young wandered into the box, choose his spot and bury it in the corner. Whilst events in the Champions League brought a mild smile to our faces at half time, the thudding realisation that trips to Mertsham and Crawley Down Gatwick were back on the agenda made the Swiss Roll taste all that more bitter. Still we had 45 minutes to make it right.
Forty five soon became ten minutes, and hope was disappearing. Then a mix up in the Cray defence saw Crabb walk the ball into an empty net to give us something to shout about. Two minutes later and Chris Breach’s header was cleared off the line. We could still save this game, but time was running out…fast.
Four minutes of injury time were up when Harry Harding calmly laid the ball into the path of Nathan Crabb after a game of pinball in the box and he drilled it low into the corner of the net. The question at this point has to be who didn’t end up on the pitch celebrating? The bench, the subs, Jack Walder and Callum Donaghey, both injured and of course Cynical Dave. Of course, Dave. Finally, play restarted (again hats off to Cray’s stewards who simply shepherded everyone off the pitch and no more), the referee blew for time and we had a point. In the grand scheme of things it was as vital as the three points were at Harrow on Saturday. Thursday night would determine whether we would be playing for survival on Saturday or not. But for now it was the best St George’s Day ever. A last minute goal, a big celebratory bundle and £45 in my pocket for Golden Goal.
This week has been painful for us Lewes fans. Our league position and survival hopes were in the hands of others as all of our relegation rivals played, some twice, between Tuesday and Thursday. There, of course, was an ideal sequence of events, but that was never going to happen. The form book was also a guide to how the results went, but once again, that went out of window.
Twitter is a great invention for us football fans as we can get up to the second score updates, but only if people are there and able to relay events first hand. Tuesday night’s game between Cray Wanderers and East Thurrock United was watched by around 150 brave souls, yet it appeared no one thought of sending updates on the score, least of all the two clubs involved. The Nonleaguelive website is fantastic but can sometimes lead you astray as it automatically assumes a game is 0-0 unless it gets updates. So whilst we were happy to see the game still at stalemate at half time, there had in fact been two goals. For those who remember the good ol’ days of watching a vital game unfold on Ceefax, this was just as painful.
On Tuesday night Hastings United finished their game at Hendon with 8 men, after 3 were sent off. On Thursday Thurrock ended with 9 against Lowestoft Town, yet for some bizarre reason neither team will be penalised in the final games of the season with suspensions as the cut off point for this season has already passed. The odds on those five still being at their respective clubs next season is slim so what message is that sending out? Perhaps the clubs will be asked to explain their actions to the Ryman League, but what will that achieve? In the Premier League, or Football League, suspensions kick in almost immediately. Why can’t non leagues adopt the same model? Doesn’t this send out a message that foul play is acceptable at the end of the season? Another ridiculous non league rule that needs to be revised, although I am sure they are simply too busy planning their end of season gala dinner (which, by the way EVERY club has to buy at least four tickets for…that’s fair, right?).
Not that Lewes can moan about the situation we find ourselves in. Teams at the bottom of the league are not there because of bad luck. At the end of the season we could easily lay claim to awful decisions in the games versus Hastings United and Kingstonian that should’ve given us five more points (ironically both officiated by the same referee) but so can a dozen other clubs. Teams are never “too good” to go down. The simple act is this season Lewes haven’t yet made the top half of the table, the highest league position being 12th. Too many draws in the first half of the season, too many defeats in the second half have meant we are fighting a relegation battle rather than a play-off one as we expected at the start of the season. Clubs with smaller budges than us are challenging for the play-offs such as Metropolitan Police, Hendon, East Thurrock United and Concord Rangers. These clubs survive on crowds a faction of what we see at The Dripping Pan every other week.
Three games left then. Eight days to save a season. All three are winnable, but we’ve been here before this season. A trip to Dave Anderson’s Harrow Borough could’ve just as easily been a trip to Stamford Bridge, but with a but more atmosphere. Boro’ are far from safe themselves. The results this week had simply pulled them back into the mix, sitting just five points above Lewes in the relegation zone. A win and they would be safe. Defeat and derby games versus Cheshunt next season could be on the cards.
Earlsmead is the palatial home of Harrow Borough since 1934. It is one of the only grounds in England that still has the bomb shelters erected during World War Two. The roof of the ex-Anderson shelter, named after their current manager, Dave, is still visible in the corner of the ground.
With survival at stake, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe met up under the watchful eye of the police at Marylebone. Some cynics would suggest they were there to marshall the Stoke fans arriving for the game at QPR, but we knew better. Big Deaksy, Cynical Dave, Terry Boyle…heck even Patrick Marber had dusted down the Fila for this one. If we were to go down, we’d go down fighting, just like they say on Green Street or Football Factory, but with a few more Greene King London Glory Ales inside us. The Lewes Express was running fast to Premier League survival, with one stop on the way at Wembley Stadium (railway station).
Harrow Borough 0 Lewes 2 – Earlsmead – Saturday 20th April 2013
This was one of these day which restores your love in the beautiful game. The sun was shining, the beer was flowing, the company was top notch and we won three points. Whilst the mood on the way up on the Survival Express was one of uneasy hopefulness, full of “what if’s”, on the way back it was exhausted relief. It hadn’t been a great game but for the first time in a few weeks we looked tight at the back, organised in midfield and offered a threat up front.
Perhaps it was the very real threat of relegation, or the return from a four month injury lay-off of centre-back and club captain Steve Robinson. But at the end of the day three points are three points. Add in some favourable results around us and the win tipped the Rooks from relegation probables to possibles……and with a game against fellow relegation battlers Cray Wanderers to come in just three days time, survival was back in our hands.
The away support was once again fantastic, supplemented by the non playing members of the Lewes squad. The word “team” has never been stronger than for this must win game. The sunshine was certainly very welcome, but we would have easily swapped the clement weather for three points any day. In truth it wasn’t the best of games. In fact the official twitter account of the home side tweeted in the first half “this is the worst half of football we have seen this season”. With the game ticking down to half time, and with neither keeper being tested, we were looking forward to some half time hospitality in the boardroom.
But then a hopeful punt in the air saw the Harrow centre-back and keeper hesitate and Nathan Crabb sneak in between and place a perfect lob over their heads and into the corner of the net. The ball “nestled” in the corner of the net. Possibly the best word in football. Nestled. We all took a second to look at the ball in the net, nestling, before we broke into celebration. Not only did we look solid, we were now winning. And the sun was still shining.
The second half saw us spending far too long looking at the scores from elsewhere on our phones, nervously remembering other one goal leads we had thrown away in the past. But then came the defining moment in the game. Godfrey chased the ball to the touchline, fell over with a defender who then proceeded to lay on the ball. Despite our protests and the fact the incident happened no more than five yards away, the linesman gave nothing. Fortunately, the referee some thirty yards away saw the offence and awarded a free kick. Harry Harding delivered the free-kick to the far post, Nathan Crabb got his head to it and it appeared to be bundled home by a combination of Ben Godfrey and a defender. Two nil, time for a little smile.
The last period of the game saw a few nervous moments at the far end, but Lewes looked more solid than we have seen in previous weeks and the final whistle led to a huge sigh of relief. Cheap Polish lagers and a packet of onion rings were our celebratory treat for the way home and as we passed Wembley we raised a can. We may not ever get this close to the national stadium, but it looked like we would still be a Premier League side for another season. Away days don’t get much better than this.
All you Premier League pansies out there don’t know what you are missing. Whilst you are being told to sit in your plastic seat, drinking your club-branded fizzy pop and eating your bland, dubious quality burger, thousands of other football fans are enjoying the game in its most purest sense. The beautiful game exists many leagues below the Emirates or Stamford Bridge, with more people watching grass-roots football than in any other country around the world.
I’m not here to tell you about the joys of having a beer when you are watching the game, eating freshly cooked food locally sourced (Sussex Stilton on your venison burger sir?), whilst taking part in the age-old tradition of changing ends at half time. We all know that is what makes watching non league football so great. Nope, I am here to extol the pleasures of one feature of the game at this level. Something that all you Premier League or nPower followers simply cannot understand the pleasure it brings us, whether our team is winning or losing. Two words. Golden Goal.
Whether you be 8 or 80, punk or rocker, innie or outie, Beatles or Stone, rich or poor, you have as much chance as winning as your mortal enemy. To me, it is quintessentially Non League, summing up the proximity the fans can get to the players themselves. The volunteers who man the buckets on the other side of the turnstile don’t need a long-winded sales pitch. A simple shake of the bucket and the utterance of those two words are enough to have even the tightest fan handing over a pound or two. Pure love goes into the preparation of the tickets – each is hand cut, hand folded and hand blessed, ready for the game.
Some, like Cynical Dave would never dream of opening their ticket until that first goal goes in, unwrapping the carefully folded piece of paper as if it were the last present under the Christmas tree. Others know their lucky minute from the first kick, caught in a dilemma if the ball is in your penalty area when the big hand ticks over to the right minute. Surely it’s OK to secretly hope for a goal, even if it’s at the wrong end if it means winning £25? Twenty-five pounds. A Pony. That’s a full day out in the non leagues and enough for your bus fare home where as that would get you little more than a seat behind a concrete post for thirty minutes at Loftus Road.
Some fans will always buy their tickets from the same person, digging deep into the bucket to secure their chance of winning. For me? I’m easy. I will often wait until kick off, relishing the fact that few tickets are left. There are, of course, some tickets you don’t want. I have pulled out nil-nil just once, which at this level is as good as throwing your money away (Lewes play out one per annum on average at The Dripping Pan). The 1st minute is also not a very good bet, as few teams tend to attack from the first whistle, although that would have been a winner twice this season. The 45th or 90th minutes are of course the best tickets as these give you the respective injury time as well – as we saw on Thursday against Margate.
And then there is the definition of the goal time. A ticket for the 30th minute could mean anything from 29 minutes and 1 second, or 30 minutes 59 seconds depending on who announces the goal time. On the occasions I have held the microphone I define the goal in the former, rather than the latter.
Often, holding out hope for winning the golden goal is the best part of the match. Surprisingly, non league games can often be dire. But having that potential small pot of gold in your hand, or pocket is often enough to get you through the worst.
So let’s look at the real life emotions of the Lewes fans as they took their place on The Jungle for the first half of the game against Leiston. Ah yes, Leiston. It is a dirty word down in these parts. Whenever things are looking bleak, you can snap out of it with the sentence “remember Leiston”. Whilst the two teams are today playing at the same level, back in October 2008 they were separated by four divisions. The teams met in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, one step away from the first round proper. After a surprise draw in Suffolk, few gave the Suffolk side any hope of victory in the replay. But not only did they win, they won easily, setting up a tie with Fleetwood Town. Don’t mention the word to captain Chris Breach who played on that night.
So four and a half years later we were meeting as equals. In fact Leiston were as good as safe as you could be for another season when they arrived in monsoon-like conditions. Lewes needed the points. Badly. All of us would of course swap not winning the golden goal for three points, right? Dave….RIGHT? At 2.45pm the main concern was whether the game could actually start at all. It looked like the Golden Goal tickets would all be null and void, unless someone had slipped in one that simply said “cancelled”.
Lewes 0 Leiston 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 13th April 2013
To the victor, the spoils of war are as sweet as nectar, so says my headline today. Alas that wasn’t any of us today. In fact with teams around Lewes pulling off more amazing results (bottom of the table winning at title-chasing Lowestoft Town would have busted on coupons), we could only grumble at the full-time whistle that the game should never have been completed. Conditions were poor, but were the same for both sides as they tried to play the ball through the puddles. Standing water made running, let alone passing almost impossible and so it was no surprise that the winning goal came from a weather-assisted mistake.
By the time Gareth Heath had seen his corner fly into the net, thanks to the strong wind which took keeper Tom Betts by surprise I had already lost any hope of winning my Golden Goal. For my piece today I had bought 5 (five!) tickets, ranging from 5 to 72 minutes. Most of the 400 plus crowd were resigned to seeing a goal-less draw as neither team could beat the elements.
Lewes came out for the second period wearing last season’s home kit such was the state of their attire after 45 minutes. Chances were few and far between. The Rooks had a good shout for a penalty as a Leiston player slid a dozen yards into the ball, clearing making contact with his arm but that would have been harsh. Only the brave (Dave Lamb), foolish (Nick Williams) and the Scots (Cynical Dave) braved the Jungle in the first half as the rain lashed down. For the second half not one person stood on the open terrace – a sight that has rarely been seen at The Pan.
The eyes of many in the Philcox were glued on their smartphones as events elsewhere started to unfold. A draw wouldn’t be a disaster for Lewes, even if most of the teams around us were at least getting a point. In fact with twenty minutes to play we had moved up to 4th from bottom. Who needs to win the golden goal when life is good. But then Leiston, on a rare venture into the Lewes box gained a corner. Heath swung it in, looking for the onrushing players on the edge of the six-yard box. However, the strong wind took hold of the flight and the ball arced under the bar, despite Betts desperate attempts to keep it out.
Full time saw the players get a standing (well, we were hardly likely to sit down on the wet terrace were we?) ovation. You could not fault the spirit or the effort today. The elements (and Leiston) had won. The fight for survival would take us to Earlsmead, north-west London, home of Harrow Borough in seven days, themselves not quite safe from the drop zone where the Rooks would have to fight for the golden goal and more importantly, the platinum three points.