There comes a point in life when you just need to give up on something. It doesn’t matter how many times you repair the holes in your lucky pants, you are simply kidding yourself – they aren’t fit for purpose. The late, great Roger Lloyd-Pack in his famous role as Trigger once said he had used the same broom for 25 years, albeit that in that period he had replaced the handle 1o times and the brushes even more. Tonight Lewes travel north of the Thames for the fifth time of asking to take on Grays Athletic in the Ryman Premier League. The teams were due to meet back in early November, then again in December, January and finally last night. As the rain started to fall around lunchtime today we all looked skywards. Someone up there simply didn’t want this game to ever take place. If it was cancelled a sixth time apparently both teams got a crystal decanter from the Isthmian League.
Grays, more than any other team in our division, have suffered during the past few months of poor weather. The problem they have is that they share facilities with Aveley at Mill Field, possibly the most exposed football ground in England which means the slightest bit of rain and the ground is waterlogged. Whilst they sit just above the relegation zone, they have played a whopping nine games less than the leaders Dulwich Hamlet and could still conceivably make a push for the play-offs, although having a minimum of three games per week from now until the end of the season could be a tall order for a squad of their size not to mention the lost revenue from these home games.
Just 12 months ago life looked so different for the club. After falling down from their Conference Premier league pomp, and finding themselves homeless, the club were hurtling towards promotion in the Ryman Premier North, playing at somewhere they could call home at the former ground of Ford United at Rush Green. Whilst it was a fair few miles away from their roots, it seemed to be somewhere that could be developed. Promotion was secured in the summer and then West Ham, being that generous community club that they are, decided to re-appropriate the ground at Rush Green to use for their Development Team, despite the promises made to Grays and the money they had spent to improve the facilities that had been neglected.
Grays went into this season with a groundshare with Aveley and for the first few games continued their promotion form, topping the table in September before their alarming slide down the table. Without a game for many weeks, the club did at least have the Ryman League cup run to fall back on which saw them ease into the semi-finals with wins against their landlords and then Chatham Town where Maidstone waited. Alas, any hopes of further glory were destroyed on the fantastic plastic at The Gallagher as the Stones ran out 6-0 winners on Tuesday night.
So what sort of team would The Rooks find when they made the trip across the Thames?I wish them well for the rest of the season of course but for tonight, Matthew, I’d like them to be tired and demoralised.
Grays Athletic 4 Lewes 2 – Mill Field – Thursday 27th February 2014
Alas Grays were neither tired nor demoralised. In fact they were positively flying as they dominated the first hour of this game. This wasn’t in the game plan as we arrived at Mill Field, one of the biggest grounds in English football. The footprint of the ground is huge, with a good 25 yards between the edge of the stands and the actual touch-line. Lewes tried to use the full width of the pitch, soon realising that it was almost as wide as it was long whilst Grays simply played the ball straight through the middle with better effect. 1-0. 2-0 (break for a cup of lovely soup in the board room) 3-0…it wasn’t going to be our night. Grays could even afford to field 37 year old Leroy Griffiths for the third time (only his 16th club of his long career), albeit sporting the cardinal footballing sin of a short-sleeve shirt and gloves.
I’m not going to mention that first fifty minutes anymore, suffice to say that the soup was the stand-out highlight! However, we did win that last forty minutes 2-1, and that’s what matters. Something clicked when we went 3-0 down and we sprung into life with Luke Blewden converting the best (and hardest) change he had of the evening and Jack Dixon scoring again. Thirty minutes to play and we had Grays on the ropes. Even Cynical Dave was on the phone to his bookie putting his ‘baccy money on a draw.
Alas it was not to be. Lewes huffed and puffed around the goal but found the Grays keeper in great form. Our two month unbeaten run had come to an end. With games against the top two coming in the next five days it was hardly the best preparation. But that’s why we love football. The unpredictability, the drama, the excitement, the chance to visit such places as Aveley on a Thursday night in February. Football was once again the winner.
After four weeks without a ball being kicked today looks like the day when we finally get to see some silky-smooth Lewes football. The Rooks have seen their last six games cancelled which now means they face 17 games in 8 weeks in March and April. Not that they are alone but it does reduce the concept of a league season from a marathon to a series of shuttle runs. In normal circumstances you wouldn’t bet against the teams with games in hand, but when you are forced to play 2 or 3 games a week most clubs would rather have the points in the bank.
However, you can never accuse the masters of our league of sitting on their hands and doing nothing. Oh no. This week they allowed VCD Athletic to play at home instead of away against Brentwood to avoid another cancellation (VCD sit top of the Ryman North with just the six games in hand over second place Soham Town Rangers). Respect.
Due to Bromley’s game scheduled for yesterday, our match against tenants Cray Wanderers had been shunted 24 hours later onto a Sunday. Now this was unusual. I had to consult with ClubSec Kev on the last time we played on a Sunday (Hendon away 2010). Personally I’m all up for Sunday games as it means I can slip in a bonus game on a Saturday – oh, sorry I meant do some scouting on the Saturday.
It was 40 years ago last month that league football (bar the Sunday League-type stuff) was held on a Sunday. Millwall may be called a lot of things, but trendsetters isn’t normally one. However, on Sunday 20 January 1974 The Lions welcomed Fulham at The Den in what was the first of a dozen games played on that day. On police advice the game was to kick off at 11.30am and admission was by buying a programme as it was illegal at the time to sell tickets for sporting events on a Sunday (one of the reasons at the time why Test cricket had a rest day) thanks to the Sunday Observance Act of 1780.
However it was really until the mid 1980′s that games were regularly played on a Sunday, when the first major TV rights deal was signed. ITV used to show a live game on a Sunday as part of the 2 year deal signed in 1983 for just over £5million, or 16 weeks of Wayne Rooney’s wages in modern monetary terms.
Time has moved on thankfully and Sunday’s now offer us all the same perks as the rest of the week. All day drinking, the ability to wash our cars on the drive (still outlawed in some European countries) and of course wall to wall football coverage on TV. It was therefore rude not to head to Weatherspoon’s at Bromley South, after getting the jet washer out, for a few beers with the Lewes Lunatic Fringe whilst watching Livorno v Hellas Verona on the big TV, followed by Rayo Vallecano v Sevilla and then the swift walk to Hayes Lane.
Cray Wanderers weren’t having the best of season’s. With four clubs due to be relegated this season they sat rock bottom coming into this game. They say it’s better to be in the gutter looking up at the stars than the other way round but that’s not a good look at the end of a Saturday night (apparently). The Non-Leagues today are full of examples of have and have nots. If the rumours are to be believed, one Kent-based club now has a weekly budget in excess of £5,000 per week which is crazy money at this level. Cray would simply love a place they could call their own home – a dream that every year takes one step forward and two steps back. Their latest attempts to get permission to move back to their homelands of the Cray Valley has met resistance from various factions.
Cray Wanderers 1 Lewes 5 – Hayes Lane – Sunday 23th February 2014
We can dress this game up any way you want but ultimately it was a walk in the park for Lewes. The fear we had walking to the ground from our colossal Sunday lunch and a few £2 (Two!) beers at Wetherspoons was that the players may have also indulged a little too much after the enforced break. Heck, it’s been so long since we say them play some may have even completed degrees with the Open University in Astrophysics.
But as the two teams lined up our fears subsided. Bromley FC has a strange beer zone in front of their main stand where you can consume a beverage. A row of tape and a steward marks the point where drinking is deemed acceptable and when it becomes a problem. In fact Bromley has more warning signs about not being allowed to do things than most Premier League grounds. My favourite is the warning about a “deep crevice” at one end of the ground. Picturesque as the ground is, it loves a queuing system as well with tape delineating the queue for food, beer and the toilets. Fun is OK, as long as it’s controlled and takes place between the line of tape
But we didn’t need tape or any silly rules about where we could and couldn’t drink because we had goals, and bags of them (assuming your bag could only hold a maximum of 4 goals). Ben Austin’s towering first half header from a Nicky Wheeler cross (“full-back not comfortable when wide player cuts inside” – tick) was merely the Hors d’oevres to a second half feast.
Luke Blewden doubled the lead with one of those near-post headers on the run that make even the most resolute fan punch the air in delight. Number three came from Jack Dixon’s penalty kick which had us scampering down the terraces to get an action shot and then Dixon scored his second with a screamer from the edge of the box. His early season goals had been vital in our challenge near the top so who’s to know what another purple patch could deliver now.
The fifth arrived when Sam Crabb played a neat one-two on the edge of the area, found some space and slotted the ball home. Cruel as it may be we urged the team on to score more, knowing that the home side were only 2 goals shy of conceding a hundred so far for the season.
A fine win, indeed the biggest win in the top 10 divisions of English football today, that saw us move up the table. With uncertainty still over what will happen with Maidstone if they finish in the top five, our eyes could start to turn to the playoffs if results over the next 10 days go our way. Best day ever.
It’s taken me the best part of two decades to realise that those in the North of England are a funny bunch. Twenty years of learning to communicate with my In-Laws. I understand that “cobs” are rolls, “tash” means good and “Now then” means hello, how are you. But this week I was left perplexed when looking for a game on Saturday.
With Lewes not playing until Sunday I took the opportunity to head up North to take in a game. When I suggested to Northern Steve that we headed to Rainworth today to watch their game against Loughborough Dynamo, he looked at me blankly. “Where is Rainworth?” he said. I explained it was the small village on the road from Newark-on-Trent to Mansfield, home to Rainworth Miners Welfare FC of the Evostik League. His eyes lit up…Ah, you mean “Rannoth”…”No, I mean R-A-I-N W-O-R-T-H”. “Yes, Rannoth”. To paraphrase my good friend Asterix, “These Lincolners are crazy”.
It appears there is a different language in these parts. I have become a patient linguist in my years of travelling the globe. I know the Danes have soft J’s but hard G’s and the Swedes the other way round – meaning that if you want a person for a party who can artistically throw balls in the air in Copenhagen then you ask for a “yuggler”, but in Stockholm it is a “jyler”. And don’t get me started about the five different ways to say your A’s depending if it is an ä, å, æ or a ã. But I expected a bit more sense from my fellow Englishmen. I sought solace with the Current Mrs Fuller but she just made the situation worse by reminding me of the places where we used to court nearby. Averham (“Airham”) and Belvoir Castle (“Beaver” obviously). I couldn’t win.
So off to Rainworth we went to the theatre of seams (coal-based pun), The Welfare Ground, home of Northern Premier League First Division South side Rainworth Miners Welfare. It’s been thirty years since the club had their finest moment, reaching the final of the FA Vase at Wembley Stadium, losing to Forest Green Rovers. Since then the club have slowly worked their way up the county leagues until in 2010 they were accepted into the Northern Premier, step 4 of the Non-League Pyramid. Since then they have been slowly building for the next push up the leagues.
I had been here before. It was a Valentine’s Weekend treat for CMF. The plan was to take in a game on the way through to Derbyshire for a night out. Alas, snow put pay to our visit (and the alternative games at Leek Town and Mickleover Sports) so we ended up in Den Engel, the UK’s second biggest Belgian Beer pub in Leek of all places. CMF was obviously devastated to miss the game having instead to stay at her childhood home and talk about shampoo. The lengths some people go to to avoid a game.
The ground isn’t to find. Indeed, nor is Rennorth. It used to be on the main road between Newark and Mansfield until they built the bypass. Passing trade has taken a nose-dive in these parts. Despite the club developing from a very close-knit community, the locals don’t flock to the Welfare Ground. An average of around 80 is comparable with their compatriots in the Ryman South but still equates to just 1% of the locals attending a game.
Rainworth Miners Welfare 0 Loughborough Dynamo 0 – The Welfare Ground – Saturday 22nd February 2014
You can have two different versions of events from the game. Version one is below, written by my fair hand and based on what I saw transpire over two hours, or you can look at the version on the Loughborough Dynamo website which said the game never took place because “following a security alert, and discussion between Nottinghamshire Police and the two clubs, this match was postponed just before kickoff”
I can assure you I was sober, was not asleep nor had taken any illegal substances. Whilst there wasn’t any goals, there was plenty of goal-mouth action although the Rainworth webmaster couldn’t resist the byline of “The last time Rainworth and Loughborough were scheduled to play a ‘bomb scare’ forced its postponement, today it needed a bomb to wake the sides out of their slumber.” It wasn’t that bad honest!
The open nature of the ground and the strong wind meant that whoever was kicking towards the A617 (Rainworth Bypass) had an advantage. Loughborough pressed hard in the first half hoping to continue their recent goal-scoring form that had seen them score fifteen goals in four games but they found that netty thing a harder target to hit than the bus stop single-seater stand behind the goal. Their fans seemed more concerned about the pies on offer at half-time. “Best get to T’bar early. Last season they ran out of mint sauce”. What is it with putting mint sauce on everything up here? My sister-in-law has it with chicken, beef, toast and porridge. It turned out that T’bar (its actual name and not a regional dialect) did indeed have mint sauce but a lack of hot pies – “do you want it warming, duck?”
Standing between the two benches gave us the opportunity to hear the strategic focus of both managers. “Forest are losing”….”What about Derby?”…”Still 0-0. West Ham beating Southampton though”….”Oh, hang on we have a corner. BIG JAKE…Get your head on it”. Big Jake was indeed a big chap, in every sense. Alas he didn’t put his height or weight to any effect especially in the second half when the ball was being pinged into the penalty area. “Mansfield one-nil up” one of the players told the bench, although I have no idea how we knew that!
The game was destined to finish goal-less. Both teams gave it their all but ultimately the lack of shots on goal proved to be a vital ingredient missing for a game with goals. But football was back, and that is all that mattered. Northern Steve and I went home with a big smile on our faces. Now to explain to our respective wives that we did really go to a game.