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.
You 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?
Despite 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
In 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.
Lewes 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).
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.
We 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.
Whilst 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.
Both 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.
With 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.
After the euphoria of the last-gasp win in the Sussex Senior Cup it was time to return to Ryman Premier League action with a trip to the purveyors of fine free-flowing football, Billericay Town. Those of us who made the trip to Horsham on Tuesday night were rewarded with a smorgasbord of the elements as well as some late drama to pitch The Rooks into the last eight in the race to reach The Amex. So what better way to follow that than to spend a cold, damp afternoon in mid December than in deepest, darkest Essex craning our necks in the air as the ball by-passes the midfield?
At least you know what to expect when you play The Blues. Their manager, Carl Griffiths has modeled his side on those of Beck, Basset and Taylor, leading them to the Ryman Premier League title two years ago before they fell from the Conference South just a year later. Whilst The Blues are one of a large pack of “middling” teams in the third tier of English football, they do hold the honour of being the first club to win the FA Vase three times (ticks box of doing research on Wikipedia). Matches between the two sides have hardly been dull in recent years, and if I was a betting man (which of course thanks to The FA I’m not allowed to be) I’d have a sneaky £10 on a red card. Last season it was our captain fantastic, Jack Walder, who saw red. Walder was back from his long-term injury although he would be soon be missing again after picking up a red in his comeback game, playing for a Ringmer last week.
This was to be my last outing to watch the Rooks before Christmas, so there was bound to be plenty of festive cheer as we descended on New Lodge, Billericay’s ecletic ground on the edge of the Essex countryside. Despite the Rooks lowly position, you have to go back to the 19th October for the last defeat in the league. In fact, that bizarre game at Oxford City two weeks ago aside, it had been a pretty impressive run with wins in the FA Trophy and Sussex Senior Cup to go with the unbeaten league run.
Deaks had done his homework and found a decent pub in the town centre with a few new ales to sample, including possibly the best toilets this side of the West End. Two (2!) types of hand lotion in the toilets. As Dave said, you expected a little chap to pop out from behind the door with a squirt of Kouros. Not what you’d expect from the location.
A swift pit stop on the walk to the ground at Greggs ended in disappointment as they had run out of sausage rolls. That’s like a bank running out of cash, a pub running out of beer or Michael McIntyre managing to actually say something funny. It’s just not British is it?
The winter sun was causing us a problem as we walked down to the ground, meaning the toss could be a match decider. Of course, we lost that and Rikki Banks was soon regretting leaving his baseball cap in his car glove compartment.
Billericay Town 2 Lewes 2 – New Lodge – Saturday 13th December 2014
Six minutes into injury time the ball is launched into the Lewes area, surely for one final time. The initial four added minutes that the referee had said he was adding on have come and gone. The ball falls to Lewes’s stalwart Chris Breach, he slips, allowing a Billericay player a sight of goal. Lovegrove dives in, taking one for the team and it’s a penalty. One final hope of all three points stands 6ft 4inches tall. Rikki Banks dives the right way but Richard Halle’s spot kick has too much pace and the wild celebrations from the home side just shows the relief of grabbing a point.
Of course we could complain. But on at least four occasions this season the Rooks had benefited from extra injury time to grab valuable points or progress in the cup competitions. As they say, these decisions even themselves out over a season. It hurt – don’t get me wrong, but that’s football.
Despite dominating the opening exchange, including hitting the woodwork before we’d even picked up our chips from the refreshment kiosk, Billericay faded in the first half as Lewes simply out-passed them. There was no surprise when The Blues took the lead, although it wasn’t the long ball that led to the goal, rather than a powerful run from Sappleton through the middle of the Lewes defence before slotting home with ease.
Despite the state of the pitch, the Rooks looked to play the ball behind the Billericay back line with new signing Fraser, Davis and returning skipper Walder dominating the middle of the park. Confidence grew, chances came and finally so did the equaliser. Davis to Fraser to Cole, running onto the ball in the area and the ball was in the back of the net.
Tails up we went for another. Davis showed his dancing feet when the ball appeared to get stuck in the mud, shifting his weight from left to right, wrong-footing the defence and calmly slotting the ball into the net. Lewes were rampant. Blewden beat the offside trap but the final obstacle, the pitch, beat him.
The second half was a tighter affair with both sides struggling with the conditions. Billericay were reduced to ten men when Sappleton went in late on Fraser, the subsequent handbags essentially costing Lewes their victory with the time being added by one of the better referees we’ve seen at this level this season.
The final drama certainly gave us our money’s worth and no Lewes fans can really complain at the last gasp decision. We’d done our homework, stuck our game plan and came away with a moral victory if not with all three points.
Postscript: the title of today’s report relates a line from the song All Together Now, describing the events in The Somme from 100 years ago.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them