The Ball is Square

Playing away in Dreamland

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on April 13, 2014

13804963363_e4a9f3df14_b“Well I’ve been working hard to reach me sales target
To earn a few quid for an away trip down to Margate
I’m gonna blow my commission tomorrow on all me football family
We catch the train at eight so don’t be late, were off to see the sea”

We are the luckiest fans alive today. Who else wouldn’t want to be spending a day at the sunny British seaside today. It is fair to say that prior to the release of the fixtures back in July, Margate away in either the earlier part of the season or towards the end would have been perfect.  In the last two season we had been down to the Isle of Thanet in October and January, so it was time that the fixture computer was kind to us. What better way to celebrate our promotion than a knees up on the golden sands and sewage outflow pipe of the Costa del Thanet.

Well, as our big sweaty transatlantic friend still warbles, two out of three ain’t bad. We were going to get our day in the sun in April at Margate, and ‘that’ sign was still warning us about staying away from the pipe carrying ‘stuff’ into the sea, but alas there was to be no promotion party. In fact our recent, and by recent I mean the last half of the season, has been a bit of a mystery. With a third of the season gone we were one place and two points outside the playoffs. However, the harsh weather, which first kicked in in October for us seemed to throw a spanner in the works and since then we have taken on average a point a game.

I still get the “sack the board” chants aimed in my general direction by those who still don’t quite get this community club aspect and realise that I can’t be sacked by the fans (voted out in October, indeed) but we will finish the season in a stronger position both on and off the field than last season and can look forward to next season when the regeneration project will commence on The Dripping Pan which will ultimately give us a new viable revenue stream.

photo 4 (5)Our hosts today will also be looking forward to next season. Next chairman Bob Laslett has already shown his intentions by bringing former AFC Wimbledon manager Terry Brown. Rumours of weekly budgets in excess of £5k will certainly make them the favourites come August, but I hope the club don’t go down the all too familiar road of Non-League boom and bust.

Whilst the ambition for the owners may be a rise up the leagues, it has to be sustainable. Redevelopment work continues at Hartsdown Park and that will give them a solid base, but if they do “build it” who will come? Only twice this season has the attendance at home broken the 500 barrier and both of those were due to the sizeable away support of Dulwich and Maidstone. Success on the pitch will bring people through the gate – in their one season in the Conference Premier where they played in Margate (as opposed to the two seasons in Dover) they did get over 1,100 on average, fuelled by away fans making a new ground visit. Today that number has decreased by 66%. With three other Ryman teams almost on their doorstep, plus Gillingham and Dover playing at higher levels close by, it is hard to see where these new supporter will come from.

“Along the promenade we spend some money
And Cynical finds a spot on the beach that’s simply sunny
Big Deaksy will enjoy himself digging up the sand,
collecting stones and winkle shells to take back home to Dan”

But today is all about a bloody good day out.  With our final away game on Easter Monday at Harrow Borough not really ticking all of the boxes for a “Jolly Boys Outing”, today was all about a few beers, some sunshine, dare say a couple of giggles and if we were lucky, a Non-League dog or two. Heck, even a long overdue three points would be as good as a Kiss Me Quick hat, a lick of a lolly and memories of the Radio 1 roadshows down here as teenagers….happy days.

It is fair to say that the walk from Margate station to the town centre has seen better days.  It is a crying shame to see so many places that I remember as a kid boarded up.  Dreamland, still home to bits of the UK’s oldest rollercoaster stands desolate, like a Scooby Doo spooky location.  There has been years of talk about turning it into an interactive museum of the rollercoaster but that day seems along way off.

photo 2 (28)Thanks to ClubSec Kev’s inside knowledge we bypassed the Pound shops and arrived at The Lifeboat pub, possibly the best secret in the town with its range of over 20 local ales. Lunch consisted of a few pints from the Westerham and Whitstable Breweries, sharing our memories of what we had been doing on the 15th April 1989, the day of the Hillsborough disaster which every club would be respecting today.

Margate 1 Lewes 1 – Hartsdown Park – Saturday 12th April 2014
One taxi ride later and we were at Hartsdown Park.  You can see signs of the foundations being laid for the redevelopment and I’d hope they retain the existing structure at the Hartsdown Road, although essentially it is only a two-sided stadium with nothing at the far end bar the railing around the pitch and portakabins on the right hand side.

The minute’s silence was impeccably observed and it was fair to say that reflective atmosphere was adopted by Lewes in the first half as they struggled to make any impact at all on the game.  They lacked fight, bite, bustle, hustle and thrust.  Margate, with their megabucks budget didn’t really dominate, although they forced over ten corners yet really made little chances in the opening period.  In fact their opening goal came direct from a Sunday League style mistake by Malins who perfected an air shot when trying to clear and 31-club (THIRTY ONE!) Jefferson Louis made no mistake from ten yards.

13804975605_0100422596_bLewes were forced to shuffle the pack once again with an injury to Andy Pearson meaning midfielder Logan had to drop to centre-back and Jack Dixon coming on. Sometimes such events turn games and this is exactly what happened in the second half.  Lewes started to believe that they could get something from the game and pushed forward, using Crabb and Wheeler out wide.  In the 65th minute the ball found its way to Wheeler on the edge of the box, he shimmied, twisted, turned and dropped his shoulder to confuse the defender, putting him on his arse and then slotting home.

13804968985_3accd6dc40_bMargate were rattled and Cynical Dave smelt victory and told the Margate keeper and centre-backs so.  A few minutes later a miss hit shot from Dixon/Malins/Crabb (we can’t remember who exactly) bounced up on the hard surface and into the net.  Referee gave the goal but the linesman deemed the retreating Nathan Crabb and Luke Blewden in an “active” offside position despite no appeals from the Margate team.  Even the keeper agreed it was a harsh decision.

A point apiece was probably a fair result for a game of two halves.  The Lewes Lunatic Fringe partied like it was 1999 on the way back to the station.  It had been a great away day and our reward was a family size bag of imitation Frazzles and a few bottles of Pedigree whilst we reminisced about the season.  Days out like this make the wind, rain, snow, sleet, floodlight failures, abject defending and poor refereeing decisions all worth it.

“Down to Margate, you can keep the Costa Brava, I’m telling ya mate I’d rather have a day down Margate with all me Lewes family”

Honigkuchenpferd and all that business

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on April 7, 2014

Grantham Town v Frickley Atheltic…this wasn’t in the original plan.  If I could have followed that dream then I would have been recovering from Energie Cottbus v Dynamo Dresden, nursing a hangover and preparing for Hallescher versus Hansa Rostock along with Danny Last, Kenny Legg and The Real Stoffers.  Unfortunately work has got in the way recently and so I was swapping a “lively” atmosphere in the old East Germany for Lincolnshire.  Whilst Stoffers was sending me pictures of a heaving Erdgas Sportpark, I would be rattling around in the South Kesteven Sports Stadium with 200-odd other fans.

13647168185_be468d3211_bI could have been watching thousands of pissed-up German fans singing, chanting and waving stuff around in unison.  I could have been watching the Dresden fans trying to take on the finest German riot police.  I could have been wolfing down bockwurst, brautwurst, bierwurst and the odd knackwurst.  I could have been indulging in Hefeweizen, Helles and a cheeky Dunkle.  But who really wants that when, and I quote the oracle that is Wikipedia about Grantham:-

“Grantham has the country’s only ‘living’ public house sign: a beehive of South African bees situated outside since 1830″

Grantham is also notable for having the first female police officers in the United Kingdom, notably Edith Smith in 1914, and producing the first running diesel engine in 1892, and the UK’s first tractor in 1896.  Take that the EFW turncoats! I can see you seething with jealously from here.

But I am focusing on the positives.  I’m in the English sunshine, with Northern Steve enjoying a game at a new ground.  Yes, it may be an athletics stadium, and the crowd may be a bit on the thin side but I am doing what I love most, well almost.  And if I really am bitter and twisted about not being in Germany I can have a wander down Sankt Augustin Way, named after Grantham’s twin town in Germany and feel marginally better.

When I looked into the history of The Gingerbreads they seemed to major on one event.  Yes they once finished 2nd in the Southern League and could have applied to promotion to the Football League, back in the day when it was all done via a wink and a nod, and yes two years ago they won the Northern Premier League South Division but ask anyone about what they may know about Grantham Town and they will almost probably maybe say “Isn’t that where Martin O’Neill started his managerial career?”. Yes, indeed.

13647115383_b51fc0b294_bBut let’s look back at that golden period at the start of the 1970′s.  Successive promotions through the Midland and Southern League North saw them take their place in the Southern Premier Division in 1973.  An impressive FA Cup run that saw them beat Kettering Town, Hillingdon Borough and Rochdale saw the Gingerbread’s host Middlesborough, then as now in the second tier of English football in the 3rd Round of the cup.  A crowd of over 6,500 in their old London Road stadium saw them bravely go down 2-0 but the gate receipts allowed them to kick on in the Southern League and they finished runners-up to Dartford but decided not to apply for a place in the football league.

O’Neill joined the club in 1987 after retiring from playing in 1984 and managed them for two Southern League (Midland) seasons before heading to Shepshed Charterhouse.  Few who saw his team or management style would have ever anticipated that he would go on to manage at the highest level. But that was then, and this is now.

Unlikely to be relegated, unable to be promoted or make the play-offs, there is a danger that their season would fizzle out in the April gloom. It’s not often that Northern Steve and I get the opportunity to have an afternoon out without our respective wonderful ladies so I am sure it would be the best game ever…and at no point would my mind be wandering eastwards to the land of beer and brautwurst. Honest.

Grantham Town 2 Frickley Athletic 1 – South Kesteven Sports Stadium – Saturday 5th April 2014
For the best part of the first hour of this game I didn’t actually make any notes.  It wasn’t the best of halves, with both teams struggling with a bobbly pitch and the difficulties that come with playing in a “multi-sport arena”.  Frickley looked the brighter side but neither set of fans had anything to shout about.  Things livened up at half time, with the very smart bar rammed full of away fans singing songs about their love of Grantham’s favourite daughter, Margaret Thatcher and accompanying every Sky Sports half time score with a oooh or an ahhhh.  In fact I was quite happy to stay in the bar drinking a couple of pints of Hophead and watching the Grand National rather than emerging for the second half.  We looked longingly at the score at Chorley versus Droylsden and wished we were there, with the home side already seven (SEVEN!) goals to the good.

13647070365_11618c3892_bBut sense prevailed eventually and we emerged for the final twenty minutes.  Whilst Frickley were dominating play, they needed a win.  Other scores were putting relegation pressure back on the The Blues (playing in yellow – after all the clash of colours with a team in red was just too much) but with eight minutes to go a ball was played over the top and Hinsley ran onto the ball and smashed it home.

The good mood of the away fans lasted just four minutes.  A corner to the far post was driven back across the goal and Lister stuck out a foot and diverted it into the net.  If that was harsh for Frickley then injury time brought heartbreak as a free-kick from the left hand touchline was met at the far post where Michael Towey headed home to give the spoils to the home side.

It hadn’t quite been up there with the atmosphere at Energie Cottbus versus Dynamo Dresden, nor had my pint of Hophead been served by a buxom young lady in a dirndl. My sad face was plain for Northern Steve to see.  “Cheer up lad…we have a night out in Lincoln to look forward to.  I mean who in their right mind would rather be in Leipzig?”…..

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Team work makes the dream work

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on March 2, 2014

Lewes v Dulwich MaidstoneRemember my article from Tuesday night about The Nowhere Men and the dark secret world of the football scouts?  Well, here comes the litmus test.  Just how good was my intel when it mattered when Dulwich Hamlet arrived at the Pan for today’s game. Firstly we should all raise our glasses to the immense work carried out by the Pitch Team (groundsmen sounds so web 2.0) who once again performed miracles in getting the game on.  In fact, on Thursday it was almost as good as a goner, but then they found a machine in a locked cupboard at the ground which was basically a big sponge on wheels and used that to mop up the water.

We needed to get today’s game on.  Not only would the Dulwich fans be travelling in big numbers to see their table-topping side, but with only one game having been played at The Pan since Christmas, we could have really done with some gate receipts.  Some Premier League fans may not realise that it’s not all Official Partnerships with fizzy drinks companies, or selling media rights to Uzbekistan in the Non-Leagues.  We actually need paying fans through the gate on a regular basis so that we can do little things like pay players, utilities and maintain the ground.  With no chance of any help from our dear leaders at the league, Lewes, like virtually every other club at our level (and below) have had to pray daily for an end to the rain.

Beer-Festival-poster-e1391783221190There was also the small matter of the leftovers from the Lewes Beer Festival that needed finishing off.  Not that football fans need an excuse to have a beer, especially as at The Dripping Pan you can have said beer whilst watching the game.  Twenty guest ales, some of course exclusively provided by club sponsor and world-famous brewery, Harveys had been lined up for Friday night, and whilst the locals did serious damage to the volumes of beer, there would be some left over for today.  Left over beer?  No such thing.  Just beer that hasn’t yet been enjoyed.

So a perfect combination of football and beer was on the cards.  And to celebrate the sun even decided to make an appearance.  Terry had kindly pulled my lucky number out of the monthly Panning For Gold draw so I arrived at the ground £60 better off.  Could the day get any better?  Well if the Lewes side that traveled to Cray last Sunday made an appearance rather than the one that took the field at Grays on Thursday then this could be the best day ever.

Lewes 2 Dulwich Hamlet 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 1st March 2014
Sometimes you just want to bottle a feeling and smell it every day forever.  Not only did Lewes put on their finest performance of the season, nor did my scouting plan demonstrate the exact weaknesses that we exploited.  It wasn’t just the fine beers that were still left over from the Beer festival or the £60 I had in my pocket from the Panning For Gold.  It was a mixture of all of those elements plus the sun shining for the first time in months.  Heck, Piers Morgan could have been standing next to me today and I would have probably shaken his hand at the end of the game.

12863293954_f43a9a9d46_bAs we walked away from The Jungle at the end of the game we tried to decide who was our man of the match.  And therein laid the beauty of the day.  We couldn’t agree.  We couldn’t agree because to a man, every player who took part could have been in with a shout.  Football is a team game and that is how Lewes won.  Team work makes the dream work, so they say and that is what happened today.

We almost didn’t have a game at all.  Despite the efforts of the pitch team it seemed that the perfect playing surface wasn’t good enough for the referee when he arrived at the ground at 1pm.  He was “concerned” about a couple of areas of the pitch and ordered some sand.  Do you know how difficult it is to find sand in Lewes, on a Saturday, at 1pm when you have a 15 minute deadline.  Fortunately, Homebase had some sandpit sand that did the trick and we had a game.

12862852085_bf64a66ef3_bLewes started brightly with the three central midfielders, Dixon, Walder and Logan pushed up the pitch to stop the dangerous Dulwich midfield having time on the ball.  They weren’t hunting alone.  Every time one of them got the ball, the three Rooks surrounded them, hassled them and unnerved them.  Balls were played in behind the Dulwich full-backs thus stopping them getting forward.  Pressure was put on Chico Ramos in the Dulwich goal when he had the ball as he didn’t like to kick the ball.  All in the report lads.

Best chance of the first half fell to Blewden who saw his header hit the post.  Half-time and all square.  But that changed in the first 90 seconds of the second half.  Wheeler’s corner was caught by Ramos, who inexplicably dropped the ball over the line under no pressure at all.  Of course we went easy on Ramos for the rest of the half especially when ten minutes later he could only parry a Blewden shot that slowly trickled towards the empty net only for Adeniyi to make it back to clear.

If the referee was proving unpopular with the players, benches and fans alike due to some strange decisions (over ruling his linesmen on numerous occasions when they were better placed) then the build up to the Lewes second goal with ten to play saw him removed from the Dulwich Hamlet Manager’s Christmas card list forever.  Dulwich’s right-back Boyer left the pitch as part of a substitution but his replacement wasn’t quite ready.  The ball went out of play but instead of now allowing the replacement full-back on, he waved play on.  Lewes broke, Brinkhurst ran through the empty space, rounded Ramos and slotted the ball home.  The Dulwich manager was incensed and play was held up for six minutes whilst he argued with the officials despite being sent off.  At one point the referee and linesman retreated a good 20 yards from the bench and we feared he was going to abandon the game.

12862918703_5bf54cc46f_bFinally we were back underway.  That lasted 30 seconds before he saw another offence that no one else did and booked a player from each side whilst everyone was scratching their heads.  The second goal gave us some comfort as we played out the six minutes of injury time. Full time, job done.

One final word on the afternoon. Dulwich Hamlet’s fans came in numbers (about 150), saw their team underperform, but conquered with their non-stop singing and assisting in finishing the last barrels of beer from the Beer festival.  So in many ways, they were winners to.  Hats of chaps and the best of luck for the rest of the season.

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