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.
It’s Saturday and of course that means there isn’t a game for Lewes. It actually could be any day of the week at the moment and the game wouldn’t be on. The rules state that we actually had to wait until Friday to officially call the game off, although the persistent rain during the last week had left a lake the size of the a swimming pool across the pitch.
The latest postponement, the fifth in succession, means that the club have played just two games at the aptly named Dripping Pan since November. Somehow, somewhere we have to fit in nine games that have now been postponed. Lewes aren’t the worst hit team by any means – Grays Athletic have played four games less than us and are still in the Ryman League Cup.
The debate over 3G continues to rage with over 550 games now postponed in the Ryman League. Whilst all of the clubs (bar Maidstone United and Harlow Town) are trying to think of ways to recover the revenues that they have lost, the Ryman League sit silently, waiting for someone to do something. The one thing that is certain is that next season they will have to act differently.
Most clubs and their fans expressed concern about the decision to increase the league size from 22 to 24 teams last year. Winter’s have been harsh in the Non-Leagues in recent times, resulting in some huge fixture pile ups which devalue the whole point of playing a league over nine months. The answer? Well, we could opt out of the Ryman League Cup if we wanted – hardly a compromise in most club’s eyes. Surely the most logical option would have been to start the season a week earlier (as the Football League did) or even extending the season into May (as the Football League do). Common sense?
My Saturday mornings recently had taken on a similar theme. Draw up a list of potential games to go to, watch them all slowly fail pitch inspections via Twitter and then at 2pm scramble around for a game to go to. These days it’s not just about watching a game for a game’s sake (cue corporate line here for the sake of the Current Mrs Fuller), I had the opportunity to do some secret scouting on one of our forthcoming opponents. With three of them managing to have a game within half an hour of TBIR Towers I had my afternoon mapped out. The lucky winners were Thamesmead Town who were hosting high-flying Wealdstone.
Romance was still in the air when I arrived at Bayliss Avenue. The club was handing out roses to any ladies coming through the turnstiles to mark Valentine’s Day. The club have made massive strides in recent years, converting the basic ground into a real community facility. The installation of their 3G pitch adjacent to the ground has given them an ongoing revenue source. In harsh times like these, many clubs in the lower steps of the Non-League structure in Kent have been using the facilities here to play their games. No irony here at all that clubs with fewer resources are the ones who have the means (and are allowed) to continue to play their games. Despite having the facilities at their ground, Thamesmead Town aren’t allowed to use the pitch for themselves if the main pitch is unplayable.
Wealdstone were the visitors, almost doubling the average attendance at Bayliss Avenue and boosting the takings over the bar. You cannot fault their loyalty to following the Stones away from home, with well over a hundred fans making their first visit to Thamesmead to see whether they could make up ground on the top two, Dulwich Hamlet and Maidstone United.
With so many teams having played different numbers of games, it is hard to really see what the true league positions should be. Lewes had dropped down the table from 7th in late November to 12th before this game, both as a result of a serious lack of games, but also due to drawing six of the eight games in that period. So what would the real league table look like if we had been able to play all of the scheduled games? Well thanks to my complex financial modelling I can now exclusively reveal what the true Ryman League table would look like.
So the visitors would be sitting pretty at the top if all things were equal. But we know that football isn’t that predictable, otherwise my weekly accumulator would see me dine on Filet Steak and drinking Adnam’s Ghost Ship every week.
Thamesmead Town 0 Wealdstone 2 – Bayliss Avenue – Saturday 15th February 2014
Prior to kick off, Thamesmead manager Keith Mahon was recognised for the performance of the month for January with regard to Mead’s fantastic 4-1 victory over league leaders Maidstone United. Any hopes of a repeat performance over another Stones team dissolved within 90 seconds of kick off in the bright sunshine when James Hammond overlapped down the right hand side, whipped his cross in and Michael Malcolm swept the ball into the net. The romance was dead.
In truth this was a walk in the sunshine for Wealdstone who were rarely troubled. Thamesmead got stronger as the game progressed, playing the ball around midfield well although without any threat up front, the Wealdstone centre-backs had an easy afternoon. At half-time Bartlett saw a weakness in the Thamesmead backline (he must have been reading my notes) and changed the 4-3-2-1 to a more traditional 4-4-2 with Malcolm pushed in from a wide position to play alongside McGleish up front. Sorry, tactical analysis over.
Fifteen minutes into the second period Wealdstone were awarded a penalty. No real complaints on the decision, although the referee had let worse challenges go at the other end of the pitch and so you could understand the frustration of the Thamesmead bench. Cronin stepped up and smashed the ball home to double the lead.
Full-time saw the Stones fans celebrate a decent win. Their afternoon was made all the more sweeter by defeats for Kingstonian, Dulwich Hamlet and Maidstone United. It’s still not clear what the situation with Maidstone United is in terms of whether they will be allowed to even take part in the Play-offs but with wins for AFC Hornchurch and the form of Bognor Regis Town with seven wins out of their last eight games it may not yet be a done-deal. Perhaps romance isn’t quite dead, although it may take the creative brain of Shelley, Byron or Audley to find a story that sees Thamesmead avoiding the drop at the end of the season.
It’s the second weekend of February. I’ve just returned from a business trip in Copenhagen where the snow lays fresh on the ground and the temperatures barely broke freezing point. Whilst people’s perception of Denmark is that at this time of the year it is a frozen wasteland, the snow has arrived nearly two months later than normal – hardly ideal when their football league is coming towards the end of their winter break. A few inches of snow doesn’t stop sport in these parts. A few years ago I experienced the lowest temperature I had ever experienced at a football match in Randers, in the north of Denmark when the FC Copenhagen were the visitors in a game played among piles of snow and temperatures as low as minus 15. It was November. Today it is February and we are still yet to see any of the white stuff. We know though that when it arrives it will be the worst winter ever .
Because we need more issues with the weather right? I can’t remember a day when it hasn’t rained this year. On Friday I was supposed to be heading for the bright lights of Newport County but their game against Fleetwood Town fell victim to the rain. To add insult to injury (as well as the reported £180,000 the club has lost since late December) the Football League had written to the club to “express concern” at the fact their last four (now five) games had fallen victim to the weather. Really? As if the club needed any reminding! They even approached AFC Wimbledon, opponents for their next home game on Tuesday night to see if the game can be played in Kingsmeadow, but I am sure there is a rule somewhere the footballing authorities have saying they can’t.
But what about further down the leagues? Some County League clubs haven’t seen any action since mid-December. In the Ryman League once again over 80% of the games this Saturday were cancelled. Of course the league authorities are all over the situation, giving help and support to the clubs who are suffering. Yeah, right. Not a word apart from a reminder that when a game is cancelled, we need to re-arrange it as soon as possible. Our postponement count so far has now reached eight games. Eight games that we now have to fit in somehow, somewhere. And that is before any of the potential white stuff arrives causing more chaos. Our game today away at Enfield Town was called off DESPITE the pitch being playable when the pitch inspection was carried out. The referee decided, without any consultation with Lewes, that conditions would get worse and it would be an issue for us to travel at 9.15am. Thanks for that. If he would have bothered to ask he would have found out we were willing to travel.
With clubs up and down the country in a similar position surely the leagues need to start taking action now? We already have nine games scheduled for March. Who benefits from that? Certainly not our attendances as fewer away fans are able to travel during mid-week, certainly not our finances as non-season ticket holders can’t afford to attend all the games (we currently have 4 homes games in 11 days), certainly not our pitch which is already suffering from constant pools of water sitting on the surface for weeks on end and certainly not for the players who face a strain on their normal working lives in playing all of those games. But there is a proven answer. Two letters – 3G.
Anyone who watches games in the Non-Leagues in the south of England knows about the success of Maidstone United and their Gallagher Stadium. They took a risk in building a 3G pitch and it has paid off. Regular crowds of over 2,000 at Step 7 of English football, higher than many teams in the Football League have supplemented the income generated by having an asset that can be used for 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Whilst other fans are forced to head to Ikea on a Saturday afternoon at the moment, Stones fans cram into the Spitfire Lounge, spending their cash over the bar before watching their team lead the Ryman Premier League. Life is good in Kent. Or so it should be.
Alas, Maidstone’s charge up the leagues ends here. Two weeks ago the Conference sides met to discuss the prospect of allowing 3G pitches in their structure. They voted against allowing them, thus denying Maidstone any chance of promotion. However, Maidstone aren’t taking this laying down, and quite rightly so. The voting process was not representative of all of the clubs. Whilst the Conference Premier clubs each got a vote, those in the North and more importantly, the South where Maidstone would be promoted to, had just four votes for the whole league. Second class citizens? Absolutely. The vote was in favour of not-allowing 3G by 21 votes to 11. Conference South clubs like Sutton United are championing the cause as they are very keen on installing one themselves. Their manager, Paul Doswell, summed up the situation clearly:-
“It is all about promotion to the Football League, where 3G pitches are not permitted. Most Premier clubs have ambitions of promotion so they are not going to vote in favour because it does not suit them.
“They are not going to consider the clubs further down the pyramid and do us a favour – this is just them looking after number one.”
With no sense of irony today, 9 of the 11 games in the Conference South (and 7 out of 11 in the Premier) were postponed whilst the Stones welcomed Canvey Island and 1,794. spectators, a bigger attendance than at every game in the league above bar one.
Maidstone United 1 Canvey Island 1 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 8th February 2014
With Lewes’s game being cancelled I took the opportunity to slip on my scout’s coat and head down the M20 to take a look at The Stones. We are due to play them in 4 weeks (another re-arranged game) so you can never watched enough of an opposition – well that’s what I told The Current Mrs Fuller anyway. This was my third visit to the Gallagher and on the previous two occasions (in July and August), the torrential rain had put the completion of the games in doubt. Third time unlucky? It certainly appeared that way as I headed down the motorway.
The ground was buzzing when I arrived at 2.15pm. The bar was rammed with people enjoying the Arsenal thrashing on the TV and the number of fans with various other club’s coats, hats and scarves suggested that once again this was the last cab on the Non-League rank. Whilst our cupboards have been bare for weeks, Maidstone have been dining on fillet steak – and they deserve a bit pat on the back for that (and Harlow Town in the Ryman North who also have a 3G).
As if my divine request the rain held off for nearly two hours whilst the game was played. Dare I say it that the sun even made a rare appearance. Your remember the Sun? Big yellow ball of fire in the sky? That’s the fellow. Well, he seemed to enjoy his afternoon out even if the Stones fans didn’t.
The club had recently brought in Luke Rooney, the ex-Gillingham wide midfielder. Playing week in, week out in front of four figure crowds means that they can afford to bring in players of his calibre and manager Jay Saunders changed his formation to accommodate Rooney. The Stones got out of jail late in the game when Collin converted a penalty after Attwood was brought down by the Canvey keeper in a game that they were second best in most areas.
Canvey had begun with John Sands in their starting XI, the man who scored a 20 minute hatrick against Lewes just a few weeks ago and the striker was a constant thorn in the side of the Maidstone back-line. The home crowd groaned in frustration as the away side’s sturdy defence held firm on the perfect surface. Half-time, with the game scoreless, the crowd headed for the bars and catering facilities to boost the finances even further.
The visitors took the lead early in the second half when Curran’s near post run wasn’t picked up and he had the easiest job to head home. Maidstone huffed and puffed but simply couldn’t break down a determined Canvey side who looked rejuvenated since Sands joined them at Christmas. But they couldn’t hold out. With their goal under siege, Attwood burst into the area and was brought down by keeper Chalmers-Stevens who could be thankful he only got a yellow and Collin smashed home the spot kick.
The rain started falling again just as the final whistle blew. Over 1,700 fans may not have seen the best game of the season but it was a game and in the current scheme of things that is as rare as our footballing authorities doing something to help clubs at this level. The Conference may think they have won the 3G battle but I think the war hasn’t yet started.