It’s a glamorous life sometimes. Commonwealth Games one week, the luxury of being a guest in an executive box at the Schalke Cup, a visit to see the New York Cosmos and then hobnobbing with the world’s press fawning over Gareth Bale in the Super Cup final. Hard life, some may say. But I’d swap it all for a bit of Non-League action. Well, maybe not all of it.
So sandwiched between the MetLife Stadium, New Jersey and the Cardiff City Stadium, in er Cardiff, is a trip to the Village Glass Stadium, Witham. I can imagine your thoughts are racing, heartbeat speeding up and a few more butterflies fluttering in your stomach. Or is it just me.
The new Ryman Premier League season is upon us once more and The Mighty Rooks are on the road on day one, travelling down the A12 to visit newly promoted Witham. Let’s get the main fact about ‘The Town’ out of the way early shall we? Olly Murs once graced the turf here in his pre-billy big balls days. Few Non-League teams can boast an X-Factor runner-up as one of their old boys but that’s no excuse for playing his songs as part of the pre-match entertainment. That would just be cruel on us visitors. Just like those 100,000 Chelsea fans who were all in the Allianz Arena two years ago when they won the Champions League, thousands of Murs fans saw him make his September against Waltham Abbey six years ago and double that witnessed his one and only goal for the club a week later at Potters Bar Town. Perhaps one day there will be a Louis Tomlinson-style take over the club (or not)? Stranger things have happened.
After a shaky couple of pre-season results, the Rooks new-look team began to gel, earning very credible draws against big sides like Eastbourne Borough and Charlton Athletic. Oh, and Whitehawk. However, the side that would take the field today against Witham would look very different due to injuries to key players like Jack Walder, still getting back to full fitness after his horrific injury at Thamesmead in March, and the impressive Henry Muggeridge. Also missing in the centre of the park would be the suspended Jack Dixon. Still we always had Fraser Logan as cover there….except judging by his Instagram snaps, Fraser was a few hundred miles away in a sunny beach with his family. That is of course unless it was Clacton-On-Sea rather than Kos. We were also going to be missing our physio Natalie who chose to get married instead of working at our game last week at Eastbourne. Priorities, eh!
This is the best Saturday of the year in Non-League calendar. All of the hopes and dreams of a record-breaking season are still alive at 2.59pm – longer in a number of cases. The sun is shining, the banter is fresh, we can excuse a bad pass or two and even Terry’s jokes are bearable. We all know that it will never last and soon we will be caught up in a spiral of frustration as our dreams, in the words of many a West Ham fan, “fade and die”.
My long journey to Essex started at midnight when I boarded a flight from JFK to Heathrow. Six hours later and I was kissing the tarmac in London. If only our transport network was so efficient. Three hours, FIVE trains later and I was back at TBIR Towers. A short re-introduction to the family and I was back in the car, this time re-acquainting myself with the M25 as it crawled at 10 miles per hour north. When I eventually arrived at the, deep breath, Village Glass Stadium, I had spent six hours travelling since landing early. But I’m sure come 5pm it would all be worth it.
Witham Town 1 Lewes 1 – The Village Glass Stadium – Saturday 9th August 2014
You can look at this result in one of two ways. Any draw away from home when the conditions aren’t suited to your style of play and you have a number of key players missing, is a good result. Alternatively, you can look at the balance of play and the fact you had the best chances and go away disappointed. On the whole I would say that our view moved from the latter at full time to the former on the long journey home a view shared by the Lewes Manager, Garry Wilson twenty minutes after the final whistle.
We all gathered in hope behind the goal as the Lewes team, wearing their new “bright” kit that brought Barcelona so much luck a few seasons ago. The pitch, to coin a James Boyes, was like a “deep shagpile carpet made of straw”, seeming to be suffering from the effects of the sun so early in the season. Lewes had managed to extract Fraser Logan from a bar in Kardamena at 3am and he anchored the midfield, allowing the new strike force of Blewden and Dodd to run the two centre-backs ragged in the first twenty minutes. Both defenders were yellow carded for heavy tackles in the first half an hour, one of which forced Ross Treleaven out of the game, adding more woes to our midfield situation.
Lewes started well, using Wheeler on the wing to get behind the defence and putting the balls into the box for Dodd and Blewden although their efforts were well saved by the Witham keeper, who was firmly in the banter bracket, enjoying giving as good as he got with the travelling fans. Nothing nasty, all good-hearted and of course he was clapped off the pitch by us all at the end of the game.
The club had recently had the bad news of the death of their chairman and he would have been proud to see how resolutely they played in the remainder of the half. The home side should really have scored themselves when Ryan Blackman blazed over the bar from eight yards out with the goal at his mercy.
After a swift slice of cake, served with a cheeky smile by the ladies in the boardroom we were back at it. Finally Lewes broke the deadlock when Dodd’s effort was blocked and strike-partner Blewden smashed it home from close range. Alas, the lead just lasted seven minutes when Banks hesitated and Godbold headed home. Witham were now holding their own, looking dangerous when they came forward and being cheered on by the hundred or so home fans.
The drama was over though. As the clock ticked towards the 90th minute a high ball over the top of the Witham defence saw Nathan Crabb get in from of Ruel who appeared to deliberately run into the Lewes forward felling him in the penalty area. The Witham defender, using every trick in the book stayed down until the referee stopped play as Lewes were preparing another assault on the Town goal.
That was the last chance. The Rooks had to make do with a point, coming away from Essex with another injury that will hamper team selection for the two games coming in the next week against AFC Hornchurch and Billericay Town, two sides who tend to play on the physical side. But football is BACK. Who cares about traffic jams, delayed trains and bobbly pitches. The season is well and truly underway once again.
“It’s a marathon not a sprint”.
The favourite line of football commentators, players and managers when they lose a game during the season. The season isn’t won or lost over 90 minutes but over the course of nine months. Technically that is true, but when it comes to play off time, then the previous efforts go out of the window and it all comes down to ninety or in some cases, one hundred and eighty minutes of football.
The end of season play offs are the high point of the season. Two teams essentially fighting like gladiators in the Coliseum. Only one can walk away a victor, battered and bruised ready for the next opponent, whilst the loser has nothing but memories of a successful league campaign that ultimately led to nothing to console themselves with. People who say the play-offs are unfair are either a) play-off losers or b) anti-football fans.
Yes they are incredibly harsh sometimes. Take FC United of Manchester. In with a shout of the Evostik Premier title until the final day of the season, they finished 16 points above 5th place Ashton United this season, yet in front of nearly 3,000 home fans this week, they lost in extra-time. Their dream of moving up to the Conference North for the first time in their history was dashed by a 120th minute goal by Ashton’s Jack Higgins. In the Ryman Premier League, the teams finishing 2nd and 3rd, Bognor Regis Town and Kingstonian respectively, both lost their home play off matches this week.
I can still remember the pain of 2004 in Cardiff when West Ham lost to Crystal Palace in the Championship Play Off final. Palace had come from nowhere to sneak into the play offs at the last gasp and feeling the injustice of the fact that without the play offs we would have been promoted in third. The following season it was our turn to sneak in at the last-minute and were promoted after beating Preston North End having finished twelve points behind 3rd placed Ipswich Town.
I’d still like to see a team from the division above thrown into the mix as it used to be the case when the play offs were first introduced into English football back in 1987. In that season Charlton Athletic had finished third bottom in what was then Division One, and then beat Ipswich Town, fifth in Division Two, to play Leeds United for the place in the top tier. After two 1-0 wins for the home sides, the game went to a replay which the Addicks won 2-1 after extra-time and thus retained their place in the top division. In the league below the story was slightly different as Sunderland were relegated from Division Two after losing a humdinger of a tie against Gillingham, who finished fifth in the third tier on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate score.
There can be few things more dispiriting in football than being roundly beaten in the first leg of a play off game. On Tuesday night, Bromley FC, who had led the Conference South table for the best part of half the season, only relinquishing control for the last time in March traveled down the A2 to face Ebbsfleet United who only secured their play-off spot with two weeks to go. Bromley would have fancied their chances to have come away from Stonebridge Road with at least a draw, especially as their coach, Hugo Langton is a master of preparation and would have had a game plan nailed on. However, fate can sometimes be a fickle friend. Ebbsfleet opened the scoring after just 60 seconds and then less than ten minutes later Bromley’s Ashley Nicholls was sent off for deliberate handball and Ebbsfleet were 2-0 up from the resulting penalty. Two further goals proved the David Pleat theorists wrong in the perfect storm – i.e “Playing against 10 men is often harder than 11″ and “2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline in football”.
But Bromley do at least have a second bit of the cherry. Miracles do happen in football (just look at the fact Sam Allardyce is still in a job, or that Stoke City now play attractive football) so it was with the hope of a reversal of fortune that I planned my last Saturday of domestic action of the season. They were desperate to have a shot at the Conference Premier, having never ventured so high in their history. The excellent book, The Bromley Boys by Dave Roberts (coming to the silver screen soon) highlights the time when, in Roberts’s eyes, they were the worst team in England. They have got better since those days, and now with one of the finest Non League grounds in England, they had all their ducks in a row to have a crack with the big boys of the Non League.
Ebbsfleet on the other hand were past masters of the Conference Premier. The one consolation they could take if they somehow lost this game was that they would have two local derbies against Dartford to look forward to, after the Darts relegation from the Conference Premier last weekend. But that would be a small moment of happiness. They drove up the A2, around the M25 and then followed the A21, making sure to watch the speed camera at the Michelin-starred Chapter One, with more than hope in their hearts. They could almost smell the final where Sutton United or Dover Athletic would be waiting.
Bromley is only a bus ride away from TBIR Towers so it would be rude not to let such a potential momentous occasion pass by. The core of the LLF were also en-route, fuelled by Terry’s 50p off beer vouchers for Wetherspoon’s and the prospect of no footballing action in Sussex. The sun was shining so it was undoubtably going to be the best day ever.
Bromley 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – Hayes Lane – Saturday 3rd May 2014
This wasn’t a thriller to be honest. Both camps said as much in their post-match comments to the press. Bromley had to come out of the blocks flying and try to make an immediate impact into the four goal deficit. They couldn’t. The very big and strong Ebbsfleet defence held firm, using delaying tactics when they could to take the sting out of the Bromley momentum, whilst every so often using their wide men to push the home team onto the back foot.
With a quarter of the game gone Ebbsfleet appeared to have taken the lead. A fifth goal over the tie would have had the fat lady on the pitch singing her heart out but the referee deemed that the scorer, Ben May, had used a hand instead of his head. Harsh from our angle. The scare seemed to shock Bromley into life and within two minutes they had taken the lead with a cracking strike from Danny Waldren. Every long journey starts with one small step – but would this be too little too late in the tie?
Bromley really needed a second before half time to stand any chance of turning the tie around. Higgins went close with another strike from distance which Fleet keeper Edwards did well to push away but I think the visitors back four have had harder afternoons this season.
The second half saw Ebbsfleet slowly start to press the Bromley midfield and thus back into their own half. The home side simply could create anything of note bar a Waldren header. Ebbsfleet could have had a goal themselves when the impressive McMahon fired his shot narrowly wide. A brief moment of hope appeared with ten minutes to go when Rance was given a straight red for his challenge on Goldberg but the numerical advantage lasted all of three minutes when Bromley’s Holland received a second yellow.
Despite five minutes of injury time being played, Bromley knew the game was up. It had been a long, hard season where they had fought and won for the most part. Their fans stayed behind to salute the team, but the feeling of despair was clear to see as they slowly walked off the pitch for the final time this season. Ebbsfleet would now be hosting Dover Athletic in the Final, who had surprisingly beaten Sutton United 3-0 despite playing for 80 minutes with ten men.
The end of a football season is a day of mixed emotions. For some fans there will be the euphoria of promotion, the nervousness of not wanting to be totally embarrassed playing at a higher level next season, whilst for others there is the dread of relegation, the gnarling feeling that your team is too good to go down and that immediate promotion is so much of a certainty they may as well not relegate you at all. For the vast majority of us though it is simply a time to breathe a big sigh of relief that another campaign of broken dreams and false hope has ended. “Next season, it will be all so different” we tell ourselves, knowing deep down that apart from the odd result here and there, it wont be any different at all. In fact it will be exactly the same, with only the players names being different.
In the Non-League world we have the added concern about whether the club we support will still be going come August. In the past nine months a number of teams have simply given up mid-season, realising there is no future for them. Spare a thought for the Eastwood Town or Rye United fans who would have started the season will hope in their hearts only to see the club they loved vanish before the first signs of Spring. You can’t be a glory hunter in the grass roots game that’s for sure.
Today was my last visit to the Dripping Pan for the season (for footballing reasons anyway). With a work trip taking across the Atlantic next weekend, the visit of Bury Town would be my sign-off for the season. The lot of being a Director of the club however, does mean I will still be involved in the club every day of the Summer break. And what a Summer it promises to be. We have some big plans this year, plans that will hopefully see us start the long climb back up the Non-League pyramid. For us at Lewes it has been all about stability in the past few years, picking up the pieces of the broken Non-League dreams of our fathers and patiently gluing them back together to make sure they don’t shatter again. Get the off the field stuff right and on the field it will click into place.
Our season has been no different to 75% of the rest of the Ryman Premier League clubs. We have had high points – a fourteen game unbeaten start to the season gave us all hope that this season could be the one, followed by six weeks without a game due to the weather that ultimately decided our fate. A mad March saw us having to play nine games, including matches against the six of the top seven in the division with a heavy injury list. Things got so bad that it was nearly time for me to polish up the Puma Kings. But our Premier League survival was ensured mathematically a week or so ago meaning that we would be living to fight another day next season.
Planning for the end of season period starts around Christmas time. We need to ensure we have budgeted for all the essential work that needs to take place around the ground, including the pitch. Many fans forget that we have zero income from the end of April to July when we start selling Season Tickets, yet costs are still incurred. The land grab of trying to find a “big” club to come down and play in a pre-season friendly often starts a year in advance, and this year, without mentioning any names, we think we have pulled the golden rabbit out of the hat – I would say more but fear for my life from the wrath of Garry Wilson. A game against a big name side can generate a huge amount of cash for a Non-League club – a crowd of even 1,500 paying an average of £10 (inc food and programme) would be enough to bring in two or three more decent players for a season. Yet it is the hardest job in the world to get any of the big clubs interested – they probably received dozens, if not hundreds of requests to play against Non-League teams every season, each one as deserving on paper as the next.
There’s no better place to watch a game when the sun is shining than at The Dripping Pan, and with Brighton not having a game today the hope was a decent attendance. Sure, there was nothing to play for but pride and a mid-table league position, but at least there are no dodgy dealings going on akin to a Biscotto, the Italian term used for convenient drawn games at end of season which hinders neither side. Our attendances this season had fallen in the past two months with so many midweek home games but still we would finish the season with an average just over 500 – a figure higher than more than 60% of the teams playing in the Conference North/South.
Everyone was looking forward to the game. After the win in midweek this was a banker walk in the park. And then our mood changed. At the side of the pitch was Patrick Marber. The doom-monger. The curse of the Lewes win. If we had any sense we would have left there and then and headed down the road to Whitehawk for the afternoon. His track record of not seeing us win this season played on all of our minds. Despite his place in the Lewes Hall of Fame somewhere in the past few years he had brought a curse across the Pan whenever he visited. Dave suggested we all pissed on him to remove the spell and had to be forceably stopped dropping his trousers on the Jungle as the game kicked off.
Lewes 1 Bury Town 4 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 19th April 2014
After 30 minutes there wasn’t anyone in the ground who thought this wasn’t going to be our day. Winning one-nil thanks to Joel Ledgister’s sixteenth minute headed goal, and Rikki Banks having saved a harshly-awarded penalty when the Bury forward ducked his head into Malins clearance, it was the best day ever. The sun was shining, the Harvey’s was a perfect temperature and even Patrick Marber was admitting the curse had been lifted. And then it went wrong.
Just before half-time Bury Town’s Wales stumbled into the area, picked up a deflection or two and manage to stab the ball passed Banks to equalise. It hadn’t been the best of halves, enlightened only by the goal, penalty save and the heated debate between Marber and Lord Plumpton about the fact both held the same Golden Goal ticket.
If the first half was low on excitement then the second was utterly forgettable, at least for the Rooks. Ten minutes in and Allen smashed the ball into the roof of the net to put the visitors into the lead. Five minutes later and the referee was once again called into action to make a big decision, this time deeming Jack Dixon’s tackle on Bennett was late and dangerous, although the influence of the two Bury centre-backs who ran 70 yards to give their opinion seemed to sway his opinion that is was a straight red and not just a yellow.
The goal meant Lewes had to throw on the not fully fit Nathan Crabb up front and pull Blewden into midfield. Bury simply stepped up a gear and scored two more without the Rooks ever threatening the visitors goal. Chants went from “sack the board” to “say away Marber”. But like water of a duck’s back he vowed to be back next week for the visit of Leiston.
It was a disappointing end to my Dripping Pan season but I would be back (well, I have to as we have bi-weekly Board Meetings) next season, which would undoubtably be the best season ever.