There can be few better feelings in life than watching a game of football with the sun beating down on your face, beer in hand surround by England’s green and pleasant land. Add in a view to die for and a pie with gravy and this could be Nirvana. I could have chosen one of twenty games in the Premier League or the Skybet divisions today that were within an hour’s drive of Northern HQ but instead I’m at Causeway Lane, Matlock, in the heart of Derbyshire’s Peak District. Even the sale of the naming rights to the ground (“The Autoworld Arena” conjures up images of Speedway to me) can’t spoil the beauty of the moment.
Nobody was telling me to sit down, taking my beer away or trying to sell me a credit card. Watching football at the highest level of the game in a England has been a joyless experience for a number of years. As each season passes and clubs find more ways to justify ticket price hikes whilst greedily scooping up more cash from TV deals, pre-season tours and bizarre commercial partnerships. It’s no surprise that the governing body, the Football Association are just as guilty these days, happy to put aside their unelected mandate to run our game with a focus on all aspects and all levels for the latest sponsorship deal. I still find it incredible that an organisation that talks about the importance of sport for children to maintain a healthy lifestyle by signing long-term commercial deals with the world’s most recognised fast food brand and a brand of beer.
I was here on a mission from God. Well, sort of. The little Fuller’s had been enjoying a week of a Northern life at the in-laws and I was here to collect them and re-as simulate them back into normal life. Whilst the Current Mrs Fuller was conducting a Southern language lesson I took my leave and headed 39 miles west to Matlock. How could anyone resist this game? The Gladiators versus The Spartans played in one of the finest arenas that England has to offer.
I was disappointed when I rang the club in the week and asked if I wore my toga I’d get in free? It appeared that the Matlock Town marketing machine had let the opportunity of a themed match day experience pass them by. I’m sure Woburn Safari Park could’ve had done without a lion or two for the afternoon and as for an orgy? Well I’ve still got the numbers for a couple of trainee Bunny Girls I met at the Playboy Mansion a few years ago (Did I tell you I’ve been to the Playboy Mansion?). But any sad face soon disappeared when I pulled into the car park on the cricket pitched, stopped at mid wicket and looked straight ahead at the three-sided Causeway Lane ground. Ruddy marvellous.
The Northern Premier League, just like its southern cousins, is a pig to get out of with only the winners guaranteed a spot in the Vanarama Conference North. Last season, Blyth finished in 8th spot, not too far off the play-offs although quite how they would fair in tier 2 of Non-League football is another matter, with significant away trips to Oxford City(550 miles), Worcester City (500 miles), Gloucester City (550 miles) and a whopping 600 mile round trip to Lowestoft. This underlines the main issue with the current non-league structure – trying to fit clubs into a rigid structure that ignores geography. The big elephant in the room, still, is FC United of Manchester with their travelling legions and inability to progress out of the NPL Play-offs. A visit by the bootleg Red Devils swells the coiffures of all the clubs in this league.
I handed over my £9 for entry, £2.50 for my pie and £2.70 for my pint and I was a happy man for the next two hours. My afternoon was completed by seeing two of the finest Non-League photographers known to man, Chris Hayes and Paul Paxford at the far end and made my way down there to get snap happy.
Matlock Town 1 Blyth Spartans 1 – Causeway Lane – Saturday 23rd August 2014
Opposite the ground is Hall Leys Park, where their Bank Holiday festivities were well underway. As the two teams emerged the sound of Disney filled the air. Surely they had better walk out music than this? Then it dawned on me that it was the theme tune to Frozen which was being shown on a big screen in the park opposite. And so the songs punctuated the air for the rest of the afternoon as the two rivals cancelled each other out in an entertaining draw.
The Spartans started the game with the smell of blood in their nostrils. Roared on by a small group of away fans, the leader of whom loved nothing more than an occasional jig around the terrace outside the bar, spilling most of his beer each time. He had something to really shout about just before half-time when a Holland skipped passed his marker and fired the ball into the corner of the net.
The second half saw a re-energised (I.e bollocked) Matlock team emerge, realising the weaknesses in the Spartans right hand side. The away keeper was forced into half a dozen good saves before he was finally beaten when Hawkins reacted fastest to a deflected cross and smartly headed home. If the game was to produce a winner it was undoubtably going to come from the home side but then they sat back, almost inviting The Spartans to attack with numbers.
The final whistle saw a round of applause from the 260-odd souls in the ground. “Better than the bloody rubbish we saw on Tuesday but we are still rubbish” said one fan as he waked past me “still liver and bacon for tea and Tess Daly on Strictly. Life isn’t all bad, son.” Wise words indeed and with that I headed back east to the Littlest Fuller’s. He was spot on, life in the Non-Leagues in the English Summer wasn’t bad at all.
Matlock Town face the same issue many Non-League clubs have each and every week. Within a 30 minute drive of the town this afternoon, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Alfreton Town all played at home. That’s the challenge – trying to encourage the locals of Matlock not to hop on the bus or train at 2pm but to stay at head down to Causeway Lane.
My good friend Mike Bayly is currently researching a book on the grounds you have to visit before you die. Matlock would be on my recommended top 10 list on a sunny day like today although I’d give it a swerve when the cold Peak District wind blows on a wet Tuesday in February.
Bad things are supposed to come in three’s correct? Try telling that to the 70 or so Lewes fans, players, management team and directors who were at the Longmead Stadium last Tuesday night. Two goals conceded, two players sent off both for two bookable offences, two players limped off by half-time and unfortunately just two shots on goal. It wasn’t one of the best away trips we had experienced in the past few years that is for sure.
It is fair to say that the start of the season hasn’t been the best we could have hoped for. The fixture list threw up a difficult start but mix in a raft of injuries and suspensions and we had almost got to the stage where I would be polishing up the Puma Kings at least seven months earlier than normal. The Rooks went into the game with freshly-relegated Tonbridge Angels with all four first choice midfielders out injured, and finished it with two full backs playing at centre-half. After picking up just two points from the opening three games this could be the opportunity the Rooks needed to start their season. Tonbridge hadn’t started brightly themselves, still re-adjusting to the Ryman Premier League after a few seasons in the Conference South.
In terms of Ryman Premier games, this was one of the more local games for me. By local I mean less than an hour’s drive away. With the little Fuller’s away learning what life was like back in the Seventies by staying at their grandparents up north, The Current Mrs Fuller jumped at the chance of a romantic night out in the heart of the Garden of England. Perhaps I oversold the “I will buy you dinner” part by failing to mention it was to be a hot-dog in the Longmead Stadium but I can get so forgetful at my age. Still, it was time together, as I tried to break the frosty atmosphere on the journey to the game.
The Longmead Stadium is one of the better ones we will visit in the league this year. Decent size covered stands behind each goal and a nice size main stand down one side. They do have a very strange little stand for Directors only on the other side which I could have tried. They have a decent-size club house but annoyingly no beer can be taken outside although the view from inside isn’t bad. It had been quite a few years since we had played the Angels as we had passed each other as we were relegated from the Conference three years ago whilst they were going the other way. The added interest was the number of ex-Angels in the Lewes team including their former captain, Gary Elphick.
Tonbridge Angels 2 Lewes 0 – The Longmead Stadium – Tuesday 19th August 2014
Definitely a game to forget although the aftermath of two players suspended and two who will be unavailable due to injury for at least three weeks is one that will be fresh on our minds for a while. You cannot take anything away from Tonbridge – they took the chances presented to them without ever looking completely dominant. Even with Lewes down to 10 men they seemed reluctant to push forward to make the game safe.
After a cautious opening twenty minutes Lewes were dealt a blow when full-back Alex Malins was forced off the pitch with suspected knee ligament damage. A few minutes later Tonbridge centre-half Jerome Sobers headed home unmarked from a corner. Sobers was Malin’s man to mark. Ten minutes later Malins was joined in the red cross tent by skipper Gary Elphick, much to the enjoyment of the home fans, with a hamstring injury.
Ten minutes into the second period and Sanderson, on loan from Ebbsfleet United, picked up a needless second yellow card. Twenty minutes later and Ollie Rowe joined him after a harsh yellow for tangling with ex-Rook Billy Medlock. Still Tonbridge took a cautious approach, preferring to sit back and hold onto their lead rather than looking to make the game safe. But with ten minutes left they showed some genuine attacking intent when Okojie hit the booster button down the right, beat Logan, pulled the ball back for Teniola who made no mistake from close range. Game over.
The defeat left Lewes in esteemed company at the wrong end of the Ryman Premier League table, joining some other sides quite fancied to be at the other end of the league including AFC Hornchurch, Hampton & Richmond Borough and last season’s Play-Off semi-finalists, Bognor Regis Town. Still, only 42 games to go. I’m sure we will look back at the indifferent start to the season in a few months and laugh….hopefully.
*P.S – I learnt a few years ago about the power of titling blog posts in a particular away, so the term “Evil Angel” in no way relates to Tonbridge Angels, their team or their hospitality, rather than the fact a very large Adult film producer uses that title for some of their films and thus thousands of people search for it (allegedly).
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.