When the fixtures are released each summer we instinctively look for when we will be able to visit somewhere new. A new ground, new pubs, new fans to banter with, new pubs, new cultural experiences and of course, new pubs. When you’ve been in the same division, like Lewes, for a number of years the excitement of visiting Margate on New Years Day or Leiston on the 6th Janaury doesn’t really cut the mustard. As much as we love wandering along the seafront with Tel wearing his “kiss me quick” hat, or watching Deaksy’s hair stand on end as we near The Vulcan opposite Sizewell B nuclear reactor, we want to try something new.
This season we have already visited the delights of Witham (twice), where the main attraction is the Olly Muirs walk of fame (being the town and football club’s most famous son), Tonbridge Angels and our old friends at Leatherhead. We still have the delights of Crayford in the spring to come when we visit VCD Athletic for the first time as well as a very short hop over the downs to Peacehaven & Telscombe.
Of course the real excitement comes when the respective cup draws are made. Our run in the FA Cup lasted all but as we crashed out away at Witham Town. The Ryman League Cup saw a home defeat to Peacehaven & Telscombe. A home victory in the Sussex Senior Cup versus Brighton & Hove Albion has seen us drawn away at Horsham YMCA, a ground we’ve visited on many occasions. But in the FA Trophy is where our current interest lays. Not that there are thousands of pounds at stake for each round we reach – oh no, it’s not all about the money at all.
After a 3-2 win at Heybridge Swifts on Tuesday night, Lewes would be travelling to Oxford City of the Conference North. Finally, a proper away day. No disrespect to Witham or Heybridge, but the local hostelries can’t really hold a candle to the dreaming spires of the land of Morse, Bannister and Lawrenson. The Lewes Lunatic fringe would be out in full force for this one, with Linda having the job of making extra rounds of cheese and pickle for the long train journey.
Whilst we were all excited about the big day out, it was water off a duck’s back to our Vice-President, Terry Parris. “Did I tell you about the time Bobby Moore offered to put my disclosed finger back in place at Oxford City, Stu?” Now that’s a way to start a conversation. For those who don’t know Terry then you obviously don’t know anything about Non-League football. Terry has held virtually every position in the Lewes team and subsequently in the club itself, He’s played more games than anyone else in the club’s 129 year history (over 650 times), managed the club, been the groundsman, commercial manager, secretary and even run the line. He has the east terrace at the ground named after him and until last month was the club’s chairman. He is full of stories that would put some of the banal, bland best-seller “expose’s” of today’s players to shame.
Back in the early 1980’s, a new chairman took over at Oxford City. Jealous of the success of United on the other side of town, who were just starting their march up the divisions that would ultimately see them winning the League Cup at Wembley, the then chairman managed to persuade former England captain and one of the legends of the English game, Bobby Moore to manage the club. City had just been relegated to the Isthmian Second Division and played Lewes for the first ever time in 1980/81. Moore recruited a former team mate from West Ham to be assistant, a young chirpy chap called Harry Redknapp. In the game in February 1981 against Lewes, Terry managed to injury his finger and ever the gentlemen, Moore offered to put it back into place. Terry declined and headed to hospital, although Moore still took the time after the 3-0 defeat to find out how he was later in the evening.
Today City haven’t really met the expectations set 35 years ago. Playing in the second tier of Non-League football is the highest level they’ve played at. Whilst they came within touching distance of neighbours United a few seasons ago during their brief foray into the Non-Leagues, they are still miles away in and off the pitch today. Whilst both clubs have moved to new stadiums, the money pumped into United by former owner Kassam has seen them take up residence in a 12,500 seater stadium in whilst City have moved to a very rural location close by the A40 – by rural we mean there are no pubs within a 15 minute walk.
Promotion to this level has been bitter sweet for City. Every club wants to progress but being bumped into Conference North must be hard to stomach. Whilst they have localish games at Worcester City (45miles) and Gloucester City (47 miles) away trips to Barrow (250 miles), Harrogate (190 miles) and Fylde (180 miles) put a huge burden on the club. Incidentally, Maidenhead United and Wealdstone (40 and 42 miles away respectively) are their nearest Conference rivals, both playing in the Conference South. With average attendances rarely breaking the 400 mark, there is a big price tag on progress and the club should be applauded for doing everything they have not only to hold their own in the league but to start to push for the play-off spot.
The odds certainly appeared to be stacked against Lewes. However, a seven game unbeaten run had given everyone at the club confidence despite a mounting injury crisis that would have seen both Baz Collins and Big Deaksy in the squad for the game if they hadn’t both been cup-tied after playing for Lewes on FIFA14 (damn rules, as Club Sec Kev told them). Avoiding defeat here would mean we would have remained unbeaten for a whole calendar month – the last time that had happened was in June when we didn’t play anyone.
We would travel to parts we’d never traveled to before with hope in our hearts, a bellyful of ale and pockets full of Scotch eggs. There is nothing better than a proper football awayday. There was talk of a coach, rosettes, a special squad-sung version of Sussex By The Sea to mark the occasion but that would be presumptuous (and we’ve heard Nathan Crabb sing!).
Saturday morning, London Paddington station. As we wait for the 11:15 Great Western service to Great Malvern via Honeybourne, Charlbury and Pershore, we see other groups of fans. We are all a band of brothers, off to do our bit for our own clubs. It doesn’t matter what race, sex, creed or colour we are, we are all football fans, prepared to travel to the four corners of this country to support our team, even if they are a step seven club like Lewes. Alas our attempts to engage with Crystal Palace fans on their way to Swansea didn’t work – “who are you?”, “small town in Brighton” and “you’re going to get your head kicked in” suggested that perhaps we weren’t as welcome as we thought we would be. Even the Met Police fan heading to their game at Maidenhead blanked us.
Deaksy had done his research and eight minutes after getting off the train, we were in pub number 1 – The Four Candles (not to be confused with the Fork Handles obviously). 37 minutes later we were in the Grapes and then 26 minutes after that, Far From The Maddening Crowd. Military precision from Deaks.
Marsh Lane is some distance from the city centre – a £10 cab ride distance to be precise. It seemed that few of the locals had been gripped by FA Trophy fever, and as the two sides took the pitch a quick scan of the ground saw less than 100 fans ready for the game.
Oxford City 6 Lewes 1 – Marsh Lane – Saturday 29th November 2014
OK – let’s start with the positives. The City Banger, a roll with three local sausages in for just £2.50 was outstanding. We ate about a dozen between us. The Lewes support was close on a third of the whole attendance and we scored a goal. They were my three positives. That’s not to say the rest of the afternoon was bad – we were clinically undone by a team who play in a way that is alien to our lowly Non-League position. What was interesting was hearing some of the comments of the locals who didn’t particularly like the number of overseas players being brought into the club under Head Coach Enrique Guillen. The starting XI contained five Spanish players, brought in by Guillen. Talking to some of the fans it seemed that not everyone was happy with the direction the club were going in. Could some external forces be pulling the strings here?
Oxford City have a style of play that either reduces teams to gibbering wrecks, or is like defending the Alamo. A 1-8 home defeat to Fylde earlier this season was proceeded by a 7-2 away win the following week at Boston United. 5-0 away win at Bradford Park Avenue, then a 4-0 defeat to Guiseley seven days later. Today they were on the back foot from the first minute and Lewes had two golden chances to take the lead in the first five minutes. Ten minutes later and Oxford City were 3-0 up. Fast, counter attacking play, moving the ball from wing to wing that undid our 3-5-2 formation.
But then Lewes came back into it, forcing the Oxford defence onto the back foot. Nicky Wheeler’s excellent effort reduced the arrears and a few minutes later his lob looked to have made it 3-2. Lewes certainly ended the half on top. But less than five minutes after the restart we were 4-1 down – again another fast counter attack and the ball was in the back of the net.
That goal was the final nail in the coffin. We pushed forward more in hope than anything else and did force the keeper to make a couple of smart saves. However, two further goals by Isaac and Benjamin gave the final score an unfair look. Oxford has certainly been the better side but not by a five goal margin. But that’s football. It had been a decent day out and we can have no complaints at the result. Now it is all about Wednesday night and the visit to the Pan of bottom of the table Bury Town.
Every Non-League team dreams of a run in the FA Cup. The chance to take on a Football (or even Premier) League side, the presence of national media around the club and the chance to bask in the limelight for a period of time. There will be few football fans outside of Exeter, and probably Runcorn, who won’t have enjoyed seeing Warrington Town humble Football League Two Exeter City live in the BBC last night. The media lapped it up. “Plucky little Warrington”, “Goal scored by plasterer Craig Robinson”, “part-timers” we’re all common phrases being bandied about as the game progressed.
Nobody can begrudge the club their payday. The win over Exeter was their third consecutive 1-0 home victory in the competition, along the way beating teams in a higher division in each case including Conference North pre-season favourites North Ferriby United. The game was a 2,500 sell out and with the money from the BBC to televise the game, the club will have received over £50,000 getting to this stage of the competition. But is the money always a blessing for Non-League clubs?
The big challenge Warrington face is to try to get some of those local fans back in two weeks time when they host Radcliffe Borough in the Evostik Premier League North match, and those league games beyond that. So far this season only around 150 come to Cantilever Park to watch games. A big cash injection is never a bad thing at this level but the challenge is to try and use it to encourage more fans to come back. Warrington’s challenge is three-fold.
Firstly, they have to compete every Saturday with fans heading along the M62 to either Liverpool or Manchester to watch the Reds or the Blues. One of the positive factors that televised football has brought the game is when some of the Premier League games are moved to a Sunday or Monday night, the local Non-League teams can try to take advantage of those fans who still want to go to a 3pm Saturday kick off. This is one of the reasons why some clubs offer discounted entry for season ticket holders at bigger clubs, although in truth if you can afford the £700 plus ticket at Old Trafford or Anfield you are hardly likely to grumble at paying the tenner to get in at Cantilever Park.
Secondly, they are located in an overcrowded area of Non-League clubs of similar sizes. Within a twenty-minute drive there are over a dozen teams playing at the same level or just above Warrington. It is rare that Non-League leopards change their spots and so they will be fighting a losing battle trying to win these fans hearts and minds.
Finally they have the biggest challenge. Warrington is a Rugby League town, home of the The Wolves, one of the most successful modern era clubs who play in the 15,000 Halliwell Jones Stadium in the town. They tend to be very different sets of fans despite the fact that there is only an overlap of the two respective seasons for a couple of months each year.
Unfortunately, it is not always the case that Non-League clubs who benefit from a great FA Cup run can translate that into ongoing success in the league. The last headline club who did Non-League football proud in the FA Cup was Hastings United back in 2012/13. They reached the third round, finally losing to Middlesbrough at The Riverside in front of 12,500 fans. However, the cup run was to be the club’s undoing in the league as the fixture pile up caused by playing the FA Cup games and subsequent bad weather meant that they had to play 13 league games in just 28 days. With the transfer window for Non-League clubs closed, and league officials who had enjoyed riding on the coat-tails of the club’s success now cocking a deaf ear, Hastings buckled under the sheer weight of pressure and were relegated. Two seasons on and they have still not returned.
Forty years ago the Non-League team to hit the FA Cup headlines was Leatherhead FC who made it all the way to the Fourth Round, where they lost 3-2 to Leicester City at Filbert Street in front of the Match of the Day cameras. Along the way they beat Colchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion, and were leading The Foxes 2-0. Back then, when football wasn’t a 24 hours 7 day a week “in your face” event, the heroics of that Isthmian League side was headline stuff.
Today, Leatherhead are back in the same division as they were in 1974. They enjoyed some more of the limelight in 1978 when they reached Wembley in the FA Trophy final, losing to Altrincham but since then they have floated around the Isthmian leagues without being able to climb any higher. As with most of the cases of the “giant killers”, the revenue earned from the cup run didn’t lead to success on the field. Twenty five years after their cup exploits the club came close to folding, only saved by the actions of a group of fans who once again proved that Fan Ownership is the only real sustainable model for Non-League clubs.
Talking of Fan Ownership, who were Leatherhead’s visitors today? None other than the mighty Rooks, who were on their best run of form so far this season, coming off the back of two consecutive wins. We haven’t had a lot to shout about this season down at The Dripping Pan but things are changing. A new formation, some inspirational experienced players coming back into the team and fans who were behind the management 100% meant that we arrived in the rain at The Tanners with strutting confidence.
Leatherhead 0 Lewes 1 – Fetcham Grove – Saturday 8th November 2014
We came, we saw and we got very very wet. In front of the biggest away support so far this season the Rooks put on the kind of battling display that had been missing for so long in 2014. A change to 3-5-2 prior to the Met Police game worked wonders at the Dripping Pan but here it appeared to be ineffective in the first half against a confident Leatherhead team who passed the ball around well. The Tanners looked to stretch the game, trying to nullify the threat of Sam one and Sam two as our flying wing backs. The home side hit the inside of the post after twenty minutes which seemed to shake the Rooks into life and from that moment they never looked back.
Some comedy rolling around on the floor by the Leatherhead players did the job of conning the referee, who wasn’t helped by inept performances by his assistants who couldn’t have been anymore unhelpful in letting the game flow. Petty, niggly free-kicks sucked the life out of the game in the first half. Perhaps I was just in a bad mood as I had dropped my chips on the floor.
As the second half started, so did the rain. When it passed from torrential to monsoon setting, most of the 40-strong Lewes fans headed for the covered terrace, leaving the hardcore LLF on behind the goal. Our dedication was rewarded on the hour mark when Sam 1 (Crabb) beat his man on the right, crossed to the penalty spot where Sam 2 (Cole) met the ball on the volley and gave Louis Wells absolutely no chance.
Lewes started to take control of the game and always looked the more dangerous side, although some superb defending from Rowe, Elphick and Banks ensured that the Rooks goal went unbreached for another game. The final whistle was greeted with fist pumps, back slaps and even a hug or two. In the grand scheme of things it was only 3 points, but for Lewes it was another step towards redemption.
Forty years is literally a lifetime in football. Whilst both sets of fans looked on enviously at East Thurrock United’s result at Hartlepool United in the FA Cup, we knew that our time will come once again. For now, it was all about the magic of the Isthmian League. Cup football is so over rated anyway….
Every Non-League club starts the season with a dream of progression in the FA Cup. For the players it is the thought of walking out at a Premier League (or Championship) ground, or pitting their wits against professional players. For managers it is the thought of adding a famous scalp to their CV. For the fans it is the thought of supporting their team in places or against clubs they would never have thought of and for the club owners it is the thought of the pot of gold that grows with every win. More often than not all of those dreams are brought crashing down to reality by the end of September, with 540 clubs already “concentrating on the league”. For those that have progressed from the Extra Preliminary Round, played in late August, the chances of them making it through three rounds is less than ten percent (7.3% based on last season to be precise).
However, those odds didn’t frighten us as we headed up the A12 to Witham for the second time in just seven weeks. Back in August we were undone by a stand-in referee who seemed to have forgotten his cards (and rule book) and a pitch that looked as if it had gone through the same type of treatment as an Elton John hair weave, coming away with a point from our opening game. Since then it has been a story of injury, suspension and some down-right poor refereeing. Yes, we can all find excuses to explain our poor league form but this is the FA Cup. Success is simply based on progression.
As a club we never budget for cup runs. That would be a foolhardy approach, although many clubs fact in a win or two and the associated prize money into the budget. An away draw is never a good thing at this stage in the competition (in most instances). Despite the clubs sharing the gate receipts, attendances tend to be much lower in the cup than in the league. It seems that the magic of the FA Cup fades in the Extra Preliminary Round these days. It seems that someone at the FA seems to have it in for Lewes when it comes to home FA Cup draws. Out of 25 initial games we have played in the competition in the past decade (not including replays) we have been drawn at home only 8 times and only once in the past four seasons (eight ties). The good news is that we have a higher than 50% win rate on our travels in the cup. What could possibly go wrong today? However, whilst we still believed in the magic of the FA Cup, has it disappeared elsewhere?
On Non-League day back in early September over 2,800 squeezed into Champion Hill to see Dulwich Hamlet take on Hampton & Richmond Borough, one of the biggest attendances in the Ryman Premier League for many-a-year. Seven days later they hosted Worthing in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Cup yet only 489, including a fair few from the South Coast, watched the game. In Manchester, England’s biggest fan-owned Non-League club, FC United of Manchester struggled to break the 1,000 mark for their tie against Prescott Cables, almost 50% down on their average Evostik Premier League crowd. Likewise on the same day at Nywood Lane, just over 400, with a significant following from Lewes, watched Bognor Regis Town’s local derby. Last season the corresponding league game saw 603 watch the Boxing Day game.
Football doesn’t exactly get the pulses racing in these parts – in fact the sheer number of clubs playing at this level in the area probably hinders rather than helps them. Just a short drive away from the Village Glass Stadium there is Heybridge Swifts, Maldon & Tiptree, Burnham Ramblers and Ryman League North new boys, Brightlingsea Regent. However, surely the whole village of Witham (population 25,532) would be out supporting their side today? Who knows, perhaps the town’s most famous residents, Olly Murs and Dotty Cotton would come along, rattle in hand to cheer on the The Town? I don’t think so but the FA Cup can do strange things to teams and their fans.
After Wednesday night’s game against VCD Athletic, it was hard to see how Lewes could actually put a team out based on the number of injuries they had. I think it was touch and go whether Garry Wilson considered giving me the nod although my knee operation on Monday would have put pay to my long-overdue FA Cup debut. However, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe would be out in force, putting the indifferent league form to one side and dreaming of a home tie against East Preston in the next round. The script was all but written.
Witham Town 4 Lewes 2 – The Village Glass Stadium – Saturday 27th September 2014
What did I write earlier? Ah yes, “What could go wrong?” Well how about everything! The FA Cup holds no magic on days like these. Played off the park by a team who had 10 men for a third of the game, scoring one of our goals because an idiot of an official decided to give a penalty (to us) for an offence that nobody in the ground saw and seeing players bicker with each other. It wasn’t a good day. Take nothing away from Witham – they kept their shape, played to their strengths, were as hospitable as they come and their goal-keeper once again got stuck into the banter with us from the first whistle – Martyn Guest always a pleasure.
Thirty minutes after the final whistle, the Lewes team were still sat on the pitch, taking part in an “interactive” heart to heart. Under normal circumstances this was a bad day, but defeat in a winnable game cost the club £4,500 in prize money as well as the possibility of a decent home tie in the next round. Whether all of the players really understood what was at stake when the game kicked off is unclear. However, Lewes started sharply and should have been ahead early doors when Terry Dodd flicked an effort over the bar.
Boysie, the club snapper, turned up late. We pretended that we were already 1-0 up, all sticking to our story. Of course he didn’t believe us, and soon we were 1-0 down. One became two when Brinkhurst clattered into a Witham forward in the area. No question that it was a penalty, although the referee, who whilst he didn’t impact the final score was as poor as you will see at this level, booked Rikki Banks for kicking the ball back to the centre circle which hit a Witham player on the way. He soon angered the home fans by giving a penalty to Lewes – I cannot even speculate what it was for as no one saw any offence. Dixon stepped up and made it 2-1 at the break.
One bright spot for the travelling Lewes fans was the appearance of Jack Walder at the start of the second half. Walder had been out since he dislocated his ankle at Thamesmead Town back in March and his return would surely lift the team? Alas a few minutes later a mix up between Brinkhurst and Banks that will be a cert on one of those crap “guffs” DVDs voiced by Chris Moyles gave Witham a 3-1 lead. Three one? Make that four minutes after the home side were reduced to ten men. Game over, start the bus.
We still had time to miss a couple of sitters before Blewden pulled a goal back to make the score line a little more respectable. But this defeat hurt. More so than any other game this season. Not just for the financial consequences but because of the performance. The magic of the FA Cup certainly wasn’t floating around the Lewes dressing room today.
So Witham Town join a growing list of teams who have embarrassed the Rooks in recent years in the FA Cup. Still, there is always the Ryman League Cup to look forward to.