“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.
I’m heading towards Braintree on the A120 when I decide to engage my teenage daughters in polite conversation. Of course, being plugged into the Apple grid they huff and puff as they have to take out their earphones. “You know what Braintree is famous for?” I ask them. Within seconds they have Googled the answer and Littlest Fuller tells me to “Smack my bitch up, you Firestarter”. Yep, I walked into that trap didn’t I? The answer I was looking for was it was the ancestral home of John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, rather than the town that spawned The Prodigy.
The plan today had originally been to head to Yorkshire for an afternoon as a Brighton fan at The McAlpi..doh…Galpha..sorry John Smiths in Huddersfield. But eyebrows were raised by CMF, who politely pointed out the fact that “20 out of the next 30 days out of the country and you still decide to spend a bloody Bank Holiday driving 4 hours each way to watch a game involving two teams you care nowt about”. Granted, she did have a point and so I agreed to take the family shopping. “What about a designer outlet place? There’s one in Essex, only an hour away called Braintree Freeport”. “Braintree, as in Braintree Town?” She’s quick is CMF. “Erm, I think so”, “And I bet they are playing today aren’t they?”…Plan rumbled, but accepted. You shall go to the ball Cinderella, albeit one at the Working Mens Club rather than the Palace.
With just three games left in the Skrill Conference Premier, three of the four Play-off spots are still up for grabs. With Cambridge United confirmed as runners-up to Luton Town, five teams could realistically say they were still in with a shout at a shot at a place in the Football League. Four of the five had Football League pedigree, albeit in Gateshead’s case it was over fifty years ago since they failed to gain re-election. The fifth was Braintree Town. And next week, on the final day of the season, the five (plus Cambridge United) all play each other. No pressure at all then on today’s game.
When we last visited the Amlin Stadium (then Cressing Road) back in 2009 it was relatively basic for the Conference South. Five years on and a new stand had been added at one end of the ground in order to pass the ‘A’ Ground Grading meaning that they could host Football League games but it still retains that Non-League feel. There is space behind the south stand for expansion as well as land to the west. Talk of a new stadium off the A120 has disappeared although should they reach the promised land it would undoubtably return. Average crowds of less than 1,000 suggest that it may be an investment too far, but when was logic ever applied to football clubs (George Reynolds and Darlington anyone?).
Should the Iron reach the Football League they would join a small band of clubs who play in towns with a population of less than 45,000. Accrington (35,000), Morecambe (33,000) and Fleetwood (25,000) are all towns that support clubs who have risen through the Non-Leagues although it is still possible that either Accrington Stanley or Morecambe could well return back there this season. Braintree’s rise hasn’t been fueled by a rich benefactor in the case of Fleetwood Town but by hard graft and a manager who knows a thing or two about the game.
Alan Devonshire is a TBIR legend. We’ve met him on numerous occasions since he dazzled English football as a flying winger for West Ham back in the 1980’s through to his stint as manager at Hampton & Richmond Borough. Always willing to have a chat about football after the game over a beer, he doesn’t hold a grudge or any bitterness that his International career was curtailed by a serious knee injury, or that manager’s at clubs in the 92 haven’t had to learn their apprenticeship the same way he has, starting Maidenhead United fifteen years ago. He took over at Braintree Town in the summer of 2011 after the club had won the Conference South and has kept them in the top half of the table for the last two seasons. But this year could be the year that they move to the next level.
The visitors Dartford had their eyes on Premier League safety. After a horrendous run of ten consecutive league defeats in late 2013, Dartford have had to fight against the spectre of relegation. With a week of the season to go they were still in the bottom four, with a gaping goal difference that could be the deciding factor. The indulgence in chocolate over Easter would have to be put on hold for a few days yet.
With the female Fullers safely deposited at Braintree Freeport I walked to the ground, passing a police cordon (apparently someone was murdered close to the ground on Thursday night) and joined a long queue of fans at the turnstiles. Had football fever ignited the locals? Was Devonshire the true Firestarter? Which manager would be able to Breathe easily? With both teams desperate for a win for completely different reasons it was bound to be a dull scoreless draw.
Braintree Town 1 Dartford 0 – The Amlin Stadium – Friday 18th April 2014
As the game entered the 94th minute and the home side holding onto their one goal lead, Dartford threw the ball into the box once again. Suarez (Mikel alas not Luis) saw his shot deflected away by Iron keeper Hamann diving to his right. The rebound went straight to Jim Stevenson who forced a second outstanding save and potentially three points that would bring ultimate joy to Braintree and despair to Dartford. A Darts fan behind me turns to his mate “I’d rather we go down than bankrupt ourselves chasing an unsustainable dream”.
It wasn’t a classic, with some interesting tactics deployed by both teams that lead to frustration both on the bench and on the terraces. Braintree liked to get the ball wide but virtually every single cross into the penalty area was played over the lone striker to the far post where there was no one attacking the ball. Dartford on the other hand kept playing the ball through the middle where the two Braintree centre-backs snaffled out any threat. Either instructions from the respective benches were not getting through or they simply didn’t see the error of their ways.
The Braintree fans weren’t big in number but made themselves heard in the covered terrace that ran along the side of the pitch. Whilst the early possession gave them something to cheer about it took 25 minutes before the roof was raised when Kenny Davis picked the ball up 25 yards out and struck the ball sweetly, giving Alan Julian in the Dartford goal no chance.
At this time of the season fans are easily distracted by what is happening elsewhere. Standing between the two sets of fans I was getting the stories from both ends of the table. One set of fans were bemoaning the events unfolding at Alfreton Town where the Grimsby Town team coach had been delayed in traffic. “S’not right innit” said one. “They’ve got a competitive advantage ain’t they?”. “I reckon they should stop our game until they catch up” (which would have meant a delay of around 40 minutes). Of course our mastermind had forgotten the fact that Braintree play at 5:15 away at Barnet on Monday night, thirty minutes after all of their rivals games have finished.
Going back to the issue of the ground. The official attendance was 1,200 – boosted by a fair contingent from Dartford, but it did seem that the club struggled. Long queues to get in, get food, programmes sold out, a 15 minute wait for a beer at half-time. Whilst you can never deny a club a place at a higher level, the fans will notice a massive difference in their match-day experience. The club will have to jump through more hoops and comply to more rules (no changing ends at half-time for instance) than today. Some of the reasons why people love the Non-League game will be swiftly and sharply curtailed.
The second half saw both teams try to play with more positivity. The home side were causing Darts keeper Julian some concern, although not as much as the stick he was getting from the home fans behind the goal. Julian had made the mistake in the first half to respond to “banter” and that immediately made him a target for all the wit and wisdom of the fans. Any save was deemed a fluke or lucky. When he called for a ball and failed to get it, he was derided with donkey chants. The lot of a goalkeeper.
Scores elsewhere meant at one point Braintree had risen into the play-off spots, so the three points became vital. Despite the last-gasp scare they held on. Three points kept the dream alive for the Iron and the nightmare a reality for the Darts. It hadn’t been the best of games but it was a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine. Oh, and I managed to pick up a couple of bargains at Freeport too.