These articles are published in the Slough Town FC programme. The Rebels play in the National League South in a swanky new ground. I’ve been supporting Slough since the beginning of time despite now living in Brighton.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

THE SLOUGH TOWN HOKEY-COKEY

To be printed in the National League South game v Concord Rangers Saturday 3rd November 2018 

There's nothing football fans like more than having a good old moan-up. Infact some only seem happy revelling in their miserableness. This isn't something you can pin on Whitehawk supporters, who at a recent game I went too, didn't stop singing despite being 1-0 down. A cacophony of noise from squeaky toys, wind instruments and drums overlaid with a whole range of catchy little numbers including a twist on the Hokey-Cokey - 'You put your Whitehawk in, your Whitehawk out.' In contrast the Kingstonian fans went gammon red and shouted obscenities. I knew who would be more fun to support. 
 
Suddenly Slough fans have discovered that endless groaning and moaning is boring. And the more of a laugh it is going to a game, guess what – the more people want to join in and come along again. The noise at the Eastbourne FA Cup game was unbelievable at times – and in the second half non stop with peoples tongues and limbs dropping off due to excessive singing and advertising hoard banging. I even borrowed some of my youngest boys toy instruments for a Whitehawk-esque squeakaphon. Any time we took a breather, Clubshop Sue would prod someone into action. At Welling we didn't stop despite being 2-1 down. Now all we have to do is start to sing at home.
I recently went to see Saltdean take on AFC Uckfield in the Southern Combination. The players arrived on the pitch to silence. There were no flags, no football tops or scarves just the whistling wind and rain coming off the South Downs. The weather meant spectators was huddled in the two stands where the intimacy of the crowd meant you could hear everyone's banter as well the constant moanfest officials have to put up with. Often from the very same players who were dishing up a poor game of football, as another wayward pass spun out of control while others showed an ability to grasp aero-dynamics; you know, the one where hoofing a ball into high winds isn't a great idea. At one point the exasperated lino told a player to shut up. In the end Saltdean salvaged a draw and we went home wet but having enjoyed a different type of football experience, especially as a tractor nearly run me over as I came out of the clubhouse – a first for me at a football match.
It's hard for clubs like Whitehawk and Saltdean when there are so many other football clubs in such a small area competing for players, spectators, exposure and advertising. So I always thought Non League Day was a great way for clubs to shout about themselves. Not so for one ground-hopper who went on a twitter rant saying that (Non League Day) 'does any good whatsoever' and 'reinforces a stereotype instead of challenging it.' With an air of conviction he continued 'After eight years of Non-League Day, average crowds across the rest of the season are no higher than they were in 2010. The FA should do much more to coordinate fixture lists and club locations and help new punters find their way in. The mess of different leagues and websites is bewildering if you don't know where to look. But something needs to happen all year round. Clubs, leagues and the FA all working together. Ongoing campaigns that aren't just hinged around one game. Trying to get a bumper gate tomorrow as a one off because everyone else is doing it will not have any long term benefit.'
I don't believe Non League Day does no good whatsoever and I do know that clubs like Dulwich used it as a springboard to massively increase crowds - which in turn has helped them return home. But it does need to be part of a marketing strategy – easier said than done when many clubs only have a few volunteers to do everything! I think clubs should see it as a one off FA Cup match where the extra money at least keeps the wolves from the door and lets people know you exist.
Our FA Cup game against Eastbourne netted us £25,000 alone – and the reward? A tough away game with no glamour to Sutton 'pie-gate' United. I've had some great times at Sutton, the most dramatic being in 1981 when Eric Young and Eggy James scored two late goals which won us the Isthmian League title. For some reason I found myself as a 15 year old squashed in the player tunnel celebrations and I wore my scarf at school the next day with pride and sore ribs. I also remember going to Gander Green Lane (I can't bring myself to call it the Knights Community Stadium) for our first game after we'd been demoted from the Conference for financial irregularities, a lack of seats or the fact that the mens toilets were next to the tea hut making the brews served there highly suspect. I was totally skint at the time and had to hitch to the game from Brighton and to my shame, crawl under a fence to get in for free. Somehow our make shift side managed a win and I celebrated by bunking the train home.
Doubtless we will travel en-masse to Sutton, make a hell of a lot of noise and – shout it from the rooftops – have some fun, but we could do with a few new songs. How about 'You put your Slough Town in, your Slough Town out...'



Saturday, October 13, 2018

OVER LAND, SEA AND ESTUARY

Bristol Manor Farm on a Tuesday night; there can't be many who could resist the urge to jump on a train for four and half hours to see the mighty Rebels take on the 'Farmy Army'. When I finally arrived at the Promised Land (better known as Sea Mills train station) I could see their Creek ground tantalizing close; all I had to do was walk across the train line or wade in the estuary to reach it. Problem was the stench from the estuary would give the old Slough sewage works pong a run in the stinking contest so I decided to take the more circular route.
Foraging might be all the rage now but 30 years ago I was part of the free food revolution, getting up at stupid o clock to pick field mushrooms on the Langley roundabout, tipped off by my nan that a mushroom lorry had dropped its cargo years back. Plucking ink caps in Upton Court Park in the morning dew. I nearly poisoned my hosts with water hemlock, realising at the last minute it wasn't watercress and my hands forever tingled from picking nettles. Nettles are a wonder crop and if they came from the Amazon rainforest they would be gobbled down in pills and potions by people who like to gobble down pills and potions. I still use them on my kids spag bol – just don't tell them. We turned hops into undrinkable beer (we still managed to drink it) and scrumped apples to turn into suicider (totally undrinkable but as you can probably guess we managed). Yep living in Slough was like an episode of The Good Life and to top it all off in late summer we headed to the sewage farm to harvest tomatoes whose pips go straight through the human gut and grow lush in treated slurry. Many a meal I whipped up for friends, only telling them after they'd finished where the tomatoes had come from. The sewage farm also grew enormous puffball mushrooms. We baked one once; one of the most disgusting things i've ever popped in my mouth, and that's saying something.
Slough hadn't travelled to Bristol to play a game of football since the 1895 when we played Bristol South End who were later to become Bristol City. We lost that FA Cup game 5—1 and the journey was deemed so far that our players came up by coach the night before. As for the Farm, they had only formed in 1960 and this was the furthest they had ever been in the FA Cup. It wasn't till the 2016/17 season they finally secured promotion to the Southern League amassing 102 points, and scoring over 100 goals on the way to being crowned as Western League Champions.
This game was being billed as the biggest in their history. My mate Ian also had some history with the Farm recalling how he got up to all sorts with his mates thanks to the combination of railway bridge, allotments, river tow-path endless mud at low tide and so on. “We had dens where we hid fags and sweets and kissed girls. But Manor Farm, had a bar and they used to leave crates of empty coke and Corona bottles outside. We'd nick as much as we could carry and get 3p back on the coke bottles and 5p back on big Corona bottles. A fortune was amassed to pay for our high-rolling lifestyle. The money meant we could afford to experiment with any kind of tobacco product we liked the look of! Good old Manor Farm, many a raid was made across the railway bridge over the muddy river Trym inlet they now call the Creek - happy days. Until secondary school ruined everything!”
The game had certainty caught the imagination with the TV cameras in tow, children on the pitch waving flags and the one man Farmy-Army beating his drum. They had pegged us back to 2-2 draw on Saturday, and one half of our managers Neil Baker had blown such a gasket at the performance he was to ill to travel to Bristol. Their bars were packed and over 500 crammed into their ground, the majority hoping to see a cup upset on their dipping and sloping pitch. However, Slough burst any romantic bubble early on and apart from a good shout for a penalty and a goal line clearance Slough dominated and run out 4-0 winners, setting up an away day trip to Eastbourne.
A swift pint in the clubhouse, then it was back down the M4 to Slough to crash at my mums and get up at stupid o clock to get back to Brighton for work. Just one win away from the first round proper, let's hope Slough Town come up smelling of roses again. 



 

Friday, October 05, 2018

YOU CAN SEE ME SNEAKING OUT

Published in the FA Cup 3rd Qualifying round v Bristol Manor Farm on Saturday 6th October 2018 We drew 2-2 in front of 481

A lack of pre-match homework and struggling to even pronounce Sholing I didn't really have a clue where I was going, except I could get there by train but would have to leave by 10 or be stranded on the platform.
I sort of knew it was near Southampton but didn't figure that a Southampton suburb could feel so different especially when the city is a proper carbuncle, flattened during the Second World War for the crime of building Spitfires. The post-war makeover isn't one that is going to win any beauty contests, but a few miles out and Sholing has a rural feel. The small train station has no ticket office, no shops and most worryingly for me no taxi rank as I drew a blank on peoples faces as to the existence of a football club (no thank you I don't want to go to St.Mary's) The kind lady in the corner shop drew pity on me and gave me a cab number and I arrived at the ground just as the walking wounded from the Slough Town supporters coach were hobbling across the road. 

Everyone loves a new ground, and as we have never played here before, plenty of Rebels had made the journey including Mark Elford giving his staff a lift home from work via the game whether they liked it or not! Being a former works team the ground boosts the obligatory pigeon club and a clubhouse with no beer on tap where tall supporters have to bend their heads just to get served. Only a fiver to get in, these are the sorts of places Slough were visiting not so long ago as we rattled round the lower leagues but Sholings facilities have also been seriously holding the club back. They also share the ground with a cricket club so this was only their third home game of the season, with a bumper crowd of 327 seeing who would reach the next round of the FA Cup.


Infact they would be playing at a higher level if it wasn't for ground grading and financial problems which had seen them demoted from the league above. However they've just been given a massive shot in the arm with Budweiser donating £100,000 towards improving facilities. Add to this planning permission for a new clubhouse and changing room and soon the ground will start to match the football on the pitch. 
While I can't criticise one-off funding and the money The Football Foundation put into tranforming grounds, for a sport swimming in cash, the grassroots facilities in this country are a disgrace. Three Sundays on the trot i've been to Creepy-Crawley at stupid o' clock to watch my eldest play football. The towns parks are impressive but there really is no excuse for the pitches and facilities. Dog shit, puddles in goal mouths, grass too long, pitches too short, different sized goalposts, no changing rooms. And guess what? Poor pitches produce poor football. Just how are we meant to develop youngsters when they have to play in those conditions? 
To be fair to Sholing, they wouldn't have looked out of place in last seasons Southern Premier and you'd expect them to win the Wessex Premier. A penalty for the Rebels early in the game was brilliantly saved by their keeper and despite Slough dominance we couldn't find a way through while having a few scares at the other end. Their lively fans in their small stand pumped out the songs to a drum throughout responding to our Rebel chants with 'Your just a chocolate bar' which was a lot more Topic-al than they realised. 
Now there are a lot of things that wind me up about the Premier League but Top of the Pops is people leaving early. And I mean stupidly early and sometimes at pivotal moments of the game. Would you leave a film before the end? Football is full of twists and turns so to pay a lot of money and head for the exits at 75 minutes is bonkers. The other week people were leaving as Brighton were about to take a penalty! So imagine my dilemma when extra time was staring me in the face. I had to make the quick decision whether to stay that extra half hour and sleep beside the platform. Years ago I would have unrolled my sleeping bag, found a nettle patch and bedded down. But times move on, and I didn't fancy hanging out with worms. 
As I started to leave the ground, my phone rang. 1-0 Lee Togwell. In the taxi 2-0 James Dobson. Waiting for my train 3-0 Josh Jackman. Three hours plus spent on the train and not a goal to show for it. That will teach me to leave before the last ball is kicked. Next time I will chance a nettle rash.





Friday, September 28, 2018

EASTBOURNE PROMISE

Printed in the National League South game v Hungerford Town on Saturday 29th September 2018 We won 2-0 in front of 722 - and are now fifth in the league!
 
A trip to Eastbourne in September is the easiest it is going to get for me to watch the Rebels this season, so imagine my joy on reading that it was National Rail Replacement Bus weekend, turning journeys of 30 minutes into hours of torture. But one rail company excelled itself, telling a frustrated passenger who'd had to stand for miles, that making fairs cheaper would only encourage more people to use the trains and so there would be even more overcrowding.
Seeing as my yacht was in the repair yard, me and my Brighton supporting mate Terry jumped on the speedy 12X to Eastbourne. It's just a shame I couldn't make the most of the beautiful scenery as the winding country roads kept my stomach churning and my head between my knees.
This of course had nothing to do with the week I had just had, celebrating how sport can break down barriers.
I'd been to a little shindig the night before at our community owned pub The Bevy where we were showing 'Believe That' a short film about a group of lads with downs syndrome competing in their first international ping-pong tournament. Supporting them was the inspiring Brighton Table Tennis Club who use the sport to train everyone from prisoners, refugees, people with disabilities and schools using table tennis to teach maths. The film was inspiring and one of the lads used to work for our charity now has a job in the pub in the kitchens. A great night but maybe one beer too many for this bendy old bus.
A few days earlier my eldest had been part of his Albion in the Community teams presentation evening again at The Bevy. Albion in the Community use the power of football to deliver everything from health checks, school work, skills and training. The boys and one girl cooked up a healthy buffet for all their parents making the message that if you want to excel in sport you have to look after yourself, practical and fun.
Eastbourne is rather greedy when it comes to football clubs representing the town – Borough, United Association, Town and Langley Wanderers. Borough are the new boys powering up the divisions and even spending a couple of seasons in the National League, while United are in crisis, bottom of the Southern Combination Premier. Town are the team with the most history against Slough, have a ground bang in town where football clubs should be and listed turnstiles ground-hoppers drawl over.
We jumped in a cab to meet Lynn, Phil the Flags and that other turnstile maestro Aidan (and I don't mean turnstile decks) at the Kingfisher Pub. With so many pubs to choose from they managed to picked the one The Sweeney would have shied away from. It could have given its old Slough name-sake a run for its money. As we reminisced about the Slough Kingfisher we wondered who in the right mind ever thought putting a pub under a shopping centre would be a pleasant place to drink, unless you were an alcoholic mole. Rumour has it that they sealed it up with lots of customers still drinking in there.
Quite a few Rebels had decided to spend the weekend at the seaside while others arrived by coach and the ever dependable Chris Ashley seemingly taking 38 different trains and a walk from Pevensay Bay to avoid the dreaded rail replacement. In the end about 150 Rebels watched in horror as we had a player sent off within 10 minutes. We then watched in delighted shock as we took a 3-0 lead! In the end it was 4-2 to the Rebels and a hatrick for impressive Peterborough loane Matty Stevens. Our managers said it was one of their best ever results and the Eastbourne twitter feed spent half its time complaining about our goalkeepers time wasting rather than the fact they'd been beaten by a team playing with 10 men for 80 minutes.
As we serenaded the players and managers we managed to persuaded Phil to spare us bendy bus hell and drop us near Brighton. When we eventually got back to The Bevy Terry said 'The football was amazing and I met some real characters. Reminded me of Brighton days in the lower leagues.' 
I know I sound like the repetitive drunk non-league bloke at the bar, but watching Premier League football doesn't come close to that personal touch you get following the Rebels - over land, sea and bendy bus.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

WOBBLY AT THE KNEES

Printed in the FA Cup 2nd Qualifying round game v Sholing on Saturday 22nd September 2018 We drew 2-2 in front of 465. We won the replay 3-0

Another cup run beckons and its back to that old chestnut 'Will Slough ever reach the third round of the FA Cup?' The Rebels have the dubious accolade of having the most 2nd round appearances without ever reaching the 3rd round (seven times, since your asking). Rochdale under the lights might not be everyone's idea of romance but with the TV cameras, our new ground, a big crowd full of new faces and a wad of cash to boot; well it made me go all weak at the knees.
In the end the side playing five leagues above us were too strong. It was then Rochdales chance to turn on the charm in the 5th round scoring a last gasp equalizer against Spurs and a trip to Wembley.
Now we welcome Sholing and if I’m honest I would have preferred the game to be at their place. Infact I think the cup draw should be weighted so lower league teams play at home. I don't know much about Sholing except their manager has been their 19 years, racking up 1,000 games and winning 10 trophies – including the FA Vase in 2014. After four years in the Southern League Division One South and West, where they reached the play-offs in all of those campaigns, the club resigned for financial reasons and stepped back into the Wessex League Premier Division.
While Wessex League neighbours Lymington Town have a dream draw against Torquay United, Torquay fans aren't seeing it as romantic but further evidence of their fall from grace, and they are in a right mess. An absent chairman with a knack for bankrupting clubs and greyhound stadiums who is once again promising the earth. So could full time Torquay be embarrassed by a team who've never before been in the 2nd Qualifying round? With the appointment of Gary Johnson as their new manager that's got to be less likely but there's more chance of that happening playing at Lymingtons ground.
Over in Sussex, Uckfield are creating their own bit of history, having never won an FA Cup match before. Not so long ago there used to be two teams in Uckfield but a merger means its just now just one senior team. Building a football pitch on a former spring that apparently an old farmer used to bottle perhaps wasn’t the wisest of moves in our wet winters. Having a ground miles out of the town centre doesn’t help either and when I visited a few seasons back it was one man, his two kids and a squirrel. However, there has been some serious hard work behind the scenes and their 1-0 victory against Croydon Athletic was watched by 183 people. Their reward? A plum home tie against Dartford. Graham Sullivan is like so many non league volunteers, a man of many hats - committee member, kit man, programme editor and official matchday washer-uper. He told me “The FA Cup run this season is having a great effect on our club. At last the town of Uckfield is taking notice and realising it has a football club. The Mayor has come to the games, the Chamber of Commerce are taking an interest and the whole mood of the club is lifted because people suddenly care about us. Attendances have risen and then have stayed risen for the following league matches. From never winning an FA Cup match to suddenly hosting Dartford in the 2nd qualifying round has given the committee and management team a massive morale boost. The hard work has been worth it and we are moving in the right direction.”
Other note worthy results were Egham Town beating near neighbours Staines 1-0 and Sloughs near neighbours Burnham dispatching Bury Town 1-0. Not so long ago we couldn't beat Burnham for toffee but a series of relegations and they find themselves five leagues below us in the Hellenic League Division One East. They now face an away trip to Billericay. Expect a certain Billericay-Dickie to have another one of his toys-out-the-pram hissy fits if Burnham get anything out of that game. However, stars of the last round must go to the Sutton Coldfield Ultras. The one time I went to their place it was like a morgue and to be fair these Ultras are more hip replacement than hipster, but their version of Tequila during their victory against Rushall Olympic has set social media alight.
Of course. it's hard to dine out on a shoestring and fair play to the FA who've put their hands in their pockets and increased the prize money in each round – you even get some cash when you lose in the extra preliminary and preliminary rounds. That means Uckfield have already banked over £11,000.
One thing I would change is, along with an opt up clause for organ donations, an opt out clause for clubs entering the FA Cup. The authorities should always look to make the workload of voluntary football secretaries lighter and this simple measure would stop mistakes like Bracknell Town who left it too late to enter the cup and get all romantic on the terraces.
So here goes, take a deep breath, only 6 more improper wins till the 3rd round. 

* For more FA Cup Facts than you can shake a cup at, head over to the excellent and exhaustive FACup Factfile

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

THE ONLY WAY IS THURROCK (EAST)

Printed in the National League South game v Oxford City on Saturday 8th September 2018 We won 2-0 in front of 832 people.

It was my first Slough Town Conference away game since the Napoleonic Wars and if you could sum up what non league football is all about, then it was this. A few lost Rebels wandering aimlessly around Stanford Le Hope looking for a taxi were approached by a man – 'Hi, I'm the secretary of East Thurrock United do you want a lift to the game?' The man turned out to be Neil Speight, who also edits the Thurrock Independent and after dropping us off he had to rush off to take photos of a carnival for the paper! A man of many hats who just like so many lower league clubs have too few people working tirelessly behind the scenes doing too many jobs - but he still found time to help out away fans.
The only time I had been to East Thurrock, me and Gary Big Lens had arrived so early we startled a group who'd looked like they had been up all night playing cards. Eventually the clubhouse was packed - full of West Ham fans who stayed watching the Hammers rather than the game. This was at the end of the 2006-7 season, officially known as the Slough Town Season of Horror when we finished bottom of the league with just 18 points from 42 games! We lost 4-1 but at least we scored a goal no doubt serenading fans favourite Matt Miller with our 'He'll score again' song.
I tried to get my head round just where East Thurrock is. They play in Essex in the beautiful old village of Corringham (not to be confused with new Corringham) and the nearest train station is Stanford Le Hope. This isn't to be confused with Thurrock who used to be Purfleet who folded last season after their owner retired due to health grounds but couldn't find anyone to take over.
East Thurrock have only been around since 1969 and they only moved to the ground in 1984, which has got to have the most picturesque surroundings in the National League South. Being a village they struggle to get big crowds and quite a few of their supporters said they 'were punching above their weight' with crowds often below 300. I crossed through the church grounds to have a pint in The Bull where I couldn't resist the deep fried Camembert as you do when your a well heeled Slough fan. We chatted to two football lads including a West Ham supporter who'd had enough of the Olympic Stadium and was now a Southend season ticket with his son.
The pub, the ground, the local taxi company, in fact a lot of the place it seems are owned by one family; but that family have had an almighty falling out, straight out of an East Enders plot, resulting in a High Court battle including a punch up in the High Court bogs.
The clubs higgledy-piggledy Rookery Hill ground was taken over by the Bennett family when the members run club was in debt to Green King Brewery who were threatening to close it down and take possession. Several years ago Ben Bennett mooted a plan to sell Rookery Hill for housing development, and move them to Stanford-le-Hope – a move supported by the council. But Mr Bennett’s son Wayne, his nephew and a local businessman claimed that they are due a share of any profits from the sale of the land as they helped Bennett senior turn the club’s fortunes around. Bennett senior disagreed and said that the trio were just three among a large number of supporters, officials and local businessmen who were involved – many of whom have remained involved to this day. The judge agreed and in a 72 page document dismissed the trio's claims.
As is ever the case the Rebels travelled en masse to Essex, drunk some beer and made some noise. East Thurrock defended well and did us with a sucker punch at the death. 1-0 and their first win of the season.
In start contrast to this friendly attitude, Brighton this week decided to ban flasks to the game. They hid their reasons behind the usual health and safety and police advice flannel but what it really means for those, usually older supporters, is an almighty rush to the bar at half time if they want a hot drink in the winter months. The queues are long and many won't manage it in the 15 minute window.
It's those increasing petty rules that make me hate the higher levels of football while its acts of kindness from an opposition teams secretary that make me love non league football even more. It will take a monumental effort to keep East Thurrock in the league but I hope they manage it.


Saturday, August 25, 2018

CHAMPION HILL STREET BLUES

Printed in the National League South match v Dulwich Hamlet in Monday 27th August 2018 We lost 2-1 in front of 1010

It's good to back in the same league as our old friends Dulwich Hamlet. I love their evocative old name. Is there any other senior football team called Hamlet? And what about the kit. Who else dare play in pink and blue? I remember coach trips in my earlier Slough supporting days to their cavernous and crumbling old stadium where crowds of 200 rattled round in a ground built for thousands. Opened in 1931 it staged numerous Amateur Internationals and the Amateur Cup Final between Kingstonian and Stockton in 1932-33 that attracted a record crowd of 20,744.
In 1991, it was demolished as part of Sainsbury‘s redevelopment and the club moved opposite to a new home.
The last time Slough played at their new ground we outnumbered the home supporters, but thanks to a monumental effort behind the scenes, Dulwich were easily the best supported team in the Isthmian League. Then last March they were locked out of their ground, caught in the middle of a battle between an American property developer and Southwark Council. The developers - owned by a billion-pound New York hedge fund - bought the club in 2014 and promised to build a new ground if they got permission for new houses. With 20,000 families on the council housing waiting list Southwark quite rightly said that not enough of these houses were affordable. The developers retaliated by presenting the 125-year-old club with a rent bill of £121,000 and trademarked the club’s name saying they would have to pay to use it! They also rejected a £10 million bid from Rio Ferdinand’s social housing company Legacy.
Using the same savvy that has driven attendances, the club enlisted the support of many. From the Mayor of London to speeches in the Houses of Parliament to 1,200 people marching from East Dulwich to the padlocked gates of Champion Hill in protest.
So after 111 years in the Isthmian League promotion last season to the National League South was bittersweet, with Dulwich currently playing 'home' games at old rivals Totting and Mitcham's ground.
I chatted to Ben Sibley and Hugo Greenhalgh
How long have you been supporting Dulwich and have you got a role at the club?
Forward the Hamlet (FTH) 'Since 2014. I don't have an official role at the club but do host Dulwich Hamlet-focused podcast by the name of Forward The Hamlet with a pal, Hugo Greenhalgh.'
How's life in the National League South? How do you think you will do this season?
FTH 'Life in the National League South is as expected... tough. We are yet to be totally outclassed in a game but (at time of writing - Tuesday 21st August) have taken just 4 points from a possible 15. We have the quality to dominate games but we're not clinical enough up front, and we're making too many defensive mistakes at the other end. Teams are so much more streetwise at this level - their game management is on another level compared to the Isthmian Premier Division. I reckon as soon as our defence settles, we'll start picking up more points. If we can manage that, I think we'll be good for a mid-table finish. I'd be delighted with 14th or higher.'
What's the latest with the ground? 
FTH 'I'm not privy to conversations that may well be going on behind the scenes but as it stands we are still locked out of Champion Hill, with no real hope of returning soon. Owners of the stadium, US-based property developers Meadow Residential, continue to refuse to engage with Southwark council. The council made an offer to buy the site back in March - Meadow didn't even acknowledge it. Sports Minister Tracey Crouch told the House of Commons she is willing to find and appoint an independent mediator if negotiations between Meadow and the council fail but as yet, we've not seen this come to fruition.'
Is playing at Tooting affecting your crowds? 
FTH 'Yes - I would say our attendances are on average 40% lower.'
Just in the National League South yourselves, Truro and Gloucester are ground-sharing. Slough, Wealdstone, Chelmsford and Dartford were homeless for years, while Torquay have an uncertain future. What more needs to be done to protect football grounds and have them recognised as assets of community value?
FTH 'It needs to start from the top and the FA have been all too quiet on our situation, and on many others like us. It's frustrating that our current predicament is hardly a new one. The FA ought to be taking a more proactive approach to its member clubs and should be the first port of call when relationships break down with landowners. Perhaps a portion of the proposed £600m sale of Wembley Stadium could be allocated to help solve such disputes. Champion Hill was actually listed as an "Asset of Community Value" by Southwark Council in 2013 and of course this has proven to count for very little. Working with local government to ensure these statuses are more than just tokenistic is essential.'
The Battle for Champion Hill perfectly sums up the crazy way our society is run. When Mayor Khan came to a Dulwich game he met 99 year old Bill Kirby, a former anti-aircraft gunner who defended London during the Battle of Britain and who has been watching the Hamlet for 90 years! Khan said "You can see three or four generations here in the crowd, different races, different classes. There are so few places left in London that have that. It’s just corporate greed. Come here, buy a club, kick them out, build luxury flats. It’s going on across our country. But this time, the club, the council and the community have all stood together. It sounds like a romantic story, but it’s also the story of our city. I think Meadow will find they have made a big mistake."
It could be a long season for the club fighting on two fronts. Slough Town know from bitter experience how being homeless can seriously damage your health, so let's hope Dulwich can stay in the National League and with their friends in high places and people power defeat the developers and head back home. Infact let's hope society starts recognising the benefit football clubs bring to communities and give them much greater protection against property vultures and shareholders just out to make a fast buck.
* You can listen to the Forward the Hamlet podcasts here

Thursday, August 16, 2018

LANCING BOIL THE HEATH

Printed in the National League South game v Dulwich Hamlet on Monday 27th August 2018  We lost 2-1 in front of 2010

Their enthusiasm reminded me of when I was their age. Waiting at the tunnel to get players to sign my autograph book, shouting out their names in the hope of recognition, legging it for the ball after a wayward shot – and of course queuing at the legendary Wexham Park sweet shop.
Fast forward 40 years and I'm taking seven boys to the Hanbury Stadium, the grandiose sounding venue of Haywards Heath who were entertaining near neighbours Lancing. 

 
Bored of watering my allotments, I'd been asking for rain for months and so on the first day of our annual camping holiday the end of the heatwave was celebrated with torrential rain and hurricane winds. The weather had improved on the Saturday but Haywards Heath playing in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary round just 15 minutes away was too good an opportunity to miss. Like the drunk bloke at the bar, I repeated to any campers that would listen – Yes, the FA Cup really starts in August.
Heath had a brilliant 2017/18 season, winning promotion as champions of the Southern Combination, righting a wrong from the previous season when they had been denied promotion after suffering a nine point deduction. Their heinous crime? Mistakenly playing someone 3 times who not paid a £10 fine with a former club! Now they are in the newly formed Bostik South East Division. Just six years ago they were playing in Division 3 of the Country League, so far down the pyramid you can't enter the FA Cup.
They moved to Hanbury in 1952 and the ground is pretty basic apart from a very impressive grandstand that dominates. There used to be covered terracing along one side of the pitch, but this was later removed – now you can park your car pitch side.
 
I paid my £8 but all the seven boys were free. If you ever want a simple marketing tool on how to attract children to lower league football then this is it. Everyone loves a bargain and the club soon got their money back on the burger, chips and drinks the kids devoured.
Heaths manager Shaun Saunders is the father of Connor Saunders, a promising footballer who was killed with one punch a few years back. The Foundation set up in his name have been tireless in their message in schools that one punch can kill – as well as donating defibrillators, encouraging organ donations and providing football coaching for children with learning disabilities. The effectiveness of their work could be seen by all the Brighton boys I had bought along knowing about the one punch campaign.
The FA Cup starts so early that it was the first competitive match for Haywards Heath whereas Lancing, playing in the Southern Combination, already had two league games under their bootstraps. We had just taken our positions when Lancing took the lead inside the first 90 seconds from a penalty. We were hoping for a goalfest but instead it was a very scrappy first half with Heath looking off the pace. The second half saw the home side dominate without making many clear cut chances. With Heath showing more urgency late on, Lancing hit on the counter, with Jack Langford sent clear in stoppage time to score and confirm a trip to Greenwich Borough. The Lancing players and management were jubilant. They are now just 13 wins away from the final!
The FA Cup matters at this level, as one Heath fan kept shouting in frustration 'This is the FA Cup for Christ Sake'. Still this season the losers now get £750 while the winners receive £2,250 – as well as half the gate receipts of the 106 paying guests. I'm not sure if this includes kids.
What I loved about the day was how the boys totally bought into it. High fiving and learning the names of the players so they could shout encouragement, chatting to the subs, and being amazed at how the players spoke to the ref - language they pointed out, which would see them sent off in their junior league games. One of them even asked hopefully for the keepers gloves at the end.
While Premier League clubs have so much TV money they could afford to let people in free, its lower league clubs who have cornered this market. Be rude not to take them up on their generous offer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

THE TORQUAY TUMBLE

Printed in the National South League game v Torquay United on Saturday 18th August 2018.We drew 0-0 in front of 1244

When the dust finally settled and the league allocations set, I excitedly scanned the fixtures for possible weekend trips away with the family. These trips always involve proclaiming in a surprised tone – well what's the chances of booking a B&B in Weymouth the same weekend Slough are playing them! So thanks a lot league computer for putting two of these seaside away fixtures in January. 
One game that caught the eye was Torquay United. While Slough are riding the crest of a wave, the same can't be said of our opponents who were relegated last season to the National League South. Just six years ago they were playing in the Division Two play-offs.

I spoke to Dominic Roman whose been supporting the club for 30 years and is editor of independent blog Torquay Talk

Can you describe the last decade being a Torquay fan. From dropping out the football league to playing regional football? 

Dominic '10 years ago we were an upwardly mobile Conference club, with a promotion chasing squad, a brilliant young manager and a local board who knew and respected the local community. We got promoted to the Football League and had two brilliant play-off campaigns, and everybody was very proud. So to find ourselves down in the National League South (NLS) now is horrible really and we still believe we are a football league club, with a league ground and league support.
Around 2012 things started going awry as bad decisions were made behind the scenes (and kept being made) and even though we had a lottery winner (Thea Bristow) who put significant money into the club, she soon realised that it was moneypit that would suck the life out of her and it took a local consortium to save us in 2015. The consortium soon realised they were well out of their depth and the team worked on a meagre budget, only narrowly avoiding relegation in 2016. The consortium borrowed money from Clarke Osborne that summer and eventually he took over the club as other bidders either dropped out or couldn't raise the necessary funds. Since his arrival Clarke has promised numerous things to fans but generally kept his distance and failed in footballing matters as the club eventually got relegated. He has backed the youth system and kept us full time, but when we needed the club to step up it didn't happen.
The NLS is a complete unknown to most of us but after all the mess and what's happened, over 2,000 still turned up for our first home league game on a Tuesday, which is amazing! It been an awful rollercoaster ride, and things have just kept getting worse and worse - leaving us where we are now. To put simply what could go wrong has gone wrong!'

How optimistic are you for the future?

Dominic 'At the moment I'm not overly optimistic to be honest although I think we'll be contenders in the NLS. Overall the club has good people working at it, but lacks leadership from an owner who never attends games and a general manager who is not up to the job. Longer term the owner will continue to push for the stadium and he'll be around for a while trying to make this happen, but if the plans fail then there's a good chance he'll soon lose interest and at that point we'll need someone else to step in. The supporters trust are trying very hard to increase numbers and make better inroads with the club, but generally Clarke Osborne is keeping them at arms length whilst putting out statements here or there to try and appease the fans. I don't particularly fear for our immediately future at least, but things can change very quickly and I really hope to see Torquay turning back into a club the local community can be proud of.' 

What do you think of plans for the new ground given your chairmans previous record at other clubs?

Dominic 'Clarke Osborne's CV is chequered to say the least in delivering projects and anybody who really believes he'll deliver this new stadium without any trouble is kidding themselves. The local Mayor seems to have bought into the idea Clarke is selling him and would clearly love to see this multi-purpose stadium benefit Torbay which is fair enough. However, local councillors and fans are not buying into it, and I'd say it's pie-in-the-sky - a pipe dream that is unlikely to happen. The cost of it is apparently 40 million and the capacity will be ten thousand. Ridiculous figures - even when we were in League One our crowd average was only around 3,000 and at the moment we'll struggle to get over 1500 for most games. He will keep pushing for it and I hope the Torbay top brass will not roll over for him, and of course keep the ownership of Plainmoor out of his hands. That's the main fear, Plainmoor is sold off, we are shipped to another ground whilst the new ground is built - only to suffer difficulties and struggle to survive. Or alternatively we get a big new ground with big overheads and still only have 1500 through the gates.' 

What can Slough fans expect when they come to Torquay? Any places you can recommend? What's the ground like? How much to get in?
Dominic: 'Crikey now you're asking! Torquay has seen better days really and desperately needs investment/regeneration especially around the High Street area, but the seafront and the harbour are still lovely places to walk round and grab a bite to eat - and you have a number of nice beaches dotted around the area. There's quite a few tourist attractions. The model village in Babbacombe is excellent, so is Paignton Zoo which is only a few miles from Torquay. Plainmoor is a pretty good ground I think! Bristow's Bench is the main stand and was developed only 6 years ago - and I think you'll be seated at the end of that. Its not the noisiest ground as sound tends to get lost, and the capacity is around 6,000, so a lot of empty spaces these days. There is a bar at the ground 'Boots and Laces' which is welcoming to away fans (within reason), and also a few pubs fairly nearby in St Marychurch and Babbacombe area. I'm not sure of the price, around £15-20 I think but as a season ticket holder I don't look!' 

Are there any towns/grounds you are looking forward to visiting?
Dominic 'I was looking forward to days out in Oxford, Western Super Mare and Bath, but they have all been scheduled as Tuesday nights so any visits will be for the game only. Apart from that Truro was an option but now they play here! Gloucester for the bank holiday will be a popular one, though I believe even they play in Evesham! The Yellow Army will bring supporters wherever we play, and we have a decent following around London so plenty for them to get stuck into this season.' 
Cheers Dominic and best of luck for the rest of the season.