Thursday, May 04, 2006

"Points mean prizes..."


"...what do points mean? PRIZES!" This week's prize is sure to delight every Gazelle enthusiast who hates his pets going astray - it’s this stamped addressed Antelope..."

Apologies for the random I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue reference, but it seems that in the world of non-league football points don't necessarily mean prizes anymore.

It used to be in football that a whole load of teams in a league would play each other a couple of times, some teams would get more points than others and the whole thing would be decided thus. Teams would be promoted, teams would be relegated and teams would stay in the same division they'd be in that season, all on the strength of the number of points they'd gained over the past nine months.

The Football Conference have managed to turn that on its head at the worst possible time - right at the end of the season. And all due to two words - international clearance. Apparently it's a form that has to be filled in if a player you're about to sign has played in another country in the last 12 months. It's a basic check to make sure he's not been banned from global football while playing in that country, or owes anybody any money over there, etc. Once the previous country's FA has cleared him to transfer clubs, the deal can go ahead.

It's a ruling that fans of Altrincham will be cursing right now. They won promotion back to the Conference National division last May after a five-year absence (ironically defeating Eastbourne Borough in a memorable promotion play-off at Stoke's Britannia Stadium) and after taking some beatings began to settle and looked as though they would avoid relegation. And then they signed James Robinson (above right) from Accrington Stanley in November and it all went Pete Tong. Evidently neither Accrington nor Altrincham thought to check if he had international clearance, after a spell playing in Iceland, and the Conference threw the book at Alty, deducting them all the points they had gained in matches he'd played - 18 in total. The points were reinstated after an appeal was lodged, and as the Beeb reports today, the hearing will be on May 23. If it is rejected, Alty go down - simple as that.

An online petition has been signed by thousands of supporters of non-league clubs in the vain hope of getting the suits at the Conference to change their minds. It's a very vain hope.

The same happened in Conference South, and threatened to decide who won the title. Weymouth signed midfielder Soloman Taiwo early in the season and he made just two appearances for them, one as a late sub when the Terras were winning 3-0. He also went on to play for Maidenhead. And just last month, sure enough, it transpires he "forgot" to tell either club he had had a spell playing in the States. The Conference, needing to be consistent, threatened to dock the four points from Weymouth that they had earned with Taiwo on the field - even if his two appearances added up to less than 90 minutes. The deduction was hanging over their heads even after they won the championship with a game to spare, as any penalty would have allowed St. Albans City back into the title race. As it transpired, Weymouth beat Lewes at home and St. Albans lost at home to Weston-super-Mare to make any deduction irrelevant.

But that's STILL not all! Histon are playing in the Conference South play-off final against St. Albans on Sunday, for the right to play in the Conference National next season, but themselves only got into the play-offs because two of the top five - Cambridge City and Havant and Waterlooville - were deducted points for fielding ineligible players - nothing to do with international clearance this time though.

The end of this season has been a total farce from the Conference's point of view. It does seem that, on the pitch at least, points don't necessarily mean prizes...

'Head down with the Robins...



The Conference South regular season ended at the weekend. Weymouth, who barring a potential points deduction for fielding a player without international clearance had already won the title, made sure of it - deduction or not - with a 2-0 win over 10-man Lewes at the Wessex Stadium.

The only other issue of note was which team would join Maidenhead United in being relegated - Hayes or Carshalton Athletic. Both teams started the day level on points, with Hayes just ahead on goal difference, and - tantalisingly - both were playing each other's fierce rivals; Hayes faced the Carshalton-hating Sutton United, while Carshalton took on fellow Middlesex side Yeading. That of course threw up the possibility of both Sutton AND Yeading trying to lose to send their cousins from down the road into the division below - a fact Sutton fan Taz revels in in his report on their match with Hayes (warning: may contain nutcases! ;-)).

Carshalton - known as the Robins - raced in to a two-goal lead against the Ding at half-time, while Hayes were holding Sutton, results that would keep Carshalton up. However, Hayes took the lead just after the break and things got worse for Carshalton when Yeading staged a comeback in the last 20 minutes to level at 2-2. Then, on the sort of day when you wish the twists and turns were being covered live on Five Live, Sutton equalised to give their local rivals hope. However that was dashed when first Carshalton failed to win against Yeading - and their relegation was confirmed when Hayes grabbed a last minute winner against Sutton and sent Church Road into complete pandermonium.

Well done Hayes, and commiserations Carshalton. Maybe see you soon.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Forum...or against 'em...

You will see if you peer to your right - and maybe scroll down a little - that I have linked to the Unofficial Conference South Fans Forum; a football forum I happen to be moderator for these days. It's a lively little place, and attracts fans from every club in the Conference South division, some represented better than others.

Having mentioned it to Jim, my Online Journalism lecturer, he seemed curious - particularly one afternoon when I was half-listening to him and half banning some schoolkid posting crap on there - and suggested I blog about it.

To sum it up - it's a tough job but someone's got to do it. And that's not in a sarcastic tone - it is literally a tough job (well most of the time it moderates itself but it can blow up due to the inflammatory nature of debate and disagreement between football fans) and someone does have to do it. Its originator is a Hayes supporter named Nick Bell and after 18 months in charge he got fed up of the inflammatory remarks, pre-school nature of some posters, and threats of legal action against him for stuff posted there, that he handed the reins over to me.

I decided to introduce register-only before posting to cut down on the number of anonymous rubbish that turned up during school breaktimes (coincidence, non?) and I do know of people who won't post on there due to some of the attitudes displayed on there. But by and large it is a fun, prosperous forum - with all shades of human life represented there. If you follow football, do check it out...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Saints fall by Wey-side


The big match of the non-league football weekend was arguably the clash of the Conference South titans on Easter Monday, as league leaders (and full-time cash-splashing) Weymouth took on second-placed free-scoring St. Albans City, at the Dorset side's Wessex Stadium. With both teams away and clear from the rest, with just a few games remaining, whoever came out on top in this long-awaited encounter would be in pole position for promotion to Conference National.

By all accounts it was a tight affair for much of the game, with St. Albans playing some pretty football but Weymouth's more direct approach reaping rewards. The tackles were flying in (pictured: Saints' Matt Hann, formerly with Weymouth's fierce local rivals Dorchester, takes out Lee Elam), with seven booked, and the opening goal came on 28 minutes through Weymouth's on-loan Carlisle striker Raphael Nade. Lee Clarke levelled matters within 90 seconds however, only for the Saints to concede a free-kick on the edge of the box just before the break which Terras captain Matt Bound fired into the net.

Weymouth began the second half with their tails up and further extended their lead when former Shrewsbury midfielder Ben Smith tumbled in the box under some pressure and the ref awarded a penalty - set-piece specialist Bound stepped up to convert to make it 3-1. But Saints reduced the arrears through Gary Elphick and were further boosted when Terras midfielder Shaun Wilkinson was sent-off for a late challenge. They also came close to snatching a draw when Paul Hakim lobbed Weymouth 'keeper Arran Lee-Barrett - only for the all-action Bound to make a dramatic clearance off the line. Weymouth held out and with their financial backing and full-time status are well set for Conference National football.

Unsurprisingly, a new Conference South attendance record was set - in fact, the astonishing figure of 5,022 surpassed all Conference National and most League Two attendances and there were even more people at the Wessex than attended Colchester or Port Vale's home games in League One! It was also the second highest non-league attendance this season (Exeter v Grays Athletic in the Conference National attracted 6,682).

Borough re-Bourne

While all that was going on at the Wessex, I made the journey to Welling's Park View Road ground for BBC Southern Counties Radio, to see Eastbourne Borough grind out an impressive 2-1 victory over the play-off chasers. It hadn't looked good for Borough when Matt Bodkin opened the scoring on 11 minutes, but Matt Smart finished off a fine flowing passing move to level on half hour. Borough and Welling both had several good chances in a pulsating end-to-end second half, including an Eastbourne goal disallowed, before Scott Ramsay struck the winner on 83 minutes.

The result leaves Borough on 41 points and takes them very close to ensuring their safety in Conference South. Roll on next season!

One way to ruin a decent headline...

As part of my post above will tell you, I can now add Welling United's Park View Road ground to the list below of stadia visited. Now, can anybody find a decent headline with 37 in it...???

Friday, April 14, 2006

The dirty three-dozen

(pictured: the John Smith's stand at Stoke City's Britannia Stadium)

Still persuing the groundhopping theme, I mentioned in a previous post that I'd visited 36 professional and semi-professional football grounds in my 21 years on this planet. The full list is as follows (Skif, prepare to laugh at the inadequacy of it!)...

Aldershot Town (Recreation Ground)
Aston Villa (Villa Park)
Basingstoke Town (The Camrose) *
Bishop’s Stortford (Woodside Park) *
Brighton and Hove Albion (Withdean Stadium)
Burgess Hill Town (Leylands Park)
Chelsea (Stamford Bridge)
Cobham (Downside Bridge Road) *
Cork City (Turner’s Cross)
Crystal Palace/Wimbledon (Selhurst Park)
Eastbourne Borough (Priory Lane)
Eastbourne Town (The Saffrons)
Eastbourne United Association (The Oval)
Farnborough Town (Cherrywood Road) *
Farnham Town (Memorial Sports Ground)
Gillingham (Priestfield Stadium)
Hailsham Town (The Beaconsfield)
Hassocks (The Beacon) *
Hastings United (The Pilot Field)
Hayes (Church Road) *
Lewes (The Dripping Pan)
Metropolitan Police (Imber Court Sports Ground) *
Newport County (Newport Stadium)
Oxford United (Kassam Stadium)
St. Leonards (The Firs; defunct 2003)
Stoke City (Britannia Stadium)
Sutton United (Gander Green Lane)
Three Bridges (Jubilee Field) *
Thurrock (Ship Lane)
Whitehawk (East Brighton Park) *
Whyteleafe (Church Road)
Wick (Crabtree Park) *
Worthing (Woodside Road) *
Worthing United (Robert Albon Memorial Ground) *
Yeading (The Warren)
York City (Bootham - now KitKat - Crescent).

* indicates grounds I have only ever been to as a match reporter for press or radio - the other grounds I have been to at least once of my own volition.

Ground guides provided by Pyramid Passion, Nomad Online, Football Ground Guide and, in the case of Cork City, Football.co.uk

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pyramid Passion

Following on from the previous post on football 'groundhopping', just a quick word about the excellent 'Pyramid Passion' website, which goes into great detail about non-league football grounds up and down the country.

Run solely by Eastbourne Borough's website manager David Bauckham, it features a ground guide A-Z (well, A-Y as it happens) - from Abbey Hey to Yeading, if you will - which includes a full history of the grounds and the clubs that play their home games there, plus some superb photography. Elsewhere on the site, there is the slightly more anoraky sections on the minutiae of football grounds - signs, entrances, floodlights, rollers and mowers (!) and dugouts. The latter is a particular fetish of Mr Bauckham, who has written "the first ever book devoted entirely to the evolution and history of the dugout, featuring full colour photographs of over 70 Non League dugouts from England and Wales". For those of you veritably moist at the prospect (and let's face it, who isn't), you'll have to wait - it comes out in October.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Football is different here...


Having blogged about things such as Wikipedia, the 2012 Olympics and one Guernsey man's attempt to throw a discus, I'm now going to focus this 'ere blog on one core subject - non-league football.

Why? Well for ten years now, my football allegiances have been split between the dire underachievement of Aston Villa (in the English Premiership, for foreign readers - "readers all over the world...none in this country, but all over the world..."*) and my local side - Eastbourne Borough (in action, in red, against local rivals Lewes, above right), now in the Conference South (five leagues below the Premiership).

Non-league football has fascinated me for the last five or six years, particularly as Eastbourne Borough rose up through the ranks, from the Sussex County League to where they now find themselves - one division below the Conference National, the top tier of non-league football. And there's a hell of a lot more pride and passion shown, even in defeat, by those players who are not signing multi-million pound contracts every year.

And there's plenty of passion amongst the fans too, who are some of the most fiercely loyal in football. It's one thing taking your comfy seat at Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford once in a blue moon - it's quite another to travel from, say, Dorchester to Bishop's Stortford on a wet Tuesday night to watch your local side in action.

Unsurprisingly, there's a couple of really good blogs on the subject which I shall be taking inspiration from. Exiled Havant and Waterlooville fan Skif's excellent Hobo Tread blog sees him take in random matches across the non-league spectrum, from Accrington Stanley v Barnet in the Conference National down to Cammell Laird v Nantwich Town in the FA Vase. And every one of his visits is recorded in effortlessly verbose style - but very entertaining to read nonetheless. In fact, had I the time and money to do something similar, I would. My 'grounds visited' list, which includes those I've been to as a reporter, is only up to 36 - our friend Skif is bordering on a double century! However, he's never been to Farnham Town!

And then there's Extreme Groundhopping - which sounds less like a blog, more like a reality game show on Challenge TV. Its another good read, particularly if, like the author, you are an Ipswich Town fan, as coverage of their first team and reserves matches dominates the blog. However, Newmarket Town and Gosport Borough - two of those "only ever see them in the Non-League Paper" teams - have also had the honour of a visit from the Extreme Groundhopper.

Friday, April 07, 2006

O/T: Wikipedia - future tellers...

With reference to a post I made below last week, entitled "O/T: A Wiki-bituary..."

"PLEASE NOTE! The articles linked above concern events that are YET to happen. Neither Jimmy Carter nor Gerald Ford are dead, and bird flu has NOT yet reached UK shores.

OK...erm...it has now...