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Saturday 29th September 2018 ko 15.00

Eastern Counties League Division One North


MARCH TOWN UNITED 3 (Cooke 7 Gillies 45p Mattless 74)

Att c100

Entry £5

Programme £1

One of the most welcome additions to the Eastern Counties League roster this season has been Lakenheath. I’d had a fair few hoppers recommend, The Nest or The Pit, depending on who you talk to but for no good reason I’d not managed to visit. I’m glad I did go but I do wonder whether I caught the club at a real crossroads. Step 6 will alter just about everything for Lakenheath FC, both as a club, and a place to watch football. 

Of course any ground new to Step 6 will attract the groundhoppers, the level is used by so many as a cut-off below which they won’t watch. Other than the groundhopping personalities the game attracted this was a fascinating chance to see a club and a ground slowly adapting to the new environment of pyramid football.

The club moved here in the 1930’s. “The Nest” is a former chalk pit donated to the club by Sir Charlton Briscoe , a physician famous for his work with Kings College Hospital in London, who nevertheless had a home here.  The town is best known for the US Air Force base nearby so perhaps a link with the base is inevitable, the stand was built in 1958 from material from the base rescued from when a new runway was built. The club tends to refer to the ground as “The Nest” and the steep chalk banking on three sides does evoke Norwich City’s home between 1908 and 1935.

The problem the club has now is to make what is a well-appointed ground, and perfectly suitable for the club’s needs, tick all the boxes to keep the ground graders happy.

So firstly that means floodlights, and a fundraising drive is in place for those. Already the ground has been enclosed and hard standing put down on the near side, but that needs to be extended to all four sides of the pitch. Then they’ll need new changing rooms as the current ones are too small, and need a physio table in each. The referees room needs to be ensuite, and the dugouts need to accomodate 9 people each, allowing each person to have 50 cm each. Where does it all end for small clubs?

There was one absolutely fascinating person there, and from an unlikely background. I’m on committee at the North Berkshire League and we’re extremely proud of our policy of recruiting and training our own referees. Five years ago I watched a game in a defunct division at a defunct club, Challow and the referee that day was Thomas Kelly. It was close to being his first ever middle, and he was very much under the tutelage of then League chairman Leroy Paddock.

Two years ago I saw him again, this time at Hook Norton where he did well to control a tough game. But the last place I expected to see a North Berks graduate was the Eastern Counties League! It transpired that he’s just moved to Cambridge, and this was his first appointment in his new league, and one again he did his former mentor proud! And yes, the irony of it all wasn’t lost on me, even if I don’t actually recall Thomas refereeing on any of the NBFL hops- he got promoted too quickly!

Another personality there was the groundhopper known to most as “Tram”. Tram’s hatred of the nil-nil draw is such is such that he won’t count the ground as visited unless a goal is scored. His fame is such that the whole atmosphere of a game changes among those of us in the know. Normally we’d all like to see an exciting game with loads of goals wouldn’t we? But put Tram into the equation and that changes….

But Tram got his wish, and got it early too. Lakenheath took an early lead and a frantic first few minutes that Kelly did well to control, March quickly equalised before slowly they gained control of the game. Gillies’ penalty just before half-time gave March the lead, and they looked more assured after the break, extending their lead late on.

If Lakenheath lost this particular battle I suspect they’ll win the war of both providing both a team and facilities to keep them at Step 6. On a general level I do wonder whether to what extent this is beneficial, and if so to whom? Let’s say Lakenheath manage to complete the prescribed works, how will this benefit the club save for ticking the FA’s boxes? And will the cost of doing so impact on the what the club can do elsewhere?

Looking further afield, the Eastern Counties now administers the Eastern Senior League Division One South, a joint venture with the Essex Senior League, to provide a link from the Step 7 Essex Olympian League and the ESL. Look at the teams in it that have been dropped in from below, how many of those will be able to provide stadia fit for the FA’s purposes in the long term?

My worry is that Lakenheath are one of the few clubs who are equipped for the brave new world at Step 6 in the east. All the best to them, and others in their situation.