MANarama National League column – Leyton Orient

Leyton Orient, by Glenn Moore

On 25 May 2014 Leyton Orient were twice on the brink of reaching the second tier of English football for the first time in more than three decades. As they prepared to celebrate promotion at Wembley that day, the idea that they could be playing a league match at Braintree within four years – and coming home elated after a win – was beyond comprehension.

Nevertheless, on Tuesday night around 1,600 O’s fans made the 40-mile journey back from Essex in jubilant mood. Justin Edinburgh’s team had won 5-1 at Cressing Road to extend their lead at the summit of the MANarama National League (sponsors Vanarama have renamed the competition in support of the charity Prostate Cancer UK).

Victory eclipsed a club record set in that 2013-14 season when Russell Slade’s team began with a 12-match unbeaten run before having to settle for a play-off place. At Wembley they led Rotherham 2-0 with 35 minutes left, then led again in the penalty shoot-out.

Two failed penalties followed, and less than three years later they were relegated from League Two ending a stay in the Football League dating back to 1905. This precipitous decline, which almost concluded with the club ceasing to exist, began when long-term owner Barry Hearn sold to Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti. This proved ill-fated as Becchetti rattled through 11 managers, overseeing two relegations, a string of unhappy headlines, and the alienation of supporters. Soon after dropping out of the League the club faced a winding up order.

This, however, was staved off and the club bought by a consortium fronted by Nigel Travis, an Orient fan and former schoolmate of Hearn who had risen to head up Dunkin’ Donuts.  The bulk of the cash was provided by Texan millionaire Kent Teague whose enthusiasm has extended to watching the club’s walking football teams play.

The pair brought stability off the field and, after a brief stint by former Crewe boss Steve Davis, Edinburgh provided it on it. The former Tottenham defender arrived at Brisbane Road at a low ebb having been fired in quick succession by Gillingham and Northampton Town. However, he had good experience at non-League level having taken Rushden & Diamonds and Newport County into the National League play-off places, winning promotion with the latter.

Edinburgh banished fears of a second relegation as the Os finished mid-table. This season they began by snatching a late equaliser at Salford and have been unbeaten ever since with six wins in the last seven games. Macauley Bonne, a 22-year-old signed by Davis from Colchester United, took his O’s total to 31 goals in 57 matches with a hat-trick at Braintree. Just as influential have been the experienced Jobi McAnuff and Dean Brill, youth product Josh Koroma, East Thurrock recruit Marvin Ekpiteta, and an injury-free run that has enabled Edinburgh to name the same XI for nine successive matches.

MANarama National League is a hard one to escape. Less than half the clubs relegated from League Two in the last decade have bounced back. Orient are on course to buck the trend.

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Vanarama National League column Dec 20 – Gateshead

The Vanarama National League column – Gateshead by Glenn Moore.


Gateshead International Stadium will stage a very local affair on Boxing Day, and enjoy an unusually vibrant atmosphere. The ‘Heed’ host Hartlepool in a rare Vanarama National League north-east derby with every expectation of a substantial four-figure gate.

It will be a significant match for Steve Watson, the former Newcastle United player who was lured back to his native north-east in October to take on his first managerial job. Watson, who made more than 350 Premier League appearances, for Everton, Aston Villa and West Brom, besides the Toon, has declared it his mission to take Gateshead into the Football League.

Watson, 43, had been assistant manager at table-topping Macclesfield, but seized the chance to replace Port Vale-bound Neil Aspin and come home. He returned to a region that, while noted as a football ‘hotbed’, has made little impact in the country’s premier non-league competition.

This is only the third season in the National League’s 39-year existence that there have been two clubs from the north-east in the league and there have frequently been none. The Northern League’s reluctance to join the original Alliance Premier League in 1979 meant several of the area’s bigger clubs were left behind as the football pyramid was formed. Blyth Spartans, of FA Cup giant-killing fame, were then dominant in the Northern League, but by the time they switched into the pyramid were playing catch-up and are yet to progress beyond Vanarama National League North.

Gateshead, who were formed in 1977 after the eponymous former Football League club, and its successor club Gateshead United, both folded, have the region’s most regular National League club with 20 campaigns in four stints. They were briefly joined by Darlington from 2010-12, and now by newly-relegated Hartlepool.

The holiday fixtures – the return at Victoria Park is on New Year’s Day – will be a good test of both teams’ progress. Watson has improved Gateshead’s results, but they remain lower-mid-table, eight points off the play-offs. Pool, anxious for an instant return, are one point ahead but have lost four on the spin. They play Saturday, at home to Maidenhead, while Gateshead have the weekend off.

It will also be a measure of the effect Watson’s arrival has had off the pitch. In many respects playing in a smart stadium refurbished as recently as 2011 has its advantages, but unfortunately the International Stadium is both designed for athletics and too big for non-League football.

At 11,800 its capacity is only exceeded by The Shay at Halifax. However, an average gate hovering between 750-850 is matched only by Boreham Wood. With only the two covered stands each side of the ground usually opened for Vanarama National League matches, and an athletics track around the pitch, fans often complain about a lack of atmosphere.

Proposals to build a new ground have been floated but Watson’s short-term solution is to copy the philosophy of his former manager Kevin Keegan. “We have to entertain, to get out on the pitch and play good football, to get positive results,” he said. “Then before you know it, there are more on the gate.”

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Vanarama National League column November 1

Luke Coulson, journalist and footballer for Ebbsfleet United, looks at the precarious life of a manager in the Vanarama National League.

A week ago, Ronald Koeman felt the harsh sting of football management as he became the second managerial casualty of the Premier League season.

Koeman joins Frank De Boer and five other managers from the top four tiers of English football that have felt the axe from their clubs this season. However, the National League is a different level of cut-throat business entirely, with six managers already losing their jobs.

With the promise and reward of League Football, the stakes are high and a slow start in the National League can cost a manager his position. The five clubs currently lying at the bottom of the table have all sacked their managers this season and with the recent announcement of their new manager, Ady Pennock, Barrow are now on to their third manager of the campaign.

After beating East Thurrock in a replay two weeks ago, we will host Doncaster at home in the first round of the FA Cup this weekend. Yet, before we could even begin to think about the League One side, we had to re-focus our minds on the league and the three upcoming fixtures. Of those games, we hosted Barrow and Torquay United, two of the teams that have welcomed new gaffers to the dugouts during the season.

In late August, after only five games of the season, Barrow sacked their manager Paul Cox. Ten games later and four days before we played them, Micky Moore, their second manager of the season departed the football club.

When a manager of a football club is sacked, it can have an adverse effect on the team. The squad may have respected the gaffer and therefore there may be players that are disappointed and unhappy with the changes to the coaching staff. On the other hand, with a new manager to impress and positions up for grabs, the sacking of a manager can have a positive effect on the team. Therefore, as we welcomed Barrow to Stonebridge Road, we were very aware not to underestimate our opposition.

Having experienced similar circumstances, I know what the current Barrow squad have been going through. Chris Todd signed me for Eastleigh in the January of 2016, yet after four games of the following season, he was dismissed from his duties. Chris was the first manager to have ever bought me and subsequently gave me a chance in the National League, so I was personally disappointed to see him leave. Ronnie Moore was brought in to replace him but after three months, we were once more without a manager. In early December, Martin Allen left Barnet to become our third manager of the season but was sacked 14 games later to continue the rollercoaster of managerial changes.

It is difficult to mentally prepare knowing that a new manager is about to take over. You hear constant rumours about who may take the job and it’s an unsettling period for the team. It is a worrying time for each player because a new manager may not like their individual style, or not play a formation that brings out their full potential.

Each manager has his own way of playing, training and managing the team and consequently it can be difficult to become used to a new manager especially if you don’t agree with his philosophy.  In that case you keep your head down, work hard and don’t complain if you want to play.

Before the announcement of Ady Pennock, we were able to claim all three points against Barrow and their interim manager Neil Hornby with a 3-2 victory. However, that win was followed by a defeat three days later against Torquay United. Similarly to Barrow, Torquay United decided to have a change of management early in the season, sacking Kevin Nicholson after four games and replacing him with Gary Owers.

Following the loss against Torquay, we came away with a hard fought and well deserved point at Sutton United. The draw means we now sit 13th in the table, still only three points adrift of the playoffs as we take a break from league duty this weekend to prove ourselves against Doncaster in the first round of the FA Cup. A challenge we are more than ready to overcome.

Vanarama National League Column Oct 25th

VANARAMA NATIONAL LEAGUE COLUMN – Craig Harrison, by Glenn Moore

Some coaches begin preparing for life on the training pitch while they are still players, making notes about sessions put on by their managers, mentally filing behaviours, and taking their qualifications. Others fall into the job by accident. The strange thing is that sometimes it is the latter who are more successful.

Among them is Craig Harrison, coach of Vanarama National League side Hartlepool United. Harrison had quit football after suffering a career-ending broken leg while playing for Crystal Palace reserves in his mid-20s. He struggled with depression, came through that, but remained disenchanted with the game opting instead for a career in property development.

Then, for his 30th birthday party, wife Danielle booked a band. The guitarist looked familiar. He was Gareth Owen, formerly of Wrexham, whom Harrison had played against when on loan at Preston. Owen was player-manager at Welsh Premier League club Airbus UK and seeking an assistant. He asked if Harrison was interested.

“I said, ‘No, I’m not interested. I’ve moved on from that’,” Harrison, 40 this month, told the Non-League Paper earlier this season. He added: “A couple of weeks later I saw in the local paper they still hadn’t filled the post. My other half persuaded me to give Gareth a text to see what was going on. He said he was still looking so we had a chat and he offered it to me. I took it. That was in December. By the end of the season Gareth had moved on and they gave me the manager’s job.”

By then Harrison was smitten. His biggest problem was persuading part-time players to be as committed as he was. He rapidly acquired his badges and now holds the highest qualification, Uefa Pro Licence. In late 2011 The New Saints, after a rare season failing to win the Welsh League, moved in. With them Harrison won six successive league titles, four Welsh Cups, and played clubs such as Slovan Bratislava and Legia Warsaw in Champions League qualifiers.

Despite this success the chance to join Hartlepool was irresistible for Harrison, Gateshead-born and a former Middlesbrough player. It is not an easy job. Harrison is Pools’ sixth manager in four years, which underlines the instability at the club. Yet though relegated from the Football League last season they still attracted more than 50 applicants for manager.

The opening rounds of the Vanarama National League were a shock. Having lost their opening match at home to Dover Athletic, Hartlepool had two points after six matches. A 13-point haul from the next five games dispelled fears of back-to-back relegation and rekindled hopes of an instant Football League return. They are now in 14th place, only five points behind second-placed Wrexham in a tightly-contested promotion race.

“Looking back with a clear head, what’s probably happened is the four-five weeks at the start of the season has been vital,” Harrison said last week. “When it hasn’t gone for us you either go your separate way and the group fragments or you come together. What went on early season is probably one of the best things to happen for team spirit. It has come together over the opening weeks of the season.”

Harrison, who knows better than most how unpredictable football be, added: “Maybe the start was a blessing in disguise.”

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Vanarama National League column – Awaydays

The Long Away Trip – by Luke Coulson of Ebbsfleet United 

In July, when the fixtures are announced for the upcoming season, players in every team immediately scan the matches. The dates of the heated, local derby, the league favourites and when a player will return to their former club are all quickly noted down. However, everyone in the squad keeps an eye out for the dates of the long, dreaded away trips.

Fortunately for us, the 400 mile round trip for our game against Macclesfield fell on a Saturday, not a Tuesday night.

After a short, sharp training session on the Friday morning, the bus was loaded up and the journey north started as usual. Staff sat at the front with the players behind in their usual, season long seats, which were simply pre-empted on the very first away trip. Coffee from the local Costa wafted down the aisle, the slow RnB music began, newspapers rustled, sweets emerged and laptops were switched on.

During a long, mundane journey, some aspects will never change. Some players will fall asleep; a few will intently watch the latest TV shows such as Power and Game of Thrones and the youngest player will have to make the hot drinks. An added constant occurrence is when I win the UNO tournament at the back of the bus, which is when I have the time between watching films and writing blogs.

The journey to Macclesfield took five hours and upon arrival at the hotel, room keys were handed out and every player arrived early for dinner due to hunger and the fear of a fine for being late. Towards the end of the meal, the sound of a glass being hit brought laughter to the room as it signalled an initiation song. Due to the tradition of every football club, our new signing, Antonio German, had to stand on a chair and sing to us. Antonio sang ‘Burn’ by Usher and it wasn’t a bad attempt. However, after my rendition of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley, he was never going to sound amazing.

Similar to our previous away trips, the rest of the evening and the following morning is then free time that our manager entrusts us to use wisely, to make sure that we are prepared for the game. On the day of the match, a team meeting is always held prior to our pre match meal before we depart for the stadium and the three o’clock kick off creeps ever closer.

Each football club is different to their approach of a long distance away game. It is not uncommon for teams to set off early on a Saturday morning or travel down via train. However, our gaffer, Daryl McMahon and his backroom staff want to give us every advantage of winning, which is why no expense is spared and every need is catered for.

Although our preparation was faultless, we suffered our second loss of the season and our first away defeat. The result kept Macclesfield top of the table as we now sit in 14th, only three points off a playoff spot. 

The journey home after a defeat is always miserable initially. Yet, as with a pre-match routine, every player deals with a defeat in their own way. Personally, I separate myself for a while, listen to music and self reflect on my own performance. However, it is important to make sure the journey home doesn’t remain a sombre affair as another game could be just days away.

The tedious journeys away from home make you appreciate playing in front of the home crowd that much more. Which is why, we might only be in October but I simply can’t wait for March 17th, Gateshead away.

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Vanarama National League column – Oct 11

A weekly column covering the National League in association with FWA partners Vanarama .  This week Glenn Moore on 3G pitches and Sutton United’s rise.

Bruce Elliott, the chairman of Sutton United, stood in the south London club’s decent-sized car park, and said: “You used to be able to come here in the week and – except for matchdays, could always park. Now any evening, and lots of times in the day, there’s nowhere to park.” And he smiled.

There is a reason for the shortage of parking, and it lies on the other side of the main stand. Two acres of state-of-the-art, FIFA Quality Pro standard 3G artificial turf has transformed Sutton’s relationship with the community and contributed significantly to the well-being of a club pushing for promotion to the Football League for the first time in its 119-year history.

“The pitch has had a huge impact,” said Elliott. “I keep telling people this is the best thing this football club has ever done. The two seasons prior to putting the pitch in we went six weeks, and seven weeks, without anything happening on the pitch at all. From a cash-flow and supporter-interest point-of-view, that doesn’t work. No one rings up now to find out if the game is on.”

This is not the case elsewhere. Winter is yet to bite but there has already been one postponement in Sutton’s Vanarama National League, travelling Chester fans left infuriated by the late call-off of their match at Eastleigh last month because of a waterlogged pitch. Fixture security is not, though, the main argument for 3G.

“We can use 3G 40-50 hours a week instead of two hours every two weeks,” added Elliott. “The first team now train on it – we were paying to go somewhere else. We used to pay another club to host our youth team games, we host and train them here. We have two ground shares, Sutton Common Rovers and Wimbledon Ladies. We have ladies sides of our own we have started this season, there is the junior section, three disability sides and now an academy with 80-90 boys based here at the club. They all use the pitch.”

There is, however, a cloud on the horizon. If Sutton go up – and they lie fourth in the Vanarama National League, two points behind leaders Macclesfield – they will have to tear up the pitch to be allowed promotion. However, the Football League almost accepted plastic a couple of seasons ago and it is back on the agenda in next month’s league meeting.

Some opponents feel the pitch confers an unfair advantage but the three Vanarama National League teams with 3G pitches last season – Sutton, Maidstone and Bromley – all finished mid-table having lost, between them, a third of their home games.

While better than many grass pitches at this level the ball does tend to run off quickly on 3G and on Saturday the combination of surface and strong wind troubled both Sutton and visitors Fylde in the first half. However, when the wind dropped there was some decent football played on a surface that – as Arsenal showed in the FA Cup last season last season – rewards technical sides. Sutton’s second goal, inspired by Josh Taylor’s slalom down the left wing, highlighted this.

Despite Lewis Montrose’s subsequent dismissal a late rally from Fylde, still finding their feet in the Vanarama National League after rapid promotions, made for a tense finish. Sutton held on to win 2-1, stay in the promotion frame, and keep the 3G debate simmering.

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Vanarama National League column – Luke Coulson

Luke CoulsonVanarama National League column by Luke Coulson of Ebbsfleet FC

The baggy, yellow shirt of Beechwood Juniors hung loosely on my shoulders and was tucked into my oversized, green shorts as I ran around my first football pitch at the age of six. A year later, I shook the hand of Kevin Keegan before walking around Maine Road at half time to the sound of 30,000 fans applauding the new Manchester City academy recruits.

Since that day as a star-struck seven-year-old boy staring up at a sea of blue, my journey in football has been ever changing.

After ten years, a scholarship and appearances in the U19 Champions League, my time at Manchester City came to an end. After a brief spell in America, I signed for Cardiff City where I enjoyed two years of U21 football in the Welsh capital.

At the age of 20 and desperate to prove myself, I went off into the world to find first team football, yet only found rejection and six months of being a free agent. My perseverance prevailed, however, as I joined Oxford City in the Conference North. A year later, I was bought for the first time as Eastleigh negotiated a deal to take me into the Vanarama National League.

Three managers and 12 months on, I was bought for a second time as my career moved forward once more and I signed for Barnet in League Two.

After two managers in only six months and a lack of playing time, however, I returned to the Vanarama National League this summer and now wear the red and white of Ebbsfleet FC.

Fourteen games have passed since the opening day of the season and only eleven points separate the playoffs from the depths of the relegation zone. So it is no surprise that thousands of fans decide to spend their Saturday afternoons watching such an exciting league.

Our campaign began with a nine game unbeaten run which included our first home win of the season against our local rivals, Maidstone United. A recent run of three consecutive wins against Boreham Wood, Halifax and Solihull has propelled us forward and despite lying in 11th position; only five points separate us from Macclesfield at the top of the table.

Having only lost one game, we have proven difficult to beat as our resilience, team spirit and togetherness have shone through. It is credit to our manager, Daryl McMahon, who has created a team with a balance of young, talented individuals and experienced players whom have tasted promotion in their careers before.

With the league so closely fought and the strength of our squad, we are confident that we can make a big statement in the Vanarama National League this year.

Watch out for more stories and reports from the Vanarama National League every Wednesday.

Vanarama National League – a new column



Each week the FWA will round up events in the Vanarama National League in association with our sponsor Vanarama. Glenn Moore, former football editor of the Independent and FWA committee member, explains…

It is said the league table cannot be trusted until ten games have been played. Until then it a phoney war, shadow boxing, foreplay – whichever cliche takes your fancy. The Vanarama National League has now played a dozen matches, more than a quarter of the programme. It should have settled down by now with a picture of who will be contending for the title – and with it automatic promotion, and who will be pushing for the play-offs.

Well… that hasn’t quite happened. As of this morning Maidstone United are three points behind Sutton United. The Stones are not exactly on the leaders’ heels – they are back in ninth. Leyton Orient, in 13th, are three points off the play-offs. It is tighter than a Wrexham defence that has conceded six goals in 12 games. The gap from 1st to 18th-place Tranmere Rovers is nine points, easily bridgeable for last season’s runners-up.

The Championship is usually quoted as the most interesting competition. Big clubs like Aston Villa who have fallen on hard times, sleeping giants such as Leeds United waking from their slumber, upstarts Burton Albion, bloodying noses. And plenty of unpredictable results. But, after just nine matches, the leaders are already seven points clear of ninth and 11 ahead of 18th.

The Vanarama National League also has bruised egos – half the competition are ex-Football League clubs with Leyton Orient on the cusp of the Championship three years ago. There are clubs with a long-established non-League pedigree, such as Woking and Sutton. And there are the nouveau riche, keen to hurry through the leagues, like Eastleigh and Fylde.

There is plenty of vibrant life, and vivid backstories, in the regional divisions too. In Vanarama North on Saturday Harrogate Town drew a staggering 2,800 to the Bettys Tea Rooms derby with York City. Town’s win kept them ahead, on goal difference, of Salford City – famous now for their association with former Manchester United players Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt. York, who once conquered Don Howe’s Arsenal, lie seventh having finally halted a horrible slide. Close behind lie several others trying to clamber back to the full-time game including Stockport County and Darlington.

While there are 11 fallen Football League clubs in Vanarama North none are in Vanarama South. Instead there is a cluster of upwardly mobile ones such as current leaders Truro City, the highest-placed Cornish club in the football pyramid, and East Thurrock United, less than 50 years old, an Essex League club 25 years ago, and in only their second season at this level.

It is a competition full of stories, often only told when the FA Cup juggernaut rolls around and the media descend on the plucky part-timers looking for butchers and bakers. Increasingly they find instead full-time pros, especially in the Vanarama National League, but they still have stories to tell, often of rejection from a Premier League academy, a tumble down the divisions, and a quiet determination to make their way back. Every week this new column will seek to tell the tales of a fascinating competition.

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