No Sussex side has ever won the FA Vase. Indeed, in the forty-two years that the competition has existed, no team from the county has even come close. Neighbouring Kent and Hampshire have seen sides take a trip to Wembley, and even Surrey- not normally known as a footballing hotbed- has been to the party, but Sussex is still waiting for its invitation.
Shoreham, top of the Southern Combination Football League, were tipped to have a decent chance of bucking that trend this season, and after scoring eighteen goals in two rounds the good folk of Middle Road must have been confident that they would have a decent run in the competition. So it was a surprise that a group of rather imbalanced Musselmen exited the Vase despite increasing their goals scored tally to twenty, when they were on the receiving end of three goals from SCEFL Division One Glebe, the last one coming in added time after it seemed that Shoreham had snatched a replay from a match where they had most of the possession but their opponents most of the opportunities to score.
Earlier in the week Shoreham manager Bryan O’Toole had stated that he was expecting a tough challenge, and that his side would have to be ready for that. He was right on both counts, but whatever preparation his team had undergone they were unable to cope with the pace of the Glebe attack, and surprisingly struggled for penetration of their own. Almost from kick off long balls launched towards Rob O’Toole were won by the Shoreham man, but on just about every occasion he had nobody close enough to knock it down to. Joe Dryer buzzed up and down the left wing, George Gaskin tried repeatedly to jink his way into the box, but for all of their individual ability there was a lack of balance about the side which made their approach play slightly predictable and allowed Glebe to defend solidly before breaking at speed.
Glebe, in second place in their division and- like Shoreham- with only one defeat to their name this season, had already beaten two higher level sides, Deal Town and Cray Valley, in reaching the first round of the competition. A senior club for only six years their progress both on and off the field has been phenomenal, and you’d have to fancy them for promotion this season. A run in the Vase was obviously important to their supporters, and they were confident before the match- but the importance to the players was demonstrated in the twenty seventh minute when they went ahead. Ryan Golding, who already had fifteen goals to his name in this campaign, leapt unmarked to head home, and then celebrated as if he’d won both the cup and the lottery.
Musselmen manager O’Toole later complained bitterly about the long throw that led to this goal, claiming that the thrower had three quarters of his foot over the line when taking it. He may have been right, but the truth was that if any one of his defenders had remembered to pick up the fifteen-goal forward it may not have mattered. The physicality of Golding, coupled with the speed of the gazelle-like Fred Obasa and the prompting of winger Sam Long, caused the home defence difficulties all afternoon. Shoreham set up with a back three, looking to overwhelm Glebe with their attacking prowess, and with such a lot of attacking talent on show it wasn’t difficult to understand that tactic but when it didn’t work there seemed to be a lack of a Plan B. Every time the away side broke out of defence they looked dangerous.
Shoreham were level within twelve minutes. Fabulous work down the right from Jack Hartley saw the ball fall to the impressive Joe Dryer, but he still had a great deal of work to do as he lined up a shot. His aim was true, and the ball sped through a crowd of players straight into the bottom corner of the net.
At this point the home support expected their team to take control, and indeed they tried, but Glebe held firm and their keeper Adam Molloy wasn’t unduly troubled. The half drew to a close with the scores level.
This season’s Shoreham FC are a bit of an enigma. Last year they were kept out of the relegation places more by the ineptitude of others than by their own success, yet this year, with a new manager and almost an entirely new team, they are favourites to win a title they last won in 1978. The nature of that team is deserving of analysis.
Rob O’Toole, Joe Keehan and Andy Pearson were part of Burgess Hill Town’s record breaking Ryman South title winning side of 2015. O’Toole left the Hillians at the end of that season because his work commitments were not compatible with the travelling required in the Ryman Premier, and in the summer won promotion from SCFL Division One with Haywards Heath before joining his brother at Middle Road during the summer- the familial connection made that transfer somewhat inevitable. That Keehan and Pearson also made the move was far more of a surprise- the latter, particularly, was still wanted at Leylands Park. They were then joined by an ever expanding selection of local talent; assistant player-manager Kevin Keehan has won the SCFL title with three other clubs, striker Gaskin and team-mate Mitchell Hand had won it recently with Littlehampton, defender Jack Hartley dropped down from Ryman Premier League neighbours Worthing, highly rated Niall O’Hagan had impressed greatly along the A27 at Arundel. The matchday programme showed a squad of twenty eight; and that didn’t include three of the days starting eleven nor one of the substitutes. There aren’t any other teams in the SCFL with that strength in depth.
Middle Road is a decent step five ground. Apparently with a capacity of 2000 (although it’s difficult to imagine just where that number would go), the average attendance this season seems to be just over a hundred; not unreasonable by SCFL standards but hardly filling the football club’s coffers to bursting. Which must beg the question: how can they afford their team?
The good folk of Shoreham FC are exactly that- good folk. From turnstile to tea bar, clubhouse to managers office, you’re met with a (Shoreham by) sea of goodwill and bonhomie; the type of people you absolutely want to have the kind of success that this year seems to promise. They also serve the community very well, with fourteen teams between Under 6 and Under 16 (including two girls teams), as well as the usual Under 18’s and Under 21’s. But despite this that community seems mostly ambivalent about its football club. Middle Road is well hidden- at the back of a recreation ground- where even people who commute past it every day on the number 2 bus could be forgiven for not having seen it. There are no signs pointing your way, no banner on the recreation ground fence announcing your arrival, no- unless they are very well hidden- shop window posters advertising the club in the town centre, and- apart from the local Shoreham Herald, which doesn’t have an enormous circulation- very little local media interest. Being so close to the behemoth that is Brighton and Hove Albion- and to a lesser extent the growing concern of Worthing FC- undoubtedly doesn’t help; but they don’t seem to be experiencing growth commensurate with the largess on the pitch. That shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a criticism; the club do host regular events for the local business community and have a Business Club with forty seven members, and when you rely on volunteers to do all of the work and spread the word growth is never going to be easy. But it’s difficult not to be concerned when the business model seems to bear some resemblance to that adopted by neighbours Peacehaven & Telscombe (and perhaps to a lesser extent East Preston) in recent years. Neither of those experiments ended well, and it is to be hoped that this one has more sustainable foundations.
The second half started with the home side dominant, however Glebe continued to look threatening on the break, and almost went ahead when a long ball out of defence was won by Obasa ahead of keeper and defender and headed towards an empty net, only for Callum Donaghey to hare back and head over the bar. The breakthrough came in the 67th minute, but despite Shoreham pressure it was Glebe who took the lead, when a free kick on the left was drifted into the box by Joe Borland, and Shoreham keeper Nathan Stroomberg was only able to punch it over his own head into the back of the net. Manager O’Toole later claimed that his keeper had been fouled, and indeed given the number of players around him that was a possibility, but the referee disagreed and the goal stood. On balance of play it was probably fair, as despite Shoreham’s stranglehold on possession it was the away side who had the better chances.
The Musselmen pushed again for an equaliser, and the game became rather physical. A continuing battle between Rob O’Toole and Glebe number six Charlie McCarthy was clearly getting up the nose of Shoreham’s main man, as he counted out to the referee just how many times he’d been on the receiving end of what he deemed unfair challenges, including an earlier penalty claim from which the home side were awarded a corner. Eventually that pressure told, and a fine cross from Scott Packer was headed home by Callum Donaghey with fifteen minutes to go, promising a barnstorming finish.
The match then turned on a sending off. Three minutes after the equaliser Shoreham Assistant Manager Kevin Keehan went into the referees book for dissent. After the game his manager made it clear that he felt that this decision was unfair, as words had been attributed to Keehan that he had not actually said, but with a yellow card to his name the experienced midfielder should have been more careful, yet five minutes from time committed a foul on Obasa that the referee correctly called as a yellow card. The ten men continued to pour forward, which seemed a risky strategy given the circumstances, and so it proved when two minutes into added time a bouncing ball found Obasa alone near the penalty spot. The striker buried the ball in the back of the Shoreham net for the goal that his performance had undoubtedly deserved, and the home side had no time to respond.
Shoreham manager Bryan O’Toole is an easy man to warm to. He doesn’t hide his feelings when on the touchline, kicking every ball, and doesn’t approach the aftermath of a match any differently. There is an honesty and a forthrightness- and an ambition- about him which mirrors the attitude of many at his football club, and that is no bad thing. Twenty minutes after the final whistle- and whilst Glebe celebrated loudly in their dressing room opposite his office- he was annoyed about perceived refereeing injustices and even more annoyed about going out of the Vase, a competition he and his team had felt they could do well in. He spoke eloquently about his hopes for the season- a title win and promotion, and perhaps, now out of the Vase, a run in the Sussex Senior Cup, and was similarly open about his views on the myriad of local cup competitions his side had to enter (and which were reflected in the seven changes made for the Peter Bentley Cup tie with Pagham the following Tuesday night, a match which Shoreham lost after extra time). The day after the game he sent a message to say that he’d reconsidered his views about the way the match was officiated and had decided that his own side, and they alone, were responsible for their defeat as they hadn’t taken their chances. He was right, and it was a measure of the man that he took time to make contact and say so.
Shoreham are undoubtedly a team on the up, but O’Toole was clear that despite their table-topping performances he didn’t feel that they’d “got out of first gear” yet. It wasn’t difficult to understand what he meant; with players of the calibre he has in his squad finding a blend which brings the best out of them won’t necessarily be easy. So far they’ve arguably ground out results in the league without beating the opposition out of sight, yet still seem a little short on balance. You sense that they are still very much a work in progress.
The town of Shoreham by Sea is perhaps best known for tragedy. That’s understandable, and recent events should not be forgotten, but if ever a town was due a little positivity it would be this one. Here’s hoping that the exploits of its football club might just be the catalyst for spreading a little happiness, but one thing is certain. If that is to happen in a sustainable way O’Toole’s search for symmetry on the field must be married with a similar approach off the field, too.
Published on in Cup.