Van Morrison sang Bright Side Of The Road, the sun shone down over the Green Elephants Stadium, and- if you were a fan of Burgess Hill Town- all seemed right with the world. Your team was on an eleven match unbeaten run, their opponents- National League Dover Athletic- had seemingly forgotten how to win away from home, and there seemed a better chance than ever before that the 1st Round of the FA Cup was in sight, after 134 years of trying without success. Two years ago you’d watched your side- then in Ryman Division One South, now in the Ryman Premier League- knocked out at this stage by Athletic’s Kentish rivals Dartford, but this year was going to be your year. The statistics were on your side.
Sadly, however, two hours later you were sheltering from a monsoon, the Van Morrison cd had been replaced by some dreadful techno-pop, and your team had just been thrashed 5-0. A clear demonstration that, where the FA Cup is concerned, statistics are just a set of random numbers.
Before the match Dover’s supporters had hardly been confident. “We haven’t got a single fit keeper, we’ve two players suspended, Kinnear (Chris, Junior- son of the manager) is injured and Orient won’t let Moore play. Oh, and we can’t keep a clean sheet,” said a chap in a white shirt holding a pint glass, to the general agreement of his colleagues, early arrivals an hour and a half before kick-off. But then the lot of a football supporter is to be pessimistic until something changes. Undoubtedly they were believing their side to be world-beaters at 5PM.
Dover went ahead in the 9th minute. Striker Ricky Miller, who had already scored ten goals this season, was allowed space on the edge of the box to control the ball from a Ricky Modeste layoff and shoot fiercely into the bottom corner. Hill then had the misfortune of a rather unlikely double substitution, first losing centre back Sam Fisk to injury before then losing his replacement- James Richmond- to a similar knock inside twenty minutes, but such was Dover’s control of the first half that it was surprising that it took until 32nd minute for them to increase their lead, when Jim Stevenson crossed for Mitch Pinnock to fire hard and low past keeper Alan Walker-Harris for number two. By this point the Dover supporters had forgotten their early misgivings and were serenading Ross Lafayette to the tune of Billy Ray Cyrus and Achy Breaky Heart, which should have seen them condemned to give Hill a three goal advantage for crimes against music, but they had reason to be relaxed. The home sides recent good form seemed to have been confined to history.
As we approached half time Dover went further ahead. Miller, who had been playing down the right hand side, left Joey Taylor on his backside near the corner flag, cut inside and fired a shot towards the bottom corner. The keeper got a hand to the ball but it ended up in the net, with press and fans alike unsure who had got the final touch. The stadium announcer gave it to Ricky Modeste, and as the ball went out of play near the press box two of his non-playing colleagues asked him whether he’d got the final touch. He replied with a grin, “they gave it to me, so I’m taking it!” And indeed he did.
Hill had hardly been involved in the first half. Strikers Chris Smith and Pat Harding worked hard without reward, but Dover, two leagues higher, dominated in every area of the field. You felt it might be a rather long second period. The sky darkened, the heavens opened, and the atmosphere inside the stadium- apart from on the away terrace- reflected the weather.
Dover went further ahead in the 50th minute, with perhaps the best move of the game. Fine work between Modeste and Miller set up substitute Tyrone Marsh for a simple finish, to put the National League side a deserved four goals ahead. Nine minutes later it was five, and rather embarrassing, as a mix up between Walker-Harris in the Hill goal and defender Cheik Toure allowed Miller a free run towards an empty net for his twelfth goal of the season. Such was the simplicity it hardly merited a celebration.
As the rain continued to fall some home fans began to drift away, whilst their counterparts voiced scorn on the home side for letting them win away from home. Hill did, however, finally begin to get to grips with the game. Twice good work from Lee Harding was foiled by excellent saves from an apparently only partially fit Mitch Walker, and striker Pat Harding also had two chances, one which was saved just under the bar and another that sailed wide. The result, however, was never in doubt.
After the match, Hillians manager Ian Chapman was disappointed, but his usual good natured and philosophical self. “They play a certain way, with pace and power, and they’re good at it. We just couldn’t deal with it. If you don’t defend effectively and get your shape quickly they are set up to exploit that, and for two of the first three goals we didn’t do things quickly enough. The game was over at half time, three-nil down against a side two leagues above us, and we were just playing for a bit of pride. I was pleased that in the second half we kept our heads, but we still gave two really poor goals away.
The last ten minutes we had a bit of a go and we had a couple of chances, and their keeper made a good save from Lee Harding. Lee was a bit frustrated today, and didn’t have such a good game, but he’s been really good for us lately and he kept at it. He’s still young, and a game like today will be a good learning experience for a few of my young players who have ambition to get on in their careers.
Sometimes in football you just have to accept that the other team is better than you. Today, they were a lot better than us.
I’ve no complaints, we deserved to get beaten.“
Chapman was correct in his assessment, and his side won’t play many teams in the Ryman Premier League who are anywhere near as quick and physical as Athletic. Dean Cox, on loan from Crawley Town until January, will undoubtedly help them get many more points on the board before the festive season begins, and they should- at the very least- be safe from a repeat of last season, when they were saved from relegation only by Farnborough’s annual financial disaster. Their future on the field looks rosy; and it’s testament to Chapman’s philosophy that five of his under 18’s had been named in the Sussex County FA squad announced in the lead up to this match. Off the field, however, things are far less certain.
Mid Sussex District Council aren’t normally slow to agree to changes in the town. Recently they’ve approved plans to knock down half the town centre to build a Cineworld, a Travelodge and a collection of new shops, despite having to demolish the town’s major live entertainment centre in the process, the fact that there’s a- generally only half to two-thirds full- budget hotel less than a mile away, and a historic cinema a spitting distance from the new development. They’ve also recently agreed to knock down the old gasometer which dominates the skyline behind the football ground and replace it with a Lidl supermarket, and are currently in talks to build a massive new housing development in the north of the town, a stroll away from the club. Yet the football club, tenants of the council, have also been asking for some certainty over their future, and on this question the council have continually dragged their heels.
Last season the club needed to do some ground improvement work to meet Ryman Premier League standards, or face an enforced relegation. The council, rather quick to visit the Hillians at the end of the previous season when they’d won a trophy and become the pride of the neighbourhood, suddenly reverted to type and went missing in action, causing considerable panic at the football club and amongst the supporters but eventually granting the permission for the work to be done only dangerously close to the deadline.
Burgess Hill Town have a lease on Leylands Park- the Green Elephants Stadium- for only the next four years. Now whilst the council can either extend that lease or find the club a new home on the outskirts of the town, for a considerable period of time they’ve done neither, leaving them in limbo. A four year lease gives no certainty. It allows for no grants to be applied for to improve the facilities, and means that improvement must be self financed and minimal- the club would hardly want to pay for a structure that could well be demolished, after all. The council are aware of the need for a decision to be made- indeed have been aware for some time- but seem no closer to making it, and the club cannot progress effectively in the meantime. Whilst it is understandable that the club is not at the top of their list of priorities, it should at least be on that list; yet there is no sign that this is the case.
It’ll be at least the 135th year of their existence before Burgess Hill Town get to experience the First Round of the FA Cup. Let’s hope that before they get to their 138th they’ll not only have managed to achieve this feat, but will also know where they are going to be playing in the 139th, and beyond.
An abridged version of the match report and interview- with much better photographs- appears in the Mid Sussex Times.
Published on in Cup.