Elliot Flack shrugged his shoulders and disappeared from view behind the changing rooms. He looked thoroughly irritated, and it was difficult to blame him. This was the fifth time in the second half that the keeper had trudged after a wayward shot from a Littlehampton Town forward, and it was becoming monotonous, not only for him but for the spectators at Broadbridge Heath FC. The problem of putting a football pitch in an athletics stadium was being brought clearly into view. By my reckoning, the referee would have to add on four minutes just to compensate for time wasted whilst the keeper doubled as a ball boy.
Still, this was only Flack’s fourth game of the season, and only his second at home, so he shouldn’t have been too exhausted. So far, Broadbridge Heath had used five goalkeepers. Perhaps they’d worn the other four out.
It was the penultimate weekend of the season. As the match kicked off, The Bears were sitting in tenth place in the Sussex County Football League Division One and, whatever happened today, this would be the most successful campaign in the ninety six years that the club had existed. At worst, they would finish twelfth, and for a village club playing at the local leisure centre that would be some achievement. No wonder their supporters seemed rather content. From the moment I arrived at the turnstile and was greeted like a long lost family member, the place had been filled with an air of bonhomie. As one of the home fans had explained to me in the stadium car park- actually, in Tesco’s car park, which is one and the same, “We’ve had a great season. Mind you, we’re struggling over the line now. We had seven players missing at Lancing last week. But what the hell, it’s been fabulous- and we might even have our own facilities in a couple of years time, and when you think where we were a few years ago…” He tailed off, but his grin told the story. There isn’t a lot of cash in the Sussex County League, and Heath didn’t have a lot of cash, but they were solvent and- whisper it- thriving.
Opponents Littlehampton Town had loftier ambitions, but their supporters were similarly chipper, if considerably more nervy. Fighting for league supremacy with Dorking Wanderers, they could potentially wrap up the title today. A win, coupled with a Dorking loss at home to relegation threatened Hailsham Town, and the Golds would have clinched only their second championship in one hundred and nineteen years. Yet that title win, if it came, no matter how hard earned and overdue, would still be tinged with regret. Dorking, even if finishing second, would be promoted to the Ryman South.
“It’s all political.” A Littlehampton fan in the leisure centre café before the game was quite convinced of this. “In this league you don’t just have to win promotion, you have to apply for it. If the people at the Ryman League decide that your ground is not up to scratch it doesn’t matter how you do on the pitch. That just stinks.” He was clearly annoyed, and it was difficult not to sympathise. “They turned down East Preston last year, Lancing a few years ago, we didn’t even bother asking because with the cricket pitch it would be pointless…” he tailed off and shrugged his shoulders. “Still, it will be nice to win the trophy. If we win it.”
“I suppose there have to be standards though, you have to be able to guarantee safety.” I tried to put the case for the League, though I wasn’t overly convinced nor convincing. I got a withering look in response. “We can’t go up because we have a cricket pitch at one side of the ground. How does that compromise safety? Even if the local cricket team decided to play at the same time we did- and they can’t- they aren’t going to be employing Kevin Pietersen, are they? If the Ryman League are worried that one of Guernsey’s high earners are going to get whacked on the head by a cricket ball, they’re way off the mark.”
One of the rules of the Ryman League is that each club it admits has to have their ground entirely enclosed. I thought back to Bishop Auckland, my hometown team, and the venerable old Kingsway ground which formed an enormous part of my childhood, with its cricket pitch on one side. Ten times FA Amateur Cup winners, perhaps the greatest Non League team of all time (at this point, could I ask Blyth Spartans fans to put away their mock outrage?), good enough to provide players for Manchester United after the Munich disaster- and with todays ground grading rules Kingsway would have barred them from Evo-Stick First Division North.
As kick off approached the ground was filling up nicely. It seemed that most of those present were away supporters, which given the potential significance of the day was unsurprising. Mind you, I couldn’t find a single away fan who actually believed they’d win the League today.
“We’ll win today,” said a chap eating a large packet of cheese and onion crisps, “and so will Dorking. Then next week we’ll both win again, so it’ll go to goal difference, which is fine unless they beat Hailsham 23-0.”
“You’ve a difficult match next week,” I replied, “but Dorking have to go to Arundel, and they’ll be difficult to beat at home.” He spluttered, covering his trousers and me in Gary Lineker’s finest fried potatoes. “Arundel will be a pushover. They’ll hardly want us to win the League will they; their local rivals? They hate us.”
I had been to Arundel earlier in the season. A pleasant, civilised ground full of pleasant, civilised people in the shadow of the great grey castle, I found it difficult to believe that they could hate anything- except perhaps the River Arun, which threatened their ground with monotonous regularity. But he was adamant. Not for the first time this season I wondered out loud about the fierce partisan nature of football supporters. “You might scoff, but they’ll roll over. Just you watch them.”
At this point I had something else to watch. The teams were making their way onto the field, so I took my place in the stand. The ground is entirely one sided; although it is surrounded by grass banks and fenced in, spectators are confined to a stand adjacent to the Leisure Centre, which runs the length of the pitch. Earlier, I’d seen a handful of supporters who wished to sit on the grassy banks in the early Spring sunshine ushered back by a steward, and a home fan explained that before promotion to Division One this would have been allowed, but now it isn’t. Which surprised me a little, as Hassocks FC have a grass bank at one end of the ground which is often employed as a lofty lookout without any complaint. Still, I can’t be expected to understand ground grading rules, patently nobody else does either, even those who make them, apparently. My attention drawn away from the pitch, I turned and looked at my fellow stand dwellers. Something strange had happened. Around half of the crowd had disappeared.
The match kicked off in some confusion; for me, anyway. I was sure that I’d counted around eighty people in the ground at five to three. Now there were around forty. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was being reenacted in this sleepy part of West Sussex. Perhaps it was the doing of the same alien beings who had snatched the brains of the local councillors in January, when they ridiculously turned down near neighbours Horsham FC’s ground application despite the advice of their own planners?
I was still pondering the mystery of the vanishing crowd when the home side launched their first foray against the Littlehampton goal. They may have had nothing to play for, but they were giving as good as they were getting. The away fans I was with looked nervy. They looked even more nervy when someone announced that Dorking were 2-0 up, despite only playing for nine minutes. Suddenly it wasn’t about winning the title, it was about not losing it. Their number eleven, Kieran Pamment, was tearing up and down the right wing and terrorising the Heath left back, but the home team were fighting back bravely. The breakthrough could come at either end.
It nearly came in the twenty-third minute, as a shot from Broadbridge was cleared off the line. Within sixty seconds the action was in the opposite goalmouth, with home keeper Flack tipping a fierce drive past the post for a corner. The only sour note was the number of stoppages. Every time the ball went out of play, somebody had to spend what seemed like an age fetching it. This broke up play with monotonous regularity. The rock hard pitch didn’t help matters, as home striker Sultan found to his cost, failing to control a bouncing ball and disappearing behind a cloud of dust as it ran out of play for a throw in.
The breakthrough finally came in the 31st minute. Thirty seven goal striker George Landais was pulled back in the box, and stepped up to become thirty eight goal striker George Landais. The away fans celebrated, although more with relief than elation. Heath responded immediately, and Littlehampton keeper Hendrick fumbled a free kick. The ball was cleared for a corner, from which two resulting shots were blocked. A home supporter attempted to mildly question the ability of the Littlehampton right back, only to be accused of being a bully by one of his companions. He looked embarrassed. I was surprised; you get greater criticism at a flower-arranging circle. And they can be really sharp, those daffodils.
Half time came, and in the café a queue formed for tea, and another in front of the tv, which was tuned to the half time scores- although sadly the BBC had no obvious interest in the County League. The missing supporters had reappeared. They didn’t appear to be devoid of emotion, so it was apparent that their earlier disappearance had not been linked to extra-terrestrials. I resigned myself to becoming a stalker when the second half started. I couldn’t be sure that they’d be welcoming, however; a number seemed rather put out by the lack of half time beer. The Leisure Centre did have a bar, but it was decidedly closed- and shuttered. They’d have to manage with tea and a kitkat.
Dorking Wanderers were the main topic of conversation. Well, that and the possible capitulation of Arundel FC the following week. A Littlehampton fan from Birmingham via East Preston gave me his views on the hopes of Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi final, as well as telling me the story of when he was attacked in a pub in Selsey. I wasn’t surprised. Selsey always seems to me to be very much like Whitechapel On Sea; a place where East End gangsters over 65 go to hide from the law.
So engrossed was I in this tale of wanton violence that I almost missed the start of the second half. The disappearing supporters had once again vanished, and that frustrated me so much I almost forgot to watch the football. I paced along the back of the stand, confused. I got to the far end when I was distracted from a shout which appeared to be coming from above me. Moving into the open, the mystery was finally solved. Up above the stand, at roof level, was what appeared to be a large patio. A considerable proportion of the crowd were up there, leaning on the safety barrier and enjoying the sunshine. I found the staircase and decided to join them.
Littlehampton were obviously nervous. With the second half seven minutes old the home team shot over from close range and the Golds defence began to squabble. A few minutes later Landais was caught offside and petulantly decided to shoot after the whistle, earning himself a booking. News spread that Dorking had added a third. The Heath keeper provided a little light relief by miskicking the ball and watching it blow behind him for a corner. The wind had got up; on the balcony a supporter in shorts was jumping up and down in an attempt to keep warm. I’m not sure it was warm enough for shorts wherever he might have chosen to stand.
Twelve minutes in, however, nerves were settled. Flack managed to get behind a shot from Humphreys but couldn’t hold it. Shelley put the rebound into the back of the net. Five minutes later Landais slammed home goal thirty-nine, and the game was as good as over. As he was doing so Dorking were scoring goal number four, but it hardly mattered. The title was going down to the last week. The Bears didn’t decide that it was time to hibernate- striker Sultan, particularly, harried and chased as if his career depended on it- but there was no danger of a dramatic comeback. Nobody in the ground seemed particularly elated or disappointed.
Littlehampton stopped at three. Dorking continued to six, and celebrated promotion by confirming at least second place. As I got back to my car, I met the away supporter who I’d earlier almost forced to choke on his crisps. He was philosophical rather than delighted. “We’ll need to beat Newhaven next week because Dorking will definitely beat Arundel.”
“I’d bet my house on it.”
As I competed with shoppers to manoeuvre my car towards the nearby A24, a number of supporters were making their way towards the village Social Club to watch the FA Cup Semi Final, undoubtedly hopeful of a beverage a little stronger than weak tea. The home supporters had perhaps been the most contented bunch I’d met all season, the away fans, for me anyway, deserved to celebrate some success. I try to remain unbiased, but I was going to allow myself some favouritism. Dorking already had their prize. I hoped that Littlehampton would get theirs.
Not least because I didn’t want my crisp loving friend to become suddenly homeless.
With nineteen minutes to go of the last game of the season, it looked as if Littlehampton would be deprived of success. 3-1 down at home to Newhaven Town, they were poised to be pipped at the post by Dorking, who had just levelled the score at Arundel. Ten minutes later, however, the Golds were level, and held on to draw, whilst news filtered through that Dorking had fallen to a 93rd minute defeat. The title was heading to the coast. But if you find a chap living in a tent near the Sportsfield, smelling vaguely of cheese and onion, you’ll know why.
Broadbridge Heath finished the season in 9th place.
The Townsendaround Facebook Page has more photographs from this match.
Published on in Little League Love Affair.