This time last year Burgess Hill Town were the talk of the Non League community. Still unbeaten in Ryman Division One South, reaching the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup and the Second Round of the FA Trophy (both times bowing out to Conference Premier League Dartford), and having disposed of Sutton United and Aldershot away from home, the future looked exceedingly bright. Even forward Greg Luer departing for Premier League Hull City failed to slow their progress, as they continued unbeaten until mid-March, a run of 36 matches, before winning the League title eleven points clear of runners up Folkestone Invicta.
This season, their first ever at Step Three, has been a bit of a mixed bag. Victories over front runners Dulwich Hamlet and Tonbridge Angels have contrasted with defeats against Harrow Borough and Farnborough, and first hurdle cup losses to Hitchin Town and County League Horsham YMCA, yet most supporters will be content with their mid-table position and, until this week, will have been far more worried by off the field matters, with the Hillians threatened with relegation unless they get their ground improved by the end of March. The delays to the improvements can all be laid firmly at the door of Mid Sussex District Council, who have prevaricated since first being approached in September, but on Monday the authority- undoubtedly shamed by local newspaper headlines- committed to supporting the club; although they have not yet committed to extending the lease on the Green Elephants Stadium, without which Football Association grants will not be available. General Manager John Rattle, who I spoke to last week for the Non League Paper and Non League Daily, was confident that the work could be done quickly once permission was granted, and must now expect it to be finished before the League deadline. “The construction required is fairly straight-forward, and we’ve all the plans in place to do the work- and the finance- whether we get the increased lease or not. Every improvement we’ve made (so far) has been self-financed anyway, including the work we’ve done to the clubhouse and the installation of the uncovered ‘Subway’ Stand next to it.”
The relationship between the club and District Council has not always been harmonious- indeed in the past the club has faced winding up orders due to non-payment of rent- but with the club now run in a sustainable way and bringing a positive spotlight to an area that hasn’t too much else to crow about, it had been hoped that those issues had been firmly left in the past. Certainly after the success of last season the local authority- or rather its elected representatives- were happy to be seen basking in the reflected glow of the clubs’ achievements. The tardiness of those representatives to help the club move forward the ground changes- which aren’t complicated and will have no impact on the local community- had therefore been surprising, but hopefully there will be no further hiccups, as the local electorate- particularly in view of comments about the matter via community website Burgess Hill Uncovered- would undoubtedly take a dim view of their club being relegated due to council inaction.
Away from off-field concerns, Rattle- a long serving member of an ever- expanding band of volunteers, and who also performs the role of Goalkeeping Coach- is extremely happy with progress. “We got points on the board early this season, without ever really feeling in control, but we’ve finally found our feet and are playing the way we’d like. We knew we wouldn’t repeat last year, that would never happen again- indeed you wouldn’t even expect that in under eleven’s football- and we’ve tried to keep the majority of last years squad together, with a couple of additions where we needed to be more physical in a more demanding league. “
Asked to predict who would win the League, Rattle was non-committal. “If you’d asked me to tell you who were the best team we’ve played this season, I’d have said Staines Town- and they are nearer the bottom than the top! Dulwich Hamlet are an impressive club, with great support and a good manager, and I think they deserve to have a crack at a higher level- even though we beat them! But we’ve played better against the better sides, and a number of them, like Dulwich and Leiston, have been very complimentary about the way we’ve played the game. It’s perhaps taken our players a little time to realise that, although the teams we play against may have different styles to those we played against in the Ryman South, we need to keep playing our way. Even our Under 21’s and Youth team play the same way, Ian’s (Chapman- the First Team Manager) way- and it’s that style that helps us attract players so we’ve no plan to change it.”
Rattle was hopeful of a victory over Kingstonian the following Saturday, citing their recent form, and I felt that he might be right. I decided to change my plans and go along to the game. To be entirely honest, I was hoping for a high scoring draw. I tend to watch as a Sussex-leaning neutral, but I have great affection for Kingstonian, having watched them many times at Kingsmeadow- and twice at Wembley- during the late 1990’s/2000. I can still conjure up the image of Geoff Pitcher controlling the midfield, and still replay Tarkan Mustafa’s winning goal in the FA Trophy Final against Forest Green Rovers from 1999. The following year was even better, with the K’s coming from 2-1 down to beat Kettering 3-2 at Wembley after hitting local rivals Sutton United for six in the semi finals. Kettering had knocked my hometown club, Bishop Auckland, out of the competition in the Quarter Finals thus spoiling my K’s v Two Blues dream final, so they had it coming.
The main topic on the lips of the Hillians faithful was council recalcitrance. Not that anyone actually used the word recalcitrance, but it wouldn’t be seemly to repeat the actual words. The match was a couple of days prior to the announcement that the District Council would apparently play ball, and a number of conspiracy theories abounded. Local Councillor Pru Moore was a particular target for ire, having suggested to the local press that the club were still to contact the planning authorities despite Chairman Kevin Newell having made their approach four months previously. It seemed particularly surprising that she should make such a comment given that she is the cabinet member for leisure and surely should have known better. That said, given that the council’s idea of promoting leisure provision for Burgess Hill is to demolish the town’s one decent live performance venue and replace it with a multiplex cinema (undoubtedly putting the historic independent cinema that already exists out of business) and a budget chain hotel (about a mile away from the other budget hotel which doesn’t seem overly full), perhaps nobody should be surprised. But enough of politics, and back to football.
Kingstonian had lost their previous four matches, defeats which included a 4-1 thumping by East Thurrock United and a 5-1 thrashing at Dulwich Hamlet. That said, their supporters seemed quite chirpy, and speaking to a couple of them before the match it seemed that their good humour was due to a combination of the ale in the Burgess Hill clubhouse and the return of former striker Andre McCollin. Last seen at Aldershot (by me, anyway- he’d also had three months at Cray Wanderers), McCollin was previously prolific in red and white hoops, with a record better than a goal every two games. It was that record which had got him his move to the Conference National, and it was a surprise that he’d failed to thrive there. Before the match, the supporters were singing his name to the tune of ‘Town Called Malice.’ They’d have cause to sing it again before the end.
Hill were in good form, having won four of their last six, losing only one match, by one goal to nil away to Farnborough on Boxing Day. A recent signing, Sam Gargan, who had made the relatively short trip over the Downs from Whitehawk (or whatever they may be called this week), had provided a physical forward presence that they had been lacking earlier in the season and had already weighed in with five goals. The match programme featured a two page interview with Greg Luer, direct from Humberside, but the home faithful hoped that they may have found an able replacement.
Both home team and supporters displayed commendable confidence before the game. It lasted for around three minutes.
K’s midfielder Dan Bennett flicked a pass through a static Hillians defence. McCollin raced on to it, beat onrushing keeper James, and eased the ball into the net before celebrating with the away supporters behind the goal as if he’d just scored the winner in a playoff final. His delight seemed absolutely genuine, and if the home side were sick of these two players after three minutes they must have despised them by the time the referee blew the final whistle. Whilst McCollin tormented the home defence for the entire afternoon, Bennett was almost as influential, finding space and creating danger time and time again.
It took ten minutes for Hill to wake from their stupor. A large number of their fans also seemed to be far from focused on the match, instead being entirely fixated with their mobile phones. As I walked around the perimeter of the pitch during stoppages in play I was kept entirely abreast of the goings on in the Premier League, whether I wanted to be or not. A group of home fans by the corner flag were particularly disinterested in the match in front of them, far too busy were they discussing the failings of Chelsea, the chances of Manchester United winning the title (“no f’ing chance,” apparently), and the merits of the rather dark coloured brew they were drinking out of plastic glasses.
When I first started going to football your only chance of keeping up with goings on elsewhere involved a man working at height at half time, sliding large metal numbers depicting scores into place next to similarly large letters on an enormous scoreboard. If you’d purchased a programme you could work out which matches these scores corresponded to, if not you had to either hope that someone with a programme would explain them to you, or guess. Unless you had a transistor radio or purchased a copy of the Football Pink on the way home, you had every chance of getting to Match of the Day still oblivious of the goings on in the top division.
Do you recall the famous episode of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads during which Bob and Terry did their utmost to remain oblivious of the score from a match between England and Bulgaria? If that episode was to be remade today they’d have as much chance of spotting the Loch Ness Monster in a Sunderland shirt singing Blaydon Races by the statue of Jackie Milburn as they would of getting home in ignorance. For all of the benefits of modern technology, I think that a shame.
Hill began to play themselves back into the match, but were gifted their equaliser. A free kick was lofted into the box, and K’s keeper Rob Tolfrey made it quite clear that the ball was his, only to miss it entirely. Gargan used all of his six foot three inch frame to reach the ball with his head, and full back Sam Fisk showed composure to control and hammer the ball into an empty net. “Newcastle have scored again,” came a voice from over by the corner flag.
Kingstonian quickly imposed themselves again. McCollin managed to fashion a chance when he had no right to do so, firing just the wrong side of the post from a tight angle, and then, on 31 minutes, a seemingly wasted corner found its way to him and he volleyed the ball superbly into the net. “Andre McCollin, ooooh yeah,” chorused the faithful behind the home goal, led particularly by a chap who perhaps needed to be told that horizontal stripes aren’t necessarily slimming.
Over the next ten minutes the home side came close to levelling on three occasions, hitting the inside of the post and forcing a couple of superb saves from Tolfrey, making up for his earlier error in style. “Dontcha wish your keeper was Rob Tolfrey,” came the chant. At the other end Bennett managed to weave his way past three defenders before laying the ball back into the box for an onrushing forward to finish. Sadly for the K’s there wasn’t an onrushing forward within ten yards of the ball, Hill cleared, and the whistle blew for half time.
The second half was far more attritional, but Kingstonian never really looked like relinquishing their lead. It seemed that during the break they’d decided that it was important to put more pressure on the referee, as for the first twenty minutes after the restart Tolfrey and Alan Inns never let up. “Watch that ref!” “Are you looking ref?” “You got that wrong ref!” Eventually the referee, a Mr Bentley from West Wickham, lost patience. “Stop moaning and get on with it. I haven’t got three hundred and sixty degree vision!”
Shortly after this exchange the K’s went further ahead, as the sun began to set behind the giant gasometer which the local council want to replace with a Lidl supermarket. McCollin, who had already fashioned a couple of half chances, was the first to react when a shot from George Wells bounced back off the bar, flicking a deft header directly into the path of Pelayo Pico-Gomez, who simply had to direct it into an empty net. “We love you too, Pico,” shouted a chap behind the goal, seemingly worried that all the attention being lavished on McCollin might be upsetting their other forward. After watching him sulking for ninety minutes at Tonbridge Angels earlier in the season I felt that he might just have a point.
“We’re second best everywhere today,” said a chap in a green beanie hat just too small for his head- and he was right. “We’re the Kingston, the mighty Kingston, we’re going to win away,” came the song, to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Whether the lion was asleep or not, for the last twenty five minutes the Green Elephants stadium slumbered as the home team struggled to make an impression and the away side did just enough to contain them and protect their lead. McCollin alone remained alert, trying something audacious every five minutes or so just to remind us of his presence before going off to applause from both sets of supporters four minutes from the end.
Kingstonian have problems off the field, with the impending loss of their stadium when landlords AFC Wimbledon womble off back to Plough Lane, and have looked inconsistent on it for much of the season. That said, in a league where everyone seems capable of beating everyone else, and if McCollin continues to fire, they might just stand a chance of reaching the playoffs and then, of course, anything’s possible. You’d struggle to begrudge their fans a little glory; after all, they’ve had enough misery over the last decade or so to last them a lifetime.
The Hillians? So long as the council don’t go back on their word, and barring a glut of injuries, you’d expect them to consolidate their Ryman Premier League position this season and push on next. Whatever happens, you know they’ll keep to their principles, continue to play their passing game, and hopefully continue to attract admirers across Sussex. Who knows, perhaps they might even banish their inconsistency and go on a roll for Mr Rattle!
Published on in Little League Love Affair.