Let’s…Play…Darts! -8

Let’s…Play…Darts! -8

Burgess Hill, West Sussex. The headquarters of Filofax, the scene of Holly Willoughby’s schooldays, and the home of the most successful football team in England.

You’ve just scanned that paragraph again, haven’t you? Something about it didn’t make sense; and of course, you’re right.

Surely nobody uses a Filofax anymore?

Only one team in the country is yet to lose a league match, and it isn’t Chelsea. It isn’t Manchester City. It isn’t even AFC Bournemouth. Burgess Hill Town are currently top of the Ryman South, step four of the Non League pyramid, with a record that reads Played 25, Won 20, Drawn 5. They’ve been pretty handy in cup competitions too; getting as far as the final qualifying round of the FA Cup after notably knocking Sutton United, two leagues higher, out of the competition on their own Gander Green Lane, and more recently dumping Conference Aldershot Town out of the FA Trophy at the EBB Stadium. They are, based on their on-pitch endeavours, the top performing team in England- and there are no oligarchs in sight.

As you arrive at the Green Elephants Stadium you’d be justified in thinking that a team with such a record should be playing in rather more salubrious surroundings. You might think that, as I did, as you stepped out of the car and surveyed the mud now clinging to the bottom of your jeans. This isn’t a modern palace of glass and steel. A relic of the 1960’s, like many of its clientele, the former Leylands Park would never win prizes for style. The clubhouse is effectively a large shed, topped by what appears to be a windowless watchtower- though is very well presented inside. The grandstand isn’t particularly grand. The terraces aren’t terraced; indeed, they are little more than a strip of concrete around the outside of the pitch, with no cover. If it rains you either sit or get wet. Actually, you might well sit and still get wet, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

The club has had a chequered recent history. Over the last decade financial crisis followed financial crisis, and it has taken an awful lot of hard work to turn that situation around and allow the club to, firstly, survive, and latterly, thrive. The local council, whose Mayor is now happy to be pictured smiling with the club chairman, regularly came close to putting it out of business due to unpaid rent. Mind you, it’s quite easy to believe that said Mayor would go to the opening of a manhole if it got her picture in the local rag, so you shouldn’t take that to believe that the local council is suddenly interested in football. Perhaps they should be, however, as the football club is probably the nearest thing the town will ever get to a tourist attraction. Unless they can persuade Willoughby to move back, obviously.

That those dark days have been left behind is primarily due to the efforts of a hard working board and an army of volunteers, and the inspired coaching of former Brighton and Hove Albion defender Ian Chapman and his staff. “Chappers,” as he is almost universally known, has built a team that mixes youth and experience but plays with enormous spirit and not a little flair. One of his protégés, Greg Luer, is this seasons top scorer with sixteen goals, but has recently left to join up with Premier League Hull City on a two year deal. How they replace his goals will be crucial to their continued success. If they continue with this level of performance, keeping Chapman may also become a problem.

P1040053Todays match was highly anticipated. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there was a buzz around the town- the only time Burgess Hill is likely to buzz is if there is a mass short-circuiting of electric blankets- but, for once, the place seemed to have noticed that it had a football team. Actually, perhaps that’s a little unfair. Crowds are at unprecedented levels; talk today was that around a thousand people would be squelching their way towards the ground. Certainly as I arrived, rather early, the place was busier than I’d ever seen it- and awash with positivity. I could almost have surfed into the stadium on a wave of optimism.

That optimism, given what you’ve already learned about the teams success this season, shouldn’t come as a surprise- but I did expect it to be tempered with a little more caution, given the opposition. Burgess Hill may have been on a phenomenal run, but they had lost one game this season, in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup. The victors that day, by one of those strange quirks of fate, were today’s visitors in the Second Round of the FA Trophy.

Dartford FC arrived at the Green Elephants Stadium having only won one game out of their last nine, standing 22nd in the Conference. It didn’t take a genius to see why. They find it very difficult to score- 27 league goals in 28 matches tells its own story. Their fans had come to Sussex in considerable numbers, but a quick wander round the ground demonstrated that they weren’t confident of victory. Indeed, they weren’t confident of anything. Two chaps standing by the away dugout were calmly voicing their discontent.

“We’ve the AGM coming soon. We need to ask some difficult questions.

“Yes, we do.”

“What difficult questions?”

“I’m not sure. But we need answers. It’s not right.

“No, it’s not right.”

“What’s not right?”

“Anything.

His friend nodded in agreement. I was also convinced. Though I’m not quite sure what I was convinced of.

They’re a morose but good-natured bunch, Dartford fans. At the earlier FA Cup match, played at their own Princes Park, they’d managed to be welcoming, friendly, helpful and miserable. Even at the end of the match, which they’d won 3-1, they were still acting as if they’d spent ninety minutes having root canal treatment. “Have a safe journey home,” said one, adding, “we were rubbish.” I thought they’d played quite well. I said so. “You’ve obviously been starved of entertainment,” came the reply. I gave up. I’d parked at the end of the ground which had housed the home support, and had to walk through the departing crowd to get to the car. The melancholy was staggering. When I look back at my notes from that day, I’d written, “If Morrissey liked football, he’d be a Dartford fan.”

Standing by the far corner flag were another group of away fans, and heaven knows, they were miserable now. “Ebsfleet are throwing money about like confetti. I hope they get promoted.” His friends were incredulous. It seemed that there was a bit of a rivalry between the two clubs. “I do want them to get promoted,” he insisted, vehemently. “Coz we’re going to get relegated and I can’t bear losing to them next season.”

There certainly seemed an acceptance that relegation was inevitable. But there was very little anger about it, though that didn’t really surprise me. Before the match I’d visited their Internet message board, usually the domain of trolls, ne’er-do-wells and keyboard warriors, and found that the inhabitants were unusually polite and respectful to each other. The latest hot topic for discussion was a recent statement from the Dartford Finance Director which demonstrated an approach to the truth that, given my experience of lower league football clubs, was rather unique. He’d done something dramatic, and resorted to honesty. “We cannot spend what we don’t have. I would hope that we can squeeze a little extra for Tony (Burman- the manager) for the rest of the year, but this is not going to mean that we can afford significant changes. He’d added that the club were on budget, having forecast a small loss to be covered by reserves. Basically, what this meant was that if they were going to avoid relegation, they’d have to do it with the current squad, more or less. The dream needed to be sustainable, even if it led to some supporters feeling the need to ask difficult questions about something or other.

Back in 1992 Dartford FC had needed to sell their ground to pay creditors and flirted with extinction, before being saved by their supporters. They had to restart life in the Kent League, and then had fourteen years as wandering nomads, playing in Erith, Thurrock and Gravesend before the local council put up the funding to build a new stadium. They seem absolutely determined to learn the lessons of their past financial nightmare and ensure that mistakes of an earlier era were not repeated. The fact that they still had a selection of players who had been promoted with them from the Ryman North in 2008, and that the same manager who had taken over back in 1993 was still at the helm, was rather refreshing. Actually, it was more than refreshing, it was miraculous.

P1040112Burgess Hill seem to be building along similar lines. The difference, however, was that the home supporters, whilst also being friendly, helpful and welcoming, were anything but miserable. Morrissey would have hated them-particularly as a large number were munching on recently grilled meat products, the murderers. That said, they hadn’t abandoned realism. The local press had described the match as the biggest in the clubs history- a line they had rolled out prior to the FA Cup game too. That wasn’t accepted by the regulars. “The what? League matches are far more important. Let them print that when we’re about to get promotion, and they might be right for once.This view was generally accepted without question, and was certainly accepted by the club officials. “It’s a big game for us, said programme editor Colin Bowman, decked out in his smart suit just in case the talent scouts for GQ were present, “but biggest ever? We want to do well in the Trophy, we think we’ll do well- we’ve already done well- but it’s just an added bonus.

P1040096As the match kicked off I decided to make my way to a point behind the goal which the home team were attacking. To do so I had to pass a large teepee, the origins of which I’d already explained to a collection of bemused away fans, one of whom asked whether it housed the Burgess Hill witchdoctor. I suppose that could be another explanation for their upturn in fortunes, but the real reason for its presence was rather more mundane. Green Elephants is the name of the stadium sponsor, and their business is the hire of teepees. This one had a sea of mud in front of it so large I wondered whether they’d been trying to recreate Glastonbury, and I was just plotting my route around it and wishing that I’d worn wellingtons when Dartford scored.

The penalty was awarded without dispute. It was the sixth minute, and Dartford were attacking for the first time. Sam Fisk reached for the ball, but made no contact with it. He did, however, make contact with a Dartford ankle, and the referee wasted no time in pointing to the spot. Harry Crawford dispatched it with some aplomb, and the home fans let out an audible groan. In the game at Princes Park, Burgess Hill had been entirely overawed by the occasion for the first twenty minutes. By the time they’d got their heads together they’d been two down and there was no way back. Was history about to repeat itself? “Don’t worry, said a Dartford fan in front of me to nobody in particular, “we’ll give a stupid goal away in a minute. His timing was far from accurate, his analysis worthy of praise.

Crawford puts away the penalty...
Crawford puts away the penalty…

The home team, aided by a strong wind blowing towards the Dartford goal, were quickly on the attack. The Dartford defence struggled to deal with their efforts-and the elements-but their keeper, Ibrahim, resplendent in salmon pink, was equal to everything that came his way. Whilst the game ebbed and flowed the home and away supporters engaged in a singing contest. This began with a claim that size wasn’t all that important, and ended with the home fans pointing out, “You’ve only got a tunnel and a bridge;” which was a little unfair as their wasn’t really a suitable Burgess Hill landmark to use as a riposte. So we sang Nellie the Elephant, and all was right with the world. Well, apart from the fact that it was 0-1, obviously.

Just as we all began to think about how long the queue would be for a warm half time beverage, Burgess Hill scored. A free kick was half cleared, the ball fell to Dan Pearse, and Dartford dithered. Pearse had time to pick his spot. He hit the ball low and hard, and Ibrahim, unsighted by his own immobile defence, was only able to parry, leaving Hill striker Pat Harding a relatively easy finish. The keeper berated his team mates for not closing down the shot, and he was right. You had to feel a little sorry for him, but Burgess Hill deserved to be level.

The second half kicked off to a crescendo of Dartford drumming. It was rather a surprise, as we’d had no such musical accompaniment during the previous 45 minutes. Perhaps the musician had waited outside until the gates had been opened at half time? Whatever the reason for his earlier absence, he played for approximately two minutes before putting down his sticks, never to raise them in anger again. It seemed that the drum was really no more than an elaborate Kentish ornament. Burgess Hill responded by blowing a bugle and shouting, “charge.” I can report that the Official England Supporters Band need not be afraid of any challenge. More’s the pity.

All along the Watchtower...
All along the Watchtower…

The game was evenly balanced. The ball pinged from end to end, with Dartford having a chance cleared off the line and Ibrahim making a great save from Keehan. During a temporary lull in proceedings, a shout came from one of the gardens behind the stand. “Burgess Hill is s***! This started a touchline debate as to whether this was meant as a comment on the team or the town, which turned into a discussion on the intelligence of the person making it. You need to wonder about someone who’d live next to a football club he didn’t like in a town he didn’t like either. He ought to try living in Croydon; he’d really have something to moan about.

As full time approached, a large majority of the crowd seemed to be making plans for the replay. Indeed, a draw would have been a fair result. It had been an entertaining match, played-and watched- in good spirit. Travel plans were just being finalized when, of course, there was a goal. Although most of the pressure was being applied by the home team, a quick breakaway cut through the Hill defence and Danny Harris angled the ball past the despairing dive of Josh James. A Dartford fan in front of me jumped in the air in delight, then turned to me and said, “We didn’t deserve that. He was right, but somehow I couldn’t begrudge the away fans their celebrations. They hadn’t had much to celebrate this season, after all.

The final whistle blew, and the one thousand and ten frozen souls applauded both teams before turning to leave. The away fans were, for once, happy, but the home fans were fairly content, too. I spoke to a regular as I left the ground. “I thought we deserved a replay, but never mind, we played well and we weren’t going to win the Trophy anyway. And I suppose, if we had to lose, at least it was to that lot- he nodded at the Dartford fans- “they’re a good bunch.I couldn’t argue with that summary.

As I made my way home, I thought about the enormous progress the home team had made over the last couple of years, and also recalled the pain of relatively recent financial crisis. And I pondered the words of a Dartford supporter before the match. “We might well go down, but that isn’t the end of the world. It’s more important that we have financial stability; so long as we have that, we have a club to support and the ability to have more success in future. If football is only about how much money you have, it isn’t really worth watching, is it?

Burgess Hill Town are making steady progress, on and off the field. Perhaps matches against Dartford may become a regular part of the calendar in future. But if that is to happen, they need to ensure that they get their strategy right, on and off the field. They would struggle to find a better model than that used by the only team to beat them this season.

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GQ's Man of the Year 2015?
GQ’s Man of the Year 2015?

A Robin is for life…not just for Christmas- chapter seven available here

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Published on in Little League Love Affair.

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