On a roll with the Royal Rocks (16)

On a roll with the Royal Rocks (16)

Bognor Regis. Home of Butlins and the Birdman, holiday destination of choice for a pair of rag-and-bone men from Oil Drum Lane, but perhaps more renowned as the butt of a disparaging death bed remark from King George V, Bognor is, for the most part, a sleepy seaside backwater in which nothing much happens.  In recent months, however, the fame of Bognor has enjoyed a resurgence on the back on the unprecedented success of its football team. As a result, players and supporters from Bath City, Maidstone United, Sutton United, Oxford City and Altrincham are likely to have joined with the late King in uttering those famous words, “Bugger Bognor!”

As I stood in the grounds of the Bognor Sports Club awaiting admission to Nyewood Lane, it seemed that the new found fame of The Rocks wasn’t universal, even amongst their own supporters. The chap to my right looked at me, wide eyed. “Why is there a queue?” Before I could respond, he continued. “I’ve never had to queue before!”

As an occasional visitor to the ‘Nye Camp’ this season I partly understood his surprise. I’d never had to queue before either. But then, this match was special. It isn’t often that clubs from the third level of the Non League game make it as far as the Quarter Finals of the FA Trophy, so today was rather unique. Even if only one of the two of us seemed to realise that.

Success and Bognor Regis don’t necessarily go hand in hand. That sentence could effectively refer both to the town and the football club, but I shall concentrate on the latter. In one hundred and thirty three years of existence the highest league position they’ve achieved is ninth place in Conference South during 2004/05. Following relegation in 2009 the club fell further, to Isthmian Division One South, before dragging themselves back to the Isthmian Premier where they now reside, finishing fourteenth, third and fourteenth during the last three seasons. In recent years they’ve suffered financial problems, arson, had a season when they used 54 players, and lost in a play-off semi final. However under the stable management of former player and all-round nice chap Jamie Howell, and led by talismanic captain Jason Prior, not only have they established themselves as genuine promotion candidates but they have, as mentioned, beaten a number of higher ranked sides and garnered a reputation for playing expansive attacking football. Fifth in the League- ten points behind the leaders with four games in hand-and in the Quarter Finals of the FA Trophy and the Semi Finals of the Sussex Senior Cup, it seemed very much as if the next two weeks would define their season. Five matches were scheduled and this would perhaps be the only home game, with away league fixtures at VCD Athletic, Burgess Hill Town and Enfield Town and the Senior Cup match being played at neutral Culver Road, Lancing. My plan was to try and take in all of them; to see whether the Rocks Revolution so trumpeted in the local press was actually the real thing or simply a false dawn.

The yellow hordes- with the occasional green interloper...
The yellow hordes- with the occasional green interloper…

The crowd for today’s match was obviously going to be far larger than usual. The Rocks average home crowd is around 430, but there already seemed to be upwards of five hundred in the ground, even an hour prior to kick off. A number of them were supporting the opposition, Torquay United, as indicated by the growing patch of yellow behind the right hand goal, but the signs were positive that the locals had finally had their imaginations captured by their high performing team. The objects of their affection were warming up at the far side of the ground, following a series of Sergeant-Major- like instructions. “Heels up, heels down, dig your heels in, lift your heels,” came the shouts. It was like watching an audition for Strictly, only without the sequins.

The spirit amongst the squad, given that the physical work was enlivened by copious amounts of verbal joshing (‘banter’ for those of you far less venerable than me), seemed very positive. Captain Prior was in the centre of the throng, working hard and geeing up his teammates, his face a picture of contentment. I was pleased he was happy; the last time I’d seen him quite this close up his facial expression looked somewhat different, unsurprisingly given he was being carried off with a broken leg following what could have been a career ending tackle from Hope Akpan of Crawley Town. Prior was playing only his sixth match in professional football after signing for AFC Wimbledon, and he was out for nine months. It’s fair to say that this injury ruined his chances of a professional career, and via Dartford and Margate he ended up back at The Rocks, where he’d scored 95 goals in 126 appearances before turning pro. *

Prior is a player for whom Bognor seems the only fit. Whilst it may have worked out for him at AFC Wimbledon had he not been seriously injured, he then had a period at Dartford which wasn’t a success before signing for newly cash rich Margate and his old Dons boss Terry Brown. That seemed a match made in heaven, as Prior has far quality greater than that required for the Isthmian Premier and Margate were upwardly mobile, but once again promise came to naught and he was soon back at Bognor on loan. The goals arrived immediately, and it was no surprise when he signed a permanent deal during the summer. The Rocks faithful must have thought it was Christmas, and they’ve not had any need to take down the decorations since.

"It doesn't matter how long you stand in that bus shelter, there are no buses..."
“It doesn’t matter how long you stand in that bus shelter, there are no buses…”

As I wandered down the covered terrace which stretches along one side of the Nyewood Lane pitch I almost walked directly into a lady standing alone on the middle step. She was wearing a hoodie which bore the legend, “The Knights Who Say Ni.” I apologised, but she didn’t respond. I suppose I should have been grateful; as I recall those who heard the Knights seldom lived to tell the tale, and I had no shrubbery with which to purchase my passage. I quickly hurried on to the other side of the ground, and took up position by what would have been the players tunnel if the ground actually had a players tunnel. A collection of green and white balloons blew around the place, and a large Devonian seagull menaced the young mascots, despite the fact that they were not carrying chips. I later discovered that the seagull was called Gilbert. The home side had an enormous teddy bear which didn’t feel the need to introduce itself. It was probably far too busy in the woods doing whatever bears do. Given the size of it I sympathise with whoever has to clean up afterwards.

By kick off the ground was rather full, if surprisingly quiet. The Torquay fans at the covered end were making a noise, but the rest of the stadium, although a riot of green and white, was remarkably still, as if we were about to witness the Bognor Regis Concert Band strike up Eine kleine Nachtmusik. My first thought was to put the silence down to the number of neutrals in attendance, but I soon realised it was actually the design of the ground that was the problem. The Rocks singing section were at the open end of the ground and found their words being blown away by the violent cross wind.  Soon, the same thing was happening to the ball. Over and over again.

Torquay started brightly, with five corners in the first ten minutes, yet still failed to look threatening. Prior won every high forward ball that didn’t blow over the main stand, without managing to create anything of real note. The wind blew, the crowd shivered, and very few of the twenty two on the pitch seemed to realise that lofting the ball into the teeth of the gale wasn’t likely to bring success. The only relief was the form of Bognor’s number 2, Calvin Davies. He charged forward with panache every time the opportunity arose, as well as dealing with his own defensive responsibilities and often that of his teammates.  One of a trio of home talent who are on loan from Portsmouth, and all of whom are out of contract in the summer, he was the most impressive player on the pitch- though during a period when he had very little competition for that title.

It was only in the ten minutes before the break that the sides began to get the measure of the conditions. First, Ifeanyi Allen walloped a shot that Rocks keeper Grant Smith saved at full stretch. Then at the other end Bognor managed to get the ball in the net, but the effort was disallowed for a handball. The whistle blew for half time just as the game had woken up. I hadn’t seen the much-trumpeted Bognor style, but the signs were beginning to look promising.

Full time celebrations...
Full time celebrations…

It took only four minutes of the second half for the Rocks to go ahead. Doug Tuck played in Ollie Pearce on the left hand edge of the box, Pearce cut inside a defender and then curled a beautiful right foot strike which beat Gulls keeper Daniel Lavercombe but came back off the bar, however an inrushing Snorre Nilsen was able to head home. From then onwards Bognor controlled the match, showing a fine range of passing and movement whilst Torquay never managed to get going. The home side were in the Semi-Finals of the FA Trophy for the very first time, and the inhabitants of Nyewood Lane shared their joy.

 

Four days later, and from the car park I could see the lights of Culver Road glistening behind the Co-op. Such is the romance of the Sussex Senior Cup.

Culver Road is the home of Lancing FC, and normally a friendly, welcoming place. However it is also the home of the Sussex County FA, and as such becomes a rather more formal venue on occasions such as the Semi-Finals of the County Cup. Formal and rather headache inducing, featuring as it does a public address announcer who means well but has never been taught that less is sometimes more. As I arrived he was explaining in detail the rules of the 50/50 draw, before pointing out the beautiful condition of the pitch.

It’s plastic.

Culver Road- home of the Sussex County FA (and Lancing FC). I shall now explain the rules of the 50/50 draw in minute detail...
Culver Road- home of the Sussex County FA (and Lancing FC). I shall now explain the rules of the 50/50 draw in minute detail…

The Rocks opponents today were Eastbourne Borough. A division higher and on a very good run of form, they promised to be a strong test, and indeed that’s how it turned out. Within twenty five minutes and greatly influenced by the form of their own loanee right back, Jake Sheppard (Reading FC), they were two goals to the good and Bognor looked half asleep. Bognor fought back and had levelled the match by half time with goals from Stuart Green and Jason Prior, but didn’t look at all comfortable, making silly errors all over the pitch. I began to worry about their run in. Now they were through to the Semi-Finals of the Trophy they’d have to fit in eighteen matches in just over seven weeks- with just seventeen senior players.  They already looked knackered. Extra time certainly didn’t help, and in the 103rd minute Elliot Romaine stepped up to score a winner for Borough, putting them into the final and putting an end to Bognor’s seventeen match unbeaten run at the same time. I watched as Prior walked very gingerly across the pitch at full time, having earlier been withdrawn after taking a heavy knock, and I worried some more.

 

The Bognor fans who had made the journey around the M25 to Vickers, Crayford & Dartford Athletic the following Saturday didn’t seem to share my worries. Indeed, they were remarkably chipper. The atmosphere as they queued inside the small-but-perfectly-formed VCD Social club at Oakwood, awaiting the chance to purchase their tickets for the FA Trophy Semi-Final match with Grimsby Town the following weekend (and which had displaced their away match at Enfield), positively swam with bonhomie. This wasn’t, as I found when I spoke to some of them, to be mistaken for unrealistic confidence; rather that they were simply happy with their lot in life. As a chap who said he’d been watching the Rocks for more than thirty years explained to me, “We might not win the FA Trophy. We might not even win promotion. But by goodness it’s been fun trying.” The nods of approval from those around him seemed to suggest this attitude was universal.

Vickers, Crayford and Dartford Athletic v Bognor Regis Town FC. Has a match ever had a longer title?
Vickers, Crayford and Dartford Athletic v Bognor Regis Town FC. Has a match ever had a longer title?

It took seventeen minutes for Bognor to go ahead, and it was against the run of play. VCD, fielding three new signings including statuesque striker Ricky Sappleton, had made most of the running and caused the Rocks defence not a little trouble, but a quick breakaway led to Ollie Pearce outpacing the home defence and playing a beautiful cross for Prior to tap in at the far post. Four minutes before half time VCD were level, awarded a penalty for handball against Davies which Sappleton fired home. They almost went ahead just before the referee blew for the interval, a beautiful volley from Richard Avery being tipped around the post by Grant Smith in the Rocks Goal. “Just like Van Basten,” exclaimed VCD manager Keith McMahon, before turning to his bench in amazement and asking, “where the hell’s that come from?” It seemed that Avery was usually more like Van Rental.

The second half soon formed a pattern. Bognor would attack, VCD would defend deep and attempt to catch them on the break. Prior seemed to be doing his best to win the game on his own, but he was getting little help from the other forwards and was dropping deeper and deeper to win the ball. The wind blew harder, and we all pulled our coats more tightly around us, prompting two Rocks fans to give us a rendition of ‘A Winters Tale.’ A few minutes later Bognor midfielder Doug Tuck made a rather acrobatic challenge on VCD defender Imndia, and I waited for a chorus of ‘Oh What a Circus,’ but I was to be disappointed. As were the other Rocks supporters when the referee brandished a red card. The ten men continued to demonstrate almost all of the attacking intent on show, but the match petered out, and it was difficult to work out whether this was a point gained or two lost.

The massed ranks of travelling Rocks (note: most of us were elsewhere trying to keep warm).
The massed ranks of travelling Rocks (note: most of us were elsewhere trying to keep warm).

 

The next match was meant to be away to Burgess Hill Town, but the day before it was scheduled to take place the heavens opened and forgot to close. After around thirty six hours of relentless rain a postponement was announced; a bit of a double-edged sword at this point of the season. Certainly it would give the players a welcome rest, but it meant that following the first leg of the Semi-Final against Grimsby on12th March they’d have to play fifteen matches in just over five weeks. Now fifteen points behind league leaders Hampton & Richmond Borough with six matches in hand, that would be a super-human effort were they to overhaul the Beavers at the top. Still, for now at least, all attention turned to the Trophy.

 

The following  Saturday a crowd of two thousand, six hundred and twenty nine turned out at Nyewood Lane. Opponents Grimsby Town supplied around 400 of that contingent, along with a selection of smoke grenades, a shoal of inflatable fish and the entire toilet roll supply of Cleethorpes; apparently in an attempt to ‘put the Bog back in Bognor.’ The beautiful playing surface at Nyewood Lane deserves flowing, expansive football, but on this occasion the beautiful game was often abandoned for a long ball match which provided only sporadic excitement. The visitors committed the greatest crimes against football fashion, hoofing out of defence on numerous occasions, yet still looked to carry the greatest threat, with Nathan Arnold popping up left, right and centre to menace the home defence. Yet the biggest problem wasn’t on the pitch but off it;  a lack of atmosphere, for which you can again once again blame not the supporters but the ground design. For segregation purposes the away contingent were given the covered terrace at the far end of the ground, whilst the home fans had the uncovered area opposite. This meant that whilst we sporadically heard the tones of the black and white army, the singing of the Bognor Rockers simply drifted off into the ether. You could see their arms waving, their scarves flying…you knew they must be making a noise, but you couldn’t really hear it. During the quarter final against Torquay United the supporters were able to continue with the Non League tradition of changing ends at half time, which resulted in the volume increasing tenfold, but on this occasion that wasn’t possible, and we all suffered- generally in silence.

I believe this was 'heels up.'
I believe this was ‘heels up.’

On the field, in the first half, Grimsby were robust, Bognor didn’t really get going. There was no shortage of effort, but just as they did in the first half against Torquay the home side attempted to compete with their opponents by playing the same game, and just as against The Gulls it failed to work. Prior tracked back and forth searching for the ball, Calvin Davies charged up and down the right hand side creating almost all of the home sides attacking threat , yet the best chances all went to the Mariners who also failed to convince.  The whistle blew on forty five minutes on a match that had nil-nil written all over it.

Whatever manager Jamie Howell said to his side at half time, it worked. The Grimsby defence, which had dealt easily with everything that the first half had thrown at it, were immediately put under pressure. As with the first half, much of this was created by Davies. Inexplicably denied the man of the match award against Torquay, it was as if he was attempting to make quite certain that there could be no other candidate today. Surging runs, defence splitting passes, dangerous crosses and no neglect of his defensive duties, he seemed to be everywhere, and it seemed certain that when a goal came he’d be involved in it. Unfortunately for him, when it did come he was involved, and it was at the other end.

Sadly the bear didn't make the starting line up...
Sadly the bear didn’t make the starting line up…

On seventy five minutes a swift counter attack from Grimsby led to Padraig Amond flicking a ball on towards Arnold. It went over the head of Davies, and although he made a valiant attempt to connect with it as it bounced, he ended up flat on his back as Arnold shot across keeper Grant Smith into the corner of the net, just in front of the massed ranks of travelling Mariners. “We’re going to bounce in a minute,” they sang, as if such a manoeuvre required advance warning, and bounce they did, as well as throwing yet more toilet roll and another smoke grenade.

The remaining fifteen minutes saw Bognor try to force an equaliser, whilst Grimsby looked dangerous on the break. They had the chance to push further ahead, when a shot from Jon-Paul Pittman, last seen in Sussex wearing the red of Crawley Town, was pushed aside by Smith in the Bognor goal. In added time Prior ran half the length of the pitch to make a tackle on Arnold, and you had to admire his fitness and commitment, but he was unable to make a similar contribution in front of goal and the match ended advantage Grimsby.

Rocks, flags and a lack of acoustics...
Rocks, flags and a lack of acoustics…

As we left the ground in relative silence to a backdrop of Depeche Mode’s Greatest Hits, the home announcer was exhorting the faithful to book for next Saturday’s return leg at Blundell Park. A large number of them seemed to be planning to do just that, and they weren’t particularly downcast; the team tends to play well away from home with eight victories on their travels already this season- all hope is not lost. But for all the talk in the local media of ‘The biggest game in Bognor’s history,’ you’d have to think that, all things being equal, they’d prefer promotion to National League South.

I very much enjoyed my two weeks with Bognor. Even when the energy levels dropped a little they continued to work hard and, generally, to play entertaining, passing football, the entire side focused on attack. But there was more to the club than that. The relationship between the supporters, between the players and the supporters- between the management team and the supporters- gave the entire experience a more positive outlook than perhaps the football itself would have generated. When Jamie Howell took it upon himself to wander around the perimeter talking to the fans in the run up to the match on Saturday, to thank them for their support, the affection between all concerned was genuine and mutual. And, in truth, that’s far more important than what happens on the field. Football supporters follow their teams through thick and thin. They patently don’t do it, especially in the Non League game, in a desperate hunt for glory. They do it for love; and Bognor seems to have plenty of that to go around.

The Royal Rocks are on a roll. Here’s hoping they can roll all the way to the National League South, and perhaps yet to Wembley. I already have my final ticket.

 

"Excuse me, but my toilet appears to be on fire..."
“Excuse me, but my toilet appears to be on fire…”

* I watched Akpan many times, and his tackling always fell into one of two camps; perfect or awful. There was nothing in between. He was never malicious, but whenever the crowd at Crawley watched him close in on the ball we always knew that the result would either be fabulous or frightening. Hopefully his time with Reading and now Blackburn Rovers has helped him with his timing; it seems that way, as certainly whilst he still picks up a yellow card around every five games he hasn’t been sent off.

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Published on in Little League Love Affair.

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