During an episode of Pointless recently, former Mid Sussex resident and avuncular brainbox Richard Osman stated that Burgess Hill was, “like Haywards Heath but fifteen years behind.” Now you may have been under the impression that Osman was omnipotent but this claim demonstrates otherwise as Richard, for once, is entirely wrong. For his statement to bear analysis the town centre of Burgess Hill would have to be presented entirely in sepia; yet close analysis demonstrates categorically that it is far more ‘Only Fools and Horses’ than ‘Dixon of Dock Green.’ This is particularly true on Saturdays when the Martlets Shopping Centre hosts a collection of rather down at heel market stalls which fill the space between Lidl and the library, one of which purveys underwear so large that it seems they are trying to start a new trend in briefs for bovines. You can write your own punchline here.
First time visitors to Burgess Hill will find a not-particularly-picturesque town surrounded by attractive countryside. A walk down the High Street might suggest that the only thriving industries are coffee, charity and death. Right at the bottom you will chance upon the rather attractive St John’s Church and the pretty expanse of greenery that bears its name, along with some handsome residential streets, but this enclave just stands in contrast to the rest of the settlement. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, but anyone beholding Burgess Hill and finding much that resembles beauty would have to be suffering from a case of myopia so bad that they would qualify for emergency surgery. Unfortunately, however, they’d have to go to Brighton for it, and given some of the reports about the hospital there in recent years they shouldn’t be complacent about their chances- and they’d have to go by bus, as they’d die of old age before finding a parking space.
Having said all of that, there is much to like about the town. Let’s be fair, if architecture and quality of life went hand in hand, Stevenage and Gillingham would be twinned with Sodom and Gomorrah (actually, in terms of the latter this argument may fall down slightly). The character of a town should instead be measured by the character of its people, and the inhabitants of Burgess Hill seem, by and large, to be a normal, well adjusted and hard working bunch. Yes, there are occasions when if you read some of the comments made on social media by readers of local website Burgess Hill Uncovered you’d be forgiven for believing that the area is inhabited by those deemed too crazy for the Jeremy Kyle show, but the truth is rather different. For a town of twenty eight thousand people and with a very wide demographic, there is little in the way of violent crime. People sleep soundly in their beds, and once awake tend to rub along contentedly together. Businesses on the industrial estates at the edge of town thrive. The shops in the town centre rise and fall rather like those in town centres all across the country. Public disagreement, such as exists, seems to be mainly about whether the town council are more interested in self promotion than town promotion, and whether the community is sufficiently provided with places of entertainment; but in the main those arguments are gentle and respectful. Lidl is doing a booming trade, yet nearby Waitrose, also, has never been busier. Burgess Hill isn’t particularly prosperous without being demonstrably poor, and it isn’t particularly pretty without being devastatingly ugly, but it’s a nice place to spend your time so long as you are looking for quiet contentment rather than glitz and glamour.
But what if you’re not looking for quiet contentment? Where would you set your soul free on the A273? I pondered this question over a slice of toast and jam in Costa Coffee- say what you like, but I know how to live. I supposed that most people searching for bright lights would either drive down to Brighton or hop on a train to London. If your world began at Hammonds Ridge and ended- appropriately- at World’s End, you’d have the option of a few pubs, the Orion cinema and its two screens constructed in 1929, Zumba classes at the Triangle Leisure Centre, or, if you’re very lucky, global superstars like Chas and Dave and Joe Brown at The Martlets Hall (essentially a big room with folding chairs adjacent to the library). Alternatively you could always join the Burgess Hill Model Railway Club. The Victorian Hillians had their pleasure gardens, whereas for modern day inhabitants visiting the same area pleasure would perhaps be limited to a walk around the wallpaper section in the recently opened B&Q. You’d get more stimulation from a trainspotters notebook (which, incidentally, might be available at the Model Railway Club. Don’t forget your anorak).
I was still musing on this weighty problem when my eye caught the results section of the Non League Paper, which I’d thrown haphazardly onto the empty chair next to me. Under the legend, ‘Ryman Division One South,’ the first result was Burgess Hill Town 3, East Grinstead Town 1. I already knew the result, but it was the attendance that surprised me. Seven hundred and seventeen.
Seven hundred and seventeen, for a match at the fourth level of the non league pyramid, is astounding. To put it into context, there were twenty one matches in Conference North and South on the same day- two levels higher- and only six of these had bigger crowds. Look one level up, at the Ryman/Evo Stick and Southern Premier Leagues, and only Weymouth, Dulwich Hamlet, Halesowen Town and Marine had higher attendances. It may not seem many, but it is far, far more than I imagined would be attracted by the delights of Burgess Hill Town- even on Non League Day, and even, as I later found out, with free admission. Perhaps there was another entertainment option I hadn’t considered? Perhaps the delights of Leylands Park were finally being appreciated by the local populous? I resolved to find out.
The following Wednesday evening found me on a train on the way to Wivelsfield station, a five minute walk from the stadium. I knew where the ground was, which was lucky, as if you don’t know where it is and you don’t have a map you’d have little chance of finding it. I don’t recall one single signpost pointing the way to the football club anywhere in the town- indeed, you could drive past it without ever knowing it was there- and National Rail ignores its existence too.
“Burgess Hill Football Club, you say? Just follow the signs for the nature reserve.”
The last time I’d attended a competitive football match at Burgess Hill was the final match of the 2007/08 season. It wasn’t an experience I’d enjoyed greatly. Hill were threatened with a winding up order for the second time in three years at the instigation of the District Council, for repeated failure to pay their rent, and it was thought that this may be their last match before they disappeared from existence. Before the game there were people purchasing programmes in twos or threes as if the impending disaster would increase their value; it was the only time in my life I’ve ever compared the compulsive programme collector with Burke and Hare. But how was I any better? I might not have been looking to profit from my visit but I felt rather like an uninvited guest at a funeral. I knew that I wouldn’t be there either if the match hadn’t been billed as the likely end of the club. As I shuffled away at full time I didn’t look back. I felt both guilty and miserable. You know, like Sir Alex Ferguson must have felt after David Moyes got the sack.
I was aware that this was a much changed football club from the one I’d watched six years previously. The ground was very much the same; an oddly ramshackle collection of buildings at one end including the Social Club, changing rooms, toilets and a snack bar, a ‘stand’ along three quarters of the right hand touchline, and level hard standing around the rest of the pitch perimeter- but the team were top of the Ryman South and scoring goals for fun, and perhaps more importantly the club were far more commercially savvy and community focused. I’d visited the website before the game and counted 76 club sponsors from across the area- there are professional clubs with considerably fewer than that (although, of course, at this level sponsorship won’t be quite so lucrative). The Social Club were offering live music and quizzes on a regular basis, along with free venue hire to swell the bar takings. An online club shop sold this seasons fetching and ‘fatty friendly’ (vertical striped) replica kit at an extremely reasonable £24.99. The whole operation seemed far more professional than it had been in the past. There were also details of the development squad and Ladies teams, which I thought must have been a relatively recent addition to the club portfolio.
There was another change that I hadn’t anticipated, however. A sign outside the ground bore the legend, ‘The Green Elephants Stadium.’ Now unlike some other football purists I have no real problem with stadium sponsorship. Last year, when Crawley Town renamed their Broadfield Stadium (it’s a stadium. In Broadfield) I was contacted by a journalist whose line of questioning suggested that he wanted me to express my displeasure at the change because of “the abandonment of historical tradition.” He seemed rather nonplussed when I pointed out that I had a dog older than the stadium and that if he gave me fifty grand I’d rename him too; though I’d have hoped not to wander the fields calling ‘checkatrade.com‘ to heel. Surprisingly, that quote didn’t later appear in the paper.
Green Elephants, though. What on earth was that all about? A few days later at an FA Cup tie at Croydon I bumped into Colin Bowman, the club programme editor, who is not only a genuinely lovely chap but has perhaps the most optimistic demeanour of any man I’ve ever met. I asked him about the stadium name.
“Green Elephants? Oh, it’s about, you know, Teepees.”
I must have looked confused.
“Teepees. Wigwams. You know, big pointy tents.”
Suddenly it had all become clear.
No? Me neither.
So I did what everyone does in such a situation. I nodded sagely, waited til he wandered off to point his camera at somebody, then searched the internet. I found that surprisingly he was entirely correct. Green Elephants are a company that specialise in the construction and sale of “big pointy tents,” amongst other outdoor living equipment, and are based on the nearby Bolney Grange Industrial Estate. I’ve no idea why they are so called- after all, there seems a lack of continental awareness between principle product and name- but all power to their Non League sponsoring elbow. Actually, I’m not sure if elephants have elbows, green or otherwise…
Back at the stadium, an expectant crowd was gathering. They had every reason to be expectant. Burgess Hill had played nine competitive matches so far, winning six and drawing the other three. They’d scored twenty goals during this period. There was an air of optimism around the place which had been sadly lacking on my last visit, and, for once, this didn’t seem to be the kind of optimism which most football fans suffer from early in the season before experience overtakes hope; there seemed to be a genuine belief that something was going right. A local I spoke to during the first half hit the nail on the head; “the club’s sorted out its debt, and it’s better run now that Gary Croydon (former manager, player, director, Chief Executive, chief cook and bottlewasher who left the club in 2012 after 14 years) isn’t having to do every single job. And Chapman is doing a top job with the team.” This was good to hear. Over the last ten years, mainly under Croydon’s leadership, the club had alternated between impending catastrophe and near crisis, falling out repeatedly with the council, local residents and each other whilst still being successful on the field- generally by spending money they didn’t have. Those reckless days appear to have been consigned to history.
Tooting and Mitcham United, tonight’s visitors, had started the season slowly then picked up form dramatically, and were sitting mid table. Strong, composed and confident, they weren’t going to give Hill an easy ride. They were almost ahead in the third minute after a mix up between the home keeper and centre back, but the chance was squandered. They’d regret that later.
Hill appeared to have one principle tactic. Whenever they got the ball in midfield, they looked to play it down the channels for strikers Pat Harding, Rob O’Toole or Greg Luer to chase. This wasn’t a long ball game; certainly they seemed happy to play it out of defence rather than hoof it- but it was plain that their entire game plan was centred around letting these forwards use their pace, and they had plenty of pace to use. O’Toole, particularly, was quickly testing the Tooting right back, who looked like he’d have a difficult night in front of him. “Skin ‘im alive Rob,” shouted one home supporter, who I took to be the local butcher. Well, he did look rather like Fred Elliot.
The first twenty minutes or so were fairly even. Apart from a Tooting penalty appeal in the 9th minute which the referee took no interest in despite the rather vociferous exhortations of the ‘Mitcham Massive’ (all eight of them) behind the goal, the game had become rather bogged down in midfield. There was no lack of effort, and the hold-up play by the away number nine, Sol Pinnock, was particularly impressive, but that effort was not having any positive outcome.
Hill slowly began to take control. A succession of corners made the Tooting defence work hard, with their number 6, Harry Knock, making a number of vital tackles and clearances, but you sensed that a goal was coming, and when it did it was worth the wait; a great strike from right back Sam Fisk, following neat interplay between the Hill forwards, flew into the corner of the net from just outside the box. One-nil, and on the balance of play, just about deserved.
Tooting worked hard to get back into the game. A collection of sustained pressure followed, but with no end product. This frustrated one of their forwards so much that he let out a scream so blood curdling that it sounded like an outtake from Zulu and startled the home support into silence. You could almost hear Michael Caine saying “Calm down- and don’t point that bloody spear, at me.” To a backdrop of loud, rhythmic drumming- from outside the ground, none of the Tooting Massive looked particularly musical- the away side pressed and pressed, with every move breaking down just outside the box. The local Air Training Corps Marching Band were apparently trying to inspire the opposition. It worked, too- just as half time approached Billy Marshall turned sharply and fired the ball across the keeper and into the net. Sadly most of the away fans missed this as they’d already begun to walk towards the refreshment trailer, but it was a good strike. Half time, 1-1.
The second half began at a frantic pace, with Hill’s Kirkwood and Keehan just about winning the midfield battle, but neither keeper was greatly troubled until the 70th minute. The home faithful were just beginning to lose hope when Fisk whipped in a great cross from the left, O’Toole lost his marker with a great turn of speed and headed the ball forcefully into the net. The crowd erupted, perhaps more from relief than joy, and despite working very hard to find a way back into the game Tooting were unable to make a decisive intervention and the Hillians closed out for another three points and went to the top of the league. The crowd was announced as three hundred and ten- significantly down from the previous Saturday yet still extremely high for a Wednesday night in the Ryman South.
I wandered back to the station pondering my Burgess Hill experience. I’d not heard a voice raised in anger all night- off the field, anyway. The supporters were more numerous than I’d ever noted before, and also more content. The team were good; the forward line formidable. The club officials had been welcoming, friendly and unnervingly confident*. It seemed that they had much to be confident about.
The following Saturday I inadvertently had another Burgess Hill experience. In the FA Cup extra preliminary round I’d chosen to watch Arundel v Croydon, with a vague idea that I’d follow the winners as far as I could through the competition. Croydon won the match, beat Epsom and Ewell in the next round after a replay, and were rewarded with a first qualifying round tie at home to the Hillians. It was good to see so many familiar faces- from both sides- at the Croydon Arena. Hill fans (who made up almost half the crowd) before the game continued to be confident; perhaps over confident, and I had to point out to them that Croydon were a solid, hard working side not short on attacking flair- a message which, once delivered, had a number of them looking at me as if I’d just told them that Justin Bieber was a musical genius. Well when they were holding on at 3-2 in the 90th minute I didn’t look quite so loopy, did I? Mind you, when Burgess Hill went ahead in the first minute a number of them seemed to be considering supplying me with a nice new jacket with wraparound arms.
Both teams attacked with verve and generally defended as if the drugs don’t work. That said, the two best players on the pitch were both defenders; Croydon’s number 4, Adam Allen, was a calm head with great dreads and played majestically throughout, and Burgess Hill’s Wednesday night goalscorer Sam Fisk played out of his skin. It seems surprising to single out two defenders in a match where two players shared five goals between them, but both Hill hat trick hero O’Toole and Croydon’s two goal Toney missed more chances than they scored. The match could have easily finished 5-7. By the way, if Croydon’s manager/owner- perhaps the grumpiest man in football- is reading this, can I make a suggestion? Zonal marking at corners? Even Premier League players can’t understand that. Your lads are never likely to manage it, and it cost you the game.
As I headed home on the tram, surrounded by contented Hillians overjoyed at a third victory in eight days (if a little relieved), I considered the parallels between the town of Burgess Hill and its football club. Neither are particularly prosperous, neither the town or the football ground conspicuously attractive, yet both are friendly, welcoming and worthy of your time. I thought back to the words of Richard Osman. Perhaps Burgess Hill is behind the times, but in a UK society that continually bemoans the loss of community spirit that apparently existed during all of our childhoods, it may be fair to say that Burgess Hill is a relic of a bygone age, and all the better for it. The football club is on the up. The stadium is inhabited by friendly people watching good football at a cheap price in a spirit of harmony and contentment. Perhaps when the local inhabitants are cluttering the station in their assortment of red, white and blue replica shirts on a Saturday afternoon, heading towards London or Brighton, they should stop and think about the entertainment available nearer home and switch to green and black?
If I had a message for the people of Mid Sussex, it would be this. It’s time you went round the Elephant.
And Up the Hill!
*Colin (the aforementioned programme editor) has always been unnervingly confident. I remember watching Crawley Town at Rotherham when our coach broke down for the second time in a week and him trying to convince me that this was a wonderful opportunity for the fans to spend time with the players, and that I should count it as a blessing. He still doesn’t know how close he came to being drowned in the Rother.
Published on in Little League Love Affair.