Eastbourne Borough Council welcomes you to The Oval. If you can find it.
The relationships between non league football clubs and their local authorities vary from location to location, but whether they are the best of friends or sit at opposite ends of the harmony spectrum, what you can almost be certain of is that the journey of the away fan or the neutral will not be eased by ample direction signage. Or even any.
Eastbourne United Association’s The Oval- by the way, it isn’t oval, it’s the usual rectangle, but it apparently was once surrounded by a running track like a low budget Olympic Stadium without the violence- is hidden behind the homes of the good people of Channel View Road. The street itself is misnamed- all the houses face each other so you’d need to stand on a very high ladder and look south to actually see the sea, unless there’s an unprecedented high tide that fills your front garden with cod- but there’s every likelihood that, unless you have an exceptional satnav or have brought Bear Grylls to carry your thermos flask, you’d drive past the entrance to the ground without seeing it.
Or perhaps that’s just me. I made the mistake of bringing Ray Mears, and he just wasn’t up to the job.
United have been tenants at The Oval since 1946, although at that point they had another name. Mind you, they’ve had so many names that you’d suspect they’d been disappearing to avoid tax for 122 years. They began life as 1st Sussex Royal Engineers Volunteers (Eastbourne), later became Eastbourne Royal Engineers Old Comrades, then Eastbourne Old Comrades FC, then Eastbourne Comrades FC, then Eastbourne United in 1951, before a merger in 2003 added the word Association; although by this point the only thing you’d associate with the club would be an inability to make their minds up. For my mind, the lack of singing amongst the home support was probably down to tradition, as they’ve spent much of their history without a name they could fit into a song. Even the club badge has four lines of text.
The FA Vase was obviously very important to United. So important that, after semi-final defeat to eventual winners Sholing two seasons ago, the history on their official website comes to an end. It seemed they’d had two years of official mourning. Perhaps this year would be their chance to go a stage further, allowing their supporters to finally air the club song, “We’re the famous Eastbourne United Association- not to be confused with Eastbourne Borough who used to be Langney Sports, nor Eastbourne Town or even Langney Wanderers who also play at our ground but aren’t really from Eastbourne, although neither are Borough if we’re being technical- and we’re going to Wembley.” Although they may have to shorten that a little. The fact that they’d made the Second Round after being knocked out in the First Qualifying Round, only to be reinstated after Guildford City were found to have played an illegible player and to have forced spectators to wait seven minutes for a burger (they were very good, but really, it’s a disgrace), perhaps suggested to those of a superstitious nature that this might be their year.
Having said all of that, they were far from favourites to progress. Their opponents, Crowborough Athletic, currently held the title of Best Team in England. At this point Liverpool supporters spluttering into their bowl of scouse should calm down (calm down), as obviously that title is relative, but with a run of fourteen straight victories the Crows were buoyant, as that gave them the best form in the English Football Pyramid. Even the Town’s most famous fictional resident, Sherlock Holmes, would have struggled to predict that, and as for their most famous non-fictional resident (although some may wish her fictional) Kerry Katona, she’s so astounded that she’s afraid to turn up at the Community Stadium in case her mere presence jinxes things. Well, that’s my excuse for the fact she ignored my invitation, anyway.
Quite a number of Athletic fans (please don’t take that statement the wrong way, you’d be incorrect) had turned up at The Oval for this match, and as you’d expect they bore an air of quiet optimism. Actually they weren’t all that quiet, but although they all- without exception-expected to win, in the clubhouse before the match they were getting their excuses in early. “We’ll win but… it’ll go to extra time again,” “we’ve lots of players missing,” and, peculiarly, “we don’t play very well in the rain” were amongst those offered. United fans were simply hoping for a little more luck, having lost their last three matches after previously being unbeaten (Guildford City notwithstanding). Home Secretary, Press Officer, Webmaster and occasional groundsman (he also goes home now and again) Dean was quite clear before the game that he expected a difficult afternoon, but then so did Crowborough Press Officer, Webmaster and general dogsbody Malcolm. All I really gleaned from the latter two conversations was how much we should appreciate our Non League volunteers, just in case we were ever likely to forget.
As I took my place in the stand, and the rain which had forced a number of postponements to the west of the county continued to fall, an elderly gentleman in a silly hat came and sat in the seat next to me. I found that rather peculiar as the stand was more than half empty at this point, but he spread himself wider and wider until he was half sitting on my lap, extending his legs out into the aisle ahead like an octopus with cramp. Eventually I decided to move along a space, at which point he quickly occupied both seats until a lady who I assumed was his wife arrived and asked me if I’d mind moving even further away. I was tempted to check whether I’d suddenly acquired an unpleasant body odour problem, until two more of their friends arrived and I realized that I was simply sitting in ‘their’ seats. The four of them then decided to pick an argument with a Crowborough fan using a vapourizer two rows ahead and I was pleased I’d moved voluntarily.
Most of those around me were Crowborough supporters, and by this point, fuelled by beer and the optimism which comes from fourteen consecutive victories, they’d become rather vocal. One of them drew his colleagues attention to a stand behind the left hand goal, which peculiarly was facing away from the pitch. “That’s for away fans who don’t behave,” he chortled. “No, that’s where they put psychic supporters, as they can work out what’s happening just using the power of their minds,” said a voice from my right. “Do they get cheaper admission if they can’t actually see the match,” a chap in front of me asked. I had visions of Sally Morgan turning up at the turnstile and asking for a discount, until I realized that if she was any good she wouldn’t need to attend at all as she’d already know the result. In which case, she’d be far richer and wouldn’t have to keep being irritating on stage and TV. *
The teams ran out to the accompaniment of an unintelligible noise over the pa system and continuing incessant drizzle. I don’t believe these were connected. United were quickly on the attack, and Liam Baitup had a first minute shot blocked, before Bailo Camara took control. It’s tempting to describe Camara as a low-rent Ade Akinfenwa, but actually, although sturdy, he’s very much quicker than the Wycombe Wanderers man. Perhaps instead I should describe him as the nearly Nathaniel Pinney, although a comparison with the Eastbourne Borough striker might upset the locals. Camara almost set up the opening goal, starting a move which led to Baitup firing home in the eleventh minute, but the assistant’s flag got in the way. Soon afterwards, having swapped wings, he fired in a beautiful cross which full back Ryan Paul just failed to convert. This led to Crowborough centre back Jack Turner being rather vocal towards his defensive colleagues, which in turn led to a great deal of tutting and moaning from the gang of four to my left. My sympathy lay with the defender; at least he hadn’t surreptitiously turfed me out of my seat, nor was he wearing a silly hat. Mind you, his angry face was rather scary.
This was, perhaps, a signal for the real Crowborough to turn up. Midfielder and ex-Lewes man Henry Muggeridge began to spray passes around the field, ex-Margate and Maidstone striker Zac Attwood began to find his range, and the Crows began to threaten. On a number of occasions they should have done better, Attwood leaning back and firing over after good interplay between the two, Muggeridge firing a shot into a defender (the referee inexplicably gave a goal kick), before Sam Carrington had the best chance of the half, toe-poking wide of the upright under pressure with the keeper out of position. Ross Morley they placed the ball into the net for the Crows, only for another offside decision to rule it out, then, just before the break, Eastbourne’s Matt Hollobone forced away keeper Dan Ellis to tip a shot over the bar. The half ended level, the supporters wandered off to the clubhouse, and the rain got heavier.
Within ten minutes of the second half the ball was in the net twice, one at each end. But in keeping with the first half, both goals were disallowed for offside. We’d now witnessed four decent finishes, and yet the score remained nil-nil. Athletic then took some semblance of control, with Muggeridge at the heart of almost every dangerous move, and Morley, Attwood and Carrington all had chances which came to naught, before Baitup should have done better for United when receiving the ball unmarked at the far post.
Crowborough had swapped Carrington for Scott Treleaven, and it was ultimately this change which won them the game. Treleaven began to rampage down the right hand side, sending a number of excellent crosses into the box, and with five minutes remaining this was to be United’s undoing. The ball was heading towards the far post and Peter Featherstone needed to stop it. Sadly for the defender and the home faithful, his touch was only able to divert the ball past Phil Hawkins and into the net. Hawkins had no chance, and United no time to respond. Crowborough had recorded their fifteenth successive victory, their support managed to be both relieved and jubilant, and Henry Muggeridge celebrated the fact that there were “only another 476 rounds to the final.” Who said that footballers can’t do maths?
(Just to point out, that was a joke. I’m sure Henry was just being flippant, and is actually quite aware that there are only 27 rounds in the FA Vase in total.
At least it can seem that way).
Shortly after the game I was to be found at the entrance to the dressing rooms, as I awaited an interview with United manager Tobi Hutchinson. I’d hoped to grab a word with him immediately, and I only needed a couple of minutes, but I also knew that it might be difficult because he’d be exceedingly grumpy. As the players passed in front of us a home supporter came and stood next to me, waiting for clear passage. He decided to attempt to impart some comforting words to his team. “Don’t worry lads, you worked hard and it’s no disgrace to lose to a better team.” Just as these words left his lips Tobi hove into view, and I knew that my chance of an early interview had evaporated. Let’s just say he wasn’t happy with that opinion.
“Can I have a quick word for the Herald and the Non League Paper?”
He glowered at me. “Only after I’ve spoken to my players.” Exit angry manager, stage right.
The rain continued to fall, the fan whose words had caused the outburst left for shelter, whilst I stood and got soaked. The corridor to the managers office and changing rooms isn’t wide enough for two to pass, particularly when one of the two- me- wears a label stating ‘Wide Load,’ so I had to wait outside, with water running down my glasses. I didn’t have time to seek refuge and then return, as I had a deadline to meet and my report needed the managers words. I suppose I could have used those he’d uttered earlier, but I knew once he’d calmed down a little he’d have a different view.
Contemplating his outburst, I had to admit he had a point. Whilst Crowborough must have shaded the possession, neither keeper had been called upon to make many saves, and United had never been overawed. To lose to a goal like that, with extra time looming, would have been difficult to take for anybody, and given the quality of the Crowborough side the fact that United matched them blow for blow was worthy of note.
This years Crowborough Athletic have a squad filled with higher-level experience. A benefactor has stepped in to fund the laying of a 3G pitch, scheduled for the summer, and this has seemingly freed up funds to invest in the playing squad. Whilst this has undoubtedly served up some envy amongst the competition, it’s difficult to begrudge them their shot at success; they’ve been starved of it for long enough, after all, and in common with most Non League clubs, they’re a warm, friendly and welcoming bunch. And any club who build their own beer kiosk by the corner flag are ok with me.
United don’t have that largess. The new stand is anything but new, purchased second hand from Sidley United after their Gullivers Sports Ground was closed down, and their facilities are maintained almost entirely by volunteers and lubricated with elbow grease. The playing squad is regularly stronger than the sum of its parts, but that can simply be put down to good coaching and hard work.
After he’d talked to his side and calmed down (and apologised for being grumpy, although there was really no need), Hutchinson was quite philosophical about their unlucky defeat. He pointed out, correctly, that the Crows were “a side full of Ryman League players” (although it must be pointed out that some of them were missing due to injury and suspension). He also felt that his side should perhaps have taken the lead, and questioned whether their second offside goal had been ruled out correctly, whilst accepting that “Their balls into the box were decent, and unfortunately, as a defender, when you’re lunging in at something facing your own goal you run the risk of it flying into the back of the net, and today, on this sort of surface, that was always possible. The only disappointing thing,” he added, “is that we didn’t test them with the same type of delivery.”
November was always- and as the manager admitted- going to be a tough month for United. Indeed it would be a tough month for a side with even more strength in depth, yet there is enough about the team to suggest that, despite their disappointment at being knocked out of the Vase, they must be a good bet for a top six League finish and perhaps more success in a local cup competition.
Crowborough? Two points behind the league leaders with a game in hand, undefeated since 3rd September, fifteen straight victories and now tenth favourites- behind the traditional Northern League powerhouses- to win the FA Vase, new investment and new pitch to come in the summer, and confidence sky-high?
You don’t need to be psychic to see the Crows soaring towards a bright future.
*Sadly, and as Dean later explained, the stand was facing the wrong way because it had been purchased without planning permission and, with permission now granted, it would be facing the right way, and correctly installed, within twelve weeks. Weather permitting, and of course that shouldn’t be a problem for a club on the ‘Sunshine Coast’ (please note, every time I go to Eastbourne it rains. This label is as accurate as those calling the X-Factor a talent show and Miranda Hart a comedian).
Published on in Little League Love Affair.