‘Suede’s music is a product of its environment: it reflects a mixture of boredom and adventure that appeals to bedsit people and kids stuck at home with their parents, feeling bored and misunderstood. They can’t get a job, can’t afford drugs, can’t even have safe sex any more. It doesn’t take long to realise they haven’t removed themselves yet from the atrophy that was Haywards Heath – their manor.’(Max Bell, The Guardian, 1993).
Prior to moving to Sussex fifteen years ago I knew nothing about Haywards Heath apart from the fact that it was Brett Anderson’s home town and, if his lyrics (and Guardian journalists) were a good indicator, not the kind of place you’d really want to visit. I was therefore surprised to find that it wasn’t particularly depressed; indeed it was fairly prosperous, although it must be recognised that this prosperity is earned elsewhere, with almost forty per cent of the populous leaving the town every day by train alone, mostly to travel into London. It is a formerly working class town with middle class aspirations; the centre of the Sussex commuter belt and upwardly mobile- although far from pretty, with a proliferation of 1970’s concrete that makes the High Street, particularly, look like it was designed by a small boy with a limited collection of Lego and little imagination.
Just off the end of that High Street stands what is arguably its most beautiful building- The Priory. Built as a convent in the late nineteenth century, the vast old chapel retains many of its original features including the stained-glass windows, wall murals and choristers chancel and, since 1978, has provided the setting for a proliferation of restaurants- including one which featured on TV a few years ago, central to a Gordon Ramsey swear-fest. Sadly even Ramsey couldn’t save it, and, despite a further reincarnation as a Tapas Bar, it has now stood empty and forlorn for two years.
Haywards Heath Football Club and the Priory came into existence within two years of each other. As well as their Victorian ancestry they also share a recent history of decline; the club arguably had its heyday, such as it was, in the 1950’s, and apart from the odd moment of optimism has struggled ever since, kept alive only by an ever dwindling collection of loyal supporters as they dredged the depths of the Sussex County League. Unlike the Priory, however, the empty cavern of the Hanbury Park Stadium was once again beginning to fill. The shoots of recovery were clearly visible. Crowds were still small but noticeably increasing, a new 3G training pitch was being constructed to generate cash, the bar under the enormous old stand had been refurbished, a new car park had been built to replace the old one which was sold for housing, and the football team had suddenly gained incredible, seemingly unstoppable, momentum- with fourteen straight victories. I decided that I needed to pay them a visit; to immerse myself in the newly positive HHTFC experience. The First Round of the FA Vase was on the horizon, and Hanbury would have a new visitor on Halloween.
The PA system was on the blink. John Bon Jovi had developed a terrible impediment, louder then softer, harsh then gentle. He sounded all the better for it, but over a sixty minute period the effect was extremely debilitating; rather like being forced to watch an episode of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories. I wasn’t sure whether it was simply rebelling against the lack of Suede or suffering from atrophy.
In honesty I hadn’t really paid much attention to Haywards Heath Town until recently. They’d come to my attention the previous season only by losing 11-0 to Combined Counties Premier League Molesey in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round, and after that struggled in finishing ninth (out of fifteen) in Sussex County League Division Two, filling little newsprint and making even less impact. Then, in April, something happened which made me sit up and take notice. They appointed a new manager.
Shaun Saunders was formerly the manager of Peacehaven & Telscombe. Under his supervision this small coastal club between Brighton and Newhaven first won Sussex County League Division Two and a Cup, then won Sussex County League Division One and another Cup, then won the Ryman Isthmian South by a country mile before adding the Sussex Senior Cup. He left them last Christmas, following which they had a financial crisis then went rapidly downhill, entering a slump which brought them relegation and from which they have yet to recover. I’d been wondering where he’d decide to step back into management, and was incredibly surprised when he chose Haywards Heath Town. Something must be stirring just off America Lane.
Fourteen consecutive victories later it had stopped stirring and had began to crash around Sussex with the impact of a concrete elephant.
Two of those victories, over Little Common and Sevenoaks Town, had propelled Heath to the First Round Proper of the FA Vase. At Sevenoaks in the last round they had recovered from a three goal half time deficit to win 4-3, a result which undoubtedly typified their season so far. Saunders had described the Vase as “a phenomenal competition” in the run up to todays match. He’d also talked about success in the competition introducing the club to a wider audience, and the crowd today certainly seemed higher than I’d expected so perhaps this was working.
Today’s visitors, Alton Town, had won only one away game all season, when beating Bracknell Town 3-0 in the last round. Despite that, there was a reasonable amount of optimism amongst their supporters, and the team were obviously motivated to do well. Perhaps overly motivated, if the referee was to be believed, as he waved a yellow card at one of their centre halves a full ten seconds after kick off following a heavy challenge on Heath talisman Rob O’Toole.
Whether it should have been a yellow card was open to debate. This debate continued on the touchline. The home supporters felt it should, the away supporters disagreed, and there was a loud, good-natured argument between a group of them to my right. Whilst they remained good-natured with each other, the away supporters, particularly, didn’t extend this courtesy to the referee as the half went on. It wasn’t difficult to sympathise; by administering a booking so early in the match he set a standard which it was almost impossible to maintain. By half time it was difficult to work out whether he was controlling the match or it was controlling him, as some of his decisions seemed at odds with logic. Even the home supporters had begun to sympathise with Alton’s dismay. Although, understandably, not too much.
In Kurt Greenaway, Alton had the best player on the pitch for the first forty five minutes. Resplendent in a red headband which he could have borrowed from an early 1980’s vintage John McEnroe, he seemed to be everywhere; one minute clearing the ball off his own line, the next charging down the left wing as if in pursuit of an errant umpire. He either created or had all of Alton’s best chances, and seemed destined to score until inexplicably he moved over to the right wing, where he found the going far tougher. Heath also worked hard, and created a number of good chances, but as the half time whistle blew it was the away side who had most reason to be discontent- as the referee found out as he left the pitch. I was just disappointed that Greenaway didn’t yell, “You cannot be serious.”
Most of the spectators stood around the perimeter rather than gathering in the enormous wooden stand. That wasn’t a surprise. Only the bottom half of it was in use, and although it looked imposing from a distance, close up it truly looked its age. That doesn’t mean that it is unattractive- indeed it should probably be preserved. In my childhood many Non League clubs had similar constructions; now, due to modernisation, health and safety rules and the demands of the modern spectator, most of them are long gone. In truth that isn’t always a bad thing- the towering wooden monstrosity at Kingsway, former home of “the greatest amateur football team in the world”- Bishop Auckland- frightened me for most of my childhood. I still have the scars. And the splinters.
Hanbury Park was opened in 1952 by Sir Stanley Rous, then the Secretary of the Football Association, soon to be President of FIFA. I thought that was marvellous. Imagine the current President of FIFA turning up now?
“Mr President, it’s Mick Cottingham here. We wondered if you’d be available to open our new stadium?”
“But of course Mr Cottingham. I would be delighted to visit your beautiful stadium. I wonder, however, could you see your way clear to making a donation to my favourite footballing charity? It is the Confederation of Andorran Soccer Holdings, but you can abbreviate that on your cheque. I shall collect it personally upon my arrival. Is half a million pounds ok?”
By the way, Haywards Heath Town Chairman Mick Cottingham is not to be confused with the chap who killed a thirteen foot alligator in Arkansas three years ago, unless you happen to be the people who run Google. That said, if ever a large reptile decides to run amok in Ardingly Reservoir we know exactly who to call.
The second half kicked off with another Alton foray, with Greenaway running at the home defence before being chopped down just outside the box. This quick start attracted the attention of almost all of the spectators, the exception being a small boy in a striped jumper who was far more occupied in erasing the team details from their whiteboard with his sleeve. The free kick was taken by thingummy and cleared by whatshisname.
The game then became fractious, with stoppage after stoppage, before Heath took control. Centre forward Max Miller had been troubling the away defence for some time without fashioning a clear cut chance, but this began to change as he forced Nyamunga in the Alton goal into a save, before firing over shortly afterwards. Further Heath chances followed, and in the 70th minute they went ahead, when Miller fired home from around six yards after good work from O’Toole and Weston. “Well done the Cheeky Chappie,” I said. Peter from local website Burgess Hill Uncovered, who was filming the match and had also earlier taken on PA duties until realizing that nobody could hear a word he said, looked at me quizzically.
“Why did you call him that?”
“Because his name is Max Miller.”
“I know his name is Max Miller, but why is he a cheeky chappie?”
I suddenly felt rather old. But I would point out that the original cheeky chappie died four years before I was born. I just look decrepit.
Alton, as if suddenly realizing that they’d spent the last quarter of an hour asleep, fought back. A header from Oli Graham cannoned off the bar, Heath defender Josh Bryant hooked a shot off the line, and Tom Graves made clearance after clearance as the home defence stood firm. In injury time Greenaway once more got clear of his marker, fired the ball across goal, and Alton sub Greeves got his head to it. The net bulged. Luckily for the home side, he’d hit the side netting. Haywards Heath Town FC were through to the second round of the FA Vase, and given the celebrations around me and in front of me, that was something of a big deal for players, staff and fans alike.
Later that evening I was again at Hanbury Park, with my family. The club were holding a firework display for the local community. As the same chap who had earlier sold me a golden goal ticket and guaranteed a winner (liar!) persuaded me to buy a raffle ticket (“first prize is a voucher for a hairdressing boutique which…you can give to somebody else”) I realized that almost everyone around me had also been here earlier. I couldn’t tell whether they’d hung around in the clubhouse for two hours, or gone home and then come back, but certainly all of the volunteers and many of the spectators seemed to still be at the club, and most of them had arrived at least five hours ago and would probably be here for two hours more.
I pointed out earlier that Haywards Heath was becoming a middle class enclave. That is undoubtedly so, and indeed Mid Sussex is the twelfth least deprived Local Authority Area in England and Wales (out of 326), but it still has areas of deprivation, and chief amongst these would be Bentswood Ward. The Football Club is based within Bentswood Ward, and as such many of the people who it is looking to attract through the gates on a Saturday afternoon are likely to be on a low income. The club charges five pounds admission, and nothing for parking. The food they serve is inexpensive even when measured only by my extensive experience of eating burgers at Sussex Non League grounds, the drinks in the clubhouse are well below local pub prices, and everyone serving you, selling you a raffle ticket or a programme, or stewarding, seems to be a volunteer. The fireworks, whilst hardly at the standard provided by London to celebrate New Year, were free too, provided by the club and even lit by volunteers.As I watched two men in jeans scurrying around the far side of the pitch lighting fireworks in total darkness, and looked around me at the large gaggle of small children dressed as witches, warlocks and notably, Spiderman (No, I’m not sure of the Halloween connection either), I pondered the Haywards Heath Town philosophy. Yes, they’d made a little cash from selling land, and were using it to improve their facilities. The team had undeniably benefitted too; they had a good quality squad for their level and one of the best managers in the area- their form wasn’t a fluke. But the place was hardly cash rich, and yet they weren’t averse to spending it to benefit the community and to keeping their prices as low as possible. Their supporters weren’t enormous in number, but they were good humoured, friendly, and obviously dedicated to their football club.
It dawned on me that this was football as I’d first experienced it forty years ago. Warm, welcoming, cheap, frill-free, and undeniably working class. A world apart from the glossy, homogenised world you might see on Sky Sports, and whilst that world shouldn’t be held up to be everything that is wrong with the game- I’ve no problem with safety, clean toilets and sightlines that aren’t interrupted by pillars- I prefer my football the Haywards Heath way. Cheerful, honest, community focused, and with a singular lack of Prima-Donna’s.
Unless you count the small witch throwing a tantrum because she couldn’t have another hot dog, anyway.
Haywards Heath Town managed a sixteen match winning streak, before finally losing a match to Ryman League South side East Grinstead Town on November 10th. At the time of writing they are placed fifth in the Southern Combination Football League Division One, seven points off top spot but with five games in hand.
Published on in Little League Love Affair.