“You’ve got no fans, you’ve got no ground.”
You may be familiar with these words. Almost eight million views on You Tube and a top five single would suggest that much of the UK will have some knowledge of Gordon Hill, better known to the masses as The Wealdstone Raider, whose alcohol fuelled rant at a football match in March 2013 went viral at the end of last year. What you may not be familiar with, however, is the football club at which he was aiming his taunts.
A suburb in the east of Brighton, little more than a mile from the city centre and a stones throw from the incredibly drab but bustling Brighton Marina, Whitehawk was described a few years ago by the BBC Politics show as ‘one of the most deprived areas of Britain.’ A visit to the football club that currently bears its name might, at first glance, reinforce this view; indeed, the last stage of your journey may make you feel as if you’re following a single track road to oblivion via the Caravan Club. Once at the end of this road, the sight that greets you cannot be described as salubrious. The Enclosed Ground looks very much as if it was erected piecemeal by a collection of cowboy builders who ‘borrowed’ each section from somewhere different. Most buildings are either of the portakabin variety or held up with scaffolding. The pitch slopes alarmingly both from end to end and from side to side. At this point, you may find even yourself sympathising with The Raider.
Despite their location, however, Whitehawk FC are far from impoverished, and seem to have an unstoppable upward trajectory. Currently competing for a play off place at the top of Conference South, they’ve had three promotions and a third place finish during the past five years. Managed by former Lewes and Macclesfield manager Steve King, they’ve built a squad that should be the envy of many of their competitors. That squad includes former Crawley Town stars Sergio Torres and Scott Neilson, John Paul Kissock- who last year was playing for Oldham Athletic in League One- Sam Deering, who stepped down from Cheltenham Town, and former Crystal Palace full back Lee Hills; a formidable line up at this level. If their multi-millionaire owners get their way, they may also be going places off the field, too. John Summers and Peter McDonnell have stated that they want to build a six thousand seater stadium, speak of a five year plan to get into the Football League, and compare Whitehawk FC to Brighton and Hove Albion as you would Espanyol to Barcelona. They also want to change the name of the club- to Brighton City FC. The only blight on this ambition is that another of the Raiders pronouncements hits close to the mark. Whilst it would be unfair to say that they had no fans, the truth is that they have very few. Their average crowd so far this season sits at just over two hundred. They are, by some distance, the worst supported club in their league.
As you can imagine, the tiny crowds and the largess of the owners investment has garnered some criticism. Many of their recent signings came from full time football. Rumours of their salaries abound in Conference South circles, and the numbers mentioned, even allowing for poetic licence, cannot for one moment be covered by club income. Patently the owners are bankrolling the club; and they can undoubtedly afford it, their businesses are doing well. But is that such a bad thing? They are both local boys made good, earned their money by hard work, and are trying to put something back into their community. Most of the Premier League lives way beyond its means backed by rich investors, why should it be so bad when Whitehawk do the same? Certainly the home fans- short in number as they may be- aren’t complaining.
It is perhaps fair to suggest that it the opportunity to spend time amongst these home supporters is one of the chief delights of a neutral’s trip to this part of East Brighton. The self styled ‘Whitehawk Ultras’- and that title is deliberately ironic- tend to number no more than 50, and can be found behind the goal at whichever end their team happen to be attacking, equipped with drums, a hunting horn, a bell, a rattle and what sounds rather like an air raid siren. They deliver a continual cacophony throughout the match, singing some of the most bizarre songs you’re every likely to hear at a football ground, waving their keys in the air whenever their team earn a corner (this apparently signifies a ‘key moment’), and generally taking the micky out of themselves and the opposition. They aren’t keen on Bognor (a mutual loathing), and are even likely to be found pointing out their dislike of Moulsecoomb (half a mile away), but they are an extremely vibrant, friendly and entirely non-threatening bunch. Indeed, the Raider’s offer of “You want some? I’ll give it you” is probably as close as The Enclosed Ground has ever got to football violence. The matchday staff and stewards at the club are also a model of Non League bonhomie; friendly, helpful, and delivering fabulous cake with your half time coffee. An afternoon in such company and you’d feel churlish to deny them their dreams.
The problem with such dreams, however, is that they may be badly flawed. The Whitehawk model when compared with that used in football’s higher echelons may at first glance look similar, but when the investment is balanced against crowds of forty thousand plus and the obscene payday created by the latest TV deal the risks involved are someone reduced. At a lower level, however, the only way such investment becomes sustainable is if the club is able to grow its audience. Whitehawk has indeed experienced growth- it has doubled its crowds over five years. But doubling them to two hundred hardly inspires confidence, and means that the club is always likely to be entirely reliant on its millionaire benefactors for its continued existence. Fans of Gretna or Rushden and Diamonds, for example, could explain how that might turn out.
Whether Whitehawk will ever be able to manage to deliver on their five year plan remains to be seen. But whilst you can scoff at their ambition and join with the Raider in being scathing about their facilities and support, a visit to The Enclosed Ground is still likely to make you feel that, for the sake of their supporters at least, you have to grudgingly wish them luck. “Meat Pie, Sausage Roll, come on Whitehawk, give us a goal!”
First published in the March edition of Late Tackle magazine. A new issue is out now!
Published on in National.