An abridged version of this article is now featuring on the When Saturday Comes website:
Burgess Hill, West Sussex. The headquarters of Filofax, the scene of Holly Willoughby’s schooldays, and the home of the most successful football team in England.
You’ve just scanned that paragraph again, haven’t you? Something about it didn’t make sense; and of course, you’re right.
Surely nobody uses a Filofax anymore?
Only one team in the top eight levels of the football pyramid have yet to lose a league match, and it isn’t Chelsea. It isn’t Manchester City. It isn’t even those mighty South Coast warriors, AFC Bournemouth. Burgess Hill Town are currently top of the Ryman Division One South, step four of the Non League pyramid, with a record that reads Played 26, Won 21, Drawn 5. They’ve been pretty handy in cup competitions too; getting as far as the final qualifying round of the FA Cup after notably knocking Sutton United, two leagues higher, out of the competition on their own Gander Green Lane, and more recently dumping Conference Premier Aldershot Town out of the FA Trophy at the EBB Stadium before succumbing to Dartford at the Second Round stage. They are, based on their on-pitch endeavours, the top performing team in England- and there are no oligarchs in sight.
As you arrive at the Green Elephants Stadium you’d be justified in thinking that a team with such a record should be playing in rather more salubrious surroundings. You might think that as you stepped out of your car and surveyed the mud now clinging to the bottom of your jeans, or as you attempted to find the football ground by following the signs for the Nature Reserve. This isn’t a modern palace of glass and steel. A relic of the 1960’s, like many of its clientele, the former Leylands Park would never win prizes for style. The clubhouse is effectively a large shed, topped by what appears to be a windowless watchtower- though is very well presented inside. The grandstand isn’t particularly grand. The terraces aren’t terraced; indeed, they are little more than a strip of concrete around the outside of the pitch, with no cover. If it rains you either sit or get wet. Actually, you might well sit and still get wet, depending on which way the wind is blowing.
By the way, Green Elephants? Sadly, Burgess Hill does not have a herd of brightly coloured pachyderms roaming around the vast plains of its nature reserve. But if you want to hire a tepee, then Green Elephants are the go-to guys for such an eventuality. Though why you’d want to hire a tepee, heaven only knows…unless you spend your weekends re-enacting the demise of General Custer…
The club has had a chequered recent history. Over the last decade financial crisis followed financial crisis, and it has taken an awful lot of hard work to turn that situation around and allow the club to, firstly, survive, and latterly, thrive. The local council, whose Mayor is now happy to be pictured smiling with the club chairman, regularly came close to putting it out of business due to unpaid rent. Mind you, you shouldn’t take that to believe that the local council is suddenly interested in football. Perhaps they should be, however, as the football club is probably the nearest thing the town will ever get to a tourist attraction. Unless they can persuade Willoughby to move back, obviously.
That those dark days have been left behind is primarily due to the efforts of a hard working board and an army of volunteers, and the inspired coaching of former Brighton and Hove Albion defender Ian Chapman and his staff. “Chappers,” as he is almost universally known, has built a team that mixes youth and experience but plays with enormous spirit and not a little flair. One of his protégés, Greg Luer, with sixteen goals this season, has recently left to join up with Premier League Hull City on a two year deal. How they replace his goals will be crucial to their continued success. If they continue with this level of performance, keeping Chapman may also become a problem. Their top scorer, with seventeen goals, is Pat Harding; son of the late former Chelsea co-owner and local philanthropist Matthew.
Crowds are at unprecedented levels. The average attendance rose by 15% last season, the highest increase in Ryman South, and this season the increase has been little less than astonishing by level four standards. On Non League Day, 6th September, the club made the decision to let all supporters in for free. Seven hundred and seventeen took advantage, and many have returned fairly often since. The average is 338; which may not look enormous, but in this sleepy backwater of Mid Sussex it is quite exceptional. Only Hastings United and Guernsey average more.
The football is not the only attraction; although it certainly helps that they’ve scored 67 league goals and conceded only 22-top of the table on goal difference, but with four games in hand over their nearest challenges. In common with most non league grounds- which, by the way, are not generally characterised by supporters with the grasp on reality of the ‘Weadlstone Raider’- The Green Elephants Stadium might be a little ramshackle but it is a nice place to spend your time. The clubhouse is open to all, the natives are friendly, the catering is good, and the nearest railway station- which goes by the characterful name of ‘Wivelsfield’ even though the village it describes is around a mile away- is a five minute walk from the ground on the Brighton mainline.
The chances of the team ending the season unbeaten are undoubtedly slim. As they progress through the winter there is every chance that injuries to key players and poor quality pitches will undermine their tempo; and, added to that, every opposition team raises their game because they want to be the one to end the run. Recent matches have been closer and closer. But whatever happens, no-one will ever be able to erase the knowledge that Burgess Hill Town were the once the most successful team in England.
Burgess Hill Town- England’s Top Performing Team click here to be directed to the When Saturday Comes website
Published on in Steps 3-6.