With nineteen minutes to go in the final game of the last ever Sussex County League season, champions- elect Littlehampton Town looked as if they were bent on throwing away their title. 3-1 down at home to Newhaven, with rivals Dorking Wanderers levelling in their match at Arundel, the trophy was heading to the North Downs. At this point 24-year-old striker George Gaskin, one of three substitutes thrown on by manager Mark Bennett, crashed the ball home and the comeback was on. The Gold’s snatched a draw, Wanderers fell to defeat due to an added time goal, and the fans at the Sportsfield celebrated only the second championship in their one hundred and twenty one year history.
Fast forward ten days and Bennett had resigned, along with assistant Richie Hellen, and Gaskin had been appointed as his replacement.
“It’s been a little bit mental to say the least.” Gaskin still sounded surprised by events. “There were rumours that Mark would leave, but nobody really believed that he’d go; he’s Littlehampton through and through. We’re a tight-knit bunch, players and officials, and they all knew I had managerial ambition, so I was asked if I’d do the job. I was delighted to accept.”
“I’d always wanted to be a manager,” he went on. “I’d often spoken about it, but I suppose I didn’t really consider it seriously until I broke my leg last year. If I’m honest, I’m probably still not fully recovered.”
This isn’t simply a case of a young player fulfilling his ambitions, however. Gaskin made it quite clear that this was also an emotional decision. Littlehampton Town have had a few years of success, but that followed a period in the doldrums during which they flirted with relegation to Division Three. The team is still very young, and many of them, Gaskin included, have fought their way from adversity to success under Bennett’s leadership. The close bond amongst the squad was quite clear from the words Gaskin used to describe them throughout; they were “the lads” and “a bunch of mates.” How would the squad cope with his change in status?
“I’ll tell you in six months!” Gaskin managed to be both amused and philosophical. “They’ve been very supportive of me, even delighted, and the team spirit is second to none. I understand that there will be some parts of the job that won’t be easy and that relationships will change a little. I will undoubtedly make some mistakes, but we’ll learn together.”
The club was denied the chance to apply for promotion to the Ryman League this season because of issues with the ground. The Sportsfield is adjacent to the local cricket club, and this stops it from being fully enclosed- a requirement if they were to go up. This has caused financial problems too; the proximity to the cricket pitch has also meant that the Gold’s could not play home matches during the cricket season, leading to cashflow issues. It is hoped that this situation can be resolved soon, giving the club the opportunity to make the changes required to meet grading requirements, and Gaskin is hopeful of being allowed to play home matches in August- though they may have to move them to Sundays in order that their full back won’t have to double as a boundary fielder.
The planning for the new season is already in full swing. “We’ve already arranged two away friendlies for July- at Sutton Common Rovers and Colliers Wood United- with two more penciled in. We also have the Sussex Community Shield to look forward to in early August, at Lancing.” This will be against either Whitehawk or Lewes, who contest the Sussex Senior Cup Final at the Amex next weekend.
Gaskin was pragmatic about his hopes. “Obviously we’d like to protect our title, but with the quality of the teams coming down this won’t be easy. But we’d also like to do better in the cup competitions, particularly in the Vase and FA Cup. Last season, having such a young team compared to some of our out-of-County opponents, perhaps we got a bit intimidated at times. But it will be different this season after last year’s experiences. I’m looking to change the style of play, I’ll be working on our passing and movement as I’d like us to pass a lot more, but I’m confident in the quality of the team.”
Had he been given any targets by the board? “Not to finish in the bottom three!” It was obvious, despite this comment, that Gaskin had his sights set rather higher than survival. Had he asked the board for anything in return? “No. They’ve given me a chance and I appreciate that. This is my hometown club. It’s my job to keep the team together and to push on. I’m confident we can do that.”
The first ever Southern Combination Football League season will be upon us in August. Its exact makeup is still to be decided, but Littlehampton Town and their new manager will not be giving up their title without a fight.
This article was first available at Non League Daily
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