The middle of March doesn’t tend to be a significant time in the Non-League football calendar. With no cup finals, no playoffs, and clubs either ensconced in mid table or still jockeying for position at either end of their respective leagues, it is generally a period before the nail-biting begins in earnest. Yet eight days before the rest of the country had even got around to taking the foil wrapping off its Easter Eggs, Haywards Heath Town of the Southern Combination Football League Division One were celebrating promotion. Twenty-four hours after we’d all experienced an overdose of sugar-laced cocoa they were champions too; the first club in the country to win promotion, the second- after Folkestone Invicta, who played on Good Friday- to be confirmed as title winners.
Haywards Heath isn’t really recognised as being a footballing hotbed. Indeed, this Mid-Sussex commuter town is hardly recognised for anything, except perhaps for educating two members of Britpop pioneers Suede and Pointless paragon Richard Osman; but perhaps those days are slowly changing. After almost fifty years in the doldrums Haywards Heath Town FC are on the rise.
There was no sign of this success as recently as twelve months ago. Heath were in ninth place (of fifteen) in what was then known as Sussex County League Division Two, seemingly with about as much upward momentum as Nigel Farage in a light aircraft on election day. Yet something was stirring at Hanbury Park, and the season had just ended when Shaun Saunders was unveiled as the new manager in the shadow of the cavernous old 1950’s grandstand. Saunders had previously taken Peacehaven and Telscombe from the same level to the heights of the Ryman Premier League and was expected to take a job much higher up the pyramid; so when he turned up in Haywards Heath the Sussex football world sat up and took notice.
A summer of recruitment followed. The chief signing was Rob O’Toole, who had just experienced a record breaking title winning season in the Ryman South with near-neighbours Burgess Hill Town. He was considered something of a lucky talisman, with that being his third promotion in three seasons. That he now has a fourth is hardly a surprise, and he has also been the division’s stand-out performer.
On August 8th Heath lost their opening game of the season, at home to Southwick. Perhaps in the interests of ensuring symmetry they managed to end the campaign with a defeat too, away to also-promoted Crawley Down Gatwick. In between they were entirely undefeated, averaging just under four goals a game, and with O’Toole as the Divisions top scorer with thirty goals. A week after the end of their league campaign they thrashed Langney Wanderers 5-1 to complete a league and cup double.
After selling land for housing the club have been able to improve both ground and team, including the installation of a 3G training pitch, extended parking facilities and a new bar giving them a year-round income and some sustainability. Success has been long awaited, but Saunders is already planning for the future and has stated the intention of challenging for further glory.
The loss of O’Toole to rivals Shoreham for next season has now been confirmed, and was perhaps expected once the Musselmen announced that their new manager is Rob’s brother. It will undoubtedly be felt; players of O’Toole’s calibre don’t grow on the trees in Victoria Park. Yet with Saunders knowledge of the league and extensive array of contacts you’d expect that he won’t find it difficult to recruit an able replacement.
The club have just released news of ‘verbal agreement for three top signings’ via social media. Supporters will be awaiting the imminent confirmation of these arrivals, but will not be particularly concerned; in Shaun they trust. They also know that their reserve side mimicked the first team by bringing home a League and Cup double- there seems to be strength in depth at Hanbury Park.
Given that next season’s SCFL Premier Division is already shaping up to be one of the tightest in years, it would be difficult to believe that further success is impossible. The community of Haywards Heath already revel in a Mid-Sussex rivalry with nearby Burgess Hill- as occasionally referenced by Osman in an attempt to gently wind up Pointless contestants from the area. Perhaps it won’t be long before that rivalry is renewed on the football pitch, too.
The original- abridged- version of this article appeared in Issue 8 of the Non League Magazine.
Published on in Steps 3-6.