Play-Off matches tend to be cagey affairs. Two teams with little between them at the end of a domestic season contending with the enormity of failure, supporters tossed and turned between hope and despair for ninety or one hundred and twenty minutes before experiencing elation or its rather more downbeat bedfellow; there is often little room for expansive play born of joie-de-vivre. Sussex hosted three such matches within five days this week, and whilst one went with type and ultimately ended in heartbreak, the others cocked a snook at conformity, with one delivering a seven goal victory which rewrote the record books and the other ending in promotion and a three goal margin.
Bognor Regis Town have been one of this seasons Non League success stories. Semi-Finalists in the FA Trophy, The Rocks ended the season in second place in the Ryman Premier Division, one point behind Hampton and Richmond Borough and with six consecutive victories. That achievement should not be understated, as fixture congestion caused by their unprecedented success led to them playing three matches a week for much of March and April. Three consecutive defeats to Enfield Town, Dulwich Hamlet and Kingstonian over a five day period ultimately cost them the title, but they rallied and would actually have taken the spoils had Enfield Town managed to defeat The Beavers on the final day of the season.
Bognor’s opponents in the Semi-Final were Dulwich Hamlet. The pink and blue army had once again been delivered a season filled with maddening inconsistency; defeat at Needham Market last weekend would have meant them missing out on the play-offs had Enfield got that victory. Yet Hamlet, for all of their finishing thirteen points behind the Rocks, perhaps had a psychological advantage- they’d beaten their opponents both home and away. Actually, they perhaps had a second advantage, too, more physical in nature. This was Bognor’s sixty-fifth competitive match of the season, their nineteenth since the start of last month. You’d almost expect them to turn up in an ambulance.
Debates about fixture congestion continued at Nywood Lane prior to kick off, and little wonder. In a week where Manuel Pellegrini was once again complaining that scheduling issues were hampering his side as they hope to win the Champions League, how must Jamie Howell be feeling? In Non-League circles cup fixtures have always taken precedence, and cup success almost seems to be punished as the FA and those who run the various Leagues have yet to find a system which allows for a contingency. From a Sussex perspective this is becoming more and more of an issue; last season Burgess Hill Town were lucky enough to have a large points cushion at the top of Ryman South before stumbling over the line exhausted- yet their cup exploits ended in January, Bognor’s in mid March. Something needs to be done, as it isn’t fair on players or supporters. Surely allowing for a two-week extension wouldn’t cause the entire world to implode?
Almost from kick off on Thursday night it seemed as if the results of their endeavours had finally caught up with The Rocks. The side that Howell has built has a reputation for free flowing football, with neat passing and clever movement as well as a tendency to break from deep at speed. Hamlet had been set up to counter this, so the first half was a cagey affair and apart from a penalty shout in the twenty fifth minute when Jason Prior seemed to be fouled around ten yards from goal the match was without major incident, with the home side looking a shadow of their former selves, slow to get out of defence, even slower to support the attack. It took Hamlet forty-five minutes to realise that they were half a yard quicker than their opponents, but once manager Gavin Rose picked up on that and responded accordingly the match opened up, with the South Londoners in the ascendency.
For the first fifteen minutes of the second half, and to the delight of their supporters noisily drumming behind the goal, Dulwich launched wave after wave of attacks. Clunis and Akinyemi were particularly prominent, the former shooting into the side netting whilst the latter should have done better with a shot which ended up failing to really test Grant Smith in the home goal. But you felt that if a goal was coming, it would be to the away side; which was why it was almost a surprise when a fairly rare Bognor foray brought a penalty. With fifteen minutes to go Alfie Rutherford was upended in the box, and up stepped Jason Prior.
Prior has undoubtedly been The Rocks player of the season; indeed, you could argue that he’s been the best player in the League. On this occasion, however, he was, like his teammates, struggling. His workload couldn’t be faulted, but his usual touch was lacking, and as he placed the ball on the spot a wave of apprehension swept over the Nye Camp. He hit the ball cleanly, but it was straight down the middle and keeper Preston Edwards was able to save with his legs, conceding a corner to the congratulations of those in pink and blue. Dulwich once more took the game to the home side, winning a succession of corners but without forcing a breakthrough, and it seemed as if extra time was a certainty. Then came late drama- and Bognor heartbreak.
If any player looked likely to score it was Akinyemi. If his finishing had matched his approach play he’d have had two already before the match slipped into added time, but undaunted he went on another run at the Rocks defence which was ended just outside the box, bringing a yellow card for Craig Robson. Ashley Carew placed the ball, took a couple of glances at the wall set up to stop him, and then beautifully curled the ball around it into the net, with Grant Smith stranded. Cue pandemonium behind Smith’s goal and resignation amongst the home fans. The best team had won the match, but what a cruel way to end such a successful season. Heartbroken Rocks players deserved the sympathy and adulation heaped upon them by the home supporters, but you wouldn’t have wanted to be a Ryman League official at Nyewood Lane on Thursday night.
Two days earlier -and sixteen miles down the coast- Worthing and their supporters had experienced rather different emotions, slamming seven goals without reply against Hythe Town to set two Ryman League Play-Off records; most goals scored and biggest margin of victory. It seems that pressure didn’t weigh heavy on such young shoulders.
The rise of Worthing has been one of the Non League success stories of the last eighteen months. Teetering on the cusp of bankruptcy many of their senior players left to seek pastures new (and a guaranteed wage), leading to a collection of youth team players being thrust into the spotlight, only to prove they were better than those who had departed. Also into the void came new owner George Dowell, a young former player tragically paralysed in a road accident, and the club is beginning to be unrecognisable from that which he inherited, both on and off the pitch. New 3G pitch, refurbished facilities, vastly improved catering, funds already in place to refurbish the imposing but slightly decrepit grandstand over the summer, crowds almost double what they were and below only those of Guernsey, it’s difficult to find a negative; although, if pushed, a PA system which makes the announcer sound like he’s drowning in cold custard whilst wearing a balaclava helmet is surely worth a mention.
The Rebels simply destroyed Hythe. Powerful running, pin-point passing and a collection of sublime performances left their Kentish visitors chasing thin air for much of the match as their opponents toyed with them, looking to score almost at will. Tormentors-in-chief were Omar Bugiel and Brighton loanee Jordan Maguire-Drew.
On any other day Bugiel would have been the star of the evening. His control of the midfield was almost total, his running, passing and movement quite sublime- yet even he was to be overshadowed by the sheer quality of his midfield colleague. Maguire-Drew demonstrated a touch and awareness which had Hythe bamboozled the entire evening, as well as scoring two goals which were worthy of the admission price on their own. His first, and Worthing’s second, came in the 19th minute. A corner was partially cleared to the edge of the box, and despite the presence of onrushing defenders the ball was first controlled before being sent curling towards the top corner of the net; a moment of rare beauty which led to gasps of delight from those home fans stationed behind the dugouts. They had much more reason to be delighted as the evening went on, particularly as Maguire-Drew scored his second, curling a beautiful free kick into the net to put his side six goals up with eight minutes to go.
Their opponents in the Ryman South Play-Off Final on Saturday, Faversham Town, promised to be a much harder nut to crack. They had also beaten Hythe, in the final match of the season, and whilst they hadn’t been able to equal Worthing’s seven goal haul they had thrashed four without reply, before travelling to Dorking Wanderers and recording a 2-1 victory in their own play-off semi final. The people of Worthing had turned out in droves to support their team, with queues snaking down Woodside Road in both directions even forty five minutes prior to kick off, and they were undoubtedly hoping that their team could pick up where they had left off on Tuesday night. In this they were to be disappointed, although by the end of the match the style of play mattered little, only the result was important and the result was positive- although far less comprehensive than the scoreline might suggest.
For five minutes Faversham demonstrated that they were not here to make up the numbers, competing fiercely. In the sixth minute, however, a Brannon O’Neil corner was curled in from the right, keeper Will Godman flapped at the ball and missed, and the Assistant standing behind O’Neill waved his flag to signify that the ball had crossed the line. A goal lacking any of the panache that Worthing had exhibited earlier in the week, but a goal nonetheless.
Faversham failed to panic. They’d gone behind at Dorking yet won the game, and they weren’t short on confidence. A shot from Daniel Carrington was deflected for a corner, Liam King and Luke Harvey were putting the centre-backs under pressure, whilst Charley Robertson charged up and down the left wing. Then, just as you began to feel that Worthing might concede an equaliser, fate- or, in this case, referee Gary Maskell- took a hand. Harvey charged forward with the ball before being felled by right back Will Hendon, and the two then engaged in a pushing match. Hendon was given a yellow card- whether for the foul or the pushing it was difficult to tell- but Mr Maskell decided, for reasons the rest of us couldn’t fathom and to the delight of the home support, to flourish a red card at Harvey. Referees have a difficult job, and perhaps there was something that those of us standing on the sidelines missed, but whatever his reasons the game ended as a contest the moment the card was shown. Five minutes later Worthing were two up, when another Faversham failure to defend a set piece allowed player-manager Gary Elphick to bundle the ball over the line at the far post, and it remained 2-0 at the half time whistle.
The second half started with Worthing spraying the ball around in the manner of their earlier victory, but Faversham soon wrestled possession back and never looked like crumbling the way of their Kentish neighbours. In Charley Robertson they had the stand-out player of the afternoon, but with a man short they didn’t ever really look like getting back into the game, and in the sixty-ninth minute the Rebels effectively ended the contest. Striker Ben Pope’s shot was deflected, and with the away side yelling for an offside (it wasn’t), Jordan Maguire-Drew got in front of the home defence, and hammered the ball home before celebrating with the fans behind the goal. This could well be Maguire-Drew’s last appearance in a Rebels shirt. If so he has served them admirably, and will be remembered with great affection whilst he pursues the professional career his talents undoubtedly deserve.
A penalty four minutes later gave Faversham the chance to restore some pride, but in a moment summing up their entire afternoon home keeper Rikki Banks made a fabulous save to keep it out. After that the focus was all on the home support, who kept encroaching the barriers behind the Faversham goal despite being repeatedly asked not to, waved their shoes in the air (“shoes off, if you love Worthing…”) and sung songs about how they were ‘coming for Bognor Regis.’ The party was ready to start, and indeed many fans were on the pitch immediately the final whistle blew, before then encroaching on the trophy presentation in great numbers, at which point the announcer just gave up and let them get on with it.
Before the season George Dowell spoke of a five year plan to reach the National League South. As he was mobbed by the home supporters after the match, his face a picture of self-conscious embarrassment as they sung his name in joy, the first stage of this plan was complete; and if the club can keep hold of a decent proportion of the eighteen hundred and eighty-nine who attended when they start life in the Ryman Premier, the next stage shouldn’t be beyond them either. The Worthing revolution seems not only to be on track, but to be in very good hands indeed.
Published on in Steps 3-6.