It shouldn’t be difficult to recognise a Worthing FC fan at the moment. Red shirt, chewed fingernails, and a confused expression alternating between blind panic and amazed optimism. They probably can’t work out whether they are coming or going, or even what their final destination is meant to look like. Whilst their club has tangoed between mediocrity and financial disaster for a number of years, this season, even by their usual standards, has been exceptional both on and off the field. From hope to crisis and back to hope via tragedy, ambition and youthful promise, the Worthing FC story is one worth telling. Even though many of their supporters may want to watch it unfold from behind the sofa and only emerge when it’s finished.
With a population of upwards of 100,000 you might expect that the seaside town of Worthing would be more than capable of hosting a financially viable football team. Sadly, however, for a number of years now this has not been the case. In defence of the local populous it might be suggested that their football club has given them precious little to be excited about- two second place finishes in the Isthmian Premier League in the early 1980s apart- but one financial crisis has followed another. The resurgence of nearby Brighton & Hove Albion in recent years can’t have helped, either.
At the beginning of this season Worthing fans might finally have thought that there was cause for optimism. Yes, the team had only finished fifteenth in the Isthmian Division One South during the previous campaign, but there were signs that manager Adam Hinshelwood, the former Brighton defender who had taken over the helm just before Christmas 2013, was bringing together the blend of youth and experience required to finally make a push for promotion. The board reinforced these prospects by announcing they had increased the playing budget. What could go wrong?
Disappointingly, early results- magnificent cup victories over Guernsey and Dulwich Hamlet apart- didn’t back up this optimism. As November dawned they were in fifteenth place, and annoyingly inconsistent. Two much needed victories were followed by two defeats; and then came the bombshell. On 25th the board called a public meeting, at which they announced a two hundred thousand pound debt and an immediate cut in the playing budget to previous season levels. This was soon cut further- to zero. Whether you were a fan of the Rebels or an impartial observer, you had to fear for their future. It had been costing the club six thousand pounds a month to operate even before they thought about player wages. With two home matches a month and an average crowd of 213, it didn’t take an Einstein to calculate that those figures were unsustainable.
That the club was in crisis was undeniable. Experienced professionals shorn of their wages left the club, and youth came to the fore. Yet, remarkably, results improved. The team, younger and leaner than ever before, was seemingly drawn together by adversity. As the New Year dawned, Worthing were up to sixth place, just outside the play-off places. Those who watched the home draw with Three Bridges on 16th August would have only recognised half of the team that won the return fixture 6-2 in December. By 21st March the number of familiar starters would be down to four, and the team was still in sixth.
That their financial future is now secure is also rather remarkable. In 2010 Rebels youth player George Dowell was the victim of a devastating car crash that left him partially paralysed. Last year he became a committee member at nearby County League side Worthing United, and set up his own team, Worthing Borough, in the West Sussex League. When he realized that Worthing FC were in financial trouble he stepped in, took a majority shareholding, and will be investing in a 3G pitch which will be ready for next season and will allow the club to have a greatly increased income in the future. If his plans are supported by the community, there is a chance the club might just have a financially viable future. It certainly has an enthusiastic and highly driven owner.
The foundations are now in place to enable success on the field. The consistent form of Whyteleafe may have denied them the final play-off place this season, but if Hinshelwood can keep his squad together, there must be some likelihood that they can be next year’s Burgess Hill Town- indeed, they’ve just become only the second team this season to defeat the Champions. Keeping that squad together might be difficult, however. Striker Ben Pope has already had a trial for Stoke City and is reportedly being watched by a number of other League clubs. Harvey Sparks and Curtis Gayler have caught the attention of Swindon Town. It can only be a matter of time before Omar Bugiel and Will Hendon attract similar plaudits. But there are further young players coming through to replace any that go, and the manager and his coaching team seem confident of success.
Being a Rebels fan cannot ever have been easy. But, for once, the stars seem to have aligned, and the future can be faced with an unprecedented level of optimism. Time, perhaps, to come out from behind the sofa- and to persuade your friends and family to get off it- and get down to Woodside Road.
Article previously featured by Non League Daily
Published on in Steps 3-6.