It’s the 25th April 2015. A thick sea fret rises up over Telscombe cliffs and forms a shroud over the Sports Park, where the home side is going through its Isthmian Premier League death throes, turning a two goal lead into a four-two defeat and confirming relegation after only one season at Step Three. Alan Dowson’s Hampton and Richmond Borough were just at the start of an adventure which has since seen them promoted to the National League South, whilst supporters of Peacehaven and Telscombe were struggling to recall the unprecedented heights of twelve months earlier; and, indeed, struggling to recognise any of the players in black and white in front of them. Another year on saw a further relegation confirmed, with the Magpies tumbling back to the County League (now the Southern Combination Football League, as nobody calls it) with mounting debts; another club to add to the list of those who spent beyond their means to gain success before seeing their empire crash down around their ears, their very existence under threat. Yet, just perhaps, there may still be a future for football in Peacehaven, as supporters attempt to take the club into community ownership.
Peacehaven, a short bus ride along the coast from the city of Brighton and Hove, is rather an unlikely setting for a football club. A small and relatively attractive but otherwise unremarkable town, the club suffers from its proximity not only to Brighton & Hove Albion FC but also to Lewes, Whitehawk and- to a lesser extent- Newhaven, as last season’s attendances demonstrated. An average of one hundred and ten hardy souls passed through the turnstiles at the newly spruced up Sports Park, with a low of only twenty-seven turning up for the visit of Walton Casuals in October. Success didn’t bring the football loving folk of East Sussex to Piddinghoe Avenue, with not even two successive league championships and a Sussex Senior Cup victory allowing the club to break even, so it should not be a surprise that two seasons of disaster after costs were slashed to the bone should see further decline and an outstanding debt of sixty thousand pounds.
Chief amongst those attempting to put things right is ex-Mancunian Mike Bradbury, who has joined the Magpies interim board in the hope of resurrecting his local club after also being a founder member of FC United of Manchester some years previously (to the chagrin of his Manchester United supporting parents). Mike, who has lived in the town since 2001 and been involved in Youth football as well as watching Peacehaven & Telscombe for a number of years, is quite optimistic that the club can be saved, as well as fairly sympathetic towards the previous regimes who built up the debt.
“The club had won the County League a record number of times, and on the last occasion in 2010 the decision was taken that it should accept promotion and try to progress. They’d always refused it previously, but the board thought that they could make it work this time. Sadly they soon found out that they just couldn’t afford it.” The main problem, it seems, was the ground improvements required by the Isthmian League. “To be forced to put in two hundred extra seats when your entire crowd isn’t that many to begin with doesn’t seem sensible, but we had to do it.” That cost, coupled with the additional expenses necessary to compete at a higher level put the club on a slippery slope, and after another season of runaway success in Isthmian Division One South and a Sussex Senior Cup victory the wheels finally came off with the club in mid table in the Isthmian Premier. Manager Shaun Saunders resigned, costs were dramatically cut, and the majority of the first team squad left for pastures new (and a guaranteed pay packet). The slide began almost immediately, and as yet has not been arrested.
The catalyst for change has come mainly from the Youth setup. “There are sixteen teams- three hundred and ten players- involved in Youth football at Peacehaven, and a lot of the fans are involved too. If nothing was done there was a grave danger that we’d lose our club and our facilities, so a few months ago a number of us decided we needed to get together and do something about it- before we were left with only park football.”
Since the announcement on May 5th that the fans were looking to set up a Community Benefit Society, around fourteen thousand pounds has been raised. That’s around half of the minimum total required if the club is to follow the lead of nearby Lewes FC and move into community ownership. The new club would be an amalgamation of Peacehaven and Telscombe FC, Mid Sussex Premier Peacehaven United, and Peacehaven and Telscombe FC Youth, who are currently all run as separate entities. Perhaps in anticipation of success the manager of United, Mark Shutt, has recently been appointed as the Magpies first team manager with a brief to focus on youth development, with a realisation that this is the only way to bring the club sustainable success.
As Mike explains, that sustainability is all important. “We can’t afford to pay players so we need to bring through our own, and we need to get the club debt free over the next three years. We thought the best way to do that would be to bring all three clubs together; although first we need to raise the money required to take ownership, and I’m not sure there’s a plan B, to be honest. It’s not going to be easy, and realistically we need to be over the line by the 30th June, but there are a lot of people working hard to make it happen. We’ve had great support from Supporters Direct, too.”
It is more important than ever that the club engages with the local community. “We’re a town of seventeen thousand, and there is an interest in the football club and an identity with its history, but it’s really hard to get people into the ground on a matchday. People want the club to succeed, but we need to get them to put their hands in their pockets. Even when we were winning the double the attendances didn’t increase dramatically, but what might help is if we get some good local players into the first team and then look to grow organically.”
Peacehaven and Telscombe are now in the unenviable position of having Isthmian Premier League quality facilities and- assuming all goes well- Step Five football to look forward to. It may be fair to argue that achieving the former led to the latter but, whatever the reasons, the climb back looks to be rather steep. That said, with the enthusiasm and commitment of supporters like Mike Bradbury behind them, the climb may be slow but the summit is certainly not beyond reach.
For more information on the Peacehaven & Telscombe Community Benefit Society- and for an application form- please visit www.peacehavenfc.co.uk
The original version of this article appeared in the Non League Paper on Sunday 29th May 2016.
Published on in Steps 3-6.