Until this season it was unlikely that even the most ardent football fan would have heard of Burgess Hill Town. Indeed, there was little chance they’d even have heard of the town itself, never mind it’s football team; unless perhaps they’d picked up on the jibes made about it by former Mid Sussex resident Richard Osman on Pointless, or were particularly interested in the life and times of Holly Willoughby or Andy Murray’s fiancé, Kim Sears, both of whom were privately educated there. Over the last few months, however, the exploits of its football team have begun to put the town on the map.
This season Burgess Hill Town have seemingly come from nowhere to win the Ryman Isthmian South title with four matches to spare. That they have done so without losing a league match until 18th March, and in conjunction with lengthy cup runs during which they disposed of Conference Premier Aldershot Town and Conference South Sutton United- on their own grounds- is even more remarkable. Last weekend they reached a magnificent 105 points- with another 12 still to play for- with a 2-0 victory at Carshalton Athletic. If they have looked a little weary of late, that shouldn’t be a surprise; so far they have played 62 competitive matches, and when you consider that they have done this with a core squad of only 18 players, a considerable number of whom were playing for the Youth Team little more than a year ago, that achievement is even more startling.
Back in the summer, when Guernsey and Folkestone Invicta were being tipped for the title, the Hillians were being talked of as a good outside bet for the playoffs. The previous season had seen them finish sixth, just outside the play off positions and the highest league position in their history, their play off charge thwarted by foul winter weather that played havoc with their passing game. It’s fair to say that their success this season wasn’t expected, even by the stalwarts at the Green Elephants stadium (formerly Leylands Park), but what is also notable is that this success has been untainted by the usual jealousy from fans of their title rivals. For it has been built on youth, not on money.
Former Brighton & Hove Albion defender Ian Chapman became manager of an underachieving Burgess Hill Town in 2012. A few years earlier they’d almost gone out of business, being threatened with a winding up order by the local council for non payment of rent, and were stumbling from one financial crisis to another. The off the field chaos had been repaired by a new board and a collection of hard working volunteers, but the playing squad were generally mediocre and certainly not attracting the attention of the football watching population of the town, most of whom preferred a trip to London or Brighton on a Saturday afternoon. Affable, undemonstrative and hard working, Chapman and his coaching team set about transforming the youth setup and the playing style, with enormous success. Around half of the core squad this season graduated from the youth team- who, incidentally, have like their senior counterparts been virtually unstoppable so far this season. A Chapman protégé, Greg Luer, was signed by Hull City in January and is now hitting the back of the net regularly for their development squad, after scoring sixteen goals for the Hillians before leaving; including two in the defeat of Sutton United. Another first team regular, 18 year old Will Miles, has already been for a trial with Premier League Stoke City, and don’t be surprised if striker Lee Harding is the next to attract attention. The foundations look solid.
Whether the team will thrive in the Ryman Isthmian Premier next season remains to be seen. Chapman has already suggested he’ll need to supplement his squad with an experienced defender, midfielder and striker if they are to push on, and that will mean a significant increase in the wage budget. But with crowds up almost 50% over the last two seasons, cash from this years cup success and the transfer of Luer in the bank, and a collection of new young prospects pushing for a start, there is real hope for the future. Another promotion might be a dream too far, but at this point you can’t blame the fans for dreaming; after all, the impossible has already been made possible.
Article previously featured by Non League Daily
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