This time last year Haywards Heath Town were celebrating becoming champions of Southern Combination Football League Division One. At the other end of the table, with fewer points than they had players, Saltdean United were holding up the rest. The season ended with only the usual Sussex FA tinkering saving them from relegation. The facilities were awful, and even fielding a team had become difficult. The Tigers looked to be an endangered species.
Fast forward twelve months, and the world seemed to have turned full circle- both on and off the pitch. Beat Seaford Town on April Fools Day and promotion to the SCFL Premier Division would be confirmed with two matches still to play, allowing the celebrations to start for the players in their refurbished changing room and for the supporters in their shiny new clubhouse. Undefeated since 10th December, nobody was about to bet against The Tigers clinching the required three points. But for all the neutrals looking in, the contrast between this season and last perhaps needs some explanation.
The rebirth of Saltdean has not been without controversy. There has undoubtedly been some jealousy in Sussex football circles regarding this season’s progress. Claims that The Tigers are overspending have surfaced fairly regularly, and indeed the investment is clear to see, with club chief sponsors K&S Construction becoming significant partners. But that should not be looked at in isolation. The work done by new manager Damion Freeman, coach Jason Deacon and secretary Kevin Ratcliffe (not to be mistaken for the robust former Everton skipper, although he could probably kick you in the ankle quite vigorously if asked) over the last year should not be understated. Sleeves had been rolled up, contacts called in, blood, sweat and tears expended. This hadn’t simply been an exercise in spending; the side has a number of players who have performed at a higher level, but generally only one level higher. Top scorer Andy McDowell was enticed from Division One rivals Southwick. Almost all of the refurbishment work was done by club staff and supporters.
Saltdean are hardly a south coast Chelsea. Indeed, they don’t even resemble a seaside Billericay Town.
Saturday 1st April dawned bright and warm, and a much larger crowd than usual turned up at Hill Park. Success undoubtedly attracts the casual supporter, and those casual supporters were out in force, abandoning their cars willy-nilly at both sides of the single track road that leads to the ground in such a way that it was lucky that nobody needed to summon the emergency services. Although by half time it looked as if the Seaford keeper was in danger of a coronary, so worked up was he by the events of the previous forty-five minutes.
Programmes had sold out more than fifteen minutes prior to kick off. Non League dogs and Non League babies jostled by the perimeter barrier in a competition to see who could make the most unwelcome noise. The queue at the bar was two deep, whilst a number of supporters were admiring the framed shirt donated by former Tiger (as well as Eagle, Lion and Phoenix) Paul Ifill. The man who collected balls kicked out of the ground had got his piece of scaffolding pole ready in case one got stuck in a tree (it took one minute). Groundhoppers commented on the quality of the burgers and the quality of the view. It was a perfect day for football, and all we needed now was the perfect end.
The home side looked rather nervous. This was perhaps understandable, as there was a lot of expectation on their shoulders, and they’d lost their last match against today’s opponents, Seaford Town. Their nerves lasted approximately four minutes. A ball to the edge of the box found striker Ashley Rees, and he was allowed to move into the area before finishing with aplomb. Two minutes later and Rees had his second, Town keeper Ben Head fumbling a corner and allowing a simple tap in.
Seaford went into the match in thirteenth place; not mathematically free of relegation worries but extremely unlikely to be caught. On that basis they had nothing really to play for, yet for the entire first half they played as if they had the weight of the world upon their shoulders. Not one shot troubled Saltdean keeper Banks; indeed only on one occasion did they manage to string three passes together. The home fans and the neutrals may have turned up expecting to see the home side win promotion, but they undoubtedly also expected that the Tigers would have to work for it. For forty-five minutes they hardly had to break sweat.
Andy McDowell, who apparently isn’t the same bloke who went off with Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, had already found the back of the net thirty two times before this match. His side looked to get the ball to him quickly, and a number of long clearances found him up against and generally beating the Town defence. It seemed only a matter of time until he added to his tally, and indeed it was a surprise that it took him until the twenty sixth minute, when he was on hand to fire home after Rees was denied his hat trick by the width of the bar. United’s fourth goal, on 34 minutes, was a bit of a fluke, when a cross from full back Danny Turner went over the heads of both attackers and defenders before dropping into the net at the far post. Three minutes later the Seaford defence gave McDowell so much time to control the ball at the edge of the box that he would have been able to film a commercial for L’Oreal, but instead he contented himself with shooting past keeper Head to make it five.
As half time approached, Tigers skipper Craig Hall was heard to take issue with a colleague who had decided- sin of sins- to run with the ball instead of passing it. “You can’t run on this pitch,” he yelled, “it’s like a f****** minefield!” We waited for an explosion, but instead the referee blew his whistle and the half was at an end without any casualties. As, in reality, was the match. Seaford keeper Head, catching the eye of a club official as he left the field, was disconsolate. “I can only apologise for that first half performance,” he said, his face a shade of puce. To be fair to him, second goal apart, it had not been his fault; he’d simply been a spectator whilst his colleagues forgot to compete.
The second half had all the intensity of a supermarket value brand coffee. Seaford, particularly their number nine, Nane Boah, tried to look as if they were actually awake, whilst the Tigers moved the ball around without threatening too much. Scott Marshall, formerly of Crawley Town and Haywards Heath amongst others, attempted to change that by charging towards goal and lining up a shot, but he waited far too long before pulling the trigger allowing a defender to steal the ball from his toes. At which point he blamed teammate Turner for not warning him of the approach of the opposition, describing him angrily as “a little rat.”
Marshall, as a callow youth, once managed to earn a red card in two consecutive matches whilst playing at the Broadfield Stadium. It was good to see that, whilst he had aged, he hadn’t mellowed all that much.
The referee, silver fox Kevin Dawson, then took centre stage. Town substitute Dan Colvill, newly arrived on the pitch, made his mark within thirty seconds with a truly awful foul on Hall. The home skipper hit the ground hard, having presumably first checked for explosive devices, and seemed to be in considerable pain. Colvill had undoubtedly been attempting to play the ball; the problem was that he hadn’t got within two feet of it. The debate on the touchline was whether the card would be yellow or red, so it was extremely surprising when no card at all was produced, and this incensed a number of the home players as well as their coaching staff. Dawson waved away all protests and then quickly cleared the area, as Hall was helped off. It transpired that he felt the challenge had “done my ligaments.”
The match came to and end without further incident, and indeed despite a raft of substitutions and a number of stoppages, without a single second of added time; it seemed the referee was as underwhelmed by the second half as the rest of us. A few bottles of fizzy wine emerged, and The Tigers celebrated; a celebration which was undoubtedly well deserved.
With two matches to go Saltdean remain in second place, a point behind also-promoted East Preston. Which of the sides will do better in the Premier Division next season remains to be seen; you’d have to think that the Tigers perhaps have the greater strength- or the financial ability to pay for it. But, for now, it is time to reflect on the difference twelve months can make.
From the bottom of the table to promotion within a year. That’s some Tiger feat!
Published on in Steps 3-6.