The car park at AFC Uckfield Town was full almost fifty minutes before the start of their match with Peacehaven and Telscombe. Perhaps, for once, the side with the lowest average gate in the entire Southern Combination Premier would see a sizeable turnout.
Ten minutes before kick off, however, The Oaks still held only seven spectators. There were almost more flags than people. The bar was busy, but by the time referee Carl Smith held the whistle to his lips, the crowd was still significantly short of fifty. And thereby hangs a tale; a tale not peculiar to Uckfield, but one which will undoubtedly hold the club back in the future.
Uckfield is a relatively prosperous East Sussex town of just fewer than sixteen thousand people. It has a railway station which sends one train per hour in the vague direction of London, on the odd occasion that Southern Rail are not on strike, and assuming that a tree has not decided to fall on the single track. It is famous for very little, unless you count the last known sighting of Lord Lucan and the recent emergence of Brit Award winning Rag’n’Bone Man.
Up until 2014 the town had two football teams; Uckfield Town, who played on the Victoria Pleasure Grounds a short walk from the town centre, and AFC Uckfield, who had previously been known as Wealden FC and played at The Oaks. In August 2014 the two teams merged to form AFC Uckfield Town, and the new club chose to adopt The Oaks as its home. This may have seemed a logical decision, and indeed, on the surface it was. The Oaks is undoubtedly a far better facility than the Pleasure Grounds, and, indeed, it’s a perfectly reasonable stadium for this level- fully enclosed, with two small stands, a neat little clubhouse and a small car park. However it has one big problem.
It’s in the middle of nowhere.
At the time of the merger, and as quoted in the match programme, the chairman of the new club commented that they were ‘now looking for the people of Uckfield to get behind this new chapter of football in Uckfield.’ An average crowd of thirty-seven during this current season may suggest that this plea has fallen on deaf ears, but to be fair the people of Uckfield perhaps have a reasonable excuse. It’s all well and good for an established, well supported club to relocate to the back of beyond, but neither AFC or Town fitted this description. If you were a resident of the town and now wanted to watch your home side, you’d really only have one choice in how to get there- by car. The ground is a mile and a half from the town centre and part of that walk would be down relatively busy and usually unlit country roads with a very narrow footpath- hardly a route you’d want to take on a dark winters evening unless you were particularly dedicated. So you drive, only to find that- if you can find the ground at all (the only indication it is there is a sign on the side of a bus stop, it’s hidden behind an Indian Restaurant)- the car park is full of players and officials vehicles three quarters of an hour before kick-off and you end up abandoning your vehicle on a grass verge in the hope that nobody will give you a ticket.
All of which is rather a shame, because setting aside these difficulties there’s a great deal to like and much that would recommend a return visit. The natives are friendly, the bar comfortable- although perhaps lacking a tv- and, on this evidence anyway, the football is rather entertaining. Although, this season anyway, not yet particularly successful.
This was a rather important match. Before kick-off the home side were two places and three points above the drop zone. Their opponents, the newly fan-owned Magpies, were one place and one point below them. Neither side was in particularly good form. Uckfield went into this match after two defeats; an expected thrashing by league leaders Shoreham last weekend being preceded by a disastrous home defeat to fellow relegation candidates Wick. Peacehaven had attempted to match them by conceding four goals in two consecutive games; to Crawley Down Gatwick and Broadbridge Heath. Neither side could really afford to lose this game.
It took only four minutes for Uckfield to go ahead. Scott Taylor, formerly of Newhaven and Crowborough Athletic and in tremendous form of late, with five goals during the last five weeks, had started the match at top speed and had already had one shot saved before he received the ball on the edge of the box and fired it towards goal. Away keeper Laurence Sanded looked to be going the right way but the ball took a wicked deflected which wrong footed him- and his defence- completely, before finding its way into the corner of the net. This woke the Haven faithful, who formed more than half of the crowd and had brought a drum to liven up proceedings, and before long they were loudly advising the assembled throng that Tescombe cliffs were wonderful, on account of them having ‘a pub, a garage and a Wimpy.’
It would seem that they’d be rather cheap dates, if anyone is looking for a man who can sing almost in tune whilst playing a drum almost in time.
The away bench was similarly lively, if rather less musical. Indeed, so violently did they object to almost every decision that Mr Smith or his assistants gave against their team that it almost seemed like they’d been replaced by the audience from the Jeremy Kyle show. The referee might have been attempting to defend a boyfriend who had cheated on his pregnant fiancé with an illegal immigrant, such was their ire. That said, perhaps they just sounded loud because their bench was fully occupied. Uckfield had listed three substitutes but one of them, Craig Norman, was already on the pitch although nobody seemed to know why. Mind you, Peacehaven’s starting eleven included a number twenty so perhaps some shirts had shrunk in the wash? You don’t normally get players with squad numbers at this level.
The away side were soon back in the game. They had their own impressive forward, Josh Marshall, and it was a beautiful flick from him in the thirteenth minute that send new signing Sid Adams haring down the left wing. Adams sent a cross to the front post and found the arriving Curtis Ford, who managed to fire home between keeper James Firman and the woodwork. The ball was hit extremely hard, and the criticism that Firman received for letting it past him at the near post seemed a little unfair. Perhaps some members of his side had been spending far too much time listening to the punditry of Robbie Savage; certainly, they were so animated that the referee took the time to tell them to calm down before signalling the restart.
Peacehaven could have gone ahead four minutes later, another Marshall flick setting up Ford with a bouncing ball on the edge of the box, but on this occasion Ford could only hook the ball over the bar as Uckfield defenders converged. This miss seemed as if it could be costly shortly afterwards, as Uckfield pressure saw Norman get to the ball in the Haven box just before Adams. Although moving away from goal, Adams stuck out a leg, Norman tripped over it, and the referee pointed to the spot before booking the Haven man. The booking seemed rather harsh, as Adams was genuinely attempting to reach the ball, but the decision to award the spot kick was undoubtedly fair and Taylor once more put the ball in the net, doubling his own and his side’s tally.
With Taylor at the centre of everything Uckfield could have gone further ahead in the twenty third minute, his neat pass playing in Norman down the right for a cross-shot which beat both defence and keeper but went the wrong side of the far post. At the other end Ford came close to an equaliser, claiming a bouncing ball for which he was clearly second favourite and forcing an excellent save from Firman. The match then became a little scrappy, with both sides looking dangerous on the break whilst a little nervous at the back, unsurprisingly given their goals-against column.
The equaliser came with the half time whistle approaching, and it brought with it more controversy- although this time it was the Uckfield bench, and indeed the rest of their team, who were disgruntled. A long throw from Frazer Massen saw defender Sam Cooper rise with Ford, and the defender was first to the ball but seemed unbalanced. It was difficult to see whether the ball came off his head or his arm, but the referee seemed sure and pointed to the spot, whilst Cooper claimed he had been pushed. He may well have been, and both he and team mate Bailo Camara were booked for their protests, but all that mattered was the score and Marshall stepped up to level that, sending the keeper the wrong way. “Every challenge, every decision is a drama,” came a voice from the crowd. He wasn’t wrong. The Peacehaven choir didn’t care, however. By this point they were busy trying to rhyme ‘Shutty’ (Team Manager Mark Shutt) with ‘Chapatti.’ Rag’n’Bone Man, if you’re looking in, this is how it’s done.
The second half started with the home side again on top, and indeed this characterised most of the next forty five minutes, but despite their possession they had few real attempts, often resorting to crosses which Haven keeper Sanded claimed perfectly- and loudly. Generally before drop-kicking the ball out of play. Taylor continued to look his sides most likely source of a breakthrough, and his teammates tended to look for him, not always successfully. At one point Town’s number seven, Tom Bold, sent a hopeful pass down the wing into space that nobody was occupying, before declaring, emphatically, “That’s a f****** good ball.” Nobody else seemed to think so, but it was nice to see someone so proud of their work.
A shot from Taylor forced a good save from Sanded in the sixty-ninth minute, before the clearance found the home defence flat-footed and Marshall in the clear, however although he toe poked the ball past the onrushing keeper he also poked it past the post. The diminutive striker almost made up for this miss in the eighty-first minute when his free kick beat the wall before being punched clear by Firman, but then three minutes later came his breakthrough, when a further clearance saw him outpace the home defence and hook it past the keeper into the net. Uckfield looked stunned, but for all their dominance Haven had always looked dangerous, and nobody should have been particularly surprised.
Haven then decided to play for time. They certainly had plenty of time to play for, as the referee decided to add on an entire nine minutes. The home side applied more pressure and managed to look far more dangerous than they had for the entire half, and attempts from Camara and Shaun Loft had to be frantically cleared. There was also time for Haven substitute Sam Nelson to attempt a tackle so late that Ant Storey, the unlucky recipient, was almost in the shower before it connected. But the game eventually came to an end with no further goals scored.
Peacehaven and Telscombe have followed up two years of enormous financial struggle and two relegations by struggling again this season. But there is an entirely different feel about the club these days as they are now entirely fan owned, and despite some terrible results the supporters have been spreading their new-found optimism far and wide, earning the gratitude of their team and bringing laughter and admiration from even opposition fans. That they have considerably the largest average crowd in the league despite their on-field struggles is perhaps the best advert for supporter owned football clubs you are ever likely to see- despite their dubious taste in burger restaurants. This result takes them to the heady heights of fourteenth place, five points clear of the drop zone.
AFC Uckfield Town now find themselves three points clear of relegation having played a game more- and with a worse goal difference- than third bottom Arundel. There seems enough talent on the field for them to have some hope of avoiding the trap door, but in the long run they are faced with a bigger problem. How do they get the community to come out and support them when that community is somewhat geographically isolated from the club?
With an average crowd of thirty seven prior to this match, and with most of the attendance again made up of away supporters, you’d have to think that this must be troubling the minds of those who occupy the boardroom on the Old Eastbourne Road.
Published on in Steps 3-6.