A few hours before Worthing FC’s first pre-season friendly, and you’d have expected owner George Dowell to sound a little stressed, given his hectic summer. Little over two months had passed since The Rebels had last kicked a ball in anger, and during that period he had overseen the replacement of the Woodside Road pitch with a 3G surface, revamped the catering facilities to provide a café/bar which will operate seven days a week throughout the year, and set up a new company- Worthing Football Centre- to run the entire facility. He’d also had to find a new manager, after Adam Hinshelwood’s sudden departure to coach Brighton and Hove Albion Under 18’s, and preside over a successful Crowdfunder appeal to renovate the main stand. Yet as he awaited the arrival of League Two Northampton Town and the opening of that new pitch, he was decidedly upbeat.
“I can’t wait for the season to start,” he exclaimed. “Everything is positive, and the squad is looking good.”
Worthing ended last season as the form team in Isthmian South, narrowly missing out on the playoffs. Highly fancied to do well in the forthcoming season, preparations must have been derailed somewhat by Hinshelwood’s resignation? “It was a shock, certainly, but we couldn’t stand in Adam’s way. He did a fantastic job last season, delivering exceptional results despite having no budget and a young team, but this was such a good opportunity for him to get back into full time football. He left with our blessing. John and Gary (Meeney and Elphick, new co-managers) are happy with the squad they’ve got, pre-season training is going well, and we’ve added some experience. It all bodes well for a successful season.”
Going back little more than four months, the idea that Worthing would have a five year plan to get into National League South would have seemed almost laughable. Two hundred thousand pounds in debt and with no playing budget whatsoever, they were struggling to survive and the future looked bleak. Cue the arrival of former player Dowell, and a change in both fortune and perspective. “Two promotions in five years should be realistic. It would get us to a level we’ve never reached before, but success will be dependent on growth. The new pitch will be available for hire seven days a week. The new café bar, which should be ready to serve food sometime next month, will also be open seven days a week, from nine in the morning until eleven at night. Woodside Road will be a real community facility. If we can get people here to play, and to use the other facilities, we hope that they will come back on a Saturday. We want to get parents and kids here to watch the Premier League on Sky, then to adopt us; if not as a first club, then as a second club.”
Given the amount of investment that Dowell is putting into the club, was he hoping for a bumper attendance for the opening pre-season friendly? He laughed. “Well, it’s costing me an awful lot of money and it’ll be nice to see some coming in!” But again, he was very positive. “We feel that the momentum is growing and that there is a good feeling in the town about the club. Attendances at the end of last season were on the up, and we’re confident that people will engage.” The recent Crowdfunding initiative, an attempt to raise fifteen thousand pounds to refurbish the rather decrepit main stand, is perhaps testament to this rising level of engagement, with fifty-seven backers providing the required funds. “We were a little surprised we did quite so well, but really grateful, it’s great. Now we have to get the work done. We haven’t scheduled anything yet; we’re getting a plan in place to make sure we do it properly, though it won’t be done for the start of the season.”
If the community embrace the new facility the outlook certainly will be positive for the football club, but the venture is undoubtedly a risk. Dowell, through his company Worthing Football Centre, effectively leases the ground. If all goes as planned the club will pay nothing to play on it, and will keep all of their gate receipts and other associated football related income. This should allow them to operate with a reasonable budget for their level, and perhaps even give the players a little remuneration for their efforts; a novelty after last season?
Dowell agreed. “Yes, it will be unusual for the players to think about being paid. They demonstrated great loyalty last year, and enormous credit should go to Adam for being able to keep hold of them all, and enabling a fabulous team spirit. Despite having many young players we weren’t often outplayed, but perhaps we got bullied occasionally. This season the more experienced heads we’ve brought in might help stop that.”
Before deciding on the 3G pitch, Dowell researched not only the business benefits but also thought about whether it would suit the team. This included a trip to last seasons Ryman Premier League Champions, Maidstone United. He was impressed by what he learned. “Maidstone explained that it took around half a season for their players to get used to the surface, and during that period there wasn’t a significant playing advantage. Afterwards, however, it enabled their passing game positively. We even tried to pass the ball on poor pitches last season, and as John and Gary want to play the same way and build from the back, the new pitch should be perfect for that. Hopefully, if we are playing attractive football the quality of entertainment will attract new fans.”
The quality of entertainment against Northampton Town certainly could not be faulted. An attacking and rather competitive game, despite both teams changing their entire starting eleven at half time, it was unlikely that anyone in the crowd left feeling short changed. The final score, which was 5-2 to The Cobblers, perhaps flattered the away team a little, but the most remarkable feature of the match was not the football, but the attendance. Around seven hundred and fifty fans turned up for the game; against an average of two hundred and fifty one last season.
It seems that the people of Worthing might well have been inspired by Dowell’s vision. And if that continues, then perhaps the future will turn out to be as bright as the new pitch!
Previously published by Non League Daily -without the photographs!
Published on in Steps 3-6.