the real fa cup

Worthing 4-2 Walton & H

Worthing 4-2 Walton & Hersham
FA Cup Preliminary Round, 29th August 2015

Shortly before three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, Woodside Road (or, if you prefer sponsored names, The Photronix Stadium) the understatedly suburban home of Worthing Football Club fell quiet for sixty seconds. The deaths of Matt Grimstone and Jacob Schilt in the Shoreham Airshow crash a week prior has touched a nerve across the whole of the twin counties of East & West Sussex. Matt may have played his football in the Southern Combination Football League for Worthing United, but he was a groundsman for Brighton & Hove Albion. Even closer to home, George Dowell, the majority shareholder of Worthing, was himself paralysed from the chest down in a road accident that occurred on the same road as the Shoreham accident, just a few miles away near Arundel.

At the time of Dowell’s accident, he was eighteen years old and had made a couple of appearances on the substituteís bench for Worthing. It was in March of this year that he took the plunge with Worthing, and his financial munificence has paid for a 3G surface which the club hopes will come to be a revenue generator in time, whilst other ground improvements, including a revamped bar under the main stand and new turnstiles, have given a ground that had fallen into some disrepair a new lease of life.

It’s all a far cry from November of last year, when the club confirmed that it had debts of almost £200,000 and would have to cut its wage bill to zero. At that time, it seemed more likely than anything else that the club would be forced to drop down a level or two from its current home in the Ryman League Division One South.

Worthing have had an inconsistent start to the new season, but this afternoon brings a break from the daily grind of the league for the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup. Well, almost. It is an inevitable quirk of its regionalisation that clubs are frequently drawn against teams from the same division during the early stages of the competition and this afternoon’s visitors, Walton & Hersham, have already played Worthing once already this season, in the league.

Walton have had a strong start to the season and are in fifth place in the table, but their only league defeat so far came in the first week of the season in a match played at Bognor Regis Town because Worthing’s home wasn’t quite ready to be used.

Walton & Hersham is a club with happy memories of at least one previous trip to Sussex in this competition. In November 1973, they held a Brighton & Hove Albion team, as things turned out briefly managed by Brian Clough, to a goalless draw at home before beating them by four goals to nil in a replay The Goldstone Ground.

The team’s manager that day was Allen Batsford, who would go a step further the following season when, as the manager of Wimbledon, his team beat First Division Burnley in the Third Round of the competition; and held Leeds United, who would end that season as the champions of England, to a draw in the Fourth Round at Elland Road before narrowly losing a replay which was switched to Selhurst Park. The Swans have never known such excitement again, aside from beating Yeovil Town, then of the Football Conference, in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the competition before losing at home to Swansea City in the First Round.

This match does a least grant me a debut, of sorts. Somehow or other, I’ve thus far missed out on the 3G pitch experience, but their use is certainly on the rise, and for obvious reasons. The cost of cancelled Saturday matches on account of inclement weather conditions can be a high one for non-league football clubs with limited budgets, and the varying bans on artificial pitches that have been in place for some time have come to look increasingly anachronistic as developments in the technology behind the pitches has gathered pace.

The story of Maidstone United’s battles with the FA to get approval to play at a higher level than the Premier Division of the Ryman League is a well told one, and the relaxation of the more onerous of these rules has led to a flurry of clubs getting them installed. Along with Worthing, Sutton United of the National League South and fellow Ryman League clubs AFC Sudbury, Carshalton Athletic, Whyteleafe, Carshalton Athletic, Harlow Town and the aforementioned Maidstone are just some of those who have made this great leap forward in pitch technology.

So, some first impressions, then. Worthing have gone for the somewhat rakish approach of leaving only the pitch as green, with the entirety of the surrounding area being red – or, it would be somewhat more accurate to say, ‘RED!’, such is its particularly lurid hue. For those of us who associate non-league football with dull greens and browns of a near-monochrome British winter, it’s somewhat surprising to see it for the first time.

Setting the aesthetics of it all to one side for a moment, however, it plays quite nicely – although there have been suggestions that such pitches can run a little slowly in warm weather – and the opening stages of this match suggest that having a high quality playing surface, which, with the best will in the world, isn’t always possible in the sort of budgets within which non-league clubs have to operate, seems to encourage players themselves to play a more expansive, attractive form of football from both teams.

This afternoon, it also brings us a flurry of goals. Worthing take an early lead with a header from player-joint-manager Gary Elphick, but Walton & Hersham react positively to the goal, draw level midway through the half from Harry Mills, and almost grab the lead a few minutes later when Shaquille McIntoshís shot is smartly saved by the venerable Worthing goalkeeper Rikki Banks.

This, however, proves to be just about the high point of the visitorsí afternoon. Worthing regain the lead when the Walton & Hersham goalkeeper Luke Badiali and defender Regan Mendes get themselves in a muddle and Omar Bugiel rolls the ball into the empty goal, and with eight minutes of the half left to play further slack defending allows Harvey Sparks the space to put a low shot across the face of goal to double Worthingís lead before half-time.

Things calm down a little in the second half. The half-time break – and, we might presume, reading of the Riot Act – seems to have done Walton & Hersham some good, and they play with a little more cohesion, pulling a goal back after twenty minutes with a second goal from McIntosh.

For a while, Worthing show a little of the skittishness that has punctuated their season so far, but with ten minutes to play the result is put beyond all reasonable doubt when Ben Pope heads in from close range to reopen their two goal lead.

For the home side the reward is £1,925 in prize money for getting through this round and a home match against Thamesmead Town in the next round of the competition. For Walton & Hersham, there’s only a trip back to Surrey to lick some wounds, regroup, and refocus on the Ryman League Division One South again.

In Worthing, in Shoreham-by-Sea and in Brighton as well as beyond, the flags will remain at half-mast, for now. Football, as a social construct, has a tendency to reflect all of life’s experiences along the full spectrum from good to bad and death, perhaps, is an inevitable part of this. Knowing this cannot dull the shock when it visits upon us, though.

Worthing United remained on hiatus last weekend, and will return to action in the FA Vase on Sunday with a match against East Preston which offers an opportunity for the club, its supporters, and the wider football community in Sussex to pay respect to those that died at Shoreham, on their way to a football match, doing, whether as players, officials or supporters, what we’ve all done hundreds or perhaps thousands of times, without ever having paused to think that this time could be the last time that we do it. It’ll understandably be small to those most closely affected, especially while feelings remain as raw as they must do today, but it is to be hoped that they can take some consolation from the sympathy expressed around them over the course of the last eight days or so.

Words & Pictures: Ian King
Ian is, of course, the man behind the venerated 200% website.

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