It requires some planning, quite a lot of peering of timetables and unintelligible weather forecasts, but we decided to go in the end. The bus chunters up through Kemptown and Hanover, eventually depositing us in the centre of Whitehawk, which feels like the very top of the world. The wind is gusting at sixty to seventy miles per hour and as we walk down to The Enclosed Ground the heavens open and rains falls horizontally, a lacerating experience made all the worse for the creeping suspicion that Whitehawk FC is hiding from us. We try to get to it through the leisure centre but a fence cuts us off. Eventually, after a very long walk around we find the entrance. It’s ten past three and Whitehawk are already a goal up.
There are no Premier League or Championship matches today because of the international matches scheduled, but this isn’t a concern for the likes of Whitehawk and their opposition today, Fareham Town. They’re meeting in The FA Vase, the competition introduced as a replacement for The FA Amateur Cup for smaller non-league clubs. Fareham have seen bigger days than this in the past. They were members of the Southern League for almost twenty years and made the semi-finals of the FA Trophy in 1987 before losing to Kidderminster Harriers. They fell out of the Southern League in 1998 through because of financial difficulties and have been in The Wessex League ever since. They retain the air of being a club punching below its weight. To give one example of this, their travelling supporters make up about two-thirds of the crowd of about 130 this afternoon.
Whitehawk, by contrast, are monied at the moment. It has been said that their annual wage bill is running into six figures, which seems crazy for The Sussex County League. The aim is for a place in the Ryman League, but the fact that a club which is successful on the pitch is still struggling to attract crowds into three figures is an area for concern. Brighton & Hove Albion, who would be considered the club most likely to take a chunk out of their crowd figures, aren’t even playing today. On the pitch, though, they at least seem well-organised but the weather wins the first half. Fareham are shooting into the wind, and their goalkeeper’s clearances arc up and start to swing back towards their own goal.
Half-time comes with Whitehawk still leading, and the warmth and comfort of the bar is too much to resist. The social club and toilets have been renovated, the beer is plentiful and the greeting is friendly. We miss the first ten minutes of the second half, by which time Fareham have equalised. By this time, though, the wind has dropped and the game has settled into an energetic, high tempo affair. An angled shot into the corner of the net gives them the lead with time starting to run out and it looks as if this will be enough to win them the match, but deep into stoppage time a rash challenge inside the penalty area gives Whitehawk a penalty which is converted to send the match – and this in itself feels unusual for a Saturday afternoon match – into extra-time.
The short break gives me the time to head back to the tea bar for a Bovril. I’m not the only person to have had this idea. The couple of minutes queuing gives me the time to stop and consider the afternoon. I’m freezing cold and soaked to the skin. From the corner of my eye, I can see the television flashing up images of the England-Brazil match. The camera pans across an ultra-modern stadium, lingering on attractive young women with flags painted on their faces. I pause briefly to consider whether I should stay in the bar and watch this strange and surreal pastiche of a football match, but the pull of the mud, the rain and the smell of Deep Heat proves to be too much. Deep into the second period of extra-time comes thirty seconds of drama that changes the match. At one end, a speculative Fareham shot comes down off the underside of the crossbar and bounces to safety. Whitehawk break straight away up the right-hand side, though. The winger should be looking to cross the ball, but instead the cuts into the Fareham penalty area and lashes the ball into the top corner at the near post.
Whitehawk hang on to win the match. They have a decent record in the FA Vase. They made the quarter-finals two years ago and it’s not impossible that they could get at least that far again in the competition again this year. There is something slightly contradictory about Whitehawk FC. Their ground is amazingly difficult to find, but the welcome couldn’t be much friendlier. They are a club with a successful team, but one which seems to find it very difficult to attract much of a crowd (even though the weather may have been more than a contributing factor today). They just about deserved their win today and have money behind them at the moment. One has to wonder, however, whether such grandiosity – even on a relatively modest type such as this – is sustainable if they can’t get people to part with their cash and turn up for matches.