“We hate Worthing and we hate Worthing, we hate Worthing and we hate Worthing, we hate Worthing and we hate Worthing,” they sing with enthusiasm bordering on glee, “we are the Worthing… haters.” I’m not offended. I’ve only lived in Worthing for four months, so they’re probably not singing about me personally. And perhaps even citizens of Worthing who may find themselves offended by being hated by a small proportion of the population of Bognor Regis should consider the fact that such a rivalry even remains remembered when the two towns’ football clubs are separated by a division in the football pyramid. They’re not alone, either. Their opponents, Oxford City, reserve their ire for football clubs/people of Banbury and, for reasons unknown to all bar themselves, Woking. The church of football rivalry can be a complex and occasionally confusing one.
We’d arrived in Bognor Regis a couple of hours before kick-off. The town is part of a small nubbin of South Coast that juts out shortly before travellers from the east arrive in the badlands of Hampshire, an outpost of faded glamour which remains the spiritual home of Butlins holiday camps and a source of what may or may not be humour for witless comedians and others who may snort at the fact that its name contains the word “bog.” There’s much more to the town than this, of course. It retains the raffish air of an old fashioned seaside resort, the sense that, behind a veneer of respectability there may be naughtiness afoot in those Bed & Breakfasts. It has shops selling seaside trinkets and scoops of gelato, and a stumpy pier adorned with several posters that are quite specific about what visitors aren’t allowed whilst standing on it. Decades and fashions may come and go, but there is sometimes obstinate about the spirit of the English seaside.
After a short walk – including a brief pause to speculate over whether we have the time to fit in a quick round of Crazy Golf (to which the answer is a slightly disappointed “no”) – Google Maps, our single-minded and authorative guide for the journey there – instructs us to turn inland into Nyewood Lane. I’ve been to this ground a couple of times before, and on neither occasion did I follow this route. Mind you, I note, I got lost on both of those previous occasions, upon the latter of which I contrived to walk a route back from the ground to the railway station from the ground so convoluted that I passed the same fish and chip shop three times.
The Nyewood Lane ground is tucked away between the rustling leaves of the autumn trees and the quiet, unassuming suburban houses, and it is a cracker. Entrance to the ground comes from behind one goal, and all the requisites of a perfect non-league ground are present and correct. There’s a bar humming with activity fifteen minutes from kick-off. Sitting, waiting patiently for kick-off (or, more likely, for a lovely, delicious bone) is a dog wearing a green and white scarf around its neck who presumably goes by the name of Dognor Regis. Outside, a bear which, in spite of the fact that it is wearing a full Bognor Regis Town kit and boots, turns out not to be one of the substitutes, patrols the touchline posing for photographs whilst presumably keeping half an eye out for any stray pickernick baskets that may have gone unguarded.
There is an open terrace behind one goal, with broad, but shallow terracing. Along one side there are two small stands, something of a hotch-potch which perhaps reflects the club’s ascent to the middle ranking of the non-league game from the morass of county league football in the 1970s. The rest of the ground is largely covered, four steps of shallow terracing with a brutalist, cantilevered roof. Built into the roof of the terrace cover at the far end of the ground is an electronic scoreboard sponsored by Butlins. “Kids love it!”, it says, perhaps – although you really kind of hope not – optimistically. The converted garden shed which now sells match-day programmes has sold out ten minutes before kick-off, which is unfortunate for the person travelling with me but perhaps a good omen on Non-League Day.
The extent of the task ahead of this Bognor team shouldn’t be understated. Oxford City aren’t just a division above them, in the National League South, but they’re in second place in the table and have only lost one of their first twelve league matches of the season. And with this match being played in the Third Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, there’s something at stake here this afternoon. The winners will find themselves ninety minutes from a place in the First Round of the competition, from the possibility of a match against, say, Portsmouth or Oxford United, from the possibility of an afternoon in the sun on national television. Small wonder, then, that Oxford City come out all guns blazing, though there is a hint of luck about the deflected low cross that is palmed in by the Bognor goalkeeper to give them the lead.
Half-time is reached with a lifeline for Bognor having been snatched away. They level from the penalty spot, with a foul on Tuck being followed by Prior’s conversion in spite of the Oxford goalkeeper getting both hands to the ball. As the clock ticks over forty-five minutes, however, the visitors regain the lead when a powerful header Jose Lapoujade finds the top corner of the goal. Received football wisdom would likely suggest that this should be the end of the competition this afternoon. The higher place, in form team have snatched the lead on the stroke of half-time. This should be a dagger through Bognor hearts, a goal that should change the tempo and timbre of this game, but conventional wisdom has reckoned without one man. Conventional wisdom has reckoned without Alex Parsons.
Three substitutions in four minutes completely turn the tide of this game, and Parsons takes the field with eighteen minutes of the second half having been played. Nine minutes later, his low shot brings Bognor level. Three minutes after this, he repeats his feat with a second shot across the goalkeeper and in. A home support that had been subdued throughout the first half reaches a crescendo when Prior wriggles into some space on the left hand side of the penalty area and scores to effectively close the match as a contest. It’s no less than the Ryman League side deserve. The substitutions breathed new life into a team that had struggled at times to look able to cope with their opponents during the first half.
By the time the full-time whistle blows, Oxford tempers are fraying. The game is lost, and their players know it. The players, supporters and manager of Bognor Regis Town celebrate as if they have just won the FA Cup itself. It’s been eleven years since they last made the Fourth Qualifying Round of the competition and twenty since they advanced further than that. While the FA Cup might not mean as much to some in an age of limitless choice as it did in the years of three television channels, in these many small corners of English football it still does. It carries a sentimental value, keeping alive the hope that this club, this year might be able to scribble themselves at least a footnote in the competition’s storied history. It also carries an entirely cold, practical value to the club. This is a club that came perilously close to extinction just six years ago and which was forced to learn the value the value of a pound by the toughest means possible.
Each winning round in the FA Cup, even without heroics of any sort, brings in a few thousand pounds extra. It pays the electricity bill or the PAYE bill for a few weeks or a few months. It’s not romantic and there won’t be many Football Focus reports that kick off with the club’s treasurer and secretary explaining about why it’s so important that water bills are paid on time, but any extra cash, from an FA Cup run or from a boosted attendance thanks to Non League Day, makes it all a little easier. And the supporters? Well, they know about the boring, practical financial stuff, and they crave just a slice of that romance. Today’s win is start. Not a seismic shock but a pleasant surprise. And when they assemble in the bar after the match and find out that Worthing have been well beaten at home in their FA Cup match… well, they are the Worthing haters, after all.
You can see some photos from our grand day out by clicking here.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Facebook by clicking here.