It is impossible to walk through the centre of Hastings in East Sussex without thinking of the 1996 Animals That Swim song, “Faded Glamour”. From certain angles, the town, overlooked by the remains of its eleventh century castle, retains the handsome ruggedness which drew day-trippers and holiday-makers towards it from the Victorian era on. From others, though, paint is peeling and concrete is starting to crumble. As it is with Hastings town centre, so it is with The Pilot Field, the home of Hastings United Football Club. A mile and a half from the town centre, this is a football ground that time forgot, with a large seated stand of the type that used to be commonplace at British football grounds the length and breadth of the country and a large covered terrace at one end of the ground. The club is, apparently, keen to leave its home and build a new one which isn’t as ruinously expensive to maintain. Sad though it would be to lose such an idiosyncratic venue, the thinking behind such wanderlust is understandable.
Hastings have won one and drawn one of their four matches so far this season and go into the match above the relegation places, though not by much. A sense of understated gloom extends to the match-day programme, which notes that “Clubs are becoming concerned at the dramatic drop in attendances so far this season”. It is, of course, Non-League Day today and the cost of admission has been cut to £5 to mark this, but there doesn’t seem to be a very celebratory mood in the air at The Pilot Field today. The crowd is up on previous matches, certainly – the two league matches played here this season saw 297 and 248 people turn out respectively to see the team play, whereas today’s crowd is 431 – but the notion of much of a significant windfall for the club from Non-League Day has been undone by the price reduction and, as things turn out, the team’s performance on the pitch seems unlikely to attract too many people back to see them again.
Their guests this afternoon, meanwhile, Carshalton Athletic, mean haven’t had any better a start to the season, but the difference in the atmosphere between the home and away supporters is palpable. For some Carshalton supporters, away matches are the only ones they can attend. Nine of them were banned from entering the club’s Colston Avenue ground during the summer by the club’s owner Paul Dipre, ostensibly for “anti-social behaviour”, although those banned claim that it has more to do with their criticism of Dipre himself. He took ownership of the club in 2008 and has put money into it, but also changed the club’s colours from its traditional maroon and white to red and white, changed the club’s badge and, during the summer, appointed himself as manager of the first team. There have been signs of a thawing of the relationship between Dipre and the support, possibly brought about by a slump in crowds similar to that seen at many other non-league clubs at the start of this season – just 155 people saw their recent goalless draw with Wealdstone – but it feels as if the potential for good work being done by Dipre’s money is being undone by the souring of the relationship with the support itself.
It takes sixteen minutes for Carshalton to take control of the match, but the goal that gives them the lead has more than a hint of fortuitousness about it. A free-kick on the edge of the penalty area isn’t normally quite the threat in the Ryman League Premier Division that it might be in the Premier League, but Dean McDonald’s free-kick is deflected off the wall, hopelessly wrong-footing the Hastings goalkeeper Lloyd Anderson, who can only palm the ball into the roof of the net. Ten minutes later, though, Hastings are given a life-line. Tom Davis has become something of a non-league journeyman, having played for – deep breath – Gravesend & Northfleet, St Albans City, Lewes, AFC Wimbledon, Dover Athletic and Sutton United in recent years before joining Carshalton during the summer. He has already been booked when he takes a dive over Josh Jirbandey’s leg, earning himself a second yellow card and Hastings a potential route back into the match. Hastings have chances throughout the rest of the half, with Jamie Crellin getting through on goal before scuffing his shot and Arron Hopkinson latching onto an under-hit back-pass before dawdling and having the ball nicked from him.
Four minutes into the second half, though, McDonald kills the game stone dead with the game’s sole moment of real quality. Billy Crook manages to work himself a little space on the right hand side and drags the ball back to McDonald, who spins past Sean Ray and drives the ball under Anderson from a tight angle. With a one man advantage and forty minutes to play, we might still have anticipated the home side being able to somehow fight their back into the match, but Hastings look absolutely toothless every time the ball reaches the Carshalton penalty area and the only sound in the ground is the away supporters singing relentlessly as their players wind things down, with the points already safe. At full-time, there is a cheer from one end of the ground and the sound of disconcerted grumbling from much of the rest of it. This has been a very comfortable afternoon for Carshalton, who may consider that they can finally now get their season going. Hastings United, meanwhile, have cause to look over their shoulders towards the bottom of the table on the basis of this afternoon’s performance.
In the bar after the match, we get a glimpse of what does differentiate the non-league game from higher leagues. The Carshalton players enter the bar one by one and are warmly greeted by the travelling supporters. It’s a moment of genuine warmth, and one which the supporters of a Premier League club are unlikely to ever get the chance to experience. Over chips and beer, the supporters dissect the afternoon’s events and the possibility of them being allowed back into their home ground. It is hoped that a state of detente can be reached with the club’s owner, but it seems clear that Paul Dipre, the owner/manager/sheriff of Carshalton, needs to drop this ban. Regardless of his money, Carshalton Athletic cannot afford the lost revenue from lower attendances or the poisonous atmosphere that seems to hang over the club at the moment. Hastings United, meanwhile, feels as if it has reached something of a crossroads. The Pilot Field needs a lick of paint, and it feels as if the club is in need of a little TLC in a broader sense as well. Perhaps it is time for the people of Hastings to step up and offer the club the care that it needs; to restore some of that faded glamour.