Ah, the romance of the FA Vase. It’s the last sixteen of the competition and somewhere along the line Wembley fever has gripped a small corner of Brighton and a small corner of Cleveland. When we get to East Brighton Park, which sits – unsurprisingly, on the easternmost perimeter of Brighton, overlooked by the South Downs, there are two coaches parked outside the ground, one of which is a double-decker. There is singing and chanting coming from inside. At Whitehawk, where there is usually a tiny yet enthusiastic crowd, this is surprising. The travelling supporters have flags, an oversized cowbell and a drum.
Trying to call how this match will finish is tricky. Using the rawest of theory, Whitehawk should be the favourites. They are a Step Five club, five promotions from a place in the Football League in the Sussex County League, whilst Marske are a level lower in the Second Division of the Northern League. To say that one can make such a raw comparison across the vast non-league pyramid, however, is misleading. What if the Sussex League is of a much lower standard than the Northern League? It’s impossible to say and, as such, the match is impossible to call. What we do know is only that both teams are near the top of their respective leagues and in good form.
The home crowd is slightly swollen by the fact that Brighton & Hove Albion are playing away today, but the fact that they are playing at Leyton Orient may have proved too much for some to resist. Brighton took just under 2,000 supporters to Brisbane Road, but there are only 355 people here today, and herein lies Whitehawk’s problem. They have money at the moment but Brighton remains a one club town and Albion cast a long shadow across the whole county never mind the town itself. As ever, a good number of the home supporters have got one eye on events at Brisbane Road and, until Whitehawk FC can develop an identity of its own, they seem unlikely to attract large crowds for more run-of-the-mill fixtures than this.
On the pitch, there is little between the two sides, with both goals coming within a minute of each other, five minutes from half-time. Whitehawk take the lead when Wes Tate crosses from the right hand side for Sam Crabb to score from close range. The players and crowd still seem to be celebrating when Marske level the scores. They win a corner more or less straight from the kick-off, which Mark Taylor heads in, almost unchallenged. Both goals were greeted by enthusiatic celebration in front of each other by both sets of supporters, who are standing close to each other on one side of the ground. It creates a slightly uncomfortable atmosphere as the half-time whistle blows.
Is there any sight more dispiriting than the sight of two men fighting? At half-time in the bar, a perceived slight leads to two men facing off until the stewards step in and break it up. When we visited here a couple of years ago for an FA Vase quarter-final against Truro City, there were plenty of people that were plenty happy enough to throw a few punches in the cause of whatever cause it is that people throw punches in aid of then. At least this time there are stewards present to break it all up, but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth and the second half starts in an atmosphere of quiet tension. Still, at least it made it quicker to get served at the bar.
The second half sees the two sides continuing to cancel each other out and it turns out that the only incident off the pitch comes when the Marske supporter with the cowbell does something to upset an elderly man on crutches, and finds himself getting hit with one of the crutches. As the match wears on, it is Marske that are playing the better football and it requires a couple of decent saves from the Whitehawk goalkeeper to keep them in the game. At full-time, the goalkeeper asks us behind the goal whether there will be extra-time or not, having presumably forgotten that they were taken into extra-time a couple of rounds ago by Fareham Town.
Extra-time swings to and fro between the two teams, but it is Whitehawk that have the best chance when the in-form Crabb finds himself unmarked in the penalty area but finds his shot blocked by the goalkeeper’s legs. As the match goes on and the players tire themselves out, there is time to have a look around East Brighton Park. Considerable work needs to be done to the ground if it is to be allowed into the Ryman or Zamaretto Leagues. There are plans to build a stand behind one goal, but there is nothing to indicate that work has started on this and there needs to be other work carried out on the place as well if they are to get promoted.
Next Saturday, then, there will be a replay on the coast near Redcar. It’s a long trip north, and it seems unlikely that Whitehawk will take as many supporters north as Marske brought down to Sussex this weekend. After the incidents at the Truro match a couple of years ago, Whitehawk at least took the precaution of hiring stewards this weekend and their intervention at the bar was enough to prevent something unsavoury from turning into something more serious. For those of us that are occasional visitors to East Brighton Park, however, it is enough to plant a seed of doubt over whether to make a return visit and Whitehawk FC will be those that suffer the most if people that make an occasional visit there see that sort of thing going on.