The story of Bognor Regis Town is largely the story of Jack Pearce. Pearce arrived at the club as a twenty-one year old in 1970 as a full-back, with the club in the Second Division of the Sussex County League. Six years later, with the club having won two successive promotions into the Southern League, Pearce took over as manager at the age of twenty-six. In 1982, in a move that was almost unprecedented for the time, they requested a move into the Isthmian League to reduce their travel costs, and this was arguably the start of the most successful period in their history, with promotion to the Premier Division of the Isthmian League and FA Cup runs that included wins against Swansea City and Exeter City.
The club’s decline started with Pearce’s resignation on October 2007. He took over as their General Manager, but the club had to slash its wage budget and only narrowly avoided relegation at the end of last season. It looked as if the club had overcome the worst of its troubles when Mick Jenkins and Andy Awford took over as managers last summer, having brought in new board members to clear the club debts, but disaster struck at the end of August, when an arsonist burnt the club’s bar to the ground. The bar accounted for roughly one-third of the club’s takings over the course of the season. With players leaving the club in droves (just two of the names on the Bognor team sheet this afternoon started in the corresponding fixture against Wimbledon in August), they remain rooted to the bottom of the Conference South table.
The trip across the Sussex coast from Brighton to Bognor reminds me how little I have seen of the county that I have called home for the last three years. Once the train has trundled through Worthing I’m into unknown territory, through Goring-on-Sea (which sounds like a Matador’s Bank Holiday trip) and on to Ford, where a change of train is required for the final leg of the journey. The change of train only serves to emphasise Bognor’s sense of geographical dislocation. It feels like an isolated town and certainly doesn’t feel like a “football town”. In some respects it is quietly surprising that they have lasted at a level as high as this for as long as they have. This afternoon, though, they are pulling out all the stops. One of the programme huts has been converted into a mini bar, and the picnic tables laid out behind the goal nearest the turnstiles lend the place the air of an enlarged barbecue. It is a bitterly cold afternoon with a clear blue sky, and it is almost surprising that, with the temperature barely rising above freezing, the match is taking place in the first place. Other, more temperate climes than this have been laid waste by the weather today.
Bognor Regis Town, however, need the money. They cannot afford to let the large travelling Wimbledon support down, and are fully aware of the fact that rescheduling to a Tuesday night later in the season may cost them a considerable amount of money. They contacted Wimbledon first thing this morning, lest anyone start thinking that the weather may take its toll upon proceedings. For all of the ongoing worry, however, there are still plenty of smiling faces at Nyewood Lane this afternoon. The welcome is as friendly as I can ever having received at what is, to all intents and purposes, an “away” ground. There is a tiny element of history between the two clubs – Bognor defender Duncan Jupp played thirty games in the Premier League for Wimbledon, though illness means that he can only start on the substitutes bench for them today. Such is the severity of their situation that Bognor can only muster two substitutes this afternoon, and even goalkeeper Chris Tardif is unfit, meaning that the home side have to start eighteen year-old reserve Robert French in goal.
For thirty minutes, Bognor battle against the odds. Occasionally they show flashes of attacking endeavour – Sam Pearce shoots narrowly wide from a free-kick – but this match mostly has the look of a training match between a strong adult team and a good youth team, such is the difference in class. Wimbledon spurn chances before they take the lead. Godfrey makes one outstanding save and Wimbledon’s Danny Kedwell hits the underside of the crossbar with a header before Kedwell, who looks too good for this level of football, passes to Lee, who sets up Kennedy Adjei to put the visitors in front. A couple of minutes later, Bognor defender Sam Pearce heads into his own net to double the lead. The travelling supporters are further cheered at half-time by news that league leaders Chelmsford City, onto whose coat tails they are grimly clinging – are a goal down away at struggling Newport County. The home supporters can seek consolation from the encouraging response from exhortations made by the PA announcer to buy as many raffle tickets (one of the winners donates his money back to the club). When you’re in Bognor’s position, every little helps.
The second half starts with darkness descending and the conditions turn from grimly cold to bitterly icy, and Wimbledon don’t take long to add to their advantage – Kedwell is put through and rolls the ball calmly under French to put the match beyond any serious doubt. With the cause all but lost, Bognor muster their best football of the match. They’re rewarded with a goal, Pearce making up for his earlier own goal by heading in from close distance, but Wimbledon reassert the three goal difference with Jake Leberl heading them into a 4-1 lead. The Bognor players’ heads drop again, and Kedwell finishes off a Man Of The Match performance in the last minute with an outstanding finish to complete the rout. It finishes 5-1. It’s second successive home match that Bognor have lost by this scoreline, and it’s the first time that Wimbledon have scored five this season. From both perspectives, it’s a scoreline that sums up more than one afternoon’s football.
There’s good news for both clubs at the full-time whistle. Bognor may or may not be doomed to relegation this season, but the enormous travelling support has swollen the crowd 1,603 – the largest that Nyewood Lane has seen for several years. It’s a much-needed injection of cash into a club in a desperate financial position. Wimbledon also have cause to celebrate. The Chelmsford juggernaut has stalled, 3-1 at Newport County, leaving them six points behind the leaders with two games in hand and a better goal difference. Wimbledon entertain Chelmsford in the league at the end of January. There’s no question that Chelmsford, with the points already safe, remain the favourites for now, but a championship race that looked as if it might turn into a one horse race a few weeks ago is still alive and kicking for now, at least.