It’s a big weekend of football across the length and breadth of the country. One of the unique qualities of the English football season is the way in which, over the course of the Easter weekend, we pass seamlessly from the tail end of the mid-season into the final straights. Saturday lunchtime sees Manchester United play Chelsea at Old Trafford in the Premier League’s match of the weekend. We watch it in a pub near the sea front in Worthing, West Sussex, surrounded by braying men in Manchester United and Chelsea replica shirts and Chelsea edge a critical win, but this is only a sideshow prior to the main event.
Woodside Road is a mile and a half or so from Worthing town centre, but it’s about a million miles from Old Trafford. Set in the middle of a residential housing area in the north side of the town, it’s a hotch potch of corrugated iron and wooden structures with a large, pre-fabricated stand that runs three-quarters of the length of the pitch. We’re here today for what could be the last hurrah for Worthing’s bid for automatic promotion from the Ryman League Division One South. The race at the top of the table has come down to three sides. Croydon Athletic lead the table, with Folkestone Invicta in second place and Worthing in third. Croydon are six points ahead of Worthing at the start of play, and a win for them will almost certainly end Worthing’s title bid and condemn them to the play-offs. If Worthing can win, however, the gap between them will be reduced to three points, and it will be down to two points between Croydon and Folkestone.
Croydon come racing out of the traps at the start, and for the opening ten minutes it feels that if they can manage an early breakthrough, they might just disappear off towards the horizon before Worthing can even get themselves going. They find, however, that the Worthing goalkeeper Alan Mansfield is in a “none shall pass” mood, and Mansfield provides what seems to be a one man barrier to the Croydon Athletic forwards, saving from Joe Dolan, Gareth Williams and Gary Noel. As the half wears on, however, Worthing start to compose themselves and get back into the match. David Pitt, who has just signed on loan for Worthing from Brentford, forces an excellent save from the Croydon goalkeeper Andy Little, and after twenty-five minutes Worthing take the lead when Jamie Brotherton shoots into the corner of the net. Brotherton, who had previously been playing as if in something of a dream world, suddenly sparks to life and has a volley blocked by a Croydon defender. Half-time comes with the league leaders already looking a shadow of the side that had threatened to run away with the game for the first fifteen minutes or so.
Ten minutes into the second half, though, Worthing strike again to keep their title hopes alive. Luke Denton’s long throw is flicked on by Stuart Axten and Jamie Brotherton stabs the ball in to double their lead. With a two goal cushion secured and no particular inclination on the part of the home side to take too many risks with their advantage, the game loses a little of its shape. There is, however, still plenty of time for Croydon to get back into the game, but their route back into it has as much to fortuity as anything else when Leslie Thompson beats his marker on the left hand side. His cross is hopelessly mishit, but sails over Mansfield and drops just under the crossbar and in at the far post. It’s a complete fluke, but it is a route back into the game for the visitors with just over half of the second half yet to play.
Croydon throw players forward in the search for what would be a critical equalizer, but they have used up their luck with the goal. Substitute Joe Howe has a shot blocked a a dive from Worthing’s Luke Denton. As they push men forward, though, they leave gaps at the back and Worthing almost punish them when Ben Williamson breaks clear but over-hits the ball, which runs into the hands of the grateful Andy Little. The final chance of the game falls to Thompson, but his low shot is comfortably saved by Mansfield. Croydon have run out of steam, and the full time whistle blows to give Worthing a critical three points which keep their chances of still lifting the league title alive, for now. The result has also been beneficial to Folkestone Invicta, whose match at Walton & Hersham was called off because of a waterlogged pitch, but are now just one point behind Croydon having played the same amount of games. Had they not been docked ten points for entering into administration, they would be comfortably clear at the top of the table.
Worthing, meanwhile, remain two points behind Folkestone and three points behind Croydon, having played a game more than their rivals. However slim their title chances remain, though, they are still in the race and, if the other two sides slip up, there could still be room for them to sneak through and clinch the title. Even if this proves to be beyond them, though (and they only have six matches left to overturn their current deficit), there is still a benefit to them continuing to plug away for the rest of the season. The second, third, fourth and fifth placed teams in the Ryman League Division One South will contest the play-offs at the end of the season for a place in the league’s Premier Division, with home advantage going to the higher placed of the teams playing. Even if they can’t grab the top place in the league before the end of the season, finishing second would guarantee them home matches in their play-off matches, and such an advantage might be enough to see them promoted anyway. We are now well into the closing stages of the 2009/10 football season, but there may yet be plenty of twists and turns in the road for Worthing Football Club.