As was touched upon here recently, Sussex is a county with a well-established and extensive non-league football structure. However, it’s not something I was aware of at all until 1995, when I moved to West Sussex. Having grown up just outside Brighton, Brighton and Hove Albion were very much the only team on my radar, so discovering this extraordinarily deep and rich community was very exciting, especially as it coincided with Brighton’s near-total collapse on and off the field. In the intervening thirteen years, I have seen more or less every non-league outfit within a few miles either side of me, some of them with baffling regularity. All except one: Worthing United.
For those of you who don’t know anything about Worthing, it’s the sort of place you go to and no-one is there. Outside of the pedestrianised shopping centre (with ample parking, folks), it is pretty much a ghost town during the day. At night, even less happens, as your usual correspondent and I discovered on the way home from watching Worthing F.C. play last December. I have left pubs for various reasons, but this was the first time I’d ever left one because it genuinely appeared we were the first people to go across the threshold for some years and we were quite scared.
Despite this, Worthing manages to sustain two football clubs. The big boys – Worthing F.C. – are a venerable old club, 15 years Brighton and Hove Albion’s senior, who generally hover between the Isthmian Premier and First divisions. Worthing United, meanwhile, have existed in their current state since 1988’s merger of Wigmore Athletic and Southdown FC and play in the top flight of the three-tier Sussex County League. In recent seasons, I have seen Worthing play countless times, but seeing United in the flesh has always proved a step too far. This is dreadfully remiss of me.
Remiss for completist reasons, perhaps. But mainly remiss on account of the fact that Worthing United are demonstrably the most insane football club in the county. Their dramas, season after season, have captivated me from afar and made me wonder just how being relegated to SCL Division 2 has managed to escape them for so long. This campaign, United have crossed the line between soap opera and situation comedy, and are probably a custard pie away from a full-on circus.
The team sit in 19th place of the twenty team First Division, which is not particularly uncommon for United. Their goal difference of minus thirty-two after just 9 games is perhaps more indicative of their rather parlous situation. But statistics alone can often be rather dry things. Okay, it’s easy to point out the -32 goal difference or the 3 points gained from draws only. The black-and-white fact that on September 13th they lost 14-1 at home to the league leaders Ringmer is also pretty noteworthy. But it goes far beyond that. In only the middle of October, Worthing United have already had five managers. This would be chaotic at any level of the game, but in the largely amateur SCL, a change in management will often accompany a complete change of playing staff. One such exodus took place when the club’s first manager of the campaign, player-coach Paul Curtis, left his post at the beginning of September. With few first teamers available and youth players filling the gaps, caretaker boss Mick Duffell led United on a spirited run of magnificent losses, including 8-0 the following day and culminating with exceptional consecutive 5-1 and 14-1 reverses. A new manager was called for, and duly Stuart Smith arrived, fresh from duties as a player-coach at Littlehampton Town. His reign lasted precisely four days, during which time United were knocked out of the Sussex Senior Cup 3-1 at home to Smith’s former employer. Mick Miller, formerly the reserve coach at Lancing, Steyning and Mile Oak, was then brought in. However, upon being asked to share the reins with the experienced ex-Hassocks boss John Suter this month, Miller too stood aside, after just three weeks at the helm.
Miller’s subsequent statements to the local press are dazzling examples of the mixed-message, but it’s difficult to not be sympathetic. He had just wrangled The Mavericks’ third point of the campaign, their first since the departure of Curtis, in a 1-1 home draw with Hailsham Town. Suter is clearly a more experienced manager at SCL level, but one has to ask: what value is attached to stability? Will Worthing United repeat the move if a more-experienced-still coach comes on the market? And what price Joe Kinnear being the next manager at The Robert Albon Memorial Ground?
I will be trying to make an effort to finally see Worthing United play this season. The Sussex County League is a nice place to watch football, and The Robert Albon Memorial Ground (spectacularly, this is mis-spelt on the club’s official website – which is well worth checking out for its natty Flash intro and the not-particularly surprising absence of results or staff pages) is a nice ground in an attractive place, on the edge of the South Downs. People playing at politics aside, the overriding feeling I have always taken from watching SCL football is that success or failure is but a passing concern. Football and the ongoing preservation of its structure is always the main focus. Whether or not this rather zen line of thinking about the transience of victory translates into the County League’s board rooms is, seemingly, another matter altogether.