The Right To Brag In West Sussex
The very highest end of the professional game in England is currently riven through with local derbies. Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City forming one triad of mutual dislike and Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea forming another. Matches between these clubs have become the commas that punctuate the domestic calendar, almost a mini-league within a league, a dull thump of tribalism, audible in perpetuity. Local rivalries, however, come in all shapes and sizes, and three days before Christmas the Isthmian League scheduling Gods have dropped one into our laps on the south coast, between Worthing and Bognor Regis Town.
Approaching Woodside Road, there’s the swelling of a crowd which suggests that either the people of Worthing are unusually well-prepared for Christmas or that they are in denial that it’s even happening this year. Crowds have been fairly high so far this season – comfortably the highest in the division – but this is something greater. At the turnstiles, there are extra security guards in high visibility jackets patting down and searching everybody in the queue. A couple of spots in front of me, an elderly woman looks most confused as a guard inspects her shopping bag.
The crowd is later reported as 1,853, but pre-Christmas cheer is in the air and the atmosphere inside the ground is boozy and boisterous, but good humoured. They’re selling Christmas jumpers in the colours both clubs by the entrance and an extra hot food dispensary has been laid on. At the temporary bar set up at the end of the main bar, meanwhile, Santa Claus is buying four pints of Stella and two pints of Becks whilst fielding questions about whether there’s a chance that he might still be over the limit overnight on Christmas Eve. There were a couple of smoke bombs in the street earlier, but once through the turnstiles it feels a little like a Christmas fair has been appended to a football match. Convivial, is the word.
Worthing and Bognor Regis are barely fifteen miles apart, but they point in different directions. Worthing is fifteen miles from Brighton, where the bright lights of the Premier League tempt hundreds of season ticket holders every other weekend. Bognor Regis is a little over twenty minutes from Portsmouth, where a promotion push is underway towards the Championship. Worthing has a Brighton postcode, Bognor Regis has a Portsmouth postcode. And yet there is more than a flicker of life about this rivalry. A banner behind one goal at Woodside Road reads, “I’d rather be a Rebel than a Rock” (a reference to both clubs’ nicknames), and it hangs there throughout every home match, whether Bognor are in town or not. For the supporters of the two clubs involved, as with so many rivalries the length and breadth of the country, it means something. It certainly means something to the cabin crew member who, following the Gatwick drone fiasco at the end of last week, had a somewhat convoluted journey to try and get back for the match.
This is also a rivalry that hasn’t exactly been blessed by over-familiarity with each other in recent years. Over the last decade, Bognor dropped from the National League South with two successive relegations, promoted all the way back, and then relegated back into this division at the end of last season, even taking in a run to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy in 2016 before losing to Grimsby Town. By contrast, Worthing have bounced between this division and the one below it for the last couple of decades, with this season’s strong start and higher crowds pushing the club towards what would be an unprecedented place in the National League South. A roller coaster versus relative stasis. After a strong start to the season, though, the messages coming from Woodside Road have become more mixed of late. The home side goes into this match having lost its last two home league matches, and it feels as though the momentum in the top half of the division has shifted over the last couple of months. Bognor, meanwhile come into the match in mid-table and having to win any of their previous three league matches. A feeling of “all to play for” hangs heavy in the air as the teams take to the pitch.
For forty-five minutes, though, the two teams snap at each other without causing each other a great deal of damage. Bognor start brightly, coming close on a couple of occasions in the opening five minutes, and it takes Worthing almost half an hour before they come close themselves, a shot blocked on the six yard line, and even though things lighten up a little in the five minutes before half-time, the whistle for the interval blows with considerably more energy having been used up than inspiration. For all of that, though, one of the big changes in non-league football in recent years has been very much in evidence. It has been barely remarked upon, but standards have improved by a remarkable amount in recent years, largely because of considerable improvements in pitch technology. This has arrived at its (un)natural conclusion at Worthing, who have a 3g artificial surface installed. The flatness of the pitch seems to encourage teams to try to keep the ball on the ground and pass it around. There may not have been many chances at either end of the pitch, but these two teams can play football. They have the rudiments nailed down and both have players capable of flashes of inspiration.
Having said that, though, and despite the fact that it’s bright and sunny this afternoon, the pitch is clearly greasy and there is a tendency for passes that wouldn’t have been been over-hit on grass to skid away from stretching limbs and out of play. The jury seems to have decided that the benefits outweigh the costs of these pitches for smaller clubs. Their durability allows clubs to hire them out at will, and being able to do so has helped their connections to local communities. One thing that is notable at Worthing matches is that the crowd is seldom made up of the non-league stereotype of the old man with a fag hanging out the corner of his mouth and one eye on that afternoon’s horse racing results. Fathers and sons are here, there are a few families dotted about, even groups of teenagers that are watching the match rather than throwing things at each other and otherwise acting as they’re at the match under protest.
The game opens up during the second half, but not in the way that the home side would have hoped. Bognor take the lead eight minutes in, a rebound after a low shot is palmed away by the Worthing goalkeeper. Confetti of some description is thrown behind the goal as the travelling supporters celebrate. As the half progresses, Worthing try to force their way back into the game and they create a couple of decent chances, not least when a shot is blocked and the subsequent rebound is bundled off the line, but with time running out and the home team starting to both tire and run out of ideas, Bognor break and score to wrap the game up. Results elsewhere drop Worthing to seventh place in the table. They have – as they have had for some time – games in hand on every club above them in the table, but they need to regain their poise on the pitch if they’re not going to see a season that had started so promisingly slide from view. Bognor, whose season has been punctuated by a lack of consistency so far, rise to tenth place in the table, with hopes of a play-off place revived by a controlled and domineering performance. They’re good value for their win.
The Christmas and New Year football schedule has something of a rinsing effect on football in this country. Over the course of the next week and a bit, we’ll all find out quite a lot about what way the second half of the season might turn out, and the partial paradox of this is that Worthing may well now go into the rest of their Christmas and New Year fixtures in a dimmer frame of mind than their rivals, despite still being above them in the league table. If the couple of weeks before Christmas, when crowds at this level of the game can dip a little as people take some time out to get their shopping done, can be seen as the calm before a storm, this local derby might be seen as the first rumblings of the thunder to come in the distance. Worthing still have the games in hand to get back amongst the Isthmian League title contenders, but the momentum is currently not with them. Bognor Regis Town have already dipped after a decent start to the season, but have shown little consistency since then. Bragging rights may have been decided for the time being, but there’s plenty more still to be played for throughout the second half of the season in this particular corner of West Sussex.