Worthing FC: A Pitch Too Far?
There is a football ground a short walk from my house, and on Saturday afternoons I can, should I be so disposed, keep tabs on the latest score there by keeping the back door of my home open and listening to the cheers – or otherwise – coming from nearby. The start of this new season, however, hasn’t brought a great deal of cheer in any respect from Woodside Road, the home of Worthing Football Club. Rooted to the bottom of the Premier Division of the Isthmian League with five losses out of five, it has been a grim start to the season for a club that has been on the up over the last couple of years, but there is more to this bad start to the season than meets the eye.
The story of how Worthing Football Club was revived is a familiar story in non-league circles. Defender George Dowell was seventeen years old and with a handful appearances on the substitutes bench for Worthing under his belt when he was involved in a road traffic accident that left him paralysed from the neck down. In 2015, at the age of twenty-two, he became aware of the desperate position in which the club found itself and stepped in to become its majority shareholder with the assistance of the compensation from his injury, but the money that he put into the club wasn’t wasted. Rather than throwing money onto a bonfire of inflated wages, Dowell’s money went into the club’s infrastructure, paying off debts, renovating bits of the club’s ground, and installing a 3G synthetic surface for the benefit not only of the club but also for the community in a wider sense.
On the pitch, the benefits of this new breath of fresh air were immediately obvious, At the end of Dowell’s first full season in charge of the club, Worthing were promoted back to the Premier Division of the Isthmian League through the play-offs following an absence of nine years, and last season the club finished in a respectable fifteenth place in the table. For the first time in some years, a club that has skated close to the edge started to feel as though it had some life about it. Off the pitch, meanwhile, the ground itself was becoming something of a local hub, with a new bar opened and the main stand completely renovated. However, in January of this year the club found a league match against Billericay Town being postponed due to flooding, and the continual flooding of the surface eventually caused movement in the stone base underneath the surface, resulting in the pitch becoming uneven.
Successful drainage work was carried out on the south east corner of the ground in October of last year and work was also attempted on the other three quarters of the pitch during the summer. This, however, did not work, leaving standing water on the pitch when it rained and the club called on the assistance of the FA and FIFA in order to try to rectify the problem. FIFA’s assessment has been that the pitch is unsafe and that it will need to be relaid, but this cannot happen during the season for obvious reasons, so the club has been desperately searching for a short-term solution to this problem so that the pitch can be used until next summer, but in the meantime the pitch is unable to be used.
The effect on the football club has been obvious. What a brief glance at a retracted league table doesn’t tell the passing visitor is that Worthing have had their fixtures for this season rescheduled so that each of their first five matches were played away from home, and at a level of the game at which match-day revenue makes up a significant proportion of income, there can be little question that the lack of matches at the ground can only have had a negative effect on the club’s financial position. In addition to this, the disadvantage of playing five straight matches away from home might well have impacted upon the club’s ability to attract players – given a choice between offers, it would be understandable if a player that Worthing had been looking at chose elsewhere, considering the current uncertainty – and, whilst the team’s form in its first five away matches of the season may or may not be related to what’s been going on elsewhere at the club, it’s difficult to imagine that form on the pitch has been helped by uncertainty away from it.
The forthcoming international break, of course, doesn’t apply to non-league clubs and this weekend Worthing travel to Dorking Wanderers for an FA Cup First Qualifying Round match. Should this match end in a draw, however, where the replay might be played isn’t yet known, still less where the club’s scheduled home league match against Margate the following Saturday. Local rivals Bognor Regis Town have offered the use of their Nyewood Lane ground should Worthing need it, and whilst this obviously a good thing for Worthing – being unable to play any home matches would likely result in extremely serious sanctions being levelled against the club – playing away from home will obviously continue to adversely impact upon the club. Bognor Regis is thirty-five minutes by train from Worthing, and crowds will obviously be negatively impacted, and that’s before we even consider the likely impact upon other revenues from playing home matches at somebody else’s home.
Furthermore, since this matter is still being dealt with by the FA and FIFA, the club is now prevented from issuing any further updates regarding the current state of play at the club. As such, supporters remain completely in the dark over where the club will be playing its home matches for this season. Manager Gary Elphick, meanwhile, finds himself in a tricky situation as well, although a recent interview with the Worthing Herald found him in an upbeat mood, stating that, “I feel it’s mine and the players’ duty now to make sure we carry out both George’s and Calvin’s (Buckland – the club’s general manager) vision for this club. They were a major part in me coming here and I want to be a success for them.” So far, the team has not quite been able to manage this on the pitch, but the hope is that returning to Woodside Road will galvanise a misfiring team. At present, however, no-one knows when this will happen over the course of the remainder of this season. Considering all the hard work that has been put into revitalising the club over the last couple of years or so, it is a considerable disappointment that this matter wasn’t fully addressed and rectified by the suppliers before the start of the season.
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