Rebels on the Rise: Worthing FC Ease Through The Play-Offs
At half-time during Tuesday night’s somewhat less than enthralling Champions League semi-final between Manchester City and Real Madrid, I repaired outside for a little fresh air. As I stood outside on this cold, fresh evening, I heard the distinctive sound of a cheer, followed by a muffled public address announcement. Another goal for Worthing, then, in their Ryman League Division One South play-off semi-final against Hythe Town. Worthing would go on to score seven goals without reply in front of a crowd of 948 people, a sensational scoreline and an impressive attendance for a cold Tuesday night in April with Champions League football on the television.
The non-league game has a rather clever way of managing its play-offs. Rather than playing over two legs, as the Football League does, the likes of the Ryman League only play one leg for each of their play-off matches, with the higher placed team being given the advantage of playing at home. This gives a significant advantage – which we may consider to be a reward – for finishing higher in the league table. Finish as runners-up, and it’s guaranteed that any play-off matches that you play will be at home. Finish in the last play-off position, and you’ll be the away team, no matter who you play. But why should a team that has finished in fifth place over forty-six matches get any advantage in the play-offs over teams that finished above them, having got there?
At the top of the Ryman League Division One South, any serious hopes that Worthing would lift the title this year were receding by the new year. Folkestone Invicta streaked clear at the top of the table and finished the season twenty-four points clear at the top of the table. Worthing finished in third place, still with an impressive eighty-eight points and having scored ninety-six goals. Optimism and play-offs, however, are seldom comfortable bedfellows. Worthing may have put seven goals without reply past a Hythe Town team that only finished a point below them in the final league table, and their opponents in the final, Faversham Town, only ended the season in the final play-off spot because Corinthian-Casuals, who had been just above them in the table, were docked three points for fielding an ineligible player, a charge brought just a couple of weeks ago, as the normal league programme drew to a close.
If Worthing’s success can be attributed anywhere, it should probably be attributed to the club’s owner George Dowell, whose own story is surely unique in the history of English football. Dowell first joined the club in 2008 as a sixteen year-old and played for the youth team before earning a couple of appearances on the substitutes bench for the first team before a car accident in 2010 left him paralysed from the chest down. Dowell had looked to start his own club in order to scratch his football itch following the accident, but upon hearing that the club that he had played for was in serious financial difficulty with debts of £200,000, he took over the ownership of Worthing instead.
The changes at the club have been immediate and obvious. Rather than merely pouring money into the vast money pit that players wages consist of even at this level of the game, Dowell’s ownership of the club has been about building the infrastructure of the club instead. The club’s Woodside Road ground had a smart new 3G playing surface installed and the club bar was renovated, with other improvements planned for the future. Rather than making any rash proclamations of reaching the Football League in a fixed period of time, Dowell’s stated aim is for Worthing to reach the National League South in five years – two promotions, at the point at which he took over the running of the club.
This year’s Worthing vintage is sprinkled with names that will be very familiar to those who know their lower league football in Sussex. The club’s joint-manager (who doubles up as a player, as well) is Gary Elphick, the elder brother Tommy Elphick, who served Brighton & Hove Albion with distinction for seven years and now plies his trade in the Premier League with AFC Bournemouth, and who himself has a couple of games for Brighton, as well as – amongst others – St Albans City, Havant & Waterlooville, Eastbourne Borough and Eastleigh. In goal, meanwhile, is the apparently ageless Rikki Banks, who has been bouncing around this level of the game for the best part of a decade now, and whose position in a number one shirt is a curiously reassuring sight for supporters who know their local non-league football.
Although the senior club in a town of 105,000 people, it has sometimes felt as though Worthing have been the forgotten party in the local non-league scene. Until the intervention of George Dowell, there seemed to be perennial rumours of financial difficulty at the club, and attendances seemed to be slowly drying up as the club stagnated in Division One South of the Ryman League, a level at which the club has been playing for the last nine years, punctuated only by two previous unsuccessful attempts at the play-offs in this division, in 2008, 2009 and 2010. This, however, was not the case on Saturday afternoon, where even arriving at the ground some thirty-five minutes before kick-off wasn’t enough to avoid queues from the turnstiles snaking halfway up the street. The attendance for this match was 1,889, almost exactly double what it had been for last week’s semi-final.
Play-offs can be tense, nervous times, when form books go out of the window, players freeze and techiness is all around. Sometimes, however, serendipity turns up to settle the nerves after just six minutes when Brannon O’Neill’s corner swings directly over the goal-line, with assistance of a flag from the linesman. Faversham, however, haven’t come all this way merely to make up the numbers, and almost immediately Daniel Carrington has a shot blocked. After eighteen minutes, however, another swing of what may or may not be good fortune swings the game Worthing’s way, when Faversham’s Luke Harvey gets into a tangle with Worthing’s Wil Hendon with wholly predictable results. To a point, these flare-ups have come to resemble something akin to a competitive pas de deux, with both players skirting around actually laying a finger on each other until one drops to the ground and the referee has to make a decision over who’s to blame. Harvey falls on the wrong side of the referee’s judgement call, and Faversham are down to ten players for the rest of the match. Six minutes later, Worthing double their lead when Omar Bugiel’s header is blocked by the goalkeeper only for Elphick to bundle the rebound over the line.
The second half of the match feels like something of a forty-five minute long winding down session. Worthing dominate possession without scoring for twenty-four minutes, but the goal comes eventually when Ben Pope’s shot is blocked and Maguire-Drew, who’s scored eight goals in six games for the club since joining on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion, shoots calmly into the bottom corner of the goal. Four minutes later, there’s a brief flicker of the possibility of a tense finish to the match when Worthing’s Steve Metcalf trips Kieron Campbell for a Faversham penalty kick, but Charley Robertson’s spot-kick is excellently blocked by Rikki Banks. “Banks of England,” notes Twohundredpercent podcast host Edward Carter, leaning back to enjoy the wittiness of his comment.
The last few minutes of the game are played out to a soundtrack of occasional messages over the public address system asking the crowd to stay off the pitch at the end of the match. When the full-time whistle blows, it seems to be in vain, though there is, for a few minutes, something of a game between stewards and excitable young supporters until the fans finally win out, running across the pitch to mob the winning players. Each in turn steps forward to collect his medal, a glass shield is presented, and the players celebrate their rise to the Ryman League Premier Division. “Bognor Regis, we’re coming for you”, the supporters had been singing for much of the second half of the match. Bognor Regis Town lost their play-off semi-final at home against Dulwich Hamlet a couple of days earlier following a punishing run-in brought about by fixture congestion. It promises to be a spicy meatball of a local derby next season.
The longest and most heartfelt round of applause of the afternoon, however, is reserved for George Dowell. Here is a comparative youngster who has already been through something that most of us could never even countenance, but he has invigorated Worthing since his arrival at the club, spending wisely on infrastructure and getting a club that had been looking a little frayed around the edges for a long, long time into a state of fitness that bodes well for its future. No-one deserved yesterday more than he, and the award for his diligence since he took ownership of the club has been to see it complete phase one of his five year plan earlier than most would have expected. Worthing Football Club is on the up, and yesterday’s celebrations might just turn out to be the start of something considerably greater.
There’s a small selection of photographs from Saturday’s match between Worthing and Faversham Town on the 200% Flickr, right here.