On Non-League Football, Peace, Quiet & Gratitude
It’s five and twenty past seven in the evening when I walk through the front door. I’m on a flying visit, following a long day, but I can’t walk past the top of my road without saying goodnight to my boys, even though this means that I’ll be cutting it tight for a seven forty-five kick-off. Younger son is asleep in his cot, laying as though he died where he fell, but older son is still awake, albeit with the slightly dazed expression of someone who’s sitting on the fence between the land of the living and the netherworld.
A kiss and a cuddle for validation, and I slip my coat back on. “Daddy… Daddeeeeee… I’ve got something important I need to tell you.” I’m long enough in the tooth to know that this isn’t going to be important (I mean, he’s three years old), but I also know enough about this game to know that my path of least resistance is to indulge The Thoughts of Chairman Dylan for a few moments. “Today tomorrow me and mummy we’re going to the…” His eyes widen, “…toy shop.” It’s his fourth birthday in a few weeks, and his mother is taking him out to pick a couple of bits for his train set. “I know. And the sooner you go to sleep the sooner it will be tomorrow morning.” It’s enough. His eyes close. Oh, sweet, sweet freedom, if only for a couple of hours.
Should I ever get the chance to sit down and write a book called These Things I Know, chapter one will be entitled, “Value your free time. You won’t realise how valuable it is until you don’t have it any more.” My life is notable for the background noise, whether it’s the omnipresent whistling of tinnitus or the squawks and screeches of the kids. Silence, which I used to find somewhat oppressive, feels like freedom, these days – a temporary type of freedom (and in some respects I wouldn’t have it any different), but freedom nevertheless. The short distance from home to Woodside Road, though, is the sum total of my solitude for the evening. There’s a queue outside the ground when I get there.
Crowds for matches at the start of the season at this level of the game – the regionalised seventh division – can be difficult to second guess. The margins between what constitutes a “good” or “bad” attendance can be wafer-thin at the best of times, but there are complications at the start of the season. It’s a Tuesday night, so how many people won’t be able to get back from work on time? It’s August, so how many people might still be on holiday? It’s the start of the season, so how many people’s football body clocks might not yet have adjusted to the circadian rhythms that some of us may forget over the summer? It’s a local derby, but how might travelling supporters be affected by the various peccadilloes of the famously incompetent Southern Rail or by possible traffic delays on the arterial dual carriageway that links East and West Sussex?
Worthing averaged just over 900 for their home league matches last season, the highest in the division, and this came about even though they tailed off, finishing in ninth place after having been around the top end of the table for most of the winter months. An impressive statistic, but will the same hunger amongst local people still be present for the start of this season? After all, Worthng lost their opening match at Folkestone Invicta on Saturday, and by all accounts they did so fairly comprehensively. This isn’t a matter of questioning the loyalty of the home support, of course, but just five years ago Worthing’s average home attendance (albeit a division lower) was just 250. Attendances can go up and down on a year-by-year basis. Lewes are also well-supported for this level, but Tuesday night away matches aren’t always the best showcase for this.
As I make the short walk up the road, over the railway bridge, and then back on myself, the crowd of people clearly making the same journey as me swells, and once at the ground there’s a lengthy queue to get in, even with all of the turnstiles having been opened. The mood is light-hearted. It’s a bit early in the season to be treating this as a matter of life or death, and the atmosphere both outside and inside the ground is what you get when people are reminded that they have a good excuse to go out on a Tuesday night and have a couple of pints for the first time since last May. It’s jocular, light-hearted, enjoying a mild, sunny evening.
The ground itself hasn’t changed over the summer. One of the park benches, which sat in the corner of one of the terraces, has mysteriously switched to a new position behind the goal, but I can’t see whether this was improvised by supporters who couldn’t be bothered to walk all the way round to the main stand in order to sit, or whether it’s been bolted into the ground by the club. On the one hand, I probably shouldn’t worry about such things. On the other, though, it’s nice to have a couple of hours when I can give consideration to something so utterly, utterly trivial. My life is full of Important Things. Kids. Work. Bills. If I’m going to give my thought processes over to the unimportant, then let that consideration be given to the positioning of a park bench inside a non-league football ground.
As ever, I’m not paying too much attention to the match itself within about thirty seconds of it kicking off. A man walks past with a waxed moustache and a dapper three-piece grey suit. Another looks so much like Louis Theroux that I would be completely convinced that it was him, were it not for the fact that I am at a football match between Worthing and Lewes. I can’t imagine what sort of documentary Louis could make about this match.
The pitch, I note to myself, is looking a little threadbare in the corners, but I don’t know enough about the technology to be able to say whether this is a design feature or not. I may not like these artificial pitches very much – they run too true, and the absence of mud is jarring – but I completely understand why non-league football clubs get them installed. At Worthing, the crowd is noticeably younger than you’d expect for a non-league match, and I wouldn’t be in the slightest bit surprised to find out that being able to allow the pitch to be used by local groups has strengthened the club’s links with the local community and consequently pushed attendances up.
On the pitch, Worthing look clearly stronger than Lewes, and two goals from Alex Parsons give them a comfortable lead, which is compounded a minute from the break when Lewes’ Stefan Ilic is sent off for a second yellow card for a challenge on the goalkeeper which straddles the ground between “agricultural” and “industrial.” There might have only been a couple of league places between these two in the league table at the end of last season, but it doesn’t feel like it for much of the first half. It only takes six minutes for the first “fracas” of the season, which might well have ended in a red card or two had it happened a little later in the game, and after a quarter of an hour a curling shot thumps out off the post for Parsons to turn in the rebound. From the angle that I’m viewing it all from, it looks like it might have thumped out off the post and in off the goalkeeper. Subsequent viewings, however, deny this.
In the minutes before half-time, the match appears to be put beyond a great deal of doubt. With four minutes left to play, Darren Budd suddenly comes over all Georgi Kinkladze and dances effortlessly past a couple of defenders before rolling the ball through to Parsons, who clips the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper and in. Then, seconds from the break, comes Ilic’s second yellow card, for a rash lunge at the Worthing goalkeeper Roco Rees. Two-nil up against ten men feels like a stepping stone towards the sort of local derby win that they’ll talk about for some time to come, and this feeling intensifies four minutes into the second half, when Budd arrives in the penalty area for a corner to thump a downward header in to make it three-nil.
The comfort of a plump three-goal lead doesn’t, however, last for very long, and two minutes later Jordy Mongoy pulls a goal back for Lewes. With this goal, the entire timbre of the game changes. Lewes, given that slightest sliver of daylight, pour forward in search of a second goal and it’s difficult to tell whether Worthing’s players have become more accident-prone or whether we’re just noticing it more than we had been previously. A second Lewes goal, and things could get really interesting.
Midway through the half, Dayshonne Golding’s shot thumps out off the Worthing crossbar. A goal behind with a quarter of the game to play, it would have been difficult not to back Lewes to complete the comeback – after all, both of these matches finished 4-3 to the away team last season – and even in its dying moments there’s a chance for a grandstand finish when Keiron Pamment’s long-range shot takes a huge deflection off a defender, forcing Rees to adjust his footing and balance in the blink of an eye before spectacularly tipping the ball to safety. It’s enough to see Worthing over the line, a first home league win of the season. Their next home match is another local derby, against Bognor Regis Town on Bank Holiday Monday.
After the full-time whistle blows, the PA system strikes up Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” None of the home crowd seem to have that much to worry about. Their team has played well, and a pleasant summer evening has ended in a first home win of the season. No-one seems to be in that much of a hurry to get home. I’m not either, really, so a slow, ponderous walk home is enough for me to take stock of it all.
We take a lot of things in life for granted, all the more so when they’re in our immediate line of sight all the time. The attendance for the match was recorded as 1,150. Stop and think about that for a moment. This match being local derby notwithstanding, this is an extraordinary figure for a Tuesday night match in the regionalised seventh division of our league system. In an era during which late-stage capitalism has started consuming all before it, it should probably be more surprising that it is that non-league football even still exists, never mind that there are clubs that are thriving.
Crowds for matches across the board have increased dramatically over the last few years, and we’ve barely even noticed. Clubs like Worthing are as far removed from so much as the National League as, say, Rotherham United are from the Premier League, yet there are a number of clubs playing at this level – even a couple at lower levels – who can attract a four-figure crowd for a biggish match, or can persuade a couple of hundred of supporters to journey halfway across Sussex to support their team. We should celebrate the scale and diversity of the non-league pyramid much more than we actually do.
When I get home, the house is full of silence. The boys are asleep, and all is peaceful and quiet. I’m so grateful for these beautiful boys, and it’s one of the great paradoxes of parenting that, much as you value the time that they’re not with you, you sure as hell miss them when this happens. To get away from it all for a couple of hours, however, is valuable, and to have a living, breathing football ground to escape to, just a ten minute walk from home, is precious. Worthing and Lewes will be fine, this season. So long as I get the occasional break like this, so will I.