Southwick Are Going Home
We’re barely seven weeks in, but it already feels as though 2021 has been a long year and there have also been highly disturbing signs that non-league football could be heading towards a series of catastrophes, the likes of which we have never seen before. In these bleak times we should probably all be clinging onto good news stories as though our lives depend on it, and here’s one from my very own home county of West Sussex.
Southwick FC have been on hard times for just about as long as anyone can remember, but last year things took a considerable turn for the worse. In March, the owners of the club surrendered the lease on the stadium back to its owner, Adur & District Council, and gave up the ghost of their own accord. The club, however, wasn’t quite dead yet.
Reinstituted as a Community Interest Company (CIC), Southwick’s first and most important job has been to find a way back into Old Barn Way. At a Zoom meeting on the 24th July, the council confirmed that regardless of the selection of the leaseholder, reserved use for ‘affiliated’ football and ‘Saferide’ – the motorcycle training company currently operating at the premises – would be a condition of selection of the future leaseholder. But a football club returning to Old Barn Way was not assured.
Things weren’t always like this. The club had been playing Sussex County League football for almost thirty years when they were promoted into the Isthmian League in 1985. At the end of their first season there they won the Division One South championship, and the following year finished in fourth place in the First Division, which would now be considered Step Three, one level below the current National League South. They lasted seven years in the Isthmian League before being relegated back to the Sussex County League, where they remained – dropping as low as its Division Three – before the league became the Southern Combination League in 2017. They finished bottom of its First Division in 2018 and 13th out of 17 three seasons ago.
There were also occasional adventures in the FA Cup. In the 1974/75 season, they were beaten at home in the First Round of the competition by AFC Bournemouth. The following year, they reached the Fourth Qualifying Round of the competition before losing to Wealdstone, while eleven years later, during the 1986/87 season, they took Maidstone United of the Football Conference to three replays in the Fourth Qualifying Round before losing. Two years later, Maidstone won promotion to the Football League.
Over the last couple of decades or so, though, Old Barn Way has fallen into disrepair. Players had to buy their own training equipment, while the showers ran cold, despite the fact that a £100,000 grant from the Football Stadia Improvement Trust had allowed the club to build a new, modern changing room block as recently as 2003. And such was the condition of the ground that the council ended up having the ground unsafe. Pictures showed the grass on the pitch overgrown and the ground looking as though no-one had gone anywhere near it for several months.
The very fact that it could have fallen into this state would have been a cause for concern at the best of times. Football grounds – and in particular non-league football grounds – are often viewed by developers with hungry eyes. Dozens have been lost to property developers over the years, and in an area like Southwick, just a few miles west of the highly sought-after Brighton, it would not have been that surprising to see vultures starting to circle, regardless of the best intentions of the local council.
FA rules require that all debts are paid in full, secured or transferred to the new entity, and this meant that Southwick FC had to be allowed to die. Southwick FC started this season at an intermediate level, playing on the recreation ground adjacent to their former home, with the aim of returning senior football to Southwick at Old Barn Way. In the middle of September, they started their season in the Mid-Sussex Championship with a home match against Ashurst Wood. It was an uncertain opening – they fell behind after just five minutes had been played – but they came back to win the match by two goals to one, and haven’t looked back since.
Their eight league matches before their season was curtailed brought eight wins with twenty-six goals scored, and the suspended league table shows them three points clear at the top with a game in hand. No-one knows for sure whether this season will be completed at the moment, of course, but it’s not looking particularly likely that it will at present. But the result on the pitch on that warm Saturday afternoon almost five months ago was probably the least important aspect of that particular day.
What was important that day was the show of intent. Programmes and hot food were available. A portable PA system had been brought along, so announcements could be made. An attempt had been made on the part of Southwick’s organisers to make this as much like a ‘normal’ match as it could. And furthermore, a crowd of about two hundred people turned out for it. A community which seemed to have given up on Southwick FC a little – unsurprisingly, considering their record in recent years – had turned out in force to support the team. The message was loud and clear. The interest was there, if the club could be run by people who care.
A search for suitable operators was carried out by the local council, and yesterday came the news that all associated with the club had been hoping for. Terms for a new 25-year lease have now been agreed with the Russell Martin Foundation (RMF), a Southwick-based not-for-profit organisation with plans to work with the council to refurbish the entire site, transforming it into a community football hub, which promotes health, wellbeing and education in the area. RMF has also agreed to offer the newly reformed club the chance to use the ground for their home fixtures, and it is hoped that Old Barn Way can be ready in time for the the start of next season.
Initial estimates suggested that up to £500,000 of repairs would be required to bring the ground back into use. The council are set to agree the release of £50,000 in funding to be spent directly on the ground. RMF want to install a sustainable cork-based artificial pitch which should, as has happened at countless other non-league clubs, enable the ground to be used regularly all year round. It sounds very much like is a conclusion that will benefit both the football club itself and the wider community in Brighton’s westernmost outpost. Our heartfelt congratulations go to those who have worked so hard to give the club such an opportunity.