Southwick & The Start of a Long Road Back
It’s an unusual way to start a season, but necessity was the mother of invention on a park pitch on the south coast yesterday afternoon, as a battered and bruised football club picked itself up, puffed out its chest, and ran up a win to start their life in reduced circumstances. Regular readers may be aware of the plight of Southwick Football Club, as it was covered on this site just three weeks ago.
To cut a long story short, earlier this year the directors of Southwick surrendered the lease on the club’s Old Barn Way ground back to its owner, Adur & District Council, and walked away of their own accord. Reinstituted as a Community Interest Company (CIC) under the name Southwick (1882), the club managed to find itself a place in the Mid-Sussex League – two divisions below their already modest Southern Combination League status – but there has been no return to their ground, and there is no guarantee that there ever will be.
At the time of writing that previous piece, they were due to be starting the new season at Buckingham Park, in nearby Shoreham-by-Sea. It was a long way to travel, and it was in no meaningful sense ‘home’, but it was somewhere from which they could keep a flame alive. Since writing this, however, there was a little good luck. The club managed to relocate to Southwick Recreation ground, which is still a park pitch but does back onto Old Barn Way. It probably couldn’t be much closer to the club’s old home.
This afternoon sees the start to Southwick’s season in the Mid-Sussex Championship (because yes indeed, the top two divisions of the Mid-Sussex League really are called the Premier League and the Championship), and there was a point to be made to the local council. A club that occasionally struggled to get crowds of more that twenty or thirty in the Southern Combination League Division Two has been on a publicity drive, and it’s worked. Walking across the park on a pleasant late summer afternoon, it’s clear that there’s a bigger crowd here today than would usually be seen at this level of the game Which is, for the record, level 12 – seven divisions below the National League.
Furthermore, those now running the club are making do and mending. They’ve done what they can to get the trappings of a senior match present and correct, even if their circumstances are somewhat reduced at the moment. There’s a programme, priced at whatever you can afford to throw into a bucket. A rudimentary PA system has been rigged up, and there’s even a burger van parked up behind the goal. Clean living under difficult circumstances, as the phrase goes. But it’s clear that there’s something blossoming, here.
I’m here with my kids, which means that I’m having to combine my match-watching with herding two cats. They’re surprisingly well-behaved in terms of not running onto the pitch, although older son did momentarily find himself intrigued by the goal nets – I can’t imagine where he got that from – and also ended up having to pee behind a tree after having drunk more juice on the train journey over than I probably could have managed. And this is them on pretty good behaviour. On the pitch, meanwhile, Ashurst Wood, Southwick’s opponents, bag a fifth minute opening goal to deflate the party, just an iota. To their credit, though, Southwick don’t fold. They work their way back into the game and level the scores just twelve minutes later.
We’re sitting immediately behind the Ashurst goal when the deciding moment comes, fifteen minutes from time. A low cross from the right is a little to firm and running a little behind an onrushing striker, but he collapses into the ball from eight yards out, a low shot that looks, as everything slows into a momentarily Matrix-esque slow motion, as though it might even clip wide of the post, but ends up squeezing just inside the right hand post. There’s a late rally from the away side, but the final whistle confirms a first three points of the season. Ashurst, who’ve played a full part in a tight match, have now lost their first three matches of the season, but it’s a sign of how competitive football leagues are from top to bottom that they made a game of this.
Southwick, though, are up and running, but the hardest opponent they’re likely to face this season will be the local council. It’s difficult to say exactly what they’ll have to do to impress enough to get Old Barn Way back, but this afternoon’s match was a good start. Local dignitaries were present – including the local MP – which hints that the club’s ‘get us home’ message may be penetrating in the places where it matters, a decent crowd was in attendance, and a close, enjoyable match was played between two well-matched teams.
Who knows where Southwick will end up in the Mid-Sussex Championship this season? After the interlude they’ve had, one of eviction (and no, the club wasn’t formally evicted, but it will have felt like that to those who played for it or were otherwise still involved in its day-to-day running) and reformation, it says something that they managed to get a team together at all, and still more that they managed to persuade a couple of hundred people that they wanted to watch twelfth division football on this particular Saturday afternoon.
The scale of the challenge ahead, however, shouldn’t be ignored. Persuading this many people to watch park football on a warm September afternoon is one thing. Persuading them to retain such an interest in the middle of winter, however, may be another matter altogether, and this is why it is so important that the club gets back to Old Barn Way if it is to survive in a viable sense. That little ground is overgrown and looking rather sorry for itself at the moment, but there is potential to build something there. However, this needs the identity and the potential to build a revenue stream that having their own ground will bring, but that decision is now down to Adur & District Council. For today, the reborn club has proved its point. Time will tell whether this is the start of a long road back or not.