Southwick On The Ropes

by | Aug 27, 2020

For the football supporter, it’s one of the most arresting sights on the railway line, west from Brighton towards Portsmouth and Southampton. About ten minutes out from Brighton, on the right hand side, is a football ground. The train rolls fairly slowy behind the goal at one end of the pitch, affording the onlooker a satisfying view of a football pitch, with a small stand tucked away on one side, and the name of the club which plays – or played – there emblazoned on a wall in six foot high letters. There are doubtless Facebook groups dedicated to football grounds that you can see from passing trains, but few offer a more tempting glimpse than Old Barn Way, Southwick.

Southwick FC have been on hard times for just about as long as anyone can remember, but this year things have taken 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 still have 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 – will be a condition of selection of the future leaseholder. But a football club returning to Old Barn Way is not assured.

FA rules require that all debts are paid in full, secured or transferred to the new entity, and this means that Southwick FC has to be allowed to die. Southwick FC will start again at an intermediate level, playing at Buckingham Park, a public park on the northern side of nearby Shoreham-by-Sea, with the aim of returning senior football to Southwick at Old Barn Way. The council may well have intimated that they want football to return to Old Barn Way, but Southwick FC has already been relegated to park football. It is completely obvious that getting the ground back is key to getting the club revived in any form whatsoever. Without that, there seems little point in continuing the club.

Things wasn’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 folllowing 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 two 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, 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 have now declared the ground unsafe. Recent pictures show 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 fall into this state is 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 be that surprising to see vultures starting to circle, regardless of the best intentions of the local council.

So, a new clubs has been set up, and they’re starting to agitate for the CIC to be allowed to return to the ground. Everybody knows that Southwick FC, the club founded in 1882, cannot continue. There is nobody there to pay its debts. It needs to be properly wound up and its history preserved. The obvious decision is for the CIC to be given use of Old Barn Way. There is ample evidence from football’s past that, particularly in non-league football, the fans can be the literal lifeblood of the clubs, and there is definitely an opportunity to build something of which the community can be proud. One need only look a little further along the south coast, to Lewes, to see how a small football can do this. So the question becomes, will Adur & District Council allow the new CIC the opportunity to try to do the same?

This Sunday, there will be a public meeting at the club to show support for the CIC. It’s true to say that all applications for the lease over Old Barn Way should be considered, but Adur & Council should use this renewal as an opportunity to renew football in this particular part of the world. Mutual ownership offers football clubs the opportunity to become quite a literal part of their communities, and the shortcomings of the previous ownership of Southwick FC should not reflect negatively to those looking to revive the game in the area. If the council wants a football club that can be a positive hub for its local community, giving the lease to the CIC would seem to be the best way of doing so. It is to be hoped that common sense prevails.