I’ve witnessed these pauses for reflection before, of course. If you attend football matches anything like regularly, it’s almost certain that you have, too, whether on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday, to mark the passing of a former player, of a stalwart staff or boardroom member, or a name from within the game who commanded everybody’s attention. Sometimes there can be an air of something approaching resigned acceptance about them, a sense of this pause for thought being tolerated interlude before the fun and games begin. The noise of the crowd drops to a whisper and then to silence as the referee’s whistle blows. Sixty seconds later, that same whistle blows again and the noise of the crowd swells again, as if that small space quiet contemplation was about as much as the watching crowd could manage before reverting to its bellowing, laughing default state again. It’s become a convention, a theatrical set-piece with a specified start time and a specified stop time, a set of rules that we’ve all agreed upon and stick to out of respect for those that have passed, no matter who they may be.
Yesterday afternoon at five minutes to five, however, was different. In the minutes building up to the players taking the pitch at Lyons Farm, the chatter of the crowd had rippled around the ground in waves, falling away to occasional moments of near-silence before the teams took the pitch to a polite, tear-stained applause and lining up for a minute’s respectful yet defiant applause. Normal match day rituals didn’t apply this time around. Jacob Schilt and Matthew Grimstone, the two Worthing United players killed a little over two weeks earlier under the freakishly grotesque circumstances of the Shoreham Air Show crash, were at Lyons Farm yesterday afternoon in spirit. Their families were there, and a sizable proportion of a sell-out crowd of a thousand and eight people were relatives, people who knew them as footballers, colleagues and friends. Outside the ground hung shirts, scarves, and goalkeepers’ gloves marked with memorials to these two players. The close-knit football community of Sussex was also out in force, saying their farewells as well.
The venue itself is Sussex football in a microcosm, barely-enclosed pitch excavated and levelled at some distant point in the past, sitting adjacent to fields grazed by disinterested horses with the Sussex downs looming heavily in the background. Looking down past the pitch, in the distance the sapphire blue English Channel peeks out between the trees and buildings. On such an afternoon, what happened on the pitch might otherwise have been considered an absolute irrelevance, but this was more than a memorial match. Next springtime and the possibility of a Wembley cup final might feel like an eternity away for any club at this early stage of the season without even taking into account the tragic events of the last couple of weeks, but this was an FA Vase First Qualifying Round match, with the promise of extra-time at the end of ninety minutes and a replay in the event that the two teams couldn’t be separated.
Football in Sussex is far from solely defined by the minnows of the local leagues, though. Brighton & Hove Albion bestride the South Downs like a giant, and this club has shown considerable benevolence in its handling of the last couple of weeks as well. The pain felt by Worthing United was shared at the Amex Stadium, where Matt Grimstone worked as a groundsman, and Albion have been faultless in offering assistance to Worthing United over the last two weeks. The club handled the ticketing arrangements for this match – Worthing United had never seen a sold out match before – as well as stewards to manage the crowd. Their players have offered their own tributes, and there was a sizable number of blue and white striped shirts amongst those present. Gathered together behind one goal was Albion’s women’s team, who travelled over to watch this watch and pay their respects after the end of their match against Queens Park Rangers, while goalkeeper David Stockdale was present and another Albion player, Lewis Dunk, played with both of the lost players at school, wrote a short tribute for the match programme. At a time when it frequently feels as if bigger clubs are becoming ever more distant from the communities within which they operate, Brighton & Hove Albion have demonstrated that, as an institution, they are still very much a part of its community.
East Preston played a full part in the commemoration, as well as in the match itself. Their small group of supporters arrived with a flag which with the words “RIP Matt and Jacob” written on it which was held aloft throughout the minute’s applause, and the team itself, which is struggling near the bottom of Division One of the Southern Combination Football League – the same division as Worthing United – gave their hosts a good game. Even on such a day as this, perhaps the greatest respect that they could have shown was to give the home side a game worthy of the occasion and this they did, pushing all the way before a dramatic ending finally separated the two teams. Understandably sluggish after the events of the last couple of weeks, during which the team hadn’t played any matches and had barely even trained together, it took an hour for Jack Hayward to give Worthing the lead, but in the last seconds of the match came the drama served as a fitting coda to the day. Bruno Costa’s run and shot into the roof of the goal brought East Preston level a minute into stoppage time, but within seconds the visiting goalkeeper Darren Ford spilled a long distance shot from Paul Elliott and Sam Blundell poked the ball over the line to win the game for Worthing United.
As the afternoon settled into dusk over Lyons Farm yesterday afternoon, the shadows on the pitch lengthened as the sun began to set. Memories do not fade in the same way as the sun does. These two footballers will live for as long as there are people who will remember them, just as will be the case for the other nine victims of the Shoreham Air Crash. With the assistance of local people and a bigger yet still determinedly local football club, a completely fitting memorial to them was paid by the club that they used to play for. On a day such as this, we might pause to consider that football simultaneously does and doesn’t matter. On the one hand, the result of the match was among the last thing on most people’s minds yesterday afternoon, and rightly so. But at the same time, football remains a blank slate onto which we project our values, hopes, aspirations and rituals. Yesterday afternoon in the sunshine, Worthing United FC played out a perfectly judged tribute to two of their players and perhaps the game of football itself is the only vessel through which such a tribute could have been made. This football club and this community may never be the same again, but all concerned can take considerable pride in having given them a send off of which they undoubtedly would have been proud.
You can see a gallery of pictures from yesterday afternoon’s match on Flickr by clicking here.
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