Sunday, September 16, 2007

Winning ugly

Southwick 4-0 Broadbridge Heath

Two clubs from the Sussex County League Second Division go to battle in the Sussex County Football Association Royal Ulster Rifles Charity Cup 2nd round. Not a glamour time, perhaps, but a match which piqued my interest. Firstly, I have traveled along the Coastway West railway line in and out of Brighton more times than I could possibly ever remember and, as such, am very familiar with the sight of Southwick’s Old Barn Way stadium. A short way west of Fishersgate Station, its south side is separated from the railway line by just a low wall and a high net to stop errant balls hitting passing trains. Further to this, I recently discovered during the course of a discussion of non-league matters (in fact, it was with your usual correspondent on these pages, namedropping fans) about the issue of Southwick's dwindling support - their average attendance last season was a gloomy 35, their lowest just 18 - a figure which, one hopes, did not include the players. I felt the time was right to finally go into the ground and make up the numbers. Thirdly and finally, I feel I should admit that what ultimately sealed the deal for me. Whilst watching the SCL Division 1 contest between Shoreham vs. Eastbourne United Association FC would have been the more convenient for me, the fact is that Broadbridge Heath’s club badge has a big ol’ bear on it.

It’s worth nothing that Southwick’s off-field problems are currently matched by difficulties on it - at the end of last season, their player-manager, the 28 year old forward Dominic Shepherd resigned, citing his both desire to continue his playing career and The Wickers lack of ambition. It's all a far cry from a team who, just 15 years ago, were in the upper reaches of the old Isthmian League and who, in 1974/75, even made the first round proper of the FA Cup. Indeed, until recently they were still a force to be reckoned with in SCL circles, but their relegation back to Division 2 in 2004/5 seems to have put them back to square one.

Broadbridge Heath's history, both distant and recent, is not quite so studded with traumatic unrealised hopes but, notably, the team share at least one of Southwick’s problems. At an average attendance of 33 last term, they were the worst-supported in the entire league. Their ground since 1987 - a Leisure Centre – suffers in terms of atmosphere thanks to both its running track and the simple fact that it was not conceived with football in mind. More of an immediate concern for The Bears should be their on-field activities – last season they finished one place above being relegated down to SCL division 3, the lowest rung of the football pyramid.

Coming into the game, Broadbridge Heath were the the clear favourites, in spite of last weekend's 4-0 loss at high-flying Littlehampton Town. Southwick have won just once at home in six league games this season and their most recent cup match saw them dumped out of the John O’Hara League Cup by exceptionally lowly division 3 side Bosham. Heath’s league position of 9th is attributable solely to a home record as shaky as Southwick's – one win in five – as away from Wickhurst Lane, they have recorded an impressive two wins from three. Southwick's away form has been even worse than their efforts at Old Barn Way, however, and they lie a precarious 16th out of 18.

Quite why this should be the case was perhaps made plain to me as I arrived at the ground. Out of the train window on the approach, I saw the Broadbridge Heath team finish their pre-match warm up, all orange bibs and jogging. As I arrived in the ground, however, I witnessed a truly terrifying Southwick warm-up. The team – including many of the first XI - were dressed as if for a park kickabout and shooting at the goal in such a way that I started to wonder if my position behind it was perhaps the best idea. Nevertheless, they all enjoyed it enough that their manager was compelled to leave the dressing room at five-to-three to call them in. Dinner’s ready!

Raining footballs and florid swearing aside, though, I was sure I was in for an entertaining afternoon. The pitch was quite extraordinary. Hard and dusty, yet with a grass covering akin to that of a Van Gogh, it made me realise that real men never mow. My joy was further heightened upon seeing the linesmen for the day. One was half my age, the other the age of my grandfather. On closer inspection, the latter seemed to have a heart-rate monitor on his wrist, and enough pencils shoved down his sock to legitimately open the batting for England. This, THIS, is why I love non-league football.

The early exchanges showed exactly why Heath were the favourites. They play an attractive, thoughtful game of one and two-touch passing with movement off the ball. All that is lacking is probably that last ounce of skill to be able to pull it off. In the first 10 minutes they very much caught Southwick on the hop, and should have been 1-0 ahead after 5 when their left wing-back Jamal Sultan – for me, the game’s outstanding attacker – burst into the box from the wing but chose to shoot instead of squaring the ball to the waiting centre forward. As the half went on, Southwick managed to get back on terms, employing a different philosophy – direct in attack, spirited and organized in defence. With the two different systems, the first 45 reached a stalemate, with perhaps Heath having created the better opportunities – two of which they really should have done better with – but without the feeling that Southwick were being outclassed.

Heath’s play was refined to the point of almost being TOO cute, considering the opposition, the competition and the conditions – this was not a pitch on which to try one-touch football. Watching the subs warm up at half-time, I saw Heath’s two diligently try out set piece delivery and execution, whilst again Southwick’s five had an all purpose schoolyard kickabout, showcasing what bloody awful shots they all are. My suspicions about the direction the match may have been headed were, in hindsight, confirmed at this point. Southwick clearly had no less an immutable force as Sod’s Law on their side.

The second half began much as the first ended, but Southwick’s relentless pressing soon bore fruit, and after 10 minutes they were ahead - a poorly defended cross turned into his own net by an unfortunate Heath defender. Heath never stopped trying to play attractive football to dig themselves out of the situation, and it was perhaps their undoing, as time and again Southwick hit them on the break. In a 15 minute spell, they had killed the game off, thanks in large part to their right-sided midfield play and a match-long series of excellent crosses. Both the second – an unstoppable header from an ideal cross – and the third (another own goal under extreme pressure from the Southwick attacker after a saved shot rebounded) goals came from textbook work on the wings. The fourth, which was perhaps cruel on Broadbridge Heath, was a drive across the keeper from just inside the box by the player – Ricky Timms – who had created such havoc on the flanks throughout the match. With every goal, The Bears heads seemed to drop a little further, but they never stopped trying to play it on the floor to get above their problems. What did suffer was their discipline. A number of players got a talking to from the referee for their astonishing swearing, and their substitute right midfielder was maybe lucky not to be sent off after he threw the ball into the face of the Southwick left-back right under the linesman’s nose. His reward was just a booking, and a cooling off achieved by his physio spraying him with a florist’s mister gun. The argument about play-acting which degenerated into threats of violence between the left-back and some Heath supporters in the meanwhile was worth the entrance fee alone.

Broadbridge Heath, without question, played the more attractive football on the day. But Southwick mastered all the elements, and played the more effective, roared on throughout by their manager – who played a libero role - roaming round the perimeter of the ground barking instructions and insults at the officials, with the impunity only a man pretending to be just another spectator could muster. Also worthy of note in the Wicker’s team was their Captain, Lee Thompson, commanding and unflappable at the back Heath offered a lot in terms of promise, but were unable to deliver when it counted. On another day, it could easily have been 6-4 and duly, their dugout was absolutely disgusted by the way things panned out. Heath played the more attractive game, Southwick the winning one, with inevitable results. For all Broadbridge Heath’s good intentions, there was no denying Southwick deserved their win and took it well.


poots said...

I'm more than a little disappointed you neglected to show us an example of what a bear looks like
If you couldn't show us the bear of the badge, then another poorly scribbled example would have sufficed

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