Even when a man has faced both remorse and enlightenment, perspective change always acts duplicitously.
From the onset of my relationship with non-league, and in fact physical, football, my experience had been fraught with – and my resolve hardened by – destitution, frailty and dramatics. Hand in hand with the travails of FCs Ringmer and Lewes, it had verged on disaster, and seen early glimmers of optimism, but something it was never short of was entertainment. Even through the latest of defeats inflicted by relative divisional minnows, the gradual exodus of innocently idolised names, or the late-season free-for-all to avert relegation ending in ultimate failure, never was expectation conceded. Hope of a re-emergence, of a rebirth – of a competitive return to former glories – never once deserted these lands.
Though the eyes of an ever-optimistic child, in all honesty, of course this was interpreted – jokingly, I must add – as a personal curse. The corresponding reality was in fact that neither side had truly recovered from administration, and insolvency scares, in the few years prior. Neither, with all financial clarity, has even to this day, despite taking discernibly different paths towards recovery. Both are at least wary of the repercussions of overspending and overambition in the hangover from the departures of respected local industrialists, to their credit, but have not been impervious from the draw – inevitable, perhaps – of tangible promotion opportunity, and exceeds sustainable limits in temporary, and regrettable, exertions.
While eventually succumbing to what retrospectively appear long overdue relegations, reality may finally have bitten. Neither the Isthmian, or at that point for sponsorship purposes Ryman, Division One South for the Rooks nor the renamed Southern Combination Football League (previously Sussex Football League) Division One for the Blues were comfortable operative fields at first; posting uninspiring mid-table finishes in the hangover from prior malaise. After relegations amidst the upheaval of evidently unsuited manager Steve Brown’s sacking and inspirational replacement Darren Freeman’s incomplete rebuild, and former Lewes backroom member Jason Hopkinson’s rat-jumped-ship scenario at the Caburn that resulted in the Sunday league players of AFC Ringmer recruited in a manful but unsuccessful diversionary attempt, foundations were to be laid at this stage. Though not concurrent – Lewes’ demise arriving a season later than their neighbours’, in 2015-16 – there was no doubt that the need for stability at both was essential.
Admittedly for differing reasons, focus was first placed on youth. At the Dripping Pan, Freeman promoted the veterans – effectively – of the relegation campaign and the graduates of a successful under-21 programme as the eternal supplement to his more experienced recruits. Like seen at few other clubs at the Isthmian – now Bostik – level, Ronnie Conlon and the formerly Leicester City-linked Charlie Coppola particularly represent a significant onus on internal production and bridge the lack of faith others would indeed have in such a framework. Nonetheless, the astute recruitment of youth coaches and investment in a 3G training/playing surface has bore fruit for a directorship unrivalled in its vision and sensibility. Though running into slight fiscal debt with this approach – with the aid of a few favoured and unnamed patrons rid of such burdens – the benefits are now indisputable.
In contrast, Ringmer ensued as a scene of youthful convenience, rather than palpable faith and investment. Few other realistic options remain for an unpaid squad than to revert to local amenities, whether competitive or otherwise, and almost every side competing at this level has experienced as such in recent years, unless blessed with outstanding loyalty of enduringly trigger-happy ownership. Granted, the administrative gulf is vast between the clubs – on paper just seven miles and two divisions apart – but what emerged for the Blues was a despondent season and, almost, half, under well-travelled, but increasingly obdurate, elder statesman Sammy Donnelly; culminating in a firing, with regret, when slumping to a status as sure-fire relegation candidates just two months into the 2016-17 season. Though underequipped when manning the plough that would drive a squad of prior mediocre reserves and under-21s forward, no obvious signs of development, and Ash Bailey arrived in his place.
As serialised this time last year – see http://www.talkingpointsfootball.co.uk/home/non-league-reporting-a-season-in-the-life - with the former Lancing centre-back and manager came a seemingly never-ending trawl of Sussex’s county league journeymen – young and old, in all positions. The regime change was not smooth, as with Freeman at Lewes, but for its formative rebuttals was it made all the more rewarding when it arrived at its realisation of relative stability.
Once this groundwork was established – tactics set upon, rosters consolidated, optimism restored – performances, although not always naturally at these laborious tiers, followed. This term, historic achievements have been hoisted to the mast of each; the Rooks assuring promotion with three matches remaining, and in a perpetual tussle with Carshalton, opponents of a fine pedigree in recent times, only missing out of the title, and their entire history’s first ever 100-point seasonal haul, in their final outing, while Ringmer, in placing 4th, accomplishing their loftiest league finish since 2005-06, joint-third highest number of league victories since 1965-66 (when two points were still awarded for a win) and their highest ever number of points amassed in a 34-game season. Though admittedly more liberal, Bailey has also taken to rewarding youth with a smattering of substitute, and in the fairy-tale case of striker Sam Wilkinson’s goal-capped full debut starting, appearances, with bountiful recompense. The only question that remains is of how these seasons can be reinforced.
Meanwhile, the often-relinquished post-season ponderings of the fair-weather fan remain. In either side’s success, it was no poetic coincidence that these factors aligned – no, not at this level. Epitomised by unrelenting graft, dedication and creativity, directorship, management and playing staff have come to a cohesive demonstration of ambition and near-unparalleled recent unity. As internal hierarchies are far removed at all non-league institutions, and increasingly so beyond the realms of relevance as the pyramid splays, this realm of shared vision, and clarity of said vision, proves pivotal.
All the same, there are so often the peculiar swings and roundabouts that emerge throughout these stretches. As fortune may appear depleted in one season, so it seems to favour those in possession of form the next; on innumerable occasions this term, when previously upended by the fall of the dice, chances have been skewed by opposition strikers, officiating vision has seen their favour and even the conditions have fallen to aid form. yet not so peculiar at all…
Re-emerging from their temporarily-beset positions in the doldrums of provincial football – their lowest modern ebbs, while also disappointing in various cup commitments – they resume their rightful places. Yet complacency should not pervade their state; as evident in previous seasons’ unenviably rambunctious form of turmoil, one can never consider their right to success as that of perceivably smaller opponents. Both have witnessed far too much achievement on behalf of minnows championed by regionally influential, yet ethically conspicuous, bankrollers to ever consider otherwise; following the heights of Greenwich Borough and Saltdean United, repeated this term through Little Common and Langney Wanderers, who both earn promotion while tenants at the grounds of loftier Eastbourne neighbours United and Borough. Strictly, in fact, a Bexhill side by trade, Common have abandoned the forest principle of all sport, but more specifically non-league ranks, by deferring from their council-owned home and fanbase to a soulless Oval ground; although this personifying impression may solely be the resent of mind-numbingly sub-zero temperatures endured at the brunt of the Eastbourne coastline in tin pot cup competitions. So much for the sunshine coast.
The fundamental moral of these tales could be argued to profess the values of preparation, even in the direst of competitive situations. As each club’s loyal servicemen will be able to note, the torrent does not necessarily repent when dropping down a tier – while you have been toiling dejectedly in the financial lands of relative plenty, those below have been revising their designs and prizing vaulted heads.
Relapse is no bad thing in the long run, however. A season, or indeed two, of gradual adaptation and reinvention has been welcome in these parts, and quality has returned as a result. Nothing, however, is entirely natural down here and cannot be done without relevant finance – full, and ideologically perennial, amateurs Corinthian-Casuals, play-off finishers and eminent Rooks rivals in the current Bostik South iteration, aside. Even the Casuals, in their precedent, are vulnerable in the event of even the most minor of exoduses, proving just how fickle apparent triumph can be outside of professionalised, and largely secure, ranks.
Regardless, it speaks volumes for the afore-lacking attributes of discipline, organisation and application that these seasons have ended so approvingly. Such are the selfless provisions of Freeman and Bailey, local lads done good, that they have altered the destinies of their respective employers. Perhaps not irreversibly, given the tumult of the environment, but each has imparted invaluable experiences that give credence to ever-progressing demands. In the realisation of their vision, they have forged squads that perfectly emulate their ideals with vivacious, high-risk and offensive-minded philosophies – the contrast with their predecessors is thus indelible. Having shirked the ideological void that preceded them, plans have been enacted astutely and results reaped, but equally they both lay on the verge of truly outstanding accomplishment. Few can reliably predict forthcoming events, however, such is the opportunity and romanticism of these tiers.
Elsewhere, this term has featured fortunes and headways also. The utmost and perpetual bane of non-league livelihoods is, of course, the weather. Until late, we had been almost blessed with repent from above, and largely kept to schedules throughout the campaign – Ringmer’s four-week league hiatus, enforced by snow, rain and at best peculiar league-administered scheduling, the only notable exemption. Nonetheless, and as evident in the late season hangover of Billingshurst – an interesting proposition themselves, having only been promoted to the SCFL Division One while effectively sponsored by league authorities, offered a season to bely the usual requirement form floodlights and a 100-seat stand to operate at step nine before erecting such vital infrastructure – this is not the norm; the West Sussex outfit reliant on a week’s extension in which to complete a final three fixtures, losing 5-1, 5-1 again and 8-0 in rearranged excursions.
Quite simply, if the current system of effective administrative abandonment (other than, evidently, individual cases of convenience such as Billingshurst’s), facilities, nor capabilities to repel such inclemencies, cannot improve, let alone be expected to by desensitised authorities. If their model relies on individual entrepreneurship, then let us tell them that is entirely in opposition to everything non-league football stands for – Lewes the prime example. It would be churlish of those involved in the apparent Shahid Khan affair – sickly, and as David Conn of the Guardian reasoned, completely a sign of the times in recent British society – to suggest that such funds would go any way to resolving such issues, and especially away from the metropoles they so evidently favour; THE #PARKLIFE VISION et al. (as referenced last August here http://www.talkingpointsfootball.co.uk/home/the-story-of-englands-forgotten-regional-fas). While initiating these severed social ties to their rural outposts, where dedication is valued most and hardships are felt most severely, with callous acts of unaccountable ignorance, what have they proven themselves other than cowards? Their reality is incredulously, and impassably, distorted. Moral corruption and the abandonment of a legacy is encapsulated at its finest. Their stance is delusional at best – aside from their city-first technocrat culture, let’s consider Khan’s proposal.
Evidently, the Pakistan-born American billionaire – as owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and gentrified West London’s own Fulham, potentially set for a Premier League return this summer – is not a patron paying up to £1 billion for pre-existing circumstances to remain; the Jaguars still in Florida, the England men’s national football team to play all but a few home matches at Wembley and all FA competition finals to be held at the 90,000-capacity amphitheatre. He is an ambitious entrepreneur, no doubting that, and when appearing to court the BBC, who by all accounts of Richard Conway’s reporting seem delirious to any adverse impacts, his approach is admirable, but the ethical ambiguity is deafening – nothing in this smacks of anything other than chairman Greg Clarke’s morally-compromising attempts to modernise on a mass privatising and pro-Qatari manifesto. From all that has emerged thus far, it would appear Clarke’s inner circle – each the remnant of countless societally manipulative corporate pursuits – imagine Khan impressionable, or at least flexible, in such demands. Good luck with that…
Eliminating rearrangements is not the be-all and end-all of non-league football, regardless of what Clarke’s statisticians inform him. Throughout campaigns that in some mires seem endless, but at their culmination are held only too briefly in the memory, we – the perpetual attendees, the rallying cry, the home beacon – have endured nigh-on frozen digits, soaked overalls and all the same, in some few glimpses, glorious yet (only to undermine such sentiment) oppressive heat. Across welcome new grounds, visiting returning and unprecedented opponents alike, and on the longest of nights interspersing carefree summer afternoons, the Blues most memorably in an ambition-affirming Selsey victory, wholly unpredictable midwinter dispatch at runaway leaders Little Common and calamitous but inconsequential late season 5-4 defeat at Midhurst & Easebourne, while the Rooks in particular in Guernsey and Corinthians excursions and when hosting Walton Casuals, both have exerted incomparable toil. And all for this.
There is an undoubted, and at this stage wholly preconditioned, reticence to entertain any concept of institutional aid, let alone accept its status when apparent offered, and this deep-set complex has forged an impasse. To upset this would evidently prove somewhat of a radical move, yet even if it is deemed to present bountiful opportunity for the masses, there will still remain a powerful minority whose eternal pain is stoked. Even those who apply most to the apparent FA-prescribed success model bear great grudges against regional and national technocrats, let alone those who fortunes have forgotten, and the reverential establishment opponents.
Ponderings, meanwhile, may revert to a pivotal, yet scarcely debated, definition. How can we have faith in an establishment, if we are not even to be made aware of how they interpret the very existence of grassroots football, or the role it assumes in all corporate practicality. Is it a simple phrasing of a much vaster issue, a hollow promise or a deliberately evasive definition centred on the romanticism they imagine so rife? Condescending it may be to some, and to others indecipherable. To those in power, an exasperated individual is left to denounce, it serves as an idealistic theme that they are yet to harness, and have severely mistreated in the modern, particularly post-Premier League inception, era. Once having control of the nation’s elite tier ripped away from their grasp, the FA could easily have opted to promote amateur and semi-professional ranks, not only to weaken the commercial product that was emerging beside them, but to demonstrate their commitment to the nation’s chief sporting exploit. Instead they were treated with increasing contempt as control was negligible and attempts continually disregarded by those down the pyramid. Even today, at what may be deemed a turning point, they possess full knowledge of how much £500 million can afford you at this level – particularly in this nation, while yet to fulfil half of their £200M Parklife scheme across an apparent 30 cities by 2020 – yet use it as a white elephant to sway the partisan flanks of perpetually cynical fans. An all-encompassing remedy this deal would not be, and they are fully aware.
Do we opt, in response to a deal that has failed to consult the impacted parties, to bear our moral endeavours? We certainly don’t expect institutional sympathy if so, but considering the cynicism of many involved – reciprocated by those in FA HQ, itself threatened by ongoing proceedings while based at Wembley – the divide has been allowed to gape far wider than ever earlier imagined. How they can imagine repairing such rifts with morally ambiguous investment – itself entirely unsighted and doubtless evasive to the causes that realistically need it most – is unclear, and only epitomises this festering institutional distrust. How Clarke’s hierarchy can proclaim democracy when in reality their only apparent consultation has been through meekly asking FA Council members to ‘take the opportunity to canvass the views of your members… with as broad a view across the game as possible’ in a leaked letter is only further concerning.
Perhaps my perspective is a great contradiction. What I have learned from this season, when all is said and done, is philosophically crude, but heartfelt at that; that pain runs much deeper than victory, and that eternal optimism, while never entirely possible, is a powerful force when applied so liberally.
To be there as the ever-inharmonious chants rang out across the Dripping Pan to greet promotion (secured almost three weeks prior) with an ill-befitting but predictable 0-0 stalemate, the general apathy of support – typifying uptight old Sussex – was washed away, but not the sense that this result was an expectation, not a grand accomplishment. At the Caburn only a week prior, an equally pivotal – but far from title-deciding – meeting ended in a Ringmer victory over dutifully ravenous rivals Bexhill United and delivered fourth place (the first position outside of the promotion places, if of a true half-glass-full persuasion) for the hosts but deprived the visitors of a 2018-19 FA Cup qualification berth. Observed with jest and respect, yet tinged with uncertainty for both, again it proved an ever-dependable and fixed closure – albeit greeted by the permanent presence of sunshine, unlike their counterpart’s overcast experience.
Discovered to my own recompense this season, there is a delicate balance that some herein prefer to maintain. At the very least, let’s say some parties didn’t favour the cut of my jib. incites passion. My consideration of a visible display of passion as pivotal to a sporting stage so often regarded by the establishment for its trawl for atmosphere, and scarcity of following, does not necessarily align as finely as it perhaps would in professionalised ranks. Equally, as an expression, it demonstrates communities do not have to be fractured from their sides just because local reporting is an increasingly unprofitable entity, with quality and exposure waning. Naturally, nothing should be, or is, taken too seriously down here. Certainties are far from what they suggest down here. The metaphorical tightrope of our future binds us all together down here. Down here, it is an imperfect maelstrom. Down here we are defiant. Down here, nobody’s agenda rules.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!