I won’t lie; I’ve been anticipating and pondering this blog for a long while. Having accumulated over 1000 round land miles, witnessed what I estimate to be 71 different players brandishing the Ringmer badge atop their left breast – in vastly contrasting circumstances and to wide-ranging degrees of success – across 18 uncharted grounds from Sussex to Surrey and London’s suburban expanse in four cups, one league and 39 matches (absent for the opening two fixtures of the season and the third from final), all while collecting my most tangible and emotionally raw footballing memories of a fairly short life, the 2016/17 season has been one to cherish personally. Tracking the twists and turns of this most outstanding of seasons, at times basked in the glory of unlikely heroes, and at others mired in despondency and humiliation, all witnessed through the misty glaze of a wide-eyed and knowledge-thirsty amateur reporter perennially armed with a notepad that has taken more hidings that the notes of the team it encases, and any of an array of scribble-sapped pens, an insight into my recent life-affirming travels with the merry band at Ringmer Football Club ensues. While it may struggle against the eloquence or spectacle of The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro – currently a personal favourite read – I hope to immerse you into what has been a superlative-defying test of small-time rigour and collective character on the part of players, management, support and, above all, committee dedication over the past nine months, providing an insight into the betrayingly unperturbed inner sanctums of non-league, amateur football and the perpetual struggle of the unblemished few to uphold how football, in my view, should be run. Relocating our roots in passionate non-league endorsement forged in many prior years spent at The Caburn, we are going full circle in what I, no matter what else I produce this calendar year, will forever cherish as my most heartfelt write-up of 2017.
It was at the Caburn, a ground defined by (and lambasted for) its lifelong slope and unpredictable bobbles distinctly defining it as a long-term centre of parish and county football (hosting the club since World War Two, primarily doubling up as the pasture of a cow herd until the 1967 purchase of a stand from the defunct Croydon Airport), that my season effectively began last July. Having deliberated, extensively I may add, over the pros and cons of embarking on a season’s travel and assuming responsibility of reports for the club, of which I knew the rough equivalent of nothing in terms of its interior workings, and allowing this consideration to culminate in a response to the appeal for fresh club volunteers, a position of which fortunately included match reporter, I stepped tentatively in the early stages of my summer holiday, my father in toe, into the clubhouse for a scheduled quick introduction from chairman Derek McDougall, of whose presence at the club I was, at least, previously aware. Feebly shaking hands upon first introduction, with the club servant busying himself sufficiently with the netting at the downward-sloped goal upon which Mount Caburn – which isn’t a mountain at all – distantly looms and lends its name to the ground, in the five minutes between our scheduled and realistic meet, I tracked his trudge through the tightly-hinged double doors from stand to bar and down the white-plastered narrow corridor I had only previously ventured a short metre down for the men’s toilet on the right. My naïve perspiration led this corridor, when in reality only leading 10 metres to the well-concealed boardroom, to feel as if the distance a gallant striker later in the season would swallow up on a dust-spitting gut bust from his own half to goal, but nevertheless, once settled into conversation about my casual position around the club, my anticipation for the season subsequently developed.
A month and two weeks further would pass before my thirst for the unique experience would settle; a floodlit meet with Bexhill United on the most apt of picturesque, red-skied nights in early-season home action. Preoccupied with a North Yorkshire holiday for the prior 3-0 defeat at the hands of Lingfield in the Peter Bentley Cup of all three leagues in the Southern Combination Football League – of which we, alongside Lingfield, were in Division One, below the largely semi-professional Premier Division but atop the practically Sunday League Division Two – and the partially encouraging 1-1 draw with newly promoted Billingshurst on the first day of the Division One season, I was eager to see what boss Sammy Donnelly had produced of a squad the previous season had finished 12th of 17, but had suffered a number of departures of experienced individuals over the summer. As it was then, Donnelly, renowned as the journeyman whose old hand of 60-something years had graced the most prestigious of Sussex’s non-league outfits in Whitehawk, Eastbourne Town, Eastbourne United, Lancing, Shoreham, Worthing, Three Bridges, East Preston and Ringmer in a spell only four years prior, fielded an XI, barring I believe hefty striker Matt Sellick, towering centre-back Adam Sparks, unsuspecting defensive midfielder Steve Stracey and fiery, buzz-cut winger Steve Jackson – nicknamed ‘squirrel’ – entirely composed of reserve products of little to no prior exposure to the demands of senior football at such a level. There were reasons to be optimistic with such youth, however, and the 2-1 defeat on the night, with Sellick bundling a second-half header home in response to the Pirates’ lead, built on powerful winger George Gouet, was far from an embarrassment considering the extent of the cumulative years in the side of the town famed for its beachside De La Warr Pavilion.
Five games in, including the Bexhill defeat, the ambitious offhand claims of coach Alan Dartnell when quizzed on his expectations for the season at the August committee meeting – which I was present at for five minutes, solely to be introduced – of a positive charge up the table, appeared far from worryingly threatened. A 2-1 victory at the grossly urbanised Brighton and Hove district of Southwick, our first away match for which me and my dad had arrived just at kick-off to find the luxury of a hearty welcome, padded seats reminiscent, except of their tomato-red tint, of those at the other end of both Brighton and the Sussex sporting spectrum, the Seagulls’ AMEX, meant I left ecstatic for more trips in the search of points. An unremarkable 2-1 loss to a fitter Steyning Town side on a sweltering Saturday at the Caburn, followed up by an end-to-end 3-2 dispatching by Saltdean United at their stunning, South Downs-screened ground the subsequent Bank Holiday Monday left things, while despondent in the immediate wake of these two, perhaps unfortunate, losses, optimistic that lesser opponents could be outclassed with the natural talent provided by midfield dynamo Harrison Burley, nimble forward Robbie Frost and the athletically-built centre-back Connor Smith, all of whom were yet, I believe, to reach their 21st birthday.
Progress, even, had been managed in the FA Vase either side of a laborious and disheartening 3-1 league vanquishing at Midhurst and Easebourne after a long trip across Sussex, with a hard-earned 2-1 victory managed at St Francis Rangers, lampooned in previous years as 'the worst team in England' and the following round’s 2-2 AET match up with Sporting Club Thamesmead, who had carted down from South-East London to earn a replay.
It was with this replay, perhaps, that cracks finally began to materialise. Donnelly’s standoffish managerial approach had been pinpointed by my own eyes, as well as those of my *occasionally* useful surveillance aide and father, as a fault throughout the variable spell of August and September for the inability of the youthful line-up to produce consistent tactical awareness and coherent offensive strategies; rarely, if ever, rollicking off instructions or encouragement to his troops in the midst of battle. Having zipped up the A267, A21 and M25 in chairman Dougie’s motor – with dad fearing the 60-mile trip on a Tuesday evening – to Thamesmead’s communal Bayliss Avenue, becoming acquainted to a pitch almost as crisp as the 3G the majestic feat of concrete and glass panes shrouded opposite, the regular short-haul flights entering the London City Airport just over the river acted as a metaphor for how this game would change Donnelly’s season; back to earth with a bump. A 5-1 defeat, absolutely outclassed by our advantageously-located hosts with strapping striker Nathan Roberts’ van-Basten-esque strike a mere consolation.
Three weeks later, we were out of all four cups, and had witnessed Donnelly depart, with the aggravation caused by a ten-man 4-1 hiding at Storrington only escalating in a 7-0 midweek embarrassment at the hands of Premier Division moneybags Shoreham in the Sussex Senior Cup and the final straw; the 7-1 stonking handed out by Selsey after a 100 mile round-trip almost to Hampshire, grey-haired 40-something assistant manager Grant Olive forced to lace up his boots in a midfield otherwise composed of two more natural defenders, an extremely quiet squirrel and Stracey, who bagged a goal in the game. We had no substitutes available in that match, and our striker was the diminutive David Chan, typically an attacking midfielder who received no support despite his tireless effort. Citing the inability to source new signings, Donnelly had resigned in shame in the immediate aftermath, leaving the Blues 18th of eighteen Division One sides, brandishing four points from seven matches and a -13 goal difference.
Handing Olive temporary reigns, consecutive 2-0 and 2-1 defeats to Oakwood and Mile Oak, the latter in the Division One Challenge Cup, brought hope of a recovery, rather more from the performances involved, as work ethic was restored and positive football reclaimed. Danny Wood, reserves manager, was allowed the trial period, as one of the applicants for the full-time position, of two matches also, though mustered dejected 3-0 and 4-0 losses on the road to Steyning Town, on their brand new 3G pitch, and Lingfield respectively, employing what effectively was, both prior to his trial and subsequently, his band of reserves players, who in their league were also at the foot of the table.
The stage was set for a saviour. An eight-match losing streak had to end at some point, and there was little more reasonable timescale than when Ash Bailey, announced to club officials hours before the Lingfield match, was installed as new boss with a debut at local rivals Seaford Town the Saturday following the chastening Tuesday night trip, in respects of both the bone-chilling cold and the heavy defeat, to the Surrey village more famed in sporting circles for its racecourse as opposed to its secreted football pitch. Struck with the sheer weight of the task upon arrival, however, in the form of again having only eleven players at his disposal for the trek up to the Crouch, Seaford’s leafy and historic ground with an imposing sight of the town’s famous head, the former Lancing boss and player, just 31 years of age and a former centre-back prior to his successful one-year management spell with the Lancers – winning the Peter Bentley Cup and finishing fourth in the Premier Division – suffered a baptism of fire in the demoralising 3-0 statement of inferiority.
We returned, however, to the Caburn the following week, hosting recently promoted AFC Varndeanians, themselves relegation candidates, and with a full bench (including Olive) and SIX new arrivals, including goalkeeper Dan Hutchins and defender Matt Simpson, products of Lewes FC’s academy, spirits were understandably raised. The 0-0 secured on the day – pulsating as 0-0’s go – was sufficient for us long-suffering supporters. Merely a blip on the record, it may have seemed three weeks later, as a point in our predicament paled in comparison to the abysmal 6-0 whipping served on the most miserable of mid-November afternoons at Little Common (where, to further my misery, my trusty phone died on the squelchy trudge to the accommodating clubhouse at half-time) and the utterly one-sided 1-0 defeat at Bexhill United’s imperial Polegrove, which were separated only by what threatened to be a 3-3 home draw with Langney Wanderers – abandoned five minutes from time in respect of the atrociously lashing rain, with the robust Eastbourne outfit under pressure at 3-2.
A high turnover of players, typical of a managerial changeover at this level of the English pyramid, defined this period, and again a 4-4 home draw with high-flying Mile Oak, hinted, even screamed, an eventual resurgence, 4-0 up after 30 minutes only for the Oaks to capitalise on our mental fragility. 7-2 and 3-0 losses followed, at Billingshurst and entertaining East Preston respectively, with the former particularly memorable for the 2PM kick off - which we inexorably missed by ten minutes - in accordance with the lack of floodlights in December at the SCFL-supported rural West Sussex club (who were granted a season at our level without a stand or lighting before they finally installed both days before the March 31st ground gradings), and where we stood for an embarrassing 90 minutes next to the navy-tracksuited pragmatist Bailey’s dugout, learning an awful lot about his affable nature, belying his titanic centre-back’s frame to unwaveringly acknowledge, throughout his tenure, everyone at the club. Then, it was Christmas.
We returned to action on the sub-zero evening of the 27th, where fortunately my festive spirit was reawakened and my cockles truly warmed with a 3-2 win at St Francis. A WIN! Bailey’s first, only our second of the season, built on grit and tactical capability. It was, perhaps, the first time on that fateful night, ended on the note of ‘relief’ – the word I, adorned in a Santa hat I had jokingly carried in my sling backpack, put into Bailey’s mouth after congregating at the ground’s exit with Dougie – that I had seen captain Ben Thomsett, for whom I had always questioned for the role, produce a capable left-back performance throughout the season, and as I roared on a rampant squirrel, employed as striker, to a match-winning 70th minute breakaway, it was certainly a turning point, a breath of life in our season. Responding in January with brave, then unfortunate, 1-0 and 3-2 home defeats to top-three sides Saltdean and Little Common between another abandoned affair – in the wake of a broken leg from a 50/50 challenge for home player Grant Miller - at a dreary Oakwood, and culminating the month with a match typical of the period, a 2-2 draw with Southwick – littered with refereeing mistakes and crowned by a Ringmer collapse, a 2-0 lead dissipating in the final 15 minutes, momentum stalled. February, it must be added, felt like a body blow finally too significant to recover from, a shambolic 5-2 suffered at Langney usurped by a 5-0 testament more to hosts East Preston’s quality than our mistakes, complemented by gut-wrenching results – 3-3 when 3-0 up, at home again, against Langney and a 3-2 defeat, when 2-0 up, when venturing to the altitude of Mile Oak. While I had been seriously contemplating the depressing future of Ringmer, a prime Sussex County Football league side for my entire life, prior to a shambolic 2014/15 relegation, in Division Two alongside villages as obscure as Ferring, Clymping, Cowfold and Alfold, degraded to village green football, for months now, from October to bleakest Midwinter, little matched the despondency stemming from the mere 11 points amassed from 26 long matches, albeit interspersed with invariable rays of hope, and the extremely unlikely ten points from safety of February’s demise.
Rarely, visibly at least, in football are transcendent near-miracles performed by individuals who have suffered the indignity of 10 losses from their first 16 games in charge of a seemingly lame horse – languishing 18th throughout with no playing budget, consistent struggles to attract sufficient playing quality and more than their fair share of misfortune – especially in an age dictated by investment in the non-league system, evident in Saltdean’s league victory; accelerating from the root of the table to champions in less than twelve months with the signatures of Rikki Banks, Josh Jones and Tommy Fraser, who have each played in the Ryman Premier, and in Banks’ case, the Conference National, with Lewes. Ash Bailey, it seems, is of a different breed when it comes to such relegation struggles, and what followed in March and April defied any prior expectations of even the most optimistic of Blues supporters, providing any had survived from the repeated condemnations of fortune we had suffered in months previous. Perhaps we expected the victory at the Withdean, gracing the pitch once frequented by Bobby Zamora, Glenn Murray and Adam Virgo, now leased to AFC Varndeanians, but not to the 3-0 extent of a veritable thrashing in which new signing, coincidentally Varndeanians’ reserves team coach, Mark Pulling set the game’s tempo with his considerable experience and provided the missing link to undoubted flashes of creative brilliance in the weeks prior. These flashes, on the most part, had been attributable to the suddenly blossoming partnership of Chris Geer, whom I had written off as an unsuitably sluggish, stunted and unproductive striker in his initial November run, and Jack Webber, the muscular striker of under 21 years perennially found sporting tousled chestnut locks and blue tape around his wrist in his plaudit-commanding goal returns.
If we could live with the Varndeanians victory, then certainly a 2-2 home share of the points with Seaford, for whom Thomsett, allegedly having left Ringmer after his benching at East Preston in disrepute with Bailey over his defensive positioning, starred in central defence, was agreeable, especially when backed up with a late 1-0 edging out of Lingfield – the first home win of the season. At this point, things appeared to be finally piecing together from a string of bit-part performances over the winter. Two clean sheets from three games became three from four with a knockout 4-0 blow when returning to Oakwood in our final away match, with 17 year-old winger Reece Edwards scoring a peach of a goal in testament to his explosive tendencies, while a defence including Simpson at left-back, the quietly composed and commanding Dan Deacon at right-back, Ben Palmer at one centre-back spot and captain/all-round good egg Tom Shelley at the other as reliable hands upon which to call for an imposing set-piece header or a last-ditch challenge, had undoubtedly flourished with its eventual contingency, alongside the periodic outings of Ben Evans, a fellow Ringmer primary and secondary school attendee from the year above mine.
Suddenly, four games unbeaten equated to our escape from the relegation zone, with ten abrupt, but somehow entirely conceivable, points lifting us above both St Francis and Varndeanians. Held to a 1-1 home draw by a *ahem* challenge-happy Storrington, we dropped back into 17th place as Varndeanians won at Billingshurst in 15th, with Geer and Webber’s threat negated by brute force. With a game in hand on the V’s, however, and facing three feasibly winnable home matches against Midhurst & Easebourne and Selsey, both of mid-table, and St Francis - with four points of nine my personal target – of course, I was absent for the Midhurst match, while on a weekend family visit to Norfolk. Perceivably, it was an exhilarating game for which my baited breath and pessimism from afar was needless, with an early away goal giving way to late Ringmer pressure, a Midhurst sending off and two almost survival-salvaging goals, including a trademark last minute Pulling free-kick which condemned St Francis, and almost certainly Varndeanians, to relegation, with the latter requiring a final-game win against Saltdean and for us to lose both remaining matches. Needless to say, the following match-up with Selsey was reasonably successful, producing just the 4-1 victory, with Webber’s rampaging hat-trick capping a performance worthy of amending the scars left by the infamous reverse fixture in October, and securing us safety with 17 points from a possible 21 in the seven-game spell from the Withdean trip.
I had my suspicions about this trend in form from the very first match of March, and thereby remained loyal to the superstitious pattern born on that day; white slim-fit twill trousers, navy blue thermal socks (yes, even in April’s heat), bordering on too much information in being paired with azure underpants to complete the Ringmer colour pattern, and a football shirt to finalise the ‘lucky’ outfit. Dad often wore what he repeatedly joked, to an unfunny extent, were his ‘club issue shoes’ (having been approached to be club secretary in October and become entangled in a family occupation at the club), also a navy and azure affair in bringing extra fortune. Ultimately, though, it was the influx, gradually perfected over time, of trusted individuals, the introduction of a stronger, determined and devoted work ethic and the outstanding in-game management of Bailey and his coaches, at least in comparison to Donnelly’s regime, which contributed to players being fitter, better prepared, more positive and, resultantly, in a stronger position to succeed, while Bailey also attended to issues dogging the club’s internal affairs such as the distant relationship between the four – first, reserve, third and under 18’s – teams and created a palpably optimistic and approachable character at the club. Thanks could not do sufficient credit to his service, and as a crowning glory was anticipated in this Tuesday (18th) night’s final fixture against St Francis for a nucleus of players and management that truly performed minor miracles with a club in disarray, of course the visitors won 1-0 to render our run meaningless and taint our late-season reprieve with a smattering of hungover melancholy. Barring the most extraordinary of league reshuffles, however, we are safe as Sidlesham, relegated last season on ground gradings, are rumoured to have been guaranteed promotion wherever they finished in Division Two (third, as it turned out) and I doubt, unless the SCFL pulls strings for both Bosham and Jarvis Brook, the top two from that division will follow the Sids.
2016/17, then, has been a steep learning curve, to put it mildly. Personally, my understanding of the internal affairs of such rural non-league clubs has developed deeply through the many hours spent frequenting each boardroom in the division – bar Southwick and Saltdean, I believe - for a hearty half-time tea and biscuit and the information fed my way from debriefs of my dad’s three or four-hour long monthly committee meetings, and my admiration of those involved with the running of these outfits had, in turn, aggressively intensified, from chairmen, to treasurers, to secretaries and so on. I don’t envy the editors of innumerable Sussex newspapers in the ilk of Derren Howard, with whom I have communicated each extensive report over email, and the unheralded sub-editors in the same respect, who work extensively to ensure the survival of local newspapers while sifting through the nonsensical multitude of my reports.
I can well understand why those hardened to the peaks and troughs, perhaps often greater than what we have experienced this season, have become cynical pessimists quick to quell fervour and retain normality in nigh-on disaster, but for now I remain a wide-eyed optimist – albeit with tempered expectations – anticipating what is next for Bailey’s Ringmer side. Providing he can retain the likes of Webber, Geer, Shelley, Palmer, Hutchins, Deacon, Simpson, Pulling, Edwards, fellow flying winger Alex Saunders, almost ever-present Supporters Player of the Year (with my vote) Stracey for our July/August return, while blooming internally-produced youngsters in Evans, Frost, strikers Jack Cooper and Lorcan Cotterill, defender Jack Barlow and diminutive left winger Ben Kirk-Patrick, I believe the structure is there for this Ringmer side to eventually meet Bailey’s apparent top-six ambitions, and if he retains tactics simple enough for me to comprehend from the stands, then the club can truly flourish on the pitch, and hopefully off of it in turn. For an unlikely redeemer, Bailey has cast a large shadow over the club that will hopefully dispel any return to a gradual footballing decline and secure our future for the move, in two or three seasons, to the approved 3G pitch on the college field, stirring a positivity around the Caburn that I have rarely felt before and can hopefully be harnessed. We are far from in Saltdean territory, but our fortunes have improved with Ash’s involvement and optimism for the future is, quite rightly, high. For 2017/18, and for always, COYB!
P.S. A massive, heartfelt dedication of gratitude to everyone who has made this season so special personally – Dad, Dougie, Malcolm, Sally, Ted, Stan, Ash, Sammy, all committee members, management and players at Ringmer FC who have dedicated themselves to the cause, all committees around the county and division that have welcomed us with open arms, Derren and co. at the Sussex Express, all opposition fans, players and management who have carried themselves with utmost dignity and consideration, and to the officials that make football at this level possible – I look forward to starting it all over again in August!
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!