Festive football in Sussex: sleeping giants, chocolate cake and one happy grandma

You can’t beat a bit of festive football. Clear the head, catch up with old friends – and rediscover the sport where it really belongs, at its grass roots.

Hastings score at Whitehawk through Finn O'Mara / Picture: Scott White
Hastings score at Whitehawk through Finn O'Mara / Picture: Scott White

At many levels of football there are leagues within leagues. The Premier Division of the Southern Combination includes clubs fuelling higher ambitions - with payments to players at a level that rivals Isthmian League clubs’ budgets. And some players, of course, will eagerly chase those rewards.

It was ever thus. But the Sussex County League – as it was always known – also has a whole clutch of clubs whose officials and supporters are rather happy where they are. It is about friendships, familiarity and loyalty.

This reporter usually sits loftily on the press benches at National South clubs. Yes, facilities are better and – to be ruthlessly honest – the standard of football is markedly higher. But, with Eastbourne Borough out of action, I managed in the space of eight days to take in games at Steps 3, 4 and 5.

Lewes celebrate a second - and victory-sealing - goal against Bognor / Picture: Angela Brinkhurst

The results? In no particular order: Whitehawk 0 Hastings United 1; Lewes 2 Bognor Regis Town 0; Eastbourne United 1 Little Common 1. An away victory, a home win, and a score-draw – and more than 2,000 happy spectators.

With Boxing Day postponements elsewhere, Whitehawk’s Enclosed Ground was the fallback destination for quite a few local fans and neutrals, who witnessed an attritional battle, toe to toe if not quite blow for blow. Conditions underfoot were playable, but not perfect for flowing football: the argument for 3G/4G pitches grows ever stronger.

A scruffy goal just before half-time was enough to take Hastings to the top of the Pitching-In Isthmian South-East Division – not the snappiest title, but a division that the Us are desperate to escape from. Gary Elphick took over a couple of months ago, on the surprise departure of Chris Agutter, and with massive support and with plans for a new ground taking shape, the “sleeping giants” look finally to be awakening.

The Hawks – shorn now of some previous backers – are living within their means, and the Enclosed Ground feels a more amiable place that in past seasons. Certainly, with a cup of tea and a very large slice of home-made chocolate cake from the chairman’s wife, they know how to get local reporters onside…

Action between Eastbourne United and Little Common / Picture: Mike Skinner

The Dripping Pan on New Year’s Day was no less welcoming but it created a cauldron of noise and passion for the 1446 spectators – hardly any of them neutral but all of them warmly applauding the efforts of both teams. A full Dripping Pan absolutely radiates atmosphere and footballing energy, and the players gave their all – although by the final minutes the demands of football’s festive programme were beginning to drain the players’ legs.

The match turned on a sensational two minutes of first-half stoppage time. First, Rooks keeper – and former Borough favourite – Lewis Carey pulled off a brilliant top-corner save which Allison or De Gea would have been proud of, to deny a Rocks opening goal. And within seconds at the other end, a fabulous strike into the corresponding Bognor top corner gave Lewes a crucial lead.

A second-half penalty sealed the points for the Rooks, who look capable of pushing Worthing all the way at the top. What a tempting prospect – not least for Eastbourne Borough supporters – if next season’s National South could feature three Sussex clubs.

And so, on Monday morning, to Princes Park Oval, a ground which once held an incredible 6,600 spectators for a United versus Town cup final in the 1950s. These days, of course, United can only dream of the 600 – a figure which they did actually surpass for an FA Vase semi-final six seasons ago.

How many are you expecting, I asked a United official. “We’ll be lucky to get a hundred,” was the pessimistic response – and the damp and chilly morning did seem designed for only the hardiest fans. But actually, by kick-off, the crowd had grown to twice that number, and we were set for a close encounter with an interesting local dimension. For the past few years, visitors Little Common have been making the short trip across the A259 Marsh Road to fulfil their home games, while their own ground has been revamped.

They may be relatively Little, but there is plenty of Common sense at the East Sussex club who have held on tight during those challenging times – and who quietly hold their own in the Southern Combination.

There had been Boxing Day frustration for the men in maroon and blue, when soaking wet weather caused the postponement of their proudly renovated ground. An eagerly awaited local derby with Bexhill United – now rescheduled for the coming weekend - will be a fitting celebration for a club that gets most things right.

In November, player-manager Russell Eldridge marked ten years at the helm of Little Common, and his influence on and off the field is immense. When Russell still had hair, he was a classy and speedy left-sided attacker at Hastings United. As the hairline receded, he has eased back through midfield anchor-man to elder-statesman centre-back. But the wise leadership qualities remain – and it’s a credit to Russell that the team follow his lead.

This is proper local football, with mainly very local players and a wage budget that rhymes with hero. They play for each other and for the shirt, and there is a real and – almost literally – tangible connection with their supporters, urging the team on from pitchside.

Eastbourne United were proving excellent hosts. Chairman Brian Cordingley – an Oval stalwart for “about thirty years!” – is writing up the teams on the big whiteboard, but his marker pen has run out, and the equally long-serving Steve Huxley takes over.

The playing surface looks green, well-grassed and playable, although not quite billiard-table flat. From our touchline viewing-point, Steve looks forensically along the halfway line and seems to detect a little bump or two. “Brian actually called me on New Year’s morning to ask if I was up for marking out the pitch,” he confesses. “But I wasn’t available so the Chairman had to do it himself! It looks like a New Year’s Day hangover special!”

Mr Chairman, we are maligning you! United, the perennial County League survivors, are in good hands and good health. And on the pitch, their manager and respected coach Anthony Storey has assembled a young and vigorous squad and they looked purposeful and well organized. Tricky attacker Mayowa Ajayi caught the eye as United – with a stiff wind at their backs – pressed forward, but clear chances were few.

As half-time approached, Little Common actually came closer to opening the scoring. The experienced Lewis Hole had a good effort saved by Phil Hawkins, and then Sam Ellis set up a chance for Ollie Weeks – more of him in a moment.

We reached the hour mark still goalless, and then United broke the deadlock, Sam Cooper nudging in a low cross from the right by Ajayi. Could the home side run down the clock and see the game out? Common were not so easily beaten. Two minutes into stoppage time – with keeper Matt Crudwell marauding forward to add some confusion to the goalmouth mix – a corner was scrambled in at the near post. Elation and despair in the respective camps, but actually a fair result.

But the spirit of the game, and the spirit of Step Five, was captured by young Ollie Weeks. He caught the eye for all the right reasons. Early in the game, right in front of this reporter, Ollie just retrieved a pass from going out of play, but a hasty linesman’s flag gave a throw-in. Rant at the official? Mouthful of abuse? No – just a raise of the eyebrow and a courteous “whole of the ball, lino?”

Then left-back Weeks smashed wide from that scoring chance – but it had come to him like a rocket, and cruelly, on to his wrong foot. And after the break, an enforced defensive reshuffle found Ollie playing – impeccably – at right back.

Man of the Match award? Definitely. And nobody was more proud than the lady who happened to be standing next to me. “I’m so pleased. That’s my grandson! He’s a really lovely lad!” Nine out of ten for the performance, Ollie Weeks. And on the embarrassment scale, a perfect ten.