Super League? At Eastbourne Borough they prefer real football - with super people

Well, that didn’t last long. It was a power grab, a calculated assault on the People’s Game, but it was hopelessly miscalculated. And barring a very unlikely re-launch, the Super League was kicked into touch within 48 hours.

Wednesday, 21st April 2021, 4:58 pm
Updated Wednesday, 21st April 2021, 5:00 pm
Eastbourne Borough - a community club that could not be further removed from the sort of football that was planned in the European Super League / Picture: Andy Pelling

We must, of course, be ever watchful, for the faceless financiers may still be lurking. But football will always be stronger, precisely because it is the people’s game. While the PM was holding emergency meetings on Tuesday, I happened to be spending a couple of hours over at Eastbourne Borough. Let me paint you a picture of a real football club.

Priory Lane, and a typical tedious Tuesday morning. In his less than palatial club office, John Bonar is surrounded by documents, box files and football odds and ends, but there is a fresh brew of coffee on offer. Bonar took on the CEO role, at a club he has long worked for, after selling up his own delivery and logistics company last year.

“I’m supposed to be here two and a half days a week, but it’s virtually seven days at the moment,” rues John, who – like almost everyone behind the scenes at local football clubs – does not take a penny for his labours. “I try to write a to-do list, but things get added to the bottom quicker than they’re knocked off the top!”

Eastbourne Borough fans have only been able to attend one home game this season - but the club's links with their supporters remain strong / Picture: Lydia Redman

This, of course, is close season, but you would scarcely know it. We are discussing, among other things, the Ben Austin testimonial on 30 May, when club coach and former skipper Austin is gathering a squad of Borough Legends to take on Dean Cox’s ex-Albion professionals. Ironically, the Brighton programme editor has just been on the phone, writing a piece on the 10th anniversary of the first ever Amex game, when the Sports took on Albion in the Senior Cup Final. We direct him to the then Borough Gaffer, Garry Wilson.

Nothing so glitzy for Bonar this morning. He is finalising arrangements for this week’s AGM – via Zoom - of Borough’s umbrella Community Interest Club. It is precisely that structure which prevents any hostile bidder grabbing 51% ownership of the club – not that the Sports are aware of any lurkers from Thailand, China or the US.

“We recently tried to create a flow chart, and we came up with 63 people with a stake in decision making. In a perfect world you might not start from here, but it just reflects all the range of activities and interests that make us a community club.”

An immediate example: the annual electrical check is under way, and the inspector needs access to the Archery hut, out beyond the main stand. It should be the blue key on the enormous jangling bunch, but no, it isn’t there. Call the Archery secretary – ah, he won’t be at the club till Saturday? Quick, find a Plan B…

John and I are deep into the logistics of our club video operation. Where to site cameras? Do we need a different gantry (one with a roof, pleads this commentator!) How do we keep up with the changing demands of YouTube or Instagram, and will we still be streaming next season? This reporter, wedded to his biro and tatty notebook, is scrambling to keep up – but Non-League moves ever forward.

Youth development officer Terry Avann bounces in. Terry is a well-known figure in Sussex football, including a notable spell at Hastings United, but his colours are nailed firmly to Borough mast. “We’re already doing plenty, but the potential here is phenomenal. Our Easter holiday courses were the best attended ever, and the younger teams are desperate to get back to football.”

Bonar agrees. “For the first time next season, we will have a full Under-18 ladies squad, competing in the adult women’s league. Our education partners Bexhill College are on board for another year, and we are thrilled to bits with each other. It’s a great shame that we have lost Langney Wanderers, but we exploring options to fill that gap.” A Borough Under-23 side, perhaps? Lips are firmly sealed.

And promptly on cue, evidence of the coaching week lands on the desk in a report from the quietly inspirational Tim Brown. A sheaf of pics of happy kids – not to mention big kids Danny Bloor and two or three of his first-teamers who joined the coaching.

Terry Avann has also just been supervising – if that is the word – two dozen Walking Footballers out on the front pitches, but they’ve been using the wrong set of goal nets, and the right ones need fetching out from under the main stand. Another headache. It doesn’t happen at the Etihad.

John’s phone rings – when does it ever stop? Cue a sudden deferential tone from the CEO, because it’s club treasurer Steve Carter, and John wants to spend actual money. The splendid new clubhouse, freshly renovated at no charge by local decorators Archibald Brothers, need a new cleaner and polisher (no, the machine, not the personnel), but John has struck a deal to get the price down by a very welcome couple of hundred quid. No Super League bucks at Priory Lane…

Club secretary Jan Field – an unsung heroine at Priory Lane – looks in to check those tedious bits of correspondence, and to take a few minutes sitting in glorious sunshine on the clubhouse terrace. “We’ve all had our fill of lock-downs. It’s good to be easing back to normal!”

John's still picking up phones and pinging emails. Commercial manager and human whirlwind Sian Ansell is just posting a birthday pic of popular midfielder James Ferry on the club’s Facebook page, and media guru Ant Scott has just winged the graphics over to her. All in a day’s work at the Lane – and it isn’t even lunchtime yet.

This is not just about Eastbourne Borough, of course. Just last week, I have covered two superb matches between clubs from Sussex and beyond. Eastbourne Town, with Saffrons foundations almost as old as the town itself, against a burstingly keen young side from AFC Uckfield Town. And over in West Sussex, Lancing just bowing out of the FA Vase to Midlands visitors Flackwell Heath – and sustaining the visitors’ committee with the best home-made cake in the county. Baked, and offered, with those key ingredients of friendship and true sportsmanship – and better than any prawn sandwich.

Since the 60s I’ve been a Liverpool fan – well, I suppose I still am. My auntie lived in Liverpool – actually in Ormskirk, where the posh Scousers live – and when we visited, I stood with my Dad on the Kop. I can rattle off the great Shankly team, and even these days I love Klopp to bits. But I would drop them like a stone if they joined a Super League.

We need the pyramid, the ladder which can see Wimbledon climb in 20 years from non-League to FA Cup winners. We need the all-embracing competitions which can see little Eastbourne Borough host the – to us – mighty Blackpool. We don’t need our game turned cynically and anonymously into a merchandising and gambling vehicle.

Super League? You can keep it. We already have super people in smashing sports clubs. Friendly, loyal, decent people. Obstinately cheerful people who know what sportsmanship and friendly rivalry mean. People who put enjoyment before profit, and loyalty before instant fame.