Burgess Hill Town were entertaining Folkestone Invicta. Hill wore stripes, Invicta were stripes, but who earned their stripes?
If you want to know what’s important to a town, what’s the best way to find out? Should you go to the library? Ask the local council? Stand in the high street and conduct an opinion poll of local residents? Well you could do the last one, but it would be rather time consuming and just a little bit cold, so we’d suggest that, instead, you do what we did, and trawl the world of social media. On that note we can exclusively reveal that the two topics most debated in the corner of Mid Sussex that is occupied by Burgess Hill are as follows:
1. Why did the town council force dozens of traders out of the town centre in February to facilitate a rebuild, only for there to be no sign of that rebuild almost a year later?
2. Burgess Hill Town FC did really well on New Years Day, when they walloped Lewes 3-0 at the Dripping Pan. Can they stay up?
The answer to that first question, according to the local populous, appears to be council incompetence and financial difficulties for the developer, along with- rather surprisingly, the decline of cinema due to the popularity of Netflix. The second question seems to be rather easier to answer, given that commentators seem to be delivering a resounding YES!
To be fair, when it comes to relegation dogfights Burgess Hill Town are renowned experts. Since promotion in 2015 they’ve been reprieved from relegation because of financial issues at Farnborough, preserved their Premier Division status with an eighth minute added time winner on the last day of the 2016/17- after conceding an equaliser which would have relegated them in the 88th minute- and, last season, finished second bottom on goal difference in a division where only the bottom side went down. If the tannoy at the Green Elephants Stadium- today operated by Peter Chapman of website Burgess Hill Uncovered- announced that the home number nine was Harry Houdini nobody would bat an eyelid.
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Looking at the table this morning and seeing the Hillians third from bottom would come as no surprise to those who don’t closely follow the goings-on at the club. Take a closer look, however, and you might find something that was rather surprising. If you were to go through the form tables, you’d find that the Hillians were the 9th best team in the Bostik Premier over the last ten games.
Taken over the last six matches they move up to eighth, over the last four, fourth. That is the extent of the Simon Wormull and John Rattle revolution. They came into today’s match with Folkestone Invicta on a run of three consecutive victories, culminating with Tuesday’s walloping of their Sussex rivals.
When Wormull- in his playing days a midfield maestro at the likes of Stevenage Borough, Crawley Town and Eastbourne Borough, and formerly manager at Lewes- took over at the helm following the resignation of previous manager Ian Chapman, under whom the side had picked up only three points, they looked down and out. Beaten 8-0 by Bognor Regis Town the day before, a result which prompted Chapman to step down, you’d have struggled to find odds on them surviving a fourth Premier Division campaign. Thirteen league matches since, however, have seen them amass twenty one points, and defeat not only Lewes but the likes of Worthing, Haringey Borough, Carshalton Athletic, Margate and Merstham.
They’ve also progressed in both the Velocity Trophy- they take on Enfield Town in the Quarter Final later this month- and the Sussex Senior Cup. Crowds are averaging 406, and tend to stay at similar levels even when nearby Brighton & Hove Albion are at home. They may still be in a relegation position, but whatever Wormull- and his right hand man (and club General Manager) Rattle have done, the result is that they’ve given themselves a real chance of survival. A win today, and with AFC Hornchurch entertaining second place Dorking Wanderers and Wingate & Finchley travelling to in-form Merstham, there would be a good chance of them jumping out of the bottom three altogether.
The only problem with that projection was that, if you looked again at the form tables, todays opponents would be higher up in every one. Whilst Hill had won their last three games, Invicta had won their last four. Where Hill had picked up twenty-one points, Invicta had twenty two. After a slow start to the campaign, Neil Cugley’s side are beginning to show the form that propelled them into the Playoffs last season. Victory today could see them back into the top five once more.
Still, there was lots of positivity around the ground before kick off, particularly amongst the volunteers working hard before the game. Programme, Golden Goal and Raffle purveyor Andy (who admitted to once playing for Haywards Heath Town, but we assume he wants to keep that quiet in case he’s forced to wear a sign saying ‘unclean’) was full of enthusiasm about recent performances and went for a 2-0 home victory, whilst Peter the club Ambassador went for 3-2. Andy’s able assistants Tom and Sophie went for 1-1 and 1-0 respectively, Tom letting the side down somewhat. Peter talked in detail about the respect between the two clubs, and Neil Cugley’s tactical acumen, which was why he was expecting a tight game- but he was also certain of victory. “We’ve beaten them and drawn with them this season, and we’re playing far better now than we were then. They’ve improved as well, but we should be able to win the game.”
There was positivity on the pitch, too. As the teams warmed up Wormull was demanding exactly that- “we need to be positive from the start, and positive for ninety minutes,” whilst at the other end of the pitch the Invicta huddle was being loudly advised that the Hillians would be “up for it today. They always are when we play them. We need to match that.” Wormull wouldn’t have heard this, but if he had, he would undoubtedly have been gratified.
Before the match we had a minute of applause. We seem to be losing far, far too many good people of late, and to that roll of honour has recently been added Burgess Hill Town President Peter Strange. Peter’s impact on Burgess Hill Town- and, indeed, on the development of Sussex football in general- shouldn’t be understated. He was deserving not only of our applause, but of our unending appreciation, for without Peter and his ilk we’d have no football to watch.
Invicta, in red, got us underway, playing towards the clubhouse. “Hillians, Hillians, Hillians, Hillians na na,” came the sound from behind the far goal. The home club these days have their own band of young ‘Ultras,’ and they will find themselves far more appreciated here than they would at the Amex. “Oh when the stripes, go marching in,” sang their Invicta counterparts- although today the only side in stripes were at home. “Folkestone till I die,” they went on, whilst the home fans countered by explaining why Burgess Hill was wonderful. It’s not because of the efficiency of their local council, by the way.
Hill had the first shot on five minutes, Pat Harding firing over after a neat layoff from Ben Pope. Harding is a footballing enigma; he seems to have been playing for Hill for so long that you’d expect him to walk out with a zimmer frame and in carpet slippers, but every year he seems to look fitter. Perhaps he’s sold his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal youth? He’s gone from striker to midfield this season, and the move backwards seemed to suit him.
Folkestone had their first effort on target three minutes later, and it was a belter. Full back Nathaniel Blanks certainly wasn’t firing them, forcing Josh James into a fine save from twenty five yards. A moment later and it was Blanks who was blocking a shot at the other end, as the game picked up pace and both teams signalled that they were focused on attack. Pope forced a save from Tim Roberts, and both ends decided to sing simultaneously, which was good for the atmosphere but terrible when you were trying to work out the words. Energy on the field and off it- perhaps everyone was desperate to keep warm.
Pope was making a nuisance of himself on the edge of the Invicta box. Great movement, a shot deflected and then another which curled through a gap in the defence and forced Roberts into a save showed his ability- ability which had many a professional scout taking notice two seasons ago, when he was in the red of Worthing. A terrible injury which kept him out for a season limited his progress at that point, but there had been signs of late that he was getting back to his best. “Feed the Pope and he will score,” sang the home fans. It looked as if they could be right- although sadly events turned out otherwise.
As we reached the midway point of the half the side in red were on top, without really making James worry too much. The game slowed somewhat, and the crowd quietened, perhaps because they weren’t getting too much to sing about. The game needed a goal- and it almost got one, as Aaron Smith-Joseph got behind the Invicta defence and fired a shot across the keeper. Roberts was equal to it, and Smith-Joseph held his head, exasperated, as the rebound was cleared to safety. The Invicta faithful gave us a rendition of ‘Lip up, fatty.’ Which fatty they were referring to went unexplained.
The half petered out. A free kick from Scott Heard which cleared the six man Hillians wall- and the bar- was perhaps the only effort of note in the last twenty minutes. There had been no lack of effort on both sides, but no sign of a breakthough. Roberts had the busier half, Invicta the lions share of the ball, but the game deserved to be goalless. As the whistle blew, Hill had moved out of the bottom three on goal difference as Wingate & Finchley were two down at Merstham. Perhaps nil-nil would be enough?
The second half started much as the first had ended, with little worth reporting- but we should have had a goal eleven minutes in. A searching ball found Smith-Joseph, and his cross was perfect for the onrushing Pope. Six yards, goal gaping- but he couldn’t get a clean contact, and the ball cleared the bar. Pope, face down, beat his fists on the ground in frustration, and the game sparked into life. Harding began to exert real influence in the Hill midfield, and another Smith-Joseph run saw the ball taken from Marco Figuero Cavelo’s feert just as he shaped to shoot. Then, at the other end, a curling free kick from Alfie Paxman seemed destined for the bottom corner only for James to dive full length and push it away.
Paxman’s next meaningful act was to pick up a yellow card for a handball, which looked a little harsh given that the ball was fired at him from three yards away. Free kick partially cleared it fell to Harding at the edge of the box, and his shot was low but crept past the far post- although it seemed that Roberts had it covered. “Ooh, Ah, Invict-a,” sang the away fans, whilst most of the main stand’s occupants stamped their feet- not in time with the music, but in a vain attempt to keep warm.
In the seventy second minute great work from Pope earned his side a corner. As the ball came across the striker took a knock, and the ball pinged around him as he lay prone, before being headed behind by a defender. The stoppage was lengthy, and Hill, having already used two substitutes, were forced into making a third change. Pope walked from the field to applause, but patently couldn’t continue. Charlie Bennett was the new entrant.
Hill v Invicta- and a collection of mascots who don't have to pay hundreds of pounds to be here
Invicta made a change next, and it was an attacking switch, Kane Rowland coming on for Johan Ter Horst. The former Sittingbourne man had ten minutes to make an impact, but it looked increasingly as if the game was going to end without a breakthrough, a feeling reinforced as Paxman fired a cross into the trees behind the goal, a gaggle of small children pursuing the ball. It was back in the trees a few minutes later, Heard clearing the goal by a dozen yards.
As the board went up announcing six added minutes, Hill got a free kick on the right. The home fans awoke, the drum beat a rhythm, and the ball flew into the box. James Richmond got up, and the ball dropped just in front of sub Farrell Ryder, but he was only able to stretch and poke it into Roberts arms. But it gave us a little urgency. At the other end Paxman fired in a shot which James had to save, but Hill were soon back on the attack. We moved into the final added minute- could there yet be a breakthrough? No. There was much huffing and puffing, but no score.
As the four hundred and forty five members of the crowd headed towards the exit, nobody seemed too disappointed. Hill were, indeed, out of the bottom three, Wingate having lost three-nil, whilst Invicta remained only two points shy of the playoff positions, as Lewes and Enfield had also managed a draw.
Outside, in the car park, a group of Invicta fans were discussing the match. “That was a good result,”said one, to approval from his peers. Perhaps when Wormull and Rattle look back on this game, that’s the biggest positive they can take. A few short months ago, a point at Burgess Hill Town would probably have been looked at as two points dropped. These days, if the fans of a side on the fringes of the playoffs feel it is a point gained, it’s clear demonstration of the progress being made at the Green Elephants Stadium.
At the start of this article we asked whether Burgess Hill Town could stay up? On the basis of this performance, and their recent results, you’d have to think that- for once- they might not be looking over their shoulders on the last day of this campaign.
Perhaps Harry Houdini can finally retire.