My Second Team: Eastbourne Borough
Idon’t think that I am the only football fan to struggle with the post 1992 world of the Premier League. The richer football at the top domestic level has become the harder it has been to reconcile with my own personal values and there has been a constant tension. Some might suggest that this is mostly sour grapes that my own club has not coped well with the new era and there may be something in that – after all Forest have performed much worse in the last 20 years than when I first took my seat at the City Ground, but I do think there is more to it than that.
To some extent that is irrelevant though, it doesn’t really matter deep down what league Forest are playing in, they are the club I inherited from my father and have passed on to my son, I am a Nottingham Forest fan end of story… or nearly. I have had some issues with the way that the club has been run since it passed from being a committee of fans to a single wealthy owner. It started with a predatory takeover by the Bridgford Consortium headed by Phil Soar and backed by Nigel Wray and Irving Scholar, but there has been an uneasiness through the seasons since, even when owned by lifelong Forest fan and all round good egg Nigel Doughty.
As the club has moved through a cycle of managers and relentlessly thrown good money after bad without any clear identity or strategy I have found my eyes to wander slightly. I have seen clubs rooted in their community that have strong visionary leadership and ambition that includes safeguarding their future whilst still traveling an upward curve. Born in Eastbourne, it was natural that my gaze should be attracted to the Sussex Coast. Even though the family moved back to its native midlands soon after my appearance on the scene, we remained regular visitors to relocated grandparents and the seaside town is filled with childhood nostalgia.
In the 2004-5 season, as Forest appointed Gary Megson and were relegated to League One, Eastbourne Borough were starting to hit national news as they reached the Conference South Playoff Final. Seeking some respite from Forest’s woes my brother and I travelled to Stoke’s Britannia Stadium to join over 1,000 Borough fans and although they lost out to Altrincham on the day a connection was made that continues now.
The Sports are relative youngsters on the Eastbourne football scene having formed in 1964 as Langney Football Club, joining the already established Eastbourne Town (formed in 1881 as Devonshire Park) and Eastbourne United (who started life in 1894 as the 1st Sussex Royal Engineers Volunteers (Eastbourne) FC). In 1968 Langney Football Club became Langney Sports Club giving rise to their nickname which has sustained despite a further name change to Eastbourne Borough in 2001.
In the 1999-2000 season Langney Sports won the Sussex County League, stepping up to the Southern League Eastern Division (the third tier of non-league football) and this kick started a period of transformation on and off the pitch. After a strong first season at the new level confusion over the location of Langney led to the name change to Eastbourne Borough, whilst at the same time their Priory Lane ground was being developed with help from a Football Foundation grant and the club was upwardly mobile.
In 2002-3, they won promotion to the Southern League Premier Division and the following year hoping merely to stay up they finished eleventh, which secured a place as a founder member of the Conference South in a restructured pyramid for the 2004-5 season – a mere 20 years after helping found Division 3 of the Sussex County League! And with the risk of being branded a glory hunter hanging over me, it was at this late stage that the club hit me in Nottinghamshire.
My relationship with The Sports grew in part out of my growing frustration with the money dominated upper echelons of the English game and Forest’s perpetual inability to discover its post 1992 identity, but it also came from a personal reconnection with the town where I was born. I now had kids of my own and had begun to rediscover trips to the Sussex coast that mirrored my childhood visits to grandparents.
The pier, currently a source of controversy, walking the cliffs from Beachy Head to Birling Gap, putting on Princes Park or sometimes up the posh end at Helen Garden, the bumpy slide at Treasure Island, eating a cone of chips from The Baker’s Oven in the Arndale Centre; all of these memories have taken on new meaning as a parent reflecting on my own childhood and they coincided with the rise to national prominence of a football team that was comfortable with its place in the world.
As a result I have a connection to Eastbourne Borough FC that is only loosely based on the football. I only see them play once in a blue moon and genuine fans of the club who follow them around the Conference South (or National League South as it is now) must wonder how I can even call them a second team, but I feel them metaphysically. They represent something about who I am.
It isn’t all abstract bollocks though.
As soon as I started looking into Borough and its startling rise through the non-league pyramid, I was impressed by its leadership and its identity, things that my first club so patently lacked. This was a football club that was embedded in its community, run with ambition but also core values that would not allow it to stray into the all too tempting dangers of financial profligacy.
At its head were two hugely appealing and impressive characters; Chairman Len Smith and Manager Garry Wilson. Len was Chairman of the club for 40 years before he stepped down in 2014 and as a result a key figure in driving it forward. He had played for an Under 18 side that then got too old and so formed into a senior side at Langney. After a break he returned to the club as Treasurer, then Reserve Team Manager and ultimately Chairman. A local community club they grew and developed but remained rooted in those values. It’s a story to warm the heart of any Sky Sports weary fan.
Len once said about his club “It has always been the policy of the club to build things that will last”. He was talking about the Priory Lane ground development at the time but it is a philosophy that could be applied to all their activities. They refuse to spend money they don’t have chasing dreams that won’t be sustainable and they can do it because they know what they are and they are (rightly) proud of it.
Garry Wilson managed the team from February 1999 to January 2012, having previously been sacked from Hastings by a lottery winning owner – a perfect foil for my modern football angst. The Glaswegian led his players from the Sussex County League to the Conference National and although they eventually dropped back one place to the Conference South his impact on the football side of the club was simply immense. As he put it himself to the Scottish Sun: “We have grown from a village team to competing in the Conference with former Football League clubs like Luton, York and Wrexham.” a remarkable transformation.
Following a team that plays in a regionalised league when you live about 200 miles north of their ground can be problematic though. Last season my son and I decided it was high time we saw them play again and had picked out Hemel Hempstead away as a reasonable trip, being north of the M25 and a mere 115 miles from our door. We drove down through worsening weather oblivious to the fact that by the time we were half way there the game had already been called off. Fortunately we were able to make a short hop to Stevenage to see them comfortably beat Gillingham in the FA Cup in the final throes of Teddy Sheringham’s management but our main objective was scuppered with demoralising ease.
Even though the arrival of Philippe Montanier, my involvement as co-founder of new Forest magazine Bandy & Shinty, the formation of a Supporters’ Trust, the fan movement that is being nurtured by Forza Garibaldi and crucially my son joining me as a season ticket holder have all helped to re-inspire my feelings towards Nottingham Forest, I still feel the call of the coast. It has been too long since I walked down Eastbourne Prom, too long since I browsed the second-hand books in Camilla’s and too long since I stood behind the goal at Priory Lane.