Burgess Hill Town v Billericay Town
Leylands Park / Isthmian League Division One South / 23rd December 2017
The 22nd December was my last day of work before Christmas and so that evening was to be my time to fly back to the UK for the festive period. For only the second time in my lifetime and for the second year in a row, I’d be spending Christmas outside my native South Wales valleys. Last year, I enjoyed the festive season in Central France, but this year I’d be back on British shores – more specifically Cowfold in West Sussex. Craig and his Mam would be taking in me and my dad (or the ‘European strays’ as my brother referred to us) for the Christmas holiday. I’ve always loved Christmas, so of course I was looking forward to it as always, but there was one part I was looking forward to in particular: football.
As you probably know, most of European football closes shop for the winter months, whereas British football relentlessly plods on through the wintry weather, providing us with a gluttony of football over the Christmas/New Year period. On returning to Slovakia in early January, there’d be no live football for me for a few weeks, so Christmas time was the time to get my fix. For such a fix, we opted for the ever charming realms of non-league football. One thing I certainly miss in my life abroad is the beautiful non-league football scene back home.
For those of you who don’t know about Craig’s charming home village of Cowfold, it is located in the rural surroundings of West Sussex, 10 miles south of Crawley and less than 20 miles north of Brighton. It’s a sort of idyllic depiction of English village life with just 2000 or so residents. I think the place is lovely with it having an awesome village pub and an awesome Indian takeaway – enough to keep me happy right there. It’s location also meant that 2 days before Christmas we had plenty of football options. My dad and Craig came to pick me up from Stansted Airport on the Friday evening and after a brief conversation on the drive back to Cowfold, we decided on where we’d head the next day. We were off to Burgess Hill.
Burgess Hill was to be a brief drive away from Cowfold with it just ten minutes down the road from my Christmas base. We arrived into Burgess Hill before midday, as I had some last-minute Christmas shopping to do. The town was no eyesore, but no beauty either with the town centre being reminiscent of the 1960/70s shopping high streets up and down the UK. Such a high street was sufficient enough for me to complete my final pieces of Christmas shopping, meaning there was more time for the pub.
In the centre of the town we came upon the Block and Gasket, a truly superb pub. The pub seamlessly walks the narrow line between hipster pub and the unpretentious vibe of a welcoming city chain pub. The barman was all smiles as we entered, as were the men at the bar too, who enquired as to what a Welshman was doing in Burgess Hill. Sadly, for me, it was my dad’s more distinctive accent that got recognised for its Welshness rather than my own skewed and misshapen Taff accent. There were plenty of craft beers on offer and the bar even had a red neon sign stating ‘Craft ale spoken here.’ Instead of venturing into something new, I opted to go for my old favourite: Punk IPA – oh, how I’d missed it so…
Being in a British pub on a Saturday afternoon, drinking Punk IPA and watching Premier League football on the TV really made me feel like I was back ‘home’, although that feeling was accentuated at our next stop: the Great British institution that is Wetherspoons.
In the year or so before I left for Slovakia,’Spoons-hopping’ was becoming a bit of a thing in my life. This was the first new Spoons ‘tick’ I could remember in a long time, although the Burgess Hill’s branch, The Six Gold Marlets, was not the most interesting that the chain has to offer. Nonetheless, Spoons is Spoons and it was good to be back. In a Wetherspoons named after the symbol of Sussex, it was only fitting that I enjoyed a Sussex Gold from the Arundel Brewery.
Exiting Wetherspoons and heading back to the car park meant that we had now completed a lap of the town centre and it was now time to head for the football ground. Craig, who had been to Burgess Hill Town Football Club many times before, informed us that the ground would be a 5 minute drive away with the ground being located on the edge of a suburban housing estate.
The housing estate was a rather colourless, dull place with its blandness maybe bolstered by the wet, grey clouds above us. Signposts direct us down a small lane and suddenly we had arrived at the corner of the ground. We’d arrived over an hour before kick-off too, so parking wasn’t an issue.
Burgess Hill play in the Isthmian League Premier League (7th tier) meaning entry was £10 and £4 cheaper for student Craig and my dad, who seemed to have forgotten that he’s now 65 (sorry if I’m not supposed to mention that dad!).
The ground is a very tidy setup without being at all revolutionary. Behind each goal is a small sheltered standing terrace and the only other stand runs down the majority of one side of the pitch. The far side of the ground is open, apart from a small gantry tower that sits level with the halfway line.
Burgess Hill Town are an old club with plenty of history, having been formed in 1882. However, it wasn’t until 1969 that they moved into their current home, Leylands Park (or The Green Elephant Stadium to give it its modern/sponsorship-inspired name). The club only moved into the ground after amalgamating with the evocatively named World’s End FC; could they not have kept that name, as it sounds far more notorious than Burgess Hill Town FC? Nevermind.
The theme of impending doom continued on the smoking/drinking terrace leading out from the clubhouse behind the goal. There is sign on the terrace telling you that you are standing on the ‘Decking of Woe’ – formerly the ‘The Steps Of Woe’ according to the glossy sign. I’m guessing that a lot of Burgess Hill’s 48 years at Leylands Park has not been sunshine and rainbows then.
The clubhouse was fairly snug ones and even more so thanks to the good number away fans, who had made it over for the trip. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the away team today were to be headline-grabbing Billericay Town. From what I’d read from afar, it seemed that in many quarters the club have been presented as the current scourge of non-League football. A lot of the bad press accompanying the club’s current setup seems to have been generated by the club’s owner and self-appointed manager Glen Tamplin. There is quite a lot to say about the rather eccentric Tamplin and far too much to fit into a blog here (maybe google him if you are intrigued). Basically though, Tamplin and his ego are championing the club not only to win their current league, but also to continue to march on to the Football League in the following seasons, a claim he is trying to make reality by pumping a lot of money into the club. Anyway, Billericay sat top of the league and the fans had travelled to Sussex from Essex in good numbers and from what I could tell. Most seemed to be enjoying the rising wave of success that Tamplin and his money have brought to the club.
The hour before kick-off was enjoyed in the clubhouse watching the early kick-off between Everton and Chelsea (I say ‘entertained’ but it did finish 0-0). Less enjoyable was the beer on tap, Bud Light. My dad on the other hand was just happy standing outside the door smoking on the Decking of Woe with some of the more hardened looking BH souls.
When it was match time, we were a little disappointed with the Billericay line-up as it lacked some of their ‘glamour’ signings that have made headlines. Since Tamplin took over and began offering crazy wages for a 7th tier team, some former Premier League stars have been drawn to the clubs. The likes of Paul Konchesky, Jermaine Pennant and Jamie O’Hara had signed for the club, although it seemed that Konchesky and Pennant had recently left the club and so the only ‘name of note’ on the teamsheet today was substitute Jamie O’Hara. Maybe we’d see the little midfielder, formerly of Spurs, Wolves and, eh, Celebrity Big Brother, come on later in the game (SPOILER: we didn’t).
Before the game, the league table showed Billericay soaring at the top of the league, whilst Burgess Hill were treading water towards the bottom. The forecast was for a comfortable win for Billericay, but what unfolded was far from comfortable and quite possibly the best game I’ve seen all season. The weather was grey and miserable, but the football on the pitch was all gutsy, full-blooded and fast-paced. It hit me how bloody much I had missed non-League football here. This game was everything I love about our non-league game nutshelled into 90 minutes.
As the teams traded their early blows, me and Craig decided to go complete a lap of the ground, whilst my dad decided that he was quite happy watching on from the Decking of Woe. As me and Craig turned the first corner of the ground, Craig stated, “The Billericay winger, that’s the Welsh one I was on about.” He couldn’t have picked a better place to declare this it seems, as one spectator suddenly turned around in surprise and asked, “Who me?” Of course we weren’t talking about him, but the gentleman did indeed turn out to be a Welshman – more specifically, he was from Swansea. His declaration as a Jack was his mate’s cue to quip that it was time to check how many goals Swansea were losing by already (surprisingly, they were down by just the one goal at home to Crystal Palace at the time).
The game was in its nascent stages when the home team took the lead in style, as a cushioned header fell to Joey Taylor to smash the ball in from 25 yards. The keeper didn’t even move for it. That goal would be bettered 7 minutes later though.
Despite really looking nothing like Jamie Redknapp, my dad had singled out the Hillians’ no.8 in the prematch warm-up for having a look of Jamie about him. I laughed at the comparison, but O’Neill would bury the game’s 2nd game with a strike that would have made Sky Sports’ Jamie “Literally” Redknapp proud. O’Neill smashed the ball left footed into the far left corner with a soaring, dipping shot from 25 yards. What a start to the game this was.
A minute later Billericay pulled a goal back, when a deflected shot from the edge of the box flew past the home keeper, much to the delight of the travelling fans gathered behind the goal.
The game was utterly relentless and the game ebbed back and forth at a crazy pace and before the break there was still time for two goals. First, Burgess Hill regained their 2 goal lead with a close range to make it 3-1, before the away team made it 3-2 with a poked home finish moments before the half-time whistle.
Half-time: Burgess Hill Town 3 – 2 Billericay Town.
What a flipping game!
With a beer in hand for the second half, we rejoined my dad who seemed to have made some friends on the Decking of Woe. Like with any new person he meets these days, we found him showing his pals photos on his phone from when he represented Wales in their first walking football tournament last year up in Hartlepool. He failed to mention his own story of woe to those on the Decking of Woe about how he had also become the first walking footballer in Welsh walking football history to be sent off (for a mix of running and being a bit over-the-top with an English goalkeeper).
Whilst he was introducing them to the ways of walking football, the Burgess Hill gang were introducing him to the joys of spicy snacks, such as Bombay mix. You swear my dad had chewed on a volcano the way he described the stuff to us, so, with me being a fan of all things spicy, I had to give them a whirl too. There was enough kick to warm me up on this cold Saturday afternoon anyway.
As hot as the Bombay mix was, I’m not sure if it was as red-hot as the performance of Billericay’s no.9 in the second half. Ricky Modeste had played well in the first half, but had now morphed into some sort of non-league Leo Messi. Saying that, this was an international footballer playing at non-league level; Modeste had made his debut for Grenada against Trinidad and Tobago just over a month earlier. Fair to say, he bossed the second half with his blistering runs down the right.
Unsurprisingly, it was Modeste who setup the equaliser for Billericay. A great cross into the box was headed home by Sam Deering for our 6th goal of the game.
Burgess Hill’s keeper Di Bernardo was pulling off some heroics in goal, but eventually the away team would finally take the lead and make it 4-3. It would be former Brighton striker Jake Robinson who would place a header past the keeper.
There was one last half chance for Burgess Hill in the dying minutes, but overall the away team had dominated the closing stages and after an almighty tussle over the first hour, Billericay deserved their win in the end.
Full-time: Burgess Hill Town 3 – 4 Billericay Town.
A superb game and a superb advert for non-league football. A spirited and full-blooded game with bucket loads of quality on show too. We departed happy and having got our money’s worth from a great club with welcoming fans. I’ve documented well enough on these pages that I’ve watched a lot of remarkably bland football in Slovakia and so there have been occasions when I’ve lied to myself and tried to convince myself that certain games have been good entertainment, when in fact they’ve probably just been a few notches above dire. Watching this all action affair today just hit that point home harder and was a great reminder of what I miss out on in Britain.
To continue the veneration of all things British, we headed back to Cowfold and treated ourselves to fish and chips from the village’s fish and chip van. A 7 goal non-league thriller, Punk IPA and fish and chips – it was good to be back in the UK.
Highlights: Block and Gasket (Punk IPA), decent setup, brilliant game of football, brilliant goals, Ricky Modeste.
Low Points: ground away from town centre, not a very woeful decking really.
See all my photos from Burgess Hill here.