Henry Blofeld once described The Saffrons as being the quintessential English venue. He was in Eastbourne for the cricket, as indeed Sussex will be later this summer, but, today, whilst there was cricket (and bowls) to see at the Saffrons the noise, colour and crowd were here for the final day of the Southern Combination season.
To the sound of almost constant drumming and the sight of flags and the occasional flare, two sides with only pride to play for did a pretty good job of creating a match worth giving a damn about. Eastbourne took the lead with a neat lob before being pegged back by an absolute scorcher of a shot early in the second half. After a fair bit of nip and tuck a smart header from a corner sealed the deal. Although some of the tackles had a feel of a pre-season friendly (obviously no one wants to be damaged heading into the holiday season), overall it was a pretty enjoyable game. My younger was pleased with his burger and only occasionally complained about how long 45 minutes takes to pass so all was definitely good.
And whilst Blowers quintessential Englishness probably didn’t include ‘Still Hate Thatcher’ t-shirts I like to think there’s something defiantly and wonderfully welcomingly English about the knowing and knowledgeable inclusive passion that sport, even this far down the pyramid, can generate.
Fulham played Manchester United on 2 November, 2013. This photo was taken on 23 April, 2017. The Norman Arms closed in early 2014. There are some less than favourable comments to be found online about the state the place was in then, contrasting with some nicer words a few years before. It’s still boarded up now and history records that Fulham lost 3-1 and were, at the end of the season, relegated.
Over to Hastings and Bexhill rugby club which is now the home of Hastings Conquerors American football club. Their visitors began life as the Chiltern Cheetahs in the mid 80s and lay claim to being the third oldest continuously playing club in the UK whereas Hastings are one of the newest. No matter, old and young now face each other in the same division which, assuming I’m reading this right, sits at the foot of the British American Football pyramid.
Truth to be told, there were pleasures here today but a close contest wasn’t one of them. Hertfordshire got ahead early and then scored often. On each down they seemed to have a few yards head start before Hastings closed them down. When Hastings had the football they didn’t seem to have the same level of coordination and, in the first half (I left at half time owing to life getting in the way), picked up only one first down which they immediately blew by coughing up an interception touchdown.
The final score was 63-0 so a happy journey home for the visitors but a tough day at the office for the Conquerors. But, at least, they now have an office which is a very nice place to watch sport. The rugby clubhouse serves a nice pint, the balcony is a splendid place to survey what’s going on, and, should they get a close game going, they will get more folk to stick around. There was interest aplenty from a healthy contingent from Hastings & Bexhill as well as a good group of preconverted supporters. I’ll certainly be back and I may even make it past half time.
“Is this your first time?” So asked the Sussex groundhopper as I made my way through the muck covered path behind the goal to set up a position to take some photos. I tried to appear quite the veteran of East Sussex soccer but my interlocutor, even more recently arrived, made my experience look puny. This is someone who goes to Battle Baptists and Hollington when the heights of the County League get too dizzy. I can’t compete with that. I just took some photos instead.
But what of the game? Well, we waited for a game of football to break out but it wasn’t that sort of afternoon. There was a lot of effort, a lot of physicality and a lot of passion. What there wasn’t, for most of the time, was anything resembling sustained, coordinated play. In the first half, when the tackles flew, that was kind of fun. In the second, as Westfield tired and neither team did much to inspire, it was less fun. But I can’t be too sad. Any match which features an exploding sugar bowl has to be worth remembering fondly. For the record, Sidlesham won 3-1, overcoming an early deficit to run out deserved winners.
Nobody is going to claim what we saw today was a classic but, as the man who goes from game to game to game will no doubt agree, that’s not why we’re here in the first place.
Welcome to rugby union in Sussex Division Four (East). We’re so far down what passes for a pyramid here that it’s hard to work out what level we’re talking about. At a rough guess it would take something like eleven direct promotions and a thousand pages of red tape for a team down here to make it all the way to the top. Today, all anyone was really bothered about was whether the visitors would make it all the way to fifteen. They didn’t have even enough men and relied on a fair few (estimates varied) from the Hastings areas to get up to strength – and even then needed the Cinque Ports touch judge to step up to the plate when fatigue meant more numbers were required. It is to everyone’s credit that whilst it was expectedly ragged at times, there was a pretty decent game of rugby to watch at all.
St Leonards Cinque Ports won 31-10. I know this because the twitter feed told me. I lost count when I didn’t see the indications following a couple of conversions. The man who runs the twitter feed also runs the line, leads the training, takes match notes and, today, gets to play some rugby for his club’s opponents. There are hundreds like him in all sports up and down the country every weekend. That doesn’t diminish the individual effort – rather, to me, it shows what an under appreciated army we have sustaining sport in this country.
The match was a bit odd. Lewes probably had the majority of possession, almost certainly had the majority of territory, and yet were never really that close on the scoreboard. Ports had a well organised defence (although a team who’d met each other before would have stretched them more) and some excellent quick breakers. That was the difference.
It was a lovely day to watch some rugby. Obviously my solution to the numbers problem would have been to get them to drop to 13 a side and cap the phases allowed before losing possession at six but even allowing for the obvious deficiencies of insisting on too many flankers there was some good football on display at times. The sun shone brightly and it was pleasantly warm. The match was hosted by Hastings & Bexhill and it’s the first time I’ve been up there and not immediately been afraid that I was about to blown from Kansas into Oz.
All in all, a very nice afternoon. I took some photos (here). I may be back. After all, someone has to be there to see St Leonards Cinque Ports make all those promotions until they can face Wasps on equal terms. Just so long as they never ask me to make up the numbers …
And so to the … oh, not the Oval, home of Eastbourne United Association, but Priory Lane, home of Eastbourne Borough, for this quarter final tie between Langney Wanderers and Bexhill United. What exactly this is the quarter final of wasn’t 100% clear either – a divisional cup, it appears – but after a reasonably hard fought game the ‘home’ side deservedly won through.
The frost that sank most other games in our corner of East Sussex can’t touch 3G pitches so a last minute swap was made and this SCFL Division 1 Cup quarter final match was played in perfect conditions in front of a pretty decent crowd. The swap meant nobody was on hand to open the tea bar though which, given the needle was barely above freezing, was a bit of a downer.
Langney are a feisty bunch. Even the warm-up was filled with barbaric yawps. So no surprise that they’re tasty, together and tough when the match gets underway. They led early but were pegged back before dominating most of the rest of the match. Bexhill had chances but not enough pressure. A penalty in injury time made the final score 3-2 but, in truth, it never felt as close as that. Langney deserved their march on.
I took some photos (here) and mostly had a good time.
And so to Easington Sports in its secret Banbury location to find that the ground has changed a bit since our last visit. There’s a proper fence to keep the ruffians out, a path around the pitch, a stand, and a general air of cleanliness in the friendly clubhouse. So, with programme provided, we settled down for the last match of 2016 and got a more than decent reward: a fast-moving game with plenty of commitment that wasn’t decided until the dying stages.
There was a crowd of 53. A few of those had made the journey from Gloucestershire and there was also a handful of Puritans as a Banbury United didn’t play today. The earlier rain meant the seats in the stand were only for the well-prepared, or those who could cope with a damp bottom. It also meant the pitch was heavy. Not that Shortwood noticed as they created their first chance from a decent charge forward within the opening minute. Thereafter there was a decent tussle with both teams going close – Easington probably had more of the ball – but neither able to break the deadlock before half time.
The second half continued in much the same vein. There was no doubting the effort despite the encroaching gloom (the early kick off still had us finishing in unfloodlit twilight on this dark New Year’s Eve) but it looked like the gods had marked down this one as a No Score Draw. Southwood threw on some fresh legs near the end and two hasty attacks close together saw them put in two well-worked goals. Easington had time to add one of their own in response through a rare example of their centre forward pairing combining as a unit but the ref blew before they could strike again. A 2-1 defeat after so much activity must have hurt – the contrast with the Southwood players who celebrated like they’d won a final with telling.
No points for Easington and no bacon roll for us despite the enticing smell. Lots of entertainment though. I took some photies (here), they’re mostly not that blurry.