When Whitehawk left us in May 2013 for the heady heights of National League South, opinion amongst supporters of other clubs in the Isthmian League was divided- something that comes across quite clearly when you read internet message boards from that era. Some fans expected never to see them back. Some were quite sure that they’d be back in a few years. Some felt they wouldn’t be missed. Others suggested that they’d miss their supporters but wouldn’t miss the trek to the Enclosed Ground- a venue which, on a cold, wet, windy day like today, still seems remarkably misnamed.
What comes across the most, however, is the level of vitriol. Whitehawk were 'buying their way to success.' They were 'spending their way to victory.' They were 'a rich man’s plaything.' They wanted to build a 5,000 seater stadium when they had crowds of 200- how was that sensible? The criticism was widespread- and over the next few years as they first consolidated at the higher level then got themselves into the playoffs two seasons in a row, it got louder still. They also became an unwilling internet sensation after Gordon Hill- better known as the Wealdstone Raider- was videoed in a drunken rant pointing out that the club had- and we’re paraphrasing here- a not very nice ground and no supporters.
The problem was that, to some extent, Hill was right (although the way he presented his argument wasn’t celebrated for its eloquence). On the pitch at that point they had the likes of Jake Robinson, Sam Deering, Sergio Torres, Craig Ross- there is perhaps an irony that the first two on that list were listening to similar criticisms at Billericay Town last season- but off it they had facilities which were far from representative of the riches in red shirts playing in it. Those facilities are improved, if still a little ragged around the edges in places, but these days they sadly rather match the team, bottom of the Bostik Premier Division with only two wins all season, the last of those coming on September 1st- although with two draws from their last three matches perhaps beginning to show improvement.
Welcome to Whitehawk
The losers that day? Burgess Hill Town, who turned up in East Brighton this afternoon looking for revenge.
The new model Whitehawk, these days firmly focused on investing in youth and engaging with the community rather than purchasing ready-made success- have only one reminder of the heady days when they were unlucky playoff losers at Borehamwood, knocking Lincoln City out of the FA Cup and scoring a last-gasp equaliser at Dagenham and Redbridge. But perhaps it is the most important reminder. Even in the days when they were having remarkable, if unsustainable, success, the very best thing about watching the Hawks wasn’t the fine collection of individuals on the pitch, but the fine collection of individuals off it. Whatever was happening on the slope in front of them, Whitehawk supporters and volunteers were always welcoming, enthusiastic, inclusive and noisy. When the opposition supporters would sing, rather obviously, “We have more fans than you,” the Hawks faithful would reply with the refrain “We have more fun than you;” and there was never any doubt about the accuracy of either statement. There was much talk in the boardroom and press box about long term plans, becoming the “Brighton Espanyol” and renaming the club Brighton City FC, and about new stadiums and Steve King’s Armani suits, but you have to think that if those in charge at that point had actually focused on the asset directly under their own noses- their supporters- then perhaps, just perhaps, they’d have had half a chance of building sustainable success. For the Hawks faithful, inventive, amusing, welcoming and noisy representatives of one of the most deprived- although steadily, perceptively improving these days- areas in the UK, are undoubtedly a marketing managers dream.
The 'marketing manager' having that dream at present is Kevin Miller. Formerly the Commercial Manager at Lewes- but first and foremost a Non League football fan- Kevin swapped one part of East Sussex for the same role elsewhere in the summer, and has already made a notable difference, tapping into the positive image presented by the home faithful to generate advertising revenue, raising the clubs profile through poster campaigns the like of which he oversaw with the Rooks, setting up links with local schools and colleges, and promoting the not inconsiderable charitable works that are a speciality amongst supporters here. All that was missing upon arrival at the ‘TerraPura Ground’ (TerraPura are a supplier of sustainable housing) was a row of beach huts and pop star shirt sponsorship- wherever Margate may have gone this season, Kevin went first! Before the match he was very positive about his role, and about the future of the club; indeed, if he could bottle that enthusiasm and sell it then he would undoubtedly raise enough to propel the Hawks to levels beyond their wildest dreams- although perhaps not beyond his.
“This is a club with real potential. The city is a fine, inclusive place, and the football club is the city in miniature. Since I arrived here I’ve worked with the supporters to promote the good work they do, and to get them more involved in the running of the club, to ensure that they realise they are both important to us and appreciated. I’ve got the local college involved in many ways, allowing their students to develop their range of experience whilst benefitting their community, and I’ve met with community leaders and business leaders to try and sell our vision. We are the second biggest club in Brighton, and with respect to our rather more lofty neighbours, they have a global reach these days, whereas our focus is entirely local.
A very large Hawk
We need to be a focal point for the city. There is so much potential here, and I hope that, with the right direction, and community buy in, we can be a model for how a Non League football club should be run- a south coast Dulwich Hamlet, if you like.” He laughed. “We’ve already got the craft beer!” And indeed they had, three local varieties, all selling well despite the awful weather outside of the clubhouse- filling up and freshy painted by painting and decorating students from the aforementioned educational establishment.
At this he wandered off to meet with the head of the Brighton University Student Union- she was soon to be seen holding a pint of the previously celebrated amber nectar- and the supporters from both sides began to arrive, and to begin the search for somewhere dry to watch the game. Unless they decided to watch it through the windows of the clubhouse, they failed. Storm Dierdre had arrived in Brighton, and Brighton didn’t like it much.
On the pitch, Burgess Hill Town General Manager- and these days also manager Simon Wormull’s Assistant- John Rattle was warming up the goalkeepers- although he’d have needed a large furnace to do that properly. He was positive about recent form, but also convinced that today’s match was of great importance. “There are no standout teams in the league this year, everyone can beat everyone else. But it’s matches like this that will make the difference, against opponents at our end of the table and in weather like this.” Did he expect the Hillians to win? “Yes- but I’d be ok with a draw, too!” He laughed and wandered off to kick a stray ball back towards the dugout, whilst in the stand both home and away supporters were also saying they’d be ok with a draw. One of them was describing the match as a “six-pointer,” and given it isn’t yet Christmas it was perhaps a little early to be thinking that way, but it wasn’t difficult to understand what he meant.
Burgess Hill, playing up the, erm, Whitehawk Hill, got us underway, rain driving into their backs- and into every nook and cranny of every stand and terrace. And the noise started, too- but, unusually, it was the away fans making it to begin with. With both sets of fans together, and both having brought drums and various other instruments, soon we had a home and away cacophony, which was rather endearing but meant that, with two different songs being sung at once, it was often difficult to tell what anyone was singing. It was the home side that had the best of the opening few minutes, which meant- of course- that it was the Hillians that had the first real chance, Keano Deacon robbing Matt Drage just outside the area and firing in a shot which Melvin Minter saved with his legs. The defender seemed to slip, and you had to think that, given the amount of water pouring out of the sky, he wouldn’t be the last to have problems with stability.
A view of the elements
The Hawks headed up the other end and the quick feet of ex-Hillian Connor Tighe saw the ball find its way to Nat Pinney on the edge of the box. The Non League Akinfenwa did a quick shimmy of his own and fired goalwards, forcing Mitch Bromage into a save as good as that made by his opposite number. It was at about this point that the first questions about abandonment began circulating around the main stand, perhaps prompted by the news from Lewes that their match with Margate had already come to a premature end.
The eighteenth minute saw the breakthrough, and it came to Burgess Hill. A corner from the right, and up, up went Ben Pope, higher than his marker, to head firmly home. A couple of years ago, before suffering a terrible injury, the then Worthing youngster was being closely watched by a number of professional sides, and whilst he’s struggled to reach pre-injury levels since his return the signs are positive, and he’s still young. With a number of our Bostik youngsters in the spotlight at the moment there seemed little reason why he couldn’t soon be amongst them once more.
Hill took heart, and remained dominant, which- again, meant that the next goal had to come to Whitehawk. And it was a cracker when it arrived, Tighe sweeping the ball into the corner before celebrating wildly in front of the Hawks faithful. “You’ve all gone quiet over there,” they sang, as the home announcer inexplicably gave the goal to Ky Marsh-Brown. They don’t look alike.
Discussions on whether the game would be allowed to finish were getting louder by this point. The ball had begun to stick, and the rain was patently not about to stop any time soon. Both sides were finding the conditions difficult. And then, as we reached the half hour mark, the referee gave three blasts on his whistle. Everyone looked at each other, slightly surprised, and then the players began to shake hands and it became apparent that it was over. Both sets wandered off to salute their own supporters, and a number of them scampered to the bar- or to their cars. Football was over for the day, and the final score was Whitehawk 1, Burgess Hill Town 1, Dierdre 2.
The arrival of the players- and mascots
Whether you’ve been to Whitehawk or not, you’ll undoubtedly have seen the area on TV. A few years ago, John Lewis featured a particular song written by Noel Gallagher, and made famous by the Royle Family, in their famous Christmas advert- the one where the young lady with a telescope sent a present to a lonely old gentleman on the moon, and far more heart-warming than Elton John through the ages. That advert was filmed in Whitehawk, and brought with it a great deal of positive publicity for the area.
The Enclosed Ground is a long trek away from civilisation at the far end of East Brighton Park. If you approach on foot, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was, rather appropriately, half the world away from anywhere. But if the people in charge at Whitehawk FC these days get their way, it won’t be long before it will be at the centre of the community rather than at the periphery.
An oasis of positivity in an area that truly deserves one.