They play the game of Merrie Olde England very well in Arundel. It’s a town that reflects former Prime Minister John Major’s misty-eyed vision of a nation of village green cricket, warm beer and the Home Service. But, as well as having a magnificent castle, a scenic cricket ground and tea shops aplenty (Belinda’s Tea Rooms, Tarrant St. does a mean afternoon tea, apparently) it also has arguably the most picturesque football ground in Britain.
Arundel Football Club may never feature on the pools coupon (if they still exist, that is) and may find it hard to attract more than 100 people to their Mill Road ground, but the club is a magnet for ground enthusiasts eager to wallow in nostalgia. It’s not so much the ground, which is fundamental, at best, but the overhanging castle that makes watching football at Arundel a unique experience.
Walking through the town, among the many day-tripping, blue-rinsed tourists, it was clear that the biggest event of the day was not the FA Vase first round tie between Arundel and Phoenix Sports, but the sale of poppies from the table by the war memorial. It’s a sleepy location that would not look out of place in a Sunday evening BBC period drama featuring twin-set wearing middle-aged ladies and trilby-topped detectives.
The quiet hum of the town was interrupted by the sound of Motown Chartbusters, or to be more precise, Diana Ross and the Supremes, coming from the Arundel FC tannoy. Entering the ground to “Baby Love”, one of those “salt of the earth” characters that non-league clubs depend upon explained to me why Arundel are known as “the mullets”. I was curious to know why the club should adopt a nickname that evoked images of badly cut hair and 1980s gaudy fashion. “If you are born in Arundel, you’re a mullet. It’s the grey mullet fish from the River Aran,” said the gateman, who had been a supporter of the club “all his life”. He added that he was, in fact, a mullet, unlike many people who claim to be a mullet but have merely moved to the town rather than been raised on the banks of the river!
Talking of rivers, Arundel’s existence was thrown into doubt by “intense and persistent” floods that took place earlier in the year. The flood waters receded, but the pitch was badly damaged by salt. Thankfully, the club managed to get through this crisis, but given the ground is on a flood plain, it is at the mercy of the elements.
On the pitch this season, Arundel are not faring too badly. On the day of the FA Vase game, Simon Butler’s team were sixth in the Sussex County League Division One and had lost three of their 13 games. They had won their previous three games, all on the road – 4-2 at Shoreham, 2-0 at East Preston and 2-1 at St. Francis Rangers. In the FA Vase, they beat Wick & Barham of the Sussex County League Division Two 2-1 after a 3-3 draw.
Phoenix Sports were an unknown quantity. They arrived at Mill Road with an unbeaten record in the Southern Counties East League. Notably, they had conceded just six goals in 11 games. They looked a well-drilled outfit in their warm-up and were making all the right noises, that heady mixture of cliché and jargon that provides the script for the typical pre-match motivational team-talk. I predicted a win for the team in green and black.
It didn’t take long for that forecast to look good. Barely a minute had gone when Carl Cornell went sprawling in the penalty area and although Yacine Gnahore made a meal of the spot-kick, Arundel keeper James Fernandes easily saving it, the rebound rolling into the net in off central defender Lloyd Walker and the post. A scruffy goal to open the scoring, but the raucous fans from Kent (Barnehurst) enjoyed it.
It was very clear that Phoenix had more about them than Arundel. They were certainly seemed more determined, had an air of aggression and looked like prime subjects for Monty Python’s “is this the right room for an argument?”. One or two of the Phoenix players seemed the type of individuals that could have an argument with themselves in a telephone box (doubtless, in a town like Arundel, they could find a red box or two). Quite a few were early candidates for a yellow card – and so it proved.
This “professional edge” was too much for Arundel, who were restricted to one half chance in the first half, a long run by Rory Biggs ending with a low shot that was pushed round the post by Phoenix goalkeeper Steve Phillips.
Phoenix extended their lead seven minutes into the second half, a speedy run down the flank by the impressive but precocious Harrison Carnegie ending with a low cross that was fired high into the net by Gnahore.
Arundel didn’t muster up anything of note till very late on when Jordan Clark sent a low, hard shot goalwards. Phoenix, meanwhile, could easily have added to their tally in the closing stages. Substitute Louis Valencia should have done better with two efforts in quick succession, again after a Carnegie run. Fernandes deserved credit for stopping one goal bound effort with an acrobatic save and a little more composure could have seen a third goal for the Kent side.
Phoenix deserved their 2-0 win and enjoyed it. “Well, what do you know,” shouted one player at the final whistle. “Another ******* clean sheet.” Arundel were rarely going to change that, I’m afraid. Watch out for Phoenix, though, and don’t be surprised if they start to rise the non-league pyramid. You can just detect burning ambition in there somewhere. A Phoenix rising from the flames, perhaps…