You could be forgiven for assuming that a trip to Burgess Hill Town is akin to visiting some sort of new age tribe. They play at the Green Elephants Stadium, their fans refer to them as “the Hillians” and there’s a big wigwam on the far side of the ground as you come through the gates. Are we at a world music festival? Is it a spin-off of Glastonbury? No, the Green Elephants are the club’s sponsors and the wigwam is one of their [far from cheap] products. As for tribe, well, the club’s nickname is “the Hillians”.
All roads led to the wigwam on January 10, the day of the FA Trophy second round – that’s if National Rail allowed you to navigate your way down to deepest Sussex. How anyone actually made the journey from outside Burgess Hill by public transport is a mystery. As usual in Britain, travel is rarely made easy for you and the railway authorities – “nothing to do with me, mate, call the help line” – do their best to make weekend travel as difficult as possible, although they will sell you a ticket knowing that your journey is going to be hellish. There should be a health warning!
Enough of that, Burgess Hill Town expected a good turnout for their tie with Conference side Dartford and they got it – 1,010 to be precise. They are one of non-league football’s success stories this season, still unbeaten in the league and enjoying good runs in both FA competitions. Prior to meeting the Kent side, only one team had beaten them in 2014-15 – Dartford in the FA Cup!
The Hillians are odds-on favourites to reach the Ryman Premier Division at the end of the season. They enhanced their reputation with that FA Cup run to the fourth qualifying round that included a 3-1 shock win at Sutton United. In the FA Trophy, they were playing their seventh game in the competition, having disposed of Aveley, Chesham United, Folkestone, Leatherhead and Aldershot Town.
Their league form had been irresistible, winning 20 of their 25 games and conceding just 20 goals in the process. Only Phoenix Sports of the Southern Counties East League are still unbeaten in the first six steps of non-league football. In contrast, Dartford had not been having a good time and were languishing in the Conference relegation zone. That didn’t stop a healthy contingent of Darts fans making the journey from a town that, according to the Burgess Hill fans, consists of just a “bridge and a tunnel”. They do have an excellent football stadium, as Game of the People found out earlier this season .
There was a good buzz around the Green Elephants stadium, although there was no room at the inn when it came to gaining entry to the clubhouse. “It’s rammed in there, better off going to the pub,” said one Dartford fan as he headed back towards Wivelsfield station.
Burgess Hill are not accustomed , or dare I say, equipped, to handle such crowds, but they are one of the better supported clubs at step four (indeed, step three level). Crowds in Leylands Park this season have averaged 338 which are more than 45% up on 2013-14. A few days before the Dartford game they pulled in 353 when they beat Folkestone 3-1, and that was in midweek! Their average is higher than 18 Southern League Premier, 17 Ryman Premier and 13 Northern Premier top division clubs. So something is happening in this part of Sussex.
If the club go up and continue their upward trajectory, they will undoubtedly need to make improvements to their ground. Although 1,010 people had a view of the action, it wasn’t entirely comfortable, with limited hard-standing that proved to be a little treacherous on a muddy afternoon. Doubtless the ground-grading grandees will have told them that already. At the moment, it’s fit for purpose and the atmosphere for the Dartford game was one of great expectation.
And so, the action. Burgess Hill started well, urged on by their fans in the stand who rarely kept quiet for the entire game. But after five minutes, they gave away a penalty and Harry Crawford, a great name for a pre-war footballer, gave them the lead from the spot. “That’ll kill them off,” said one Dartford fan clinging onto his piece of hard-standing along the side. But it didn’t.
In fact, Burgess Hill had the better of the first half, showing plenty of energy and enthusiasm. Especially impressive was their striker Pat Harding – more than a dozen goals – and their skipper Darren Budd. At the back, central defender Andy Pearson was also commanding.
It was Harding that equalised for Burgess Hill five minutes from the break, and they certainly deserved it. He reacted quickly when Dartford’s prickly goalkeeper Deren Ibrahim could only parry a shot following a free-kick by Budd. Harding enjoyed that, and so did the crowd. “Killed off are we?,” came a sarcastic response from the Burgess Hill fan to the Dartford forecaster.
The second half started quietly, but Burgess Hill opened well. The game settled down and Dartford looked able to deal with the home side’s threat. But later on, Burgess Hill seemed to gain a second wind and Ibrahim had to be at his best to stop a Joe Keehan effort. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but you just felt that Dartford might have something in their locker, and so it proved.
In the final minute they broke and substitute Danny Harris slotted home the winner. A killer blow and for once, the Hillian fans were silent. Still, they received a rousing send-off as the fans applauded their performance. They deserved better, although manager Ian Chapman, who spoke to me after the game, was philosophical: “I’ve been in the game long enough to know that football does that to you, but I am very proud of my team today. We played Dartford earlier in the season and learned a lot from that. We couldn’t have asked for more from them.”
For Dartford it could have been a big “banana skin”, but their manager, Tony Burman, told me that he was always confident of a result. “It was a tough game, but we expected it from Burgess Hill and full credit to them. Although the pitch was difficult, I think our fitness told in the end. It was really a game to get out of the way for us.”
Burgess Hill Town mostly got what they wanted – a big crowd, a ideal shop window to let people know all about them and an excellent performance. Only the result was wrong. It’s back to Ryman Division One South action at East Grinstead next Saturday. I sense we will be hearing more about this club in the coming year or two…