Few clubs were hit harder by the pandemic than Worthing – of the Isthmian League – but this promotion is just one chapter of a bigger story.
Having already wrapped up the Isthmian League Premier Division championship, they’ve had to make the last two home matches of the season for Worthing FC all-ticket. The capacity of The Crucial Environmental Stadium is frequently listed at 4,000, but is likely to be capped at around 2,600 for these two matches, and Worthing have already had two crowds of more than 2,000 this season for league derbies against Bognor Regis Town and Horsham.
It’s a celebration that’s been a long time coming. On March 26 2020, Worthing were seven points clear at the top of the same division, when it was decided to abandon the league season with no promotion or relegation. When the 2020/21 season was also abandoned, they’d only played eight games of the season, but Worthing were still top of the table, having played three games fewer than second-placed Cheshunt.
But this story stretches back 12 years. George Dowell was 17 years old at the time, and had just broken into the Worthing first-team squad, when he was in the passenger seat of a car that flipped off the bend in the road between Worthing and nearby Arundel. George broke his neck, two vertebrae in his back, and severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralysed from the chest down, while his friends walked away with only minor injuries.
When the compensation money for his life-altering injuries came through in 2015, Dowell decided to buy into his local football club, after hearing that it was more than £200,000 in debt and possibly heading towards bankruptcy. But his investment into the club didn’t end with paying down that debt. It’s known that he’s spent more than £600,000 since, and it might be as much as a million pounds. But this money hasn’t merely been frittered away. The ground has had a 3g artificial pitch installed, which allows for seven-day use, while considerable refurbishments have been carried out, especially to the main stand, where the bar has also been completely refurbished.
The town has reacted. Ten years ago, crowds at Woodside Road weren’t often much higher than a couple of hundred, but this season the average has been 1,270, a figure that will likely grow further with two celebratory matches left to play. And it is noticeable from home matches that this is a relatively young and mixed crowd, a lot of fathers with young children (I should know, occasionally being one of them), but also a large number of teenagers and young adults. Worthing’s somewhat staid reputation as a town is seldom on display come three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.
This level of community engagement is important. The Premier Division of the Isthmian League is the regional third tier of the non-league game; as its winners, Worthing will start next season in the National League South. At this level of the game, there is no television money unless you chance upon a run in the FA Cup, so match-day revenues are all-important in a way that hasn’t quite been the case in the EFL or remotely the case in the Premier League for some considerable time. Gate receipts are important, but the same goes for food and drink sales too.
Worthing run a very successful youth and academy set-up, and have a women’s team play their home matches at Woodside Road on Sunday afternoons. All of this is playing the role that a football club should be fulfilling within its local community, and this in turn creates vital revenue for the club. That Worthing’s average home attendance is the highest in the division by more than 50% puts the club in a decent position to be able to compete, financially, while functioning as a true hub for the local community. It has started to become something of a virtuous circle, and since the lockdown restrictions ended it has felt across the whole of the non-league game as though there is a desire on the part of a lot of people, after more than a year’s enforced separation from others, to come together as a community.
This season started slowly, with two defeats from their first four matches and a very early elimination from the FA Cup at the hands of Corinthian-Casuals, but when Worthing started to get into gear, they looked unstoppable. Three wins from their last three matches would see them bring up 100 points from 42 league games, and since they’ve won nine of their last ten in the league, this seems far from impossible.
Amongst their number this season has been Dean Cox, who made almost 150 appearances for Brighton & Hove Albion and more than 200 for Leyton Orient, and whose experience will be invaluable behind the scenes, even if his playing time has been limited. The headline-grabber this season has been Ollie Pearce, who’s the league’s top scorer with 34 goals. The team is managed by Adam Hinshelwood, who’s now in his second spell as the club’s manager, a period which already spans seven years, even though Hinshelwood doesn’t even turn 40 until 2024. Hinshelwood’s determination is admirable. It would have been easy to become disheartened by the two seasons that ended up cancelled when they were at the top of the table, but Hinshelwood has stuck by the club and the club has stuck by him. It’s been extremely beneficial for all concerned.
What happened to George Dowell was a tragedy, of that there is no question, but Dowell can at least take considerable satisfaction from what he’s been able to give back to his hometown football club in the years since then. Brighton is 15 miles from Worthing, and although the local railway station still throngs with people in blue-and-white scarves on a Saturday lunchtime when the Albion are at home, the town itself is far enough from its bigger neighbour to have its own distinct personality. Having a successful local football club can be a highly beneficial part of that, and Worthing is a better place for everything that Dowell has done for it. Few other clubs will have deserved a promotion at the end of this season than this one.
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