These articles are published in the Slough Town FC programme. The Rebels play in the National League South in a swanky new ground. I’ve been supporting Slough since the beginning of time despite now living in Brighton.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

LANCING BOIL THE HEATH

Printed in the National League South game v Dulwich Hamlet on Monday 27th August 2018  We lost 2-1 in front of 2010

Their enthusiasm reminded me of when I was their age. Waiting at the tunnel to get players to sign my autograph book, shouting out their names in the hope of recognition, legging it for the ball after a wayward shot – and of course queuing at the legendary Wexham Park sweet shop.
Fast forward 40 years and I'm taking seven boys to the Hanbury Stadium, the grandiose sounding venue of Haywards Heath who were entertaining near neighbours Lancing. 

 
Bored of watering my allotments, I'd been asking for rain for months and so on the first day of our annual camping holiday the end of the heatwave was celebrated with torrential rain and hurricane winds. The weather had improved on the Saturday but Haywards Heath playing in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary round just 15 minutes away was too good an opportunity to miss. Like the drunk bloke at the bar, I repeated to any campers that would listen – Yes, the FA Cup really starts in August.
Heath had a brilliant 2017/18 season, winning promotion as champions of the Southern Combination, righting a wrong from the previous season when they had been denied promotion after suffering a nine point deduction. Their heinous crime? Mistakenly playing someone 3 times who not paid a £10 fine with a former club! Now they are in the newly formed Bostik South East Division. Just six years ago they were playing in Division 3 of the Country League, so far down the pyramid you can't enter the FA Cup.
They moved to Hanbury in 1952 and the ground is pretty basic apart from a very impressive grandstand that dominates. There used to be covered terracing along one side of the pitch, but this was later removed – now you can park your car pitch side.
 
I paid my £8 but all the seven boys were free. If you ever want a simple marketing tool on how to attract children to lower league football then this is it. Everyone loves a bargain and the club soon got their money back on the burger, chips and drinks the kids devoured.
Heaths manager Shaun Saunders is the father of Connor Saunders, a promising footballer who was killed with one punch a few years back. The Foundation set up in his name have been tireless in their message in schools that one punch can kill – as well as donating defibrillators, encouraging organ donations and providing football coaching for children with learning disabilities. The effectiveness of their work could be seen by all the Brighton boys I had bought along knowing about the one punch campaign.
The FA Cup starts so early that it was the first competitive match for Haywards Heath whereas Lancing, playing in the Southern Combination, already had two league games under their bootstraps. We had just taken our positions when Lancing took the lead inside the first 90 seconds from a penalty. We were hoping for a goalfest but instead it was a very scrappy first half with Heath looking off the pace. The second half saw the home side dominate without making many clear cut chances. With Heath showing more urgency late on, Lancing hit on the counter, with Jack Langford sent clear in stoppage time to score and confirm a trip to Greenwich Borough. The Lancing players and management were jubilant. They are now just 13 wins away from the final!
The FA Cup matters at this level, as one Heath fan kept shouting in frustration 'This is the FA Cup for Christ Sake'. Still this season the losers now get £750 while the winners receive £2,250 – as well as half the gate receipts of the 106 paying guests. I'm not sure if this includes kids.
What I loved about the day was how the boys totally bought into it. High fiving and learning the names of the players so they could shout encouragement, chatting to the subs, and being amazed at how the players spoke to the ref - language they pointed out, which would see them sent off in their junior league games. One of them even asked hopefully for the keepers gloves at the end.
While Premier League clubs have so much TV money they could afford to let people in free, its lower league clubs who have cornered this market. Be rude not to take them up on their generous offer.

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