Ten miles from the 30,000 padded seats of Brighton and Hove Albion’s AMEX Stadium, sits Leylands Park, the home to Ryman Premier side Burgess Hill Town.
Last weekend I swapped AMEX for a small terrace and the smells of hot burgers and crisp lager to watch the Hillians, as they’re nicknamed.
I even managed to get a cup of Bovril and large chips for £2.50 – now that wouldn’t get you very far at the AMEX…
Yes, the facilities aren’t quite up to Championship standard, but what Leylands Park has in spades is a sense of community, of friends and families who work hard for and take pride in their local club.
“You get to see the other side of football, the nitty gritty. A lot of people at our club put a lot of unpaid, hard work in,” Hillians manager Ian Chapman told me.
“We as a team, try to be successful for them, we want to give back, because they deserve it. All the work they put in, that’s their reward if we do well for them”.
And rewarded the fans and staff truly were this weekend, with an exciting 3-2 victory over Jimmy Bullard’s Leatherhead.
My first experience of Ryman Premier football brought five goals, cheap refreshments, sunshine and a game of high tempo football. Oh, and surprisingly no bookings!
The standard may not be exactly that of Brighton down the road, but there are similar traits on show: pace, passion and determination to name a few.
Believe it or not, there is a world outside of elite football, a world in which many stars of today have risen.
The likes of Chris Smalling, Charlie Austin and Jamie Vardy are all now excelling at the highest level after starting out in the non-league game.
Big names in non-league
“Look at Greg Leur who we sold to Hull, there’s some good names and good footballers in non-league these days. We’ve got that with an ex-Brighton player on loan with us; Dean Cox,” said former Seagulls defender Chapman.
There are plenty of current big names in non-league football too, including the likes of Jimmy Bullard at Leatherhead and Gary andf Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt at Salford City.
Just to watch these ex-pros and current coaches from close up on the sidelines can give any fan an invaluable insight into football.
Especially when it comes to seeing and hearing the touchline antics and choice words from the likes of Bullard himself.
Better yet, you can even share a pint or two with these players and managers afterwards.
“By being in non-league football, you’ll get more affiliation with the players for example in bar afterwards and around the club,” Chapman explained.
Give it a go
Every fan should take advantage when their professional clubs stop for the international break; go out and see the ‘nitty, gritty’ beautiful side of football at non-league level, where every penny counts.
“It’s everything you want from football, and those people have come back”
In certain areas of Brighton’s stadium you can pay up to £42 for a seated ticket. Add that to the bill of £12 to park your car at the ground and already you’ve gone way over £50 before eyeing up the pricey pie (£4.20) and pint (£4.30).
Its £10 for adults and £6 for concessions at Burgess Hill, with the ability to stand and watch the football (something you’re not supposed to do at the AMEX). Oh, and there’s free parking at the ground, too.
Chapman would “love” to see more people at Leylands Park.
“If local league clubs like Brighton and Crawley are playing away and people are at a loose end, I’d love to see more people come down to have a look and see what they think
We’ve had that this season, proper games of football, end to end, excitement, goals, tackles and bookings. It’s everything you want from football and those people have come back”.
Clubs at Burgess Hill’s level do genuinely care about their fans, their community – it’s visible.
“We’re a community club, we get 300-400 at home and I’d like to think they get entertainment and value for money,” Chapman added.
Realistically, a club of Burgess Hill’s size do have a ceiling of how far up the football pyramid they can hope to go, but as long as they are “always looking to improve” as Chapman puts it, and give back to the community, they’re achieving their goals.
“The chairman would love to get to the Conference South,” admitted the Burgess Hill gaffer. “However he knows at the moment, the club isn’t geared up to do that. Financially, we’ve got to establish ourselves.”
But the opportunities to continue to improve are there for the club.
Burgess Hill has a good catchment area of around 40,000 people. Chapman believes the club has the base to have “decent crowds of 600-700 each week” providing the side are doing well.
The attendance does appear to be ever growing for the Mid-Sussex side, who are on a current 10-game unbeaten run.
Last weekend saw one of the highest crowds of the season; 482, with another high turnout expected for this weekend’s home clash against National League Dover in the FA Cup.
Chapman admitted honestly: ‘The opportunity is there to get to the Conference South, but it probably would be the maximum for the club.
“When I first joined, they were second from bottom in the league below (Ryman South). I’ve had four seasons, and this is my fifth.
“In that time we finished 8th in my first season, 6th the next, missing out narrowly on the play-offs and in my third season, we won the league, gaining promotion to the Ryman Premier.
“In this league last season we finished bottom four, but managed to stay up. This season the aim is to finish in the top half. It’s always about improving and getting better”.
Youth recruitment is essential
For a club in the Ryman Premier, it’s about making use of your resources, in this case; the community.
The Hillians’ youth recruitment is a huge part of that, as I saw at the weekend. At least four players in the starting XI were brought through the youth set-up.
“Not only could you spot the next Jamie Vardy, you’ll get your money’s worth of football, which is of a much higher standard and tempo than you might expect”
“We have to work hard on our youth set-up and recruitment at this level. We’ve had two youth team lads in the squad so far this season; one started in FA Cup last round, 17 year old goalkeeper, he was fantastic,” said Chapman.
Curtis Gayler, another youth product and just 16 years old, has appeared twice already this season for Burgess Hill.
“It’s important we keep bringing through the youth players. We always need to keep finding homegrown talent – it’s important to us as a community club.”
Chapman added the most rewarding aspect of his job as a manager is “seeing youth flourish”.
Personally, I’m sold. Not only is non-league much more affordable, it’s also a reminder of where football began, at the heart of our communities, with every penny counting and clubs wanting to give back.
Not only could you spot the next Jamie Vardy, you’ll get your money’s worth of football, which is of a much higher standard than you might expect.
The next international break comes on the weekend of 12th November, and I’d strongly urge you to go and sample the beautiful delights of the non-league game.