NLD writer Ian Townsend took a trip to Worthing to see their Ryman League Division One South play-off semi-final against Hythe Town
Play-Off matches tend to be cagey affairs.
Two teams with little between them at the end of a domestic season contending with the enormity of failure, supporters tossed and turned between hope and despair for ninety or one hundred and twenty minutes before experiencing elation or its rather more downbeat bedfellow; there is often little room for expansive play born of joie-de-vivre.
Worthing, losers of three consecutive Ryman South Play Off semi-finals from 2007/08, and Hythe Town, also losing semi-finalists in 2013, both have bitter recent experience which you might have thought would weigh on their minds during Tuesday night’s encounter at The Photronix Stadium (Woodside Road to most of us).
But it seemed that expectation does not weight heavily on such young shoulders, as The Rebels smashed seven goals without reply to leave their opponents chasing shadows in which to hide their embarrassment.
The rise of Worthing has been one of the Non League success stories of the last eighteen months.
Teetering on the cusp of bankruptcy many of their senior players left to seek pastures new (and a guaranteed wage), leading to a collection of youth team players being thrust into the spotlight, only to prove they were better than those who had departed.
Also into the void came new owner George Dowell, a young former player tragically paralysed in a road accident, and the club is beginning to be unrecognisable from that which he inherited, both on and off the pitch.
New 3G pitch, refurbished facilities, vastly improved catering, funds already in place to refurbish the imposing but slightly decrepit grandstand over the summer, crowds almost double what they were and below only those of Guernsey, it’s difficult to find a negative; although, if pushed, a PA system which makes the announcer sound like he’s drowning in cold custard whilst wearing a balaclava helmet is surely worth a mention.
But it was the action on the pitch which was the centre of attention, and even during the warm up Worthing seemed to have the greater focus.
There was an air of determination about the team even whilst they carried out an obviously important but rather bizarre exercise which involved sidestepping whilst clapping the hands above the head, as if they were a low-budget line dancing troop auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent, and the movement and language during this and other drills spoke of a team determined to be successful.
At the other end of the ground Hythe were also working hard, but with a tendency to gaze around distractedly on occasions, as if the pain of the previous Saturday’s 4-0 defeat by Faversham Town was still weighing heavy on their shoulders. Those shoulders must have
felt heavier still after ten minutes of the match.
Whilst the initial exchanges were rather even, it always looked likely that the pace of Worthing could do damage, and it was that pace- from striker Ben Pope- which drew which drew Hythe captain James Morrish into a rash tackle and gave the Rebels a free kick thirty yards from goal.
Brannon O’Neill whipped in a lovely cross, player-manager (and brother of Bournemouth’s Tommy) Gary Elphick rose to head goalwards, and as the ball came back off the bar Omar Bugiel was on hand to force it home.
On any other day Bugiel would have been the star of the evening. His control of the midfield was almost total, his running, passing and movement quite sublime- yet even he was to be overshadowed by the sheer quality of his midfield colleague Jordan Maguire-Drew.
On loan from the Under 21 side of nearby Brighton and Hove Albion, he demonstrated a touch and awareness which had Hythe chasing shadows the entire evening, as well as scoring two goals which were worthy of the admission price on their own. His first, and Worthing’s second, came in the 19th minute.
A corner was partially cleared to the edge of the box, and despite the presence of onrushing defenders the ball was first controlled before being sent curling towards the top corner of the net; a moment of rare beauty which led to gasps of delight from those home fans stationed behind the dugouts. They had much more reason to be delighted as the evening went on.
That there were no more goals during the first half led to some worry over the half time tea; perhaps missed chances would come back to haunt the home side. It took until only four minutes after the restart before the Rebels faithful were able to relax, however, as Bugiel sent Zack Newton clear.
Newton received the ball slightly behind him, turned beautifully and drifted into the box before firing across keeper Joe Mant into the corner. Mant was undoubtedly Hythe’s best player, and indeed perhaps the only one to emerge from the match with credit; without him the result could easily have reached double figures, such was Worthing’s dominance.
Elphick manged to put the ball under the bar rather than against it to extend the lead in the 59th minute, before Pope got the goal his continual hard running deserved, as he converted a penalty which he had earned twelve minutes before the end.
A penalty it undoubtedly was, although you had to feel for Town defender Nick Reeves as he was shown the red card- it was almost as if salt was being rubbed into the wound.
Maguire-Drew then got his second and The Rebels sixth, powering home a free kick from around twenty five yards which not a single outfield player nor the tireless Mant could get near, before Bugiel ended the rout with the seventh six minutes before the end, as the Hythe management team sunk down in their seats so far that they were almost underneath them.
The crowd of nine hundred and forty eight yelled their approval as the referee took pity on Hythe by failing to add on a single second, and the home players shared their delight before being corralled into a huddle near the centre circle by Elphick and joint manager Jon Meeney.
Seven-nil is a record score in Ryman League Play-off matches, both in terms of the number of goals scored by one side and in the margin of victory, yet the atmosphere was quickly calmed and the managers must have been pointing out that despite this extravagant performance their young team had won nothing yet.
Faversham Town, who will be their opponents back at Woodside Road in Saturday’s final, are a hard working side and will prove difficult to beat.
Before the season George Dowell spoke of a five year plan to reach the National League South. That will take two promotions, and only time will tell whether the first of these will happen next weekend; but you have to think, however this season ends, that this aim is far from outlandish. The Worthing revolution seems not only to be on track, but to be in very good hands indeed.
Article and Images: Ian Townsend (@townsendaround)
To read more of Ian’s articles visit http://www.townsendaround.co.uk/