Groundhop 1881 – Eastbourne Town FC

Isthmian League, Division 1 South
Eastbourne Town FC v Walton Casuals FC
Wednesday, 9th January 2013, 3pm
The Saffrons
Entrance £8, Programme £1.50
Distance 74 miles, Attendance 162

130109 ILD1S Eastbourne Town v Walton Casuals (86)w

Currently on a run – I was reliably informed – where “our away form is better”, there is little doubt that the Eastbourne Town I watched tonight needed a little tweaking.
130109 ILD1S Eastbourne Town v Walton Casuals (100)wIt’s not that bottom of the table Walton Casuals – featuring son of Ray; Craig Lewington – were anything special but as games go, tonight’s was far from extraordinary. Deep into the second half with Casuals already two goals to the good, one local summed it up perfectly as “two average teams tonight” before muttering something very droll about the quality of the substitutions. Having already been turned by the club’s history however, my mind was miles away.
130109 ILD1S Eastbourne Town v Walton Casuals (8)wTo continue the monopoly 1881 seems to have on such clubs, Eastbourne Town are the oldest senior club in Sussex. Originally founded by Rev. Willis as Devonshire Park FC (named after their then pitch), they moved to Saffrons Field in 1886 before changing their name – as the town expanded with the arrival of the railway – to Eastbourne FC. The “gentlemen amateurs” fielded by the club soon dominated county football; winning the Senior Cup seven times in quick succession.
Town would go on to become founder members of both the Southern Amateur and Sussex County Leagues before joining the Corinthian League just after the Second World War. Since then their position has jumped between Steps 4 and 5; having won The Royal Ulster Rifles Charity Cup five times, and the Sussex County League twice.

130109 ILD1S Eastbourne Town v Walton Casuals (46)

Arriving at the ground early, I met with genial Chairman David Jenkins who soon introduced to former player Chris Backhurst. Prior to the club’s 130th Anniversary, Chris had been charged with organising the event. The one-off celebration had quite unanimously been an amazing success with players of all eras returning but, the real legacy of his labour of love is evident everywhere around the club.
As Chris led me round the clubhouse, I couldn’t help staring wide-eyed at some of the finest team shots I’ve seen at any football ground, and the air was so thick with tales of former players, record crowds and sheep grazing near the field, that we almost missed kick-off.
During the half I’d seen David happily serving at the tea bar whilst Dave Pelling – assistant groundsman, announcer, and anything you ask – gave a welcoming insight into the physical work needed to keep games on, “If there’s a job to do I’ll do it; it’s in my blood” before running off to retrieve a stray ball from the neighbouring bowls lawn.
130109 ILD1S Eastbourne Town v Walton Casuals (125)wBack in the clubhouse at halftime I had to turn down a VIP cuppa in favour of more historical revelations; there were numerous folders of research, and photos, and maps, and replica cups. Reliving his attachment to the club, Chris explained with total pride how as a child he’d been introduced to Saffrons by his father though had started his playing career at rivals United but, “when I had the opportunity to come up here, I took it, and the rest is history.” It was a theme running deep through everyone I met.
In Sussex by the sea – where French radio is easy to receive and Church bells chime throughout the game – deep in the heart of The Saffrons, is a community club with stunning turnstiles, that runs a fine independent website and twenty-five sides of all levels. I’d driven through the gloom over the South Downs not knowing what to expect of my evening but, driving back with the Chairman’s words ringing in my ears “Yeah we won the last three but, we won’t hold it against you” I’d left almost understanding the devotion to their team. “This club is everything to me” said Chris “It’s got history”. In the foggy country lanes I truly wished I’d had much more time to spend there.

130109 ILD1S Eastbourne Town v Walton Casuals (19)w

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Initially appearing in this season’s Watford FC matchday programmes, consequently Groundhop 1881 reports will appear late on here. At the end of the journey, a book will be published telling the full story.
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