A non-league match between Worthing & Dover Athletic didn’t stand out as having the potential for trouble, but that’s not how things turned out on Saturday afternoon.
By some considerable distance, the biggest irony of it all was that I almost didn’t go. I live in East Worthing, equidistant between several football grounds of varying standards, and a scouring of the weekend fixtures for the full opening day of the season led me to a binary choice.
One match was an FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round match between Lancing and Roffey. This had much to commend it. Watching an FA Cup match in its very first round in August is always bracing, and I’d never previously realised the extent to which I’d wanted to see a team play who’d been named by a dog.
But the pull of the other match eventually won the day. Worthing v Dover Athletic, in the National League South. Worthing, who I’ve written about on these pages before, had just been promoted from the Premier Division of the Isthmian League and were attracting four-figure crowds, which would have previously been inconceivable for anyone bar a bigger club fallen on hard times at this level.
Just 1,500 turned out for this match.
But Dover felt like, to me at least, an even more interesting story. They were also playing their first game in a new division, but having come in the opposite direction, from the National League.
And they hadn’t merely ‘fallen’. They’d reached near-terminal velocity, with just two wins and seven draws from their 46-match league season and a 12-point deduction for having failed to complete their fixtures the season before – See? I told you there was a wild story here – meaning that they finished bottom of the National League table with one single, solitary point to show for their troubles.
So how do you recover from that? Does losing sink into the character of a football club in the same way that wood stains? And how do the supporters keep the faith when there is so little to be had?
Pre-season hadn’t shown much of an improvement. A 2-0 win against a far-from-full-strength Gillingham had been followed by six consecutive defeats, all bar one against teams from at least one division below them. The new season was unlikely to be as bad as that which preceded it, but that was an extremely low bar to clear.
I walked to the ground, allowing plenty of time to get there. Arriving at a turnstile with 30 seconds to kick-off is something of a speciality of mine, but Worthing have caught me out over this before. Big crowds and limited entrances meant that I missed more than one kick-off last season, a state of affairs for which I hold myself fully responsible.
But on this occasion, I was walking up Woodside Road to the ground, among that very familiar, low-key-excited, growing throng, all marching in the same direction together, with about 20 minutes to kick off.
The queue was shorter than I’d expected, but there was still a bit of a wait, and from inside the ground I could already hear singing, as well as some boorish shouting.
As I pushed through the turnstile, there was a large group of young lads making their way to a space behind the covered terrace behind the goal where a bar had been opened up and the Worthing Ultras had assembled.
The group from Dover – I estimated roughly somewhere between 30 and 50; I am specifically not calling them ‘supporters’ here – were clearly intent on causing trouble, preferably by provoking a fight.
The Worthing Ultras are very much from the ‘singing songs, waving big flags and banging a drum’ school of ultrahood rather than the ‘slice your backside open with a flick knife’ school, and they looked at their aggressors with a collective expression of baffled indifference, in much the same way that a dog might look at its owner when they’re crying.
There was some pushing and shoving, and provocation tried to turn to something else, but it eventually died down a little. They had, I was later told, already torn down a home fans’ banner. A pint of something was thrown in an attempt to provoke a fight.
There was a fairly large crowd of people standing around, mostly with the same look of baffled bemusement on their faces. Some were filming it on their phones, a common feature of any public incident these days.
For my part, I took a couple of photos and tweeted them. If I’m going to a match on my on, I do tend to do a little Twitter thread on the events of the day, and mine for this match had started before I even decided I was going to go to this one.
And furthermore, my bafflement and bemusement was as great as everybody else’s. Since my kids were born, football has needed to be about convenience for me (ordinarily I’d have had them with me, but on this occasion their mother was happy for me to take a couple of hours out), and consequently I watch very little live football apart from the teams most local to me. And while there were widespread reports of coked-up and pissed-up gangs at matches last season, none of these groups made it to Worthing, nor did they make it to any of the other matches I made it to.
I was approached by a young lad, demanding to know why I’d been filming him and his mates. I figured that my honest answer – ‘I’m a football journalist who kind of specialises writing about wrong ‘uns, so when I saw you lot acting up like coked-up little pricks I felt kind of duty-bound to share it’ – probably wouldn’t go down too well. So I went for a little white lie instead.
I denied it. After he’d jabbed a finger and spittle-inflected accusation at me for about the third time, I just replied, ‘Look, I don’t know what to tell you. I wasn’t filming you’. It was the truth. I hadn’t ‘filmed’ anyone. He called me a ‘fakkin paedo’ and a ‘weird old man’ (guilty, but not for the reasons he was implying), but ultimately ran out of steam.
I walked round to the front of the stand as the teams came out. Non-league supporters still swap ends before matches and at half-time to stand behind the goal their team is attacking. With a toss of the coin having decided, Dover were shooting towards the far end of the ground, which meant that the away supporters had to shuffle past in front of anyone already in front of the stand.
This did, at least, give me the opportunity to count them as they filed past. I counted 38 that seemed to be together in one group, though this could easily be an over or under-estimation.
It was only afterwards, when I saw the second picture I’d taken in the shade, that I saw my pre-match accuser in the middle of it, glaring straight at the camera lens.
It’s a strange feeling, to be unsettled about your own safety at a football match. The last time I’d felt it I hadn’t been heading like an out of control train towards my 50th birthday, and with the responsibilities that come with being such an age.
I spent as much as time scouring the stands and terraces – just checking – as paying attention to what was going on on the pitch. Indeed, while I bought the pint of beer to get myself back on the level early in the match, Worthing scored what would turn out to be their only goal of the afternoon.
Dover levelled before half-time and I stayed in the bar. Good job, too, by the sound of it. There was some talk that something had broken out during the break, but it wasn’t exactly clear what. Continuing my just checking during the second half, I couldn’t see them anywhere. It later transpired that there had been a further disturbance shortly before half-time and that a Worthing fan – reported to me as being in their 50s – had been knocked out.
‘There but for the grace of God go I’, I quietly thought to myself.
Throughout the course of the second half, I pondered leaving early. The game wasn’t an especially thrilling one. Worthing missed a penalty and required their goalkeeper to make one superb late save, but it ended 1-1; both sets of supporters seemed reasonably content with the result, which seemed a fair enough reflection. And none of this would have happened had I stayed home in the first place. But obstinacy can be a key character trait of mine at times, and there was something almost bloody-minded about my decision to stay until the end.
As things turned out, I even had another pint in the bar afterwards.
It has also since become clear that the appearance of these people at matches is not new to Dover. I have been told that a number of them are already subject to football banning orders and attend with the sole intention of causing trouble, and also that they were seeking to cause trouble in Worthing town prior to the game.
But if this is an indication of the way in which things are going to be this season, then what can be done about it, and especially at a level of the game at which the rules supporters abide by are much less stringent than higher up the ladder?
Well first things first. What happened at Worthing on Saturday is categorically not the fault of Dover’s genuine supporters. Indeed, Dover’s actual fans were outstanding all afternoon and turned out in large numbers – surprisingly large, considering the torrid time they had last season. It would have been much nicer to be writing something about the indomitable spirit of the football supporter in the face of adversity, but here we all are.
But unwelcome groups have been making their presence felt at smaller grounds for decades, attracted by less security and the ability to pay on the gate. This is nothing new to anyone with a reasonable knowledge of non-league football. And while an argument can be made for more draconian measures to be taken at lower-league matches – further restrictions on alcohol, enforced segregation of supporters and so on – it remains perverse that the behaviour of a small number of people might hold any degree of sway over the way in which the many thousands of us who don’t cause any trouble are treated.
Would increasing the scope of football banning orders work? Well over the ten years from 2010 to 2020, 2,015 were issued to supporters of clubs that can either be classified as National League clubs or ‘other’, so it’s hardly as though they haven’t been issued for years. But policing anything like this is difficult, and non-league football clubs can’t afford heavy police presences and sniffer dogs.
But just because expanding football banning orders might be relatively ineffective doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done, and clubs at all levels of the game should be in close contact about any potential flashpoints that could occur so home clubs can prepare.
Worthing’s security was insufficient, but they could justifiably reply by asking why they should be held responsible for the behaviour of supporters who, if they’re not much to do with their visitors, are certainly nothing to do with them.
Worthing supporters, it should be added, were as blameless in all of this as their genuine Dover counterparts, based on what I witnessed.
But tackling this issue requires a subtle head shift in terms of our attitudes. Club v club might not be the important division between fans in the non-league game. The important division might be between those who act this way and the rest of us.
The following day, a reminder appeared on the Dover Athletic website warning fans about their conduct, but there was no official statement from the club. Again, they might well ask… why should we?
I went to football throughout the 1980s and am plenty aware that this was going on last season as well, so none of what I saw on Saturday afternoon was a surprise. But that doesn’t mean that experiencing it up close and personal wasn’t dismaying, although I will have no compunction about continuing to go to matches. But others might and that has the potential to be a big problem for the lower divisions and non-league game in this country.
Getting through the pandemic was an ordeal for many clubs, and it certainly was for Dover Athletic more than just about anywhere else. Lower division and non-league clubs are dependent on match day revenues in a way that doesn’t apply in the Premier League, and when they shot up after crowds were let back in, it was lifeblood for clubs who’d been struggling to stay in hibernation for much of the previous 18 months.
Dover weren’t to blame for what happened at Worthing on the opening day of the National League South season, but somebody needs to assume some overall responsibility for collective action to stamp it out. I will be back, because of course I will. But others might not.
That’s a risk that non-league football cannot really afford to take, even allowing for its recent upturn in popularity.