Isthmian South club are unbeaten in league
22 January ~ Only one team in the country is yet to lose a league match. Burgess Hill Town are currently top of the Isthmian Division One South, step four of the non-League pyramid, with a record that reads played 26, won 21, drawn five.
They’ve been pretty handy in cup competitions too; getting as far as the final qualifying round of the FA Cup after notably knocking out Sutton United, two leagues higher, on their own Gander Green Lane. More recently they dumped Conference Premier Aldershot Town out of the FA Trophy before succumbing to Dartford in the second round. They are, based on their on-pitch endeavours, the top-performing team in England – and there are no oligarchs in sight.
As you arrive at the Green Elephants Stadium (named after the sponsors, a company that sells teepees) you’d be justified in thinking that a team with such a record should be playing in rather more salubrious surroundings. Especially if you attempted to find the football ground by following the signs for the nature reserve. This isn’t a modern palace of glass and steel. A relic of the 1960’s, like many of its clientele, the clubhouse of the former Leylands Park is effectively a large shed, topped by what appears to be a windowless watchtower – though is very well presented inside. The grandstand isn’t particularly grand. The terraces aren’t terraced; indeed, they are little more than a strip of concrete around the outside of the pitch, with no cover. If it rains you either sit or get wet. Actually, you might well sit and still get wet, depending on which way the wind is blowing.
The club have had a chequered recent history with several financial crises over the last decade. The local council, whose mayor is now happy to be pictured smiling with the club chairman, regularly came close to putting them out of business due to unpaid rent. That those dark days have been left behind is primarily due to the efforts of a hard-working board, an army of volunteers and the inspired coaching of former Brighton & Hove Albion defender Ian Chapman and his staff.
“Chappers,” as he is almost universally known, has built a team that mixes youth and experience but plays with enormous spirit and not a little flair. One of his proteges, Greg Luer, with 16 goals this season, has recently left to join up with Hull City on a two-year deal. How they replace his goals will be crucial to their continued success. If they maintain this level of performance, keeping Chapman may also become a problem. Their top scorer, with 17 goals, is Pat Harding; son of the late former Chelsea co-owner and local philanthropist Matthew.
Crowds are at unprecedented levels. The average attendance rose by 15 per cent last season, the highest increase in Isthmian South, and this season the increase has been little less than astonishing by level four standards. On Non League Day, September 6, the club made the decision to let all supporters in for free; 717 took advantage, and many have returned fairly often since. The average is 338, which may not look enormous, but in this sleepy backwater of mid-Sussex it is quite exceptional. Only Hastings United and Guernsey average more.
The chances of the team ending the season unbeaten are undoubtedly slim – although they’ve scored 67 league goals and conceded only 22 they are top of the table only on goal difference. As they progress through the winter there is every chance that injuries to key players and poor-quality pitches will undermine their tempo; and, added to that, every opposition team raises their game because they want to be the one to end the run. Recent matches have been closer and closer. But whatever happens, no one will ever be able to erase the knowledge that Burgess Hill Town were once the most successful team in England. Ian Townsend