The footballing schedule wasn’t the only thing the snow in Britain disrupted last week. The postponement of Eastbourne Borough’s match away at Altrincham denied the Sussex club’s manager – Garry Wilson – the chance to celebrate ten years in charge of one of non-league football’s most remarkable success stories.
When Wilson first joined the Sports, the club were playing in the Sussex Counties League – a step up from the 60s, when they were playing park football on a local recreation ground. Today, the club sit a respectable 10th in the Blue Square Premier and could yet make the playoffs and the grail of League football.
When Wilson was appointed manager, he may have had his tongue slightly in his cheek when he stated his ambition for Eastbourne Borough to become a League club within ten years. Now, there’s definitely no joking about the Sports’ intent to climb the next rung of a pyramid.
The Langney years
Eastbourne Borough are one of the youngest clubs in the Conference and have only existed with their current name since 2001. Before that they were known as Langney Sports (which is still recognised in their nickname – The Sports) while the club itself was only formed in 1964. They’ve come a long way since then.
The early days were spent playing in the Eastbourne & District Football League in parks before their elevation to ‘Intermediate’ status when they won promotion to the Eastbourne and Hastings League in 1974, where they would remain until 1983, when they became founder members of the Sussex County League Division 3.
Even so, there was little indication of the rise that was to come over the coming years. Under manager Peter Cherry, they steadily made their way through all the Sussex County League divisions, starting with Division 3 in 1987, before taking the Division 2 championship next season.
Two seasons later, Langney had one of their best ever seasons when they finished third in Division One and took their first piece of cup silverware – the Sussex County League Cup. In 1992, they reached the final of the Sussex Senior Challenge Cup, losing 1-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion’s second string.
At the end of the millennium, Langney were still very much a small club in the scheme of the non-league pyramid, albeit one with a very impressive stadium for the level they were playing at. At this stage, even the most optimistic supporter would have probably laughed off their new manager’s statement about making it into the League in ten years. But Garry Wilson wasn’t joking.
In February 1999, Wilson had recently been sacked in controversial circumstances from nearby Hastings Town when he was asked to take over the job at Langney following the departure of Steve Richardson (Cherry had stepped down two years earlier). His first game was a one-nil defeat at Redhill.
Six more winless games followed before he recorded his first win as Sports boss – a one-nil victory over East Preston. It was an inauspicious start to his career with the south coast club, and gave little indication of what was to follow in the next season.
To say Wilson’s charges romped to the Division One title is something of an understatement. The Sports topped the table on 99 points, 14 ahead of Burgess Hill Town, only conceding 24 goals along the way. First the first time ever, Langney were no longer playing County football, as they took their place in the Dr Martens Southern League, Easten Division (the equivalent of the Ryman Division One South today).
Borough on the up
After their first season in the Dr Martens league, Langney took one of the most difficult decisions of their shortish existence. It had become apparent that potential sponsors, and even opponents, had no idea where Langney – a small suburb of Eastbourne – was on the map and they had very little recognition beyond the town. In an effort to boost the profile of both the club and the town, Langney Sports became Eastbourne Borough.
The strip, badge, and nickname remained, but it was clear Eastbourne were an ambitious side on the up, and so it would prove when, two seasons later, Wilson delivered promotion to the Dr Martens Premier Division after the club finished runners-up to Dorchester Town.
Their first – and only – season in the Premier Division was solid, if unspectacular, with the Sports finishing 11th. But, more importantly, the non-league pyramid was going through another of its regular restructurings and that finish was enough to include them as inaugural members of the newly-formed Conference South.
Ambitions for the Sports in the second tier of non-league football were limited – the main priority for Wilson was avoiding relegation and he managed this and then some. Borough finished in fifth, in the final play-off position. They then proceeded to see off Thurrock in the first playoff round, before beating Cambridge City in the Conference South play-off final.
But with only three places available in the Conference for promoted teams, this meant the North and South playoff winners had to fight it out for the remaining place, and Eastbourne when down 2-1 to Altrincham in the playoff final at the Britannia Stadium.
The following season came a rare hiccup in Borough’s march towards the top. Having invested in several new players over the summer, expectations were high in Eastbourne but a combination of injuries and the inability of the squad to gel saw the club spend the majority of the season battling against relegation. The Sports’ survival was only confirmed in the penultimate game of the season as they crashed to a 17th place finish.
The next season Borough got back on track, finishing 7th, before the 2007/08 season finally saw promotion to the top flight on non-league football. For the first half of the season, Eastbourne remained at the top of the table before losing at local rivals Lewes at the start of January.
Lewes went on to take the title, at some cost to themselves (the club was hideously underprepared for promotion and sacked manager Steve King and released nearly all the squad) but Eastbourne ensured they’d be joining their neighbours in the Conference with a 2-0 playoff victory over Hampton and Richmond Borough.
The League dream
Eastbourne currently sit in tenth in the Conference, seven points off the playoffs, and confounding the expectations of many (including this writer) who had tipped them for the drop. It appeared that way for the early months of the season, but yet again, Wilson has continued to ensure Eastbourne punch above their perceived weight.
Indeed, if you were going to write a manual on how to run a non-league club, chances are Eastbourne would feature in it. They provide a neat contrast to Lewes, who are currently the very definition of a crisis club.
While Lewes’ ground requires hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of work to get it up to Conference standard, Eastbourne have been slowly building impressive facilities that are now used by the Sussex FA, among others. The club has also refused to live beyond their means and Wilson works under a strict budget every season.
It’s also notable that, since their promotion to the Sussex Counties League in 1983, the club has only had three managers. It’s a lesson in stability and sound management that many of their Conference rivals, and even Premier League clubs, would do well to note. To contrast, relegation strugglers Grays are on their 8th manager in three years, while basement club Northwich have gone through six.
What makes their current position – and past ten years – all the more remarkable is that Wilson has held down a full-time job in addition to his responsibilities as manager. In a cruel twist, if Eastbourne ever make it to the League, this could spell the end of his tenure – the long-serving boss has often said he is unsure if he’d be able to commit to the job full-time.
But if Borough do make the League, and regardless of if Wilson is the man to manage them there, the club’s achievements of the last ten years can’t be overlooked. Established and big-name Conference clubs that originally saw Eastbourne as relegation fodder are rapidly having to revise their opinions. They’re not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to have underestimated the Sussex club.