Saturday 24th April 2021 – The Supplementary Cup – Fort Road, Newhaven
The early end to the season for Steps 3 to 6 left a gap in thousands of Non-League fans lives. Most leagues had been forced to stop in early November, with the local tiers restricting either teams or fans being able to participate in the game. After the National Lockdown was announced in December, and the subsequent roadmap out of it in February, it became very clear that the league campaigns for a second season would be brought to an early close.
However, a number of leagues met with their clubs (virtually, naturally) and supplementary competitions were agreed. Down in Sussex, sixteen out of the twenty clubs who had competed in the Southern Combination Premier League at Step 5 agreed to take part in The Supplementary Cup – four groups of four teams, who played each other home and away over a six week period, followed by a knock-out competition. There was also a similar competition for those clubs at Step 6.
In Group A of the competition, Newhaven had topped the group coming into the last two fixtures, with Eastbourne Town level on points but with an inferior goal difference. Whilst the visitors, AFC Uckfield Town, would only be playing for pride, the important thing for them was that they were playing. The clubs went into the competition knowing there would be no fans, meaning no gate revenue or secondary spend, but felt it was important to play when they could for the sake of the players, managers and the club themselves, and quite right too.
Newhaven’s Fort Road ground is a picture on a sunny early summer day. I’m not sure the same would be said in the death of winter with the wind blow up the Ouse Channel from the sea but it is one of those grounds where there is always something happening in your eye line just outside the ground. Behind one goal is the skate park, heaving on a Sunny Saturday afternoon, sitting at the foot of Newhaven fort, whilst the Dieppe-bound ferry drifted into view, obscuring the industrious work at the waste management site across the water.
The club have ambitions to reach Step 4 and out of the County League for the first time in their history. The planned restructure due to take place this Summer offers hope but based on the points per game calculation the FA have implemented they would miss out to Lancing on the slimmest of margins, 0.04 points per game to be precise (thanks to @nonleaguemaps for their excellent analysis of the restructure), which I’m sure the club or the fans will thank me for saying, is the difference of one goal turning a drawn game into a win at some point in the last two seasons. A real tough situation to handle.
This was my first visit to Fort Road. Lewes had played the Dockers a few seasons ago in the FA Cup. Racing to a 3-0 lead at the Dripping Pan in the first thirty minutes it seemed as if the Rooks would be cruising into the next round. However, Newhaven legend (and Rooks programme designer at the time) Lee Robinson scored a second half hatrick to force a replay. If truth be told, Robinson was so unlucky not to grab a fourth and win the tie in the dying minutes. Lewes won the replay 4-1 but by that time I was on one of my then regular round the work in 5 days work trips and missed the game.
The club have build an impressive community set up with nearly twenty different teams, ranging from the under9s to the first teams, Men’s and Women’s. The area around Fort Road has been developed with the community in mind. The club’s impressive brick fortress of a club house, the tennis club next door, the aforementioned skate park as well as the bustling public park had brought families out on a sunny day.
Just inside the ground, the club have a converted shipping container which is a hub for the skateboarders and includes a small cafe bar, which saw a steady trade during the game, the skaters paying no attention to the game being played a few yards away.
The result was never really in doubt after Charlie Bennett and Ian Robinson’s (brother of Lee and former Rook) goals in the first thirty minutes. With the game approaching half time I set off to hike up to the top of the hill behind the goal where the remains of Newhaven Fort are. The views up there both of Seaford Bay and the South Downs are magnificent, with a few vantage points to take in the action on the pitch in the distance.
Two nil became three nil in the 78th minute when Robinson netted a second and it was game over. The semi-final spot in Group A would go to the last game of the group stages on Tuesday night.
Football always finds a way of overcoming adversity and for clubs like Newhaven and AFC Uckfield Town who do so much in their local community Covid-19 could have been terminal. But they have found a way through and the overwhelming hope is that when fans can return in a few months time they will put aside old differences and embrace the spirit of the new normal and support their local clubs.