REBEL YELL: THE STORY OF WORTHING FC

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You probably haven’t heard of Worthing. A seaside town of just over 100,000 people on the south coast of England, it’s almost always been overshadowed by its bigger neighbour, Brighton. If you ask a Worthing resident where they’re from, the almost universal answer is “near Brighton” – sometimes, for the sake of easiness, just “Brighton”.

Despite the town having a representative in the Premier League in the form of Southampton’s Harrison Reed, the influence of Brighton and Hove Albion and their newfound Premier League status is felt intensely in Worthing. Attendances at Woodside Road, the home of local non-league club Worthing FC (commercially the Bibby Financial Services Stadium), are noticeably bigger when Brighton are playing away.

Football, arguably, isn’t even the town’s main sport. Due to its high pensioner population, bowls has been historically popular. Worthing was home to Bowls England until 2013 and it’s hosted the World Bowls Championship twice – an honour it shares with Johannesburg, South Africa and Christchurch, New Zealand, although the similarities with those two cities stop there.

Yet in the confines of Woodside Road, in this small seaside town, a quiet football revolution is taking place – although those whose houses back onto the ground would argue that it’s anything but quiet.


Founded in 1886 as Worthing Association Football Club, the team joined the West Sussex Football League a decade later. Known as the Mackerel Men, a nod to the town’s history as a fishing hamlet, the club dominated in those years before leaving and joining the Sussex County League in 1920, earning them the nickname “Rebels” as well as eight league titles.

Post-World War 2, however, marked a dramatic fall in the club’s successes. In 1977, they joined the Isthmian League, where they remain to this day. Their last taste of silverware came in 1992-93, when they won the now-abolished Isthmian League Division Two.

After mass league restructuring, the club were moved to the Isthmian League Premier Division, the 6th tier of English football, in 2004, but were relegated back to the seventh division in 2006-07. Despite qualifying for the play-offs for three straight seasons in a row, the Mackerel Men trod water in this division for almost a decade.

In 2014, things got interesting – and dramatic. Under then-manager Adam Hinshelwood – a former Brighton player who had to retire early due to a knee injury – Worthing were pushing for the play-offs.

But financial disaster struck. After a November meeting in which it was revealed that Woodside Road’s monthly running costs were £6,000 – not including any football-related costs – and that the club was in around £200,000 of debt. Hinshelwood had to tell his squad two months later that they wouldn’t be paid anymore. It seemed as if over 100 years of history could come to end.

Fortunately, in stepped George Dowell, an inspiring figure in the story of Worthing – you might know him from Channel 4’s show The Undateables, which he appeared on in 2016. As a teenager, Dowell had played for the club’s youth team but was tragically paralysed from the chest down in a car crash in 2010. Now, he returned as the club’s saviour, becoming chairman in March 2015 at the age of 22.

Although Worthing ultimately missed out on the play-offs and Hinshelwood left after the season finished, things were brightening up in the town they call Sunny Worthing – although that nickname often has a lick of sarcasm to it. A new 3G astroturf pitch was installed over the summer and christened by Gary Lineker, who took part in a dizzy penalties challenge at the ground while filming a Walkers advert in the area.

Another Gary was also brought in: Gary Elphick, a Brighton youth product who became player-manager alongside joint-manager Jon Meeney. Together, the duo delivered promotion in their first season, beating Faversham Town in a dramatic 3-0 play-off final involving a ghost goal and a saved penalty in front of a ground-busting 1,889 people at Woodside.

Cue euphoria. Despite repeated announcements during the match that no pitch invasions were allowed, one lone fan leapt over the barrier after the final whistle and let off a confetti cannon as he sprinted towards the players.

He looked behind him, saw that no one followed him, but still kept on running.


With the Mackerel Men reaching 14th place in the Isthmian League Premier Division in their first season back, comfortably safe from relegation, it seemed that stability was returning. The main stand was upgraded thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, a new sponsor for the stadium was secured, and a new badge was introduced.

But the 2017/18 season turned out to be much rockier than expected.

Meeney left to manage solo, leaving Elphick on his own, but a much bigger blow came later: two days before the season was due to start, the Woodside Road’s pitch failed a FIFA inspection. Worthing were forced to play their home matches at Nyewood Lane, the ground of their bitter rivals Bognor Regis Town.

This was an all-too familiar situation. The Mackerel Men were on the rocks again (this time more literally – “the Rocks” is Bognor’s nickname) and lost their first six league games of the season. Summer signing Omar Folkes was released after barely two months. Captain Kane Wills handed in a transfer request. Bad energy surrounded the team, culminating in a humiliating 5-0 loss to play-off chasers Margate at their “home” ground. Elphick handed in his resignation immediately after and the search for a new manager began.

The new manager turned out to be an old one. After two years coaching at Brighton, Adam Hinshelwood returned to Woodside to take the helm. Things didn’t start off swimmingly – the Rebels only managed one point in their first four matches under Hinshelwood – but soon a huge boost came from FIFA: the team could return to Woodside. The fans mobilised to prepare the ground for the Mackerel Men’s next home fixture, a true indicator of the close-knit ties between fan and club.

And how they did. Lifted by their long-awaited home advantage, Worthing snagged a draw with high-flying Met Police thanks to two goals from Kieron Pamment, the man who would turn out to be their top scorer. A combination of their return home, Hinshelwood’s new approach, and some smart signings gave the Mackerel Men a new gusto as they flew from strength to strength.

A 2-0 Boxing Day win over local rivals Burgess Hill Town and a subsequent draw four days later lifted them from the foot of the table just in time for the new year. The man supporters affectionately label “Hinsh” had saved Christmas, and from then on Worthing never looked like relegation candidates.

The wins kept on coming. Adored winger Zack Newton returned to the club in January and scored a late winner in his first match back. Along with strike partners Reece Meekums and Jesse Starkey, Newton formeda formidable front line – forget Messi, Suarez and Neymar: this was the real MSN.

The high point, the culmination of the team’s efforts, came in March. League leaders (and ultimate champions) Billericay Town, newly minted and managed by controversial local millionaire Glenn Tamplin, visited Woodside Road expecting an easy win – after all, they’d won 4-0 in the reverse fixture. Instead, something close to a miracle happened in front of a season-high 1,163 people.

Originally benched, top-score Pamment was substituted on early in the first half due to an injury. In the 71st minute he received a fantastic ball from Newton in the box and fired home, provoking an explosive roar from the fans. Two minutes later, as if things weren’t outrageous enough, Pamment scored with an audacious chip to double the lead. The visitors responded quickly with a goal, but the heroics and salmon-like leaping of the Mackerel Men’s Brazilian goalie Lucas Covolan kept them in front. Hinshelwood said in a post-match interview that he had “told the boys to take the game to them” and how they did.

The fact that Omar Bugiel returned that day to watch his old team and greet fans seemed fitting. A Lebanese international who led Worthing to promotion in 2016 before moving on, the club hero’s appearance was both a reminder of the optimistic days of the promotion season and a sign of how far the club had come since then. This unlikely victory was something that seemed unlikely 6 months before, let alone four years ago, during those dark days in the seventh division, when the future looked non-existent.


Since the end of the season in May, the club has been very busy under new chairman Pete Stone. At the time of writing, Hinshelwood has already made four new signings and is still hard at work convincing more of last season’s lot to keep going with the club. The manager himself, after some speculation that he could move up the league pyramid, signed a three-year deal before the season was over and seems to be in it for the long term.

In 2015, Hinshelwood had to tell his players that they wouldn’t be paid anymore. When speaking to the Worthing Herald, he said, “Ideally, with the position we’re in, I’d be going to the board at this stage of the season asking for a bit more money to have a real go.” Now that he has those resources, we’re seeing what a “real go” means.

Despite the community spirit and close connections between fan and player – play in the weekly six-a-side league hosted at Woodside and you’ll often come into contact with the players or Hinsh himself – the club is getting ever more professional. A development centre, with teams going all the way down to Under-7s, has been set up to procure local talent. A successful women’s team has been set up, set to join the new South East Counties Women’s Football League. There’s even a new Seniors team playing walking football.

It’s this professionalism tied with the informality of non-league football that makes the Worthing project so exciting. With the club’s future secure and a huge amount of infrastructure set up, the first team is gearing up for a play-off bid next season. It’ll be interesting to see how the club will develop as its supporter base grows and its facilities reach out to more people.

In a world where the Premier League’s managerial merry-go-round is in full effect, with old, stale English managers routinely switching jobs, Worthing is a poignant reminder that, further down the league pyramid, young managers like Hinshelwood are working wonders. On Brighton’s coat of arms is the motto “Between Downs and Sea We Flourish”, yet that’s also a good fit for Worthing. In the metaphorical shadow of Brighton’s Amex Stadium, the seeds of the club’s long-term thinking are beginning to bloom. Who knows how high they could grow?

BY SAM BROOKE

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