Bognor Regis is a typical old seaside town, and on a glorious summer day can evoke memories of a past age. The beach packed with holidaymakers from the nearby Butlins- or recently disgorged from a Southern train that has just arrived an hour late (it’s the law), the sea glistening, buckets and spades everywhere (although given the beach is mainly shingle, what people do with them is another question- perhaps they all work in aggregates), deckchairs, enormous queues for ice cream; if you happened to be a child at any period between 1960 and 1990 then even if you’ve never visited the town, you’ll be able to picture it without too much difficulty. It’s also, apparently, the sunniest place in Britain these days- take that, Eastbourne!
So, you might ask, given the delights of a summer in Bognor, why have we decided to pitch up in December? Well it’s not because we’re stupid (although…), and it isn’t because we wanted to visit the Wimpy in the arcade and get a coke float- it’s gone forever, and now you have to go to Littlehampton to find one, something no self-respecting Bognorian will ever do. No, the attraction of Bognor today wasn’t found by the sea, but inland. We were here for the Jason Prior derby*(Other former Bognor players are also available).
Just over half a mile from the seafront, Nyewood Lane has changed since we were last visitors. The terraced area behind the goal nearest the bar, always open to the elements and perhaps more importantly prone to letting the sound generated by the green army drift off into the ozone, now has a new roof- and it’s rather fetching, if also rather unique, resembling a collection of joined up beach umbrellas. But some things have stayed the same. The pitch is still a carpet. The people are still lovely. The food remains good, the clubshop well stocked- although for the first time now selling a rather fetching Christmas jumper- although one change was that, for once, there wasn’t a large bear ambling around the place hopefully not doing what bears are known to do in the woods. Although perhaps that explains the quality of the pitch?
Bognor Regis Town
Half an hour before the match that pitch was being trodden by the aforementioned Prior, perhaps carefully choosing where to put his feet. A Rocks legend, he was now a visitor, having scored sixteen goals so far for Dorking Wanderers which had helped propel them to top spot in the Bostik Premier League. Perhaps the best striker to have trodden Isthmian pitches over the past ten years -although we’d be happy for you to argue that point- for three years between 2009 and 2012 he bestrode the Nye Camp like a colossus, scoring goals for fun, before returning in 2014 to do it all again. Playoff Finals, FA Trophy Semi-Finals, the groans when he left for Havant & Waterlooville after an exhausted Bognor couldn’t quite make it across the line to promotion in 2015/16 could have been heard in Brighton. He then scored prolifically in Hampshire, only heading back our way for family/business reasons after firing his new club to two promotions in two years, the travelling required in the National League not something he could commit to at this stage in his career. That statement might make him sound rather old, but he’s still the right side of his thirtieth birthday, which he will celebrate just before Christmas. Bognor fans might still revere him, but they were hoping their side weren’t going to give him an early gift- particularly as he’d gone five matches without a goal.
That said, the odds didn’t seem to be in their favour. Manager Jack Pearce, interviewed after defeat to Enfield Town earlier this week, was bemoaning an injury to yet another central defender- this time newly returned veteran Gary Charman- although Charman was the master of the quick recovery and lined up today. The Rocks have been losing defenders faster than Theresa May loses cabinet members, which might go a long way to explain their form in recent weeks. Up until September 25th Pearce’s side hadn’t lost a game. Since then, in the league at least, they’d won only three- early October saw an 8-0 thrashing of Burgess Hill Town followed by a 2-1 win over then leaders Tonbridge Angels, but since then seven matches had come and gone with only one victory, and that has seen the Rocks slip from second to tenth.
During that same period Dorking Wanderers have gone in entirely the opposite direction. An injury crisis of their own to contend with, they started a little slowly, but then began picking up points in a run which saw them go twelve games undefeated, winning eight. They came into this match, however, suffering from an uncharacteristic blip which seemed to coincide with Prior’s goal drought- defeats to Haringey Borough and Tonbridge Angels sandwiching a goalless draw with Carshalton Athletic.
This was the first time the two sides had ever met, and both turned out in green- the Rocks in green and white, Wanderers in green and blue. Any neutral who had been told the home team played in green would have had every reason to be confused. Dorking got us underway, and were the first to settle.
The Bognor December schedule
After eight minutes Sami El-Abd got a talking to from referee Jonathan Creswick, whilst the home fans shouted “off, off, off.” The Rocks radio commentators pointed out that an El-Abd booking is as predictable as rain in Bognor, but he didn’t get one at this point- and the rain seemed to have stopped. The free kick was pumped into the box and there were shouts for a penalty as Muitt went down, but they were waved away, undoubtedly correctly. Dorking then fashioned the first real chance, the impressive Reece Hall jinking past his full back to set up James McShane, but the shot went wide. Three minutes later Wanderers were on the attack again, and Prior swivelled to shoot, but Dan Lincoln got a big hand on it and diverted it for a corner.
The Rocks then had a period of possession without really threatening, with the exception of a shot from Mason Walsh which flashed past Slavomir Huk’s left hand post. But the pattern of the game seemed set- Dorking applying the pressure, Bognor looking to break. The Rocks had the next chance, a cross from Jimmy Muitt being cleared off the toes of Portsmouth loanee Dan Smith, but the ball was soon back at the other end, as Dorking threatened once more. It came to naught, and the rain began to fall again, swirling around the stadium as the wind tried to blow down the far corner flag.
Bognor, playing with the wind behind them, then began to test Huk. Two corners in quick succession saw them threaten, and the keeper looked a little uncertain, failing to hold the ball cleanly. Dorking’s discomfort was amplified when Lewis Taylor gave away a free kick in a dangerous position on 28 minutes, and earned the first booking. The set piece was delivered cleverly but cleared to Prior, and the boos rang out. It seemed his former service had been forgotten by the home faithful.
Then the best chance of the game so far. Muitt got away down the right, set free by a great pass from Calvin Davies, and crossed beautifully to the far post. Smith met it, the goal gaped- and the shot went wide. Smith kicked the hoarding in frustration, but the Rocks pressure continued, full back Tomlinson driving forward and firing in a fabulous shot, which Huk touched onto the post for a corner. Next, eight minutes from the break Muitt got clear at the right hand side of the box and fired a shot past the post. Back and forth we went, a shot from Reece Hall bringing an excellent save from Lincoln, and then, at the other end, Huk was forced into a save by Harvey Whyte.
You can get burgers, too!
As we headed towards the break, what turned out to be the crucial moment of the game arrived. Lincoln came to the edge of his area and misjudged a bounce. He twisted and grabbed the ball, and to his horror he was outside the box- but was the ball? The red card was quickly brandished, and newly signed keeper Ricardo Teixeira came on for his debut, Mason Walsh heading towards the dugout in his place. Walsh seemed thoroughly irritated by his removal, and much of the crowd seemed to be irritated on his behalf- he had been a threat. But patently the Rocks needed a goalkeeper, so Jack Pearce’s decision was hardly controversial.
Once the pandemonium ended we were deep into added time, and Lewis Taylor had a free kick just outside- of course- of the box. He stepped up, and wallop. One-nil to Dorking Wanderers, and Teixeira’s first act as a Bognor keeper was to pick the ball out of his own net. The whistle went for the interval, and boos rang out around the ground, whilst just about everyone debated whether the red card was correct. Was it an obvious goalscoring opportunity? We were never likely to find agreement. But what we were certain of was that the Rocks were down to ten men, and a goal behind, with 45 minutes to go. Discussion continued as the PA announcer advised anyone who didn’t want to hear the scores from the Premier League to “move away from the speaker.” Alternatively they could have stuck their fingers in their ears and shouted “la, la, la, I can’t hear you.”
Bognor, to their credit, didn’t start the second half as if they had ten men. They tried to take the game to Wanderers, but then suffered another blow, with yet another defender, Calvin Davies, limping off. At this rate they’ll be forced to try out a 1-6-3 formation. Tommy Block, nominally a midfielder and about to head back to Edinburgh for a second week of trials with Neil Lennon’s Hibernian, came on in his place.
Perhaps as much of a worry was that, on the two occasions he’d been called on since his introduction, keeper Teixeira had looked rather like a rabbit in the headlights. Opening night nerves, perhaps? Shortly afterwards he spilled a shot which he should have held before managing to save the follow up, to ironic cheers from the supporters behind his goal.
The Rocks continued to take the game to their visitors, without really testing Huk. Wanderers were happy to soak up the pressure and try to pour forward on the break, although they were making their own lives far more difficult than they needed to be by making sloppy defensive errors. The home faithful broke into song, for the first time in the game, in an attempt to lift their side, but were stopped in mid-tune as Joe Tomlinson cleared a shot off the line, keeper beaten. Tomlinson was having a fine game, at the back and when marauding forward- and he needed to have a fine game, as soon afterwards he was one of only two defenders left, Charman being replaced by forward Jimmy Wild. Whether that was tactical or not couldn’t be ascertained, as Charman had seemed uncomfortable for some time, holding his back. Block dropped into a back three as Bognor went 3-3-3.
The Bognor beach umbrella terrace
Deep into added time Bognor had their chance. Skipper Harvey Whyte drove forward into the box, and fired a shot across Huk, who managed to throw himself at it and divert it for a corner. Sadly for the home side, the corner came to nothing, whilst manager Pearce bemoaned the number of missed chances. He had a point, particularly in the first half.
With 30 seconds or so left the Rocks got a free kick. Muitt aimed the ball towards the box, which held every player barring the home keeper and Muitt himself, but it came straight back out, and Wanderers broke forward, only for the referee to bring the game to an end. The leaders had another victory, and remained at the top of the table.
King George V, through whose patronage Bognor became Regis, was on his deathbed when his physician suggested that, when he recovered, he could look forward to a return to the town. His last words then became famous, as he retorted, “Bugger Bognor.” After the match ended, discussion in the stand amongst the home faithful came to the conclusion that Bognor themselves had been treated in accordance with the King’s instruction. The video allegedly showed that, although Lincoln was outside the box when he grabbed the ball, the ball itself was not. If true, then perhaps the match should have been the draw that the performance undoubtedly deserved.
This result saw the home side stay in tenth place, five points off a playoff spot and ten points off the one guaranteed promotion place. Whether they can still make a success of the season is far from certain, and will probably depend to a great extent on how many more defenders can possibly manage to get injured- but with the talent in their side it is also far from impossible.
The main stand at Nyewood Lane
It might not have gone well for them today, and indeed it might not have gone well for them over the past few weeks, but on the evidence of today’s match Bognor’s attempt to get back to Step Two is far from being buggered quite yet.
*Rocks supporter Adam Goldring tweeted us to complain he didn’t like us calling this the ‘Jason Prior derby.’ He didn’t like the Sami El-Abd derby or the No Prior Knowledge derby either. There’s no pleasing some people.