Any visitor to Worthing FC’s Bibby Financial Services Stadium who had last attended a match two years ago- perhaps they’ve been stuck on the A27 by Lyons Farm like most of the local population- would struggle to recognise the place. New 3G pitch, refurbished bar, refurbished grandstand, new outside bar to cut down on those half time queues, improved refreshment facilities- the list could go on- but perhaps the thing that would open their eyes wide in amazement wouldn’t be the infrastructure but the size of the crowd. Last season’s League average of 660 was the fourth highest in the Isthmian Premier Division.
We caught up with the chief architect of this success, owner/chairman George Dowell, five days before the start of the pre-season programme.
So, George, how’s your five-year plan going?
It’s been a successful two years. Our objective was to hopefully manage two promotions in five years, and we were delighted when we managed to take the first step in year one. Last season we started really well, although we struggled after Christmas a bit.
Have the difficulties of the second half of last season made you rethink your aims?
No, we’re still focused on promotion to National League South, and we’ve got three years left to do it! Last season we had only two players with Isthmian Premier League experience- Sam and Kane (Rents and Wills), and it showed. We had to rely an awful lot on the young guys who came up from the South Division, and they’ll all be better in the forthcoming campaign for that experience. We’ve brought in a collection of more experienced players to add to the squad over the summer, including the boys from Merstham.
Merstham must be getting sick of the sight of you?!
A club for the entire community
(Laughs). Yeah, signing three of their players in a week, but it’s just a coincidence! Gary (Elphick, Worthing manager) had a list of possible targets and it seems to be going well. But I think the transfer business is now pretty much done, unless pre-season throws up something unexpected. We knew that Corey (Heath) was leaving, Jack Cook has had a trial at Aldershot Town that we don’t know the outcome of yet, so we needed to plan accordingly. We’ve also got Ben Pope back after almost an entire season out.
Before his injury Ben was attracting scouts from the Premier League- and not the Bostik variety. Do you think they’ll be back soon?
He’d had a few trials, yes…we expect he’ll come back the same player. Ben is a clever guy and it’s easy to forget just how young he is, but he’s looked after himself, done everything the physio asked of him, and we’re sure he’ll soon be fully fit and being watched again. It’s amazing to think that he’d already had two years of first team football before his injury- and he’s still a teenager.
The downturn in form last season happened immediately after Omar Bugiel left for Forest Green Rovers. Was that just a coincidence?
Not entirely, but it wasn’t the entire story either. He was a huge part of the way we played, our focal point, but his departure also coincided with injuries to Jack Fagan, Will Hendon, Jack Cook, Zac Newton- we were down five players out of our starting eleven almost all at once. But Omar is a great player and was always going to be missed. But now we have a new Omar- Folkes- not that I want to compare him to the original- and also Tony Nwachukwu, and there are plenty of other attacking options in the squad as well as more strength in depth.
Where would you hope to finish the forthcoming season?
I’d be happy with top half. Anything more than that is a bonus. I expect we’ll be a little more consistent this year; last year was very up and down with winning streaks and losing streaks. We’ve a bigger squad so we’ll cope better with injuries.
Away from matters on the pitch, how is the club doing as a business? You’re unlike many chairman as it’s your money that has been put into the club. Does it give you sleepless nights?
The first season we were on a bit of a learning curve. We had to work out how to be efficient, and I’d admit that we didn’t always get those decisions right. But last season we’ll have made a small profit, so we’re moving in the right direction. The plan for me is to have the club self financing; not for me to be able to take money out, I don’t want to do that, but I don’t want to have to keep putting money in, either. That’s the aim. Hopefully we can keep the crowds high, as if we can that gives us more money to invest in the squad.
Over two seasons your crowds have gone up by one hundred and sixty four percent. How do you explain that?
It’s mad to be honest! But it’s not just about success on the pitch; they kept going up even when we weren’t having any! I think it’s as much about the Football Centre and hiring the pitch out during the week- local people are now much more part of the club, it’s much more community based, the community is here all week long. We have youngsters here all week, and then they say to Mum and Dad “oh, we want to go and watch the game,” and then after the game, as you know, we allow them all onto the pitch for a kick around. They love it, and even those too young to entirely focus on the match for ninety minutes have something to focus on when the game is on- they know that it’ll be their turn to be out there soon! It’s hard to appreciate just how well everything has gone; when you’re in the middle of it you’re just looking forward towards the next problem, but when you stop and think about it…wow.
We’re proud of the work done by the development centre, too. We're coaching kids from under seven to under sixteen and helping out schools and other clubs in the area too; we’re trying to promote a lifelong interest in sport amongst the children in our community, no matter their age or ability.
There was a break-in at the club recently, and you dealt with it with characteristic humour, pointing out that people wanting to renew season tickets needed to come between 7AM and 11 PM, not 11PM and 7AM. But it must have been a blow?
We’ve got a decent security system, CCTV and alarms, but the only building that wasn’t alarmed was the portacabin and that’s where they went. There wasn’t really anything in there worth stealing. Perhaps they were looking for the tools currently being used on the pitch. They didn’t do an enormous amount of damage, it could have been a great deal worse.
So, finally, what are you most looking forward to about the new campaign?
I’m just looking forward to having football again. In the off-season you do all the background stuff but there’s no release at the end of the week, no match to look forward too. I’m scrambling around for things to do on a Saturday at the moment, I just want to be watching football again! And we’ve got the friendly with Forest Green Rovers on 1st August- Omar’s return- on the horizon.
Are you putting on a new line of veggie-burgers in their honour?
Not sure, but we can do them a nice Margherita Pizza! I’ll have to talk to the catering people!
Experienced football club chairmen the world over talk of ‘five year plans,’ promotion targets and sustainable budgets. Many also talk continually of supporter engagement without actually having any idea what that looks like. Two years ago George Dowell at Worthing threw himself into a role he had no experience of, and hazarded his own money in an experiment to build a ‘different’ football club.
As the man himself freely admits, it’s still early days. But nobody standing on the touchline at 5PM on a Saturday afternoon, watching fifty children charge around the pitch chasing an assortment of footballs could doubt that, as experiments go, this one has more chance than most of providing a positive outcome. The Rebels Revolution is still gathering followers.
Next week’s Bostik Friday interview features former Brighton & Hove Albion striker Jake Robinson, now leading the line as a member of Glenn Tamplin’s Billericay Town Galacticos.
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