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Lancing FC's short run in the cup

“Don’t get too excited mate, you won't be able to hide any stains on those shorts.”

The above is a typical example of the sort of banter between middle-aged men who frequent non-league football. The shorts in question belonged to a Haywards Heath Town fan who happily was still wearing them and whose team had just scored one of the four they would bag at Lancing FC in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup.

I’m only a recent resident of West Sussex and I’ve learned very quickly that most men of a certain age wear shorts, down here. It’s very much part of the uniform. Being of a certain age myself and anxious to fit in, I too am wearing shorts, which I never did when I lived in Croydon. I suspect that shorts demonstrate masculinity among those who have recently lost their youth and they make a great topic for ice-breaking banter at non-league football matches. Especially if, like the aforementioned fan, they happened to be pink.

The remark generated its intended mirth and the Haywards Heath fan along with his mates enjoyed the rest of the game in the company of the Lancing fan who imparted the witticism in the spirit of comradeship and mutual shorts. The game itself was horrifically one-sided. My friend (who was wearing long trousers but let's not get into that) and I were standing, near the entrance to the bar on the wrong side of the halfway line. We spent most of the first half straining our necks since most of the action was at the other end.

We are not across the non-league landscape in these parts (yet) and neither of us had bothered to check the league positions of either side. However, so dominant were Haywards Heath that we figured that they were “definitely Isthmian League” and that Lancing were probably one or two levels below. In fact both teams were Isthmian League but Lancing are just promoted. To be fair it’s so early in the season and with the pressures of lockdown and COVID it is understandable if the new boys were not quite ready. It’s a shame for them because this fixture was of greater significance than probably any league match, this season.

The FA Cup is ignored by most football fans until the first round. However, these preliminary rounds can be a gold mine for non-league clubs. It is arguably the most important time of the season. As a supporter of the now-defunct Whyteleafe FC some of my fondest and most emotionally charged memories of supporting the club was when we went deep in these rounds and an early exit is not just a great disappointment but also a missed opportunity to swell the club's coffers.

I’ve been to a number of non-league grounds in my time and would certainly rank Lancing’s Culver Road as one of the tidier. It has a well-maintained grandstand complete with electronic display, integrated clubhouse and burger bar. The ground benefits from the ownership of the Sussex Football Association which must provide an added layer of security.

The match was won in convincing fashion by the away side 4-0. You can watch the highlights on YouTube. Hats off to the Lancing ‘Keeper Mitch Bromage for keeping the score down to four. So impressive were the Haywards Heath players going forward that a murmuration of starlings above the stadium stopped mumurating and perched themselves on the floodlights on the far side of the pitch to us.

Haywards Heath move onto the FA Cup First Qualifying Round and the club gets £1,444 in prize money, just for winning the game. In the world of semi-professional football that amounts to a sizable chunk of income. They get another £750 just for turning up for the next round and trouser £2,250 if they win. That’s roughly the equivalent of one matchday takings based on their average attendances and the pot increases with each passing round.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had at a football match” says the pink-shorted Haywards Heath fan after the final whistle. No doubt the result is a contributing factor. However, he and his mates spent most of the second half laughing and joking and paying little heed to the game. I suspect that the result was incidental. For many of us who make these sorts of trips, this is what non-league football means: a sweet distraction for an hour or two.

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