In April 2010, Bognor Regis Town football club was at one its lowest ebbs in its history. After relegation from the Conference South at the end of the 2008/09 season, a second successive relegation followed from the Ryman Premier League the following season. On the pitch, two relegations in two seasons was a bitter pill to swallow, but off the pitch an arson attack on their club house at their Nyewood Lane ground was an even bigger blow to the West Sussex club’s finances. However, they say bad luck comes in threes, so when Mr Bognor Regis Town, Jack Pearce, suffered a serious illness the club officials and its supporters must have feared for the future of the Rocks. The appointment of Jamie Howell in the summer of 2010, a former Arsenal trainee and a man who had played over 400 times for Bognor, was about to change everything.
After a promotion near miss in 2010/11 when they were denied the Ryman Division One South title and promotion by a single goal on the last day and then subsequently beaten in the play-offs, the club achieved promotion back to the Ryman Premier in 2011/12 with victory in the play-off final. The upward trajectory of the club continued over the following three seasons with Jamie Howell at the helm, alongside his Head Coach Darin Kilpatrick, with the team playing some of the most attractive football the supporters had seen at Nyewood Lane since their heydays under Jack Pearce in 1980s. A defeat to Lowestoft Town in the 2014 Ryman Premier League play-off final was a disappointment, but it hasn’t stopped Jamie and Darin continuing to grow the club since 2010, bringing many of the clubs youngsters through to the first team in the process.
Last season the club were again expected to be one of the frontrunners in the Ryman Premier League, but it was their run to the FA Trophy semi-finals that had everyone suddenly talking about the club. The FA Trophy, the non-league equivalent of the Football League Cup, is a competition often dismissed by the bigger non-league clubs with many National League clubs now seeing it as annoyingly getting in the way of challenging for promotion to the holy grail of the Football League.
The competition for Bognor had begun at the end of October with a routine First Qualifying round home win over Sussex rivals East Grinstead Town. The 3-0 win against the Ryman Division One South side set up a Second Qualifying round game against Taunton Town of the Southern League South and West Division, another team from a league below Bognor. The Somerset club were no match for the Rocks, losing 4-1 with Ollie Pearce, Jason Prior, Chike Kandi and Alfie Rutherford scoring the goals that sent Bognor through to the next round.
Up until this point Bognor had won two games against opposition that they would have been expected to beat, but in the third Qualifying round they were drawn against Bath City, a club playing their football in the league above. However, they(Bognor) were drawn at home against their opponents from the National League south, and with Jason Prior banging the goals in the league, they had a player who could certainly cause Bath problems. A single goal from Prior was enough to cause an upset and send the majority of the 362 crowd happy and wondering just how far this FA Trophy adventure would go. In the 1st Round proper it was the about to get very serious indeed.
The draw had paired Bognor with another National League South side, Maidstone United, but this time the draw hadn’t been as kind to them with Maidstone having home advantage on their 3G pitch. That being said, the Rocks wouldn’t travel to Kent with any fear as they had been the only team to win at the Gallagher Stadium during the 2013/14 Ryman Premier League season, and so it proved. Chick Kandi, a striker who had signed professional forms at Chelsea as a teenager but was now on loan at Bognor from Brighton, scored the only goal of the game to send another National League South side crashing out of the competition.
The two wins against National League South opponents had proven what a good and talented squad Howell and Kilpatrick had built at Nyewood Lane, but when the draw for the Second Round proper paired them with Altrincham of the National League, a club who themselves had built a reputation for upsetting Football League clubs in the FA Cup, you could forgive many in Sussex for wondering if the cup run was about to come to an abrupt end. It was mid January when the two club were scheduled to meet, and in the days leading up to the game the temperatures had plummeted across the UK and the Bognor officials were having to use cars parked and running on the pitch to keep the ground from freezing! A genius decision by club stalwart Maurice Warner which even had the national press talking about Bognor. The pitch passed its inspection and on a bitterly cold evening in Sussex the players became heroes with a dramatic win over their more illustrious opponents. A goal from Aussie defender Craig Robson headed Bognor in front with just 14 minutes remaining, but a pulsating cup tie looked to be heading for extra time when Altrincham equalised with just nine minutes of the tie remaining. Then with just four minutes of normal time left on the clock loyal defender James Crane rifled the ball into the top corner of the net to send Bognor into the last sixteen of the competition. It had been a truly memorable night on the South Coast.
The last sixteen of a National cup competition was new territory for the manager Jamie Howell and his players, but having already beaten three sides from higher divisions they weren’t about congratulate each on a job well done just yet. The draw for last sixteen paired them with Sutton United, another club from the National League South. Sutton United had beaten the Rocks 5-0 at their home Gander Green Lane ground in a FA Cup clash a few years previously, so this would be another big test for Howell and his players. A decent size crowd of 1258 turned out for the game but neither side could break the deadlock and a 0-0 score line meant a replay back at Nyewood Lane just three days later.
A crowd of 941 turned up for the replay and they were rewarded with another memorable evening in Bognor. Prior to the tie, Bognor had been formidable at home with eight straight wins, but Sutton were also in fine form themselves having been unbeaten in fifteen games, winning six straight away from home meaning something was going to have to give here. Both sides started the game brightly, and it was Bognor who opened the scoring in the 18th minute through Jason Prior, his 29th goal of the campaign. They held the lead for just ten minutes though, as the referee awarded Sutton a penalty in the 28th minute after Bognor’s Alex Parsons had been penalised for a foul in the box. Stuart Fleetwood dispatched the penalty with the minimum of fuss to draw the visitors level. It was a game that ebbed and flowed and both sides had their chances to win the game but neither side could find a winner in normal time. In the 104th minute of the game, Ollie Pearce, a product of the youth team, picked up the ball near the half way line, got his head down and ran at the Sutton defence. As Pearce got to the edge of the area, he whipped in a dangerous cross which Sutton defender Dean Beckwith headed into his own net to utter delight of the home crowd. Bognor had several chances to increase that lead in the second half of extra time, but in the end the own goal was enough to send them through to the Quarter Finals for the first time in their history.
Everyone at Nyewood Lane would have been hoping for a home tie in the Quarter Final draw, and their hopes became a reality when Torquay United came out of the hat and would make the journey to this corner of the South Coast. Bognor hadn’t lost a game since Christmas and had won their last ten games at home. Torquay on the other hand were struggling in the National League and the very real threat of relegation to the National League South looked a real possibility if their form didn’t Improve. The Altrincham game had been the stand-out result so far in the competition for Bognor, but this game against the finalists of 2008 and semi-finalist of 2015 was surely the toughest test so far. The locals came out in force to support Howell and his players with nearly 2000 coming through the turnstiles. The worry for the big home support though was that the occasion may just get to the players, but with such a formidable home record the players didn’t need to show any fear and they more than matched the Gulls. Torquay went close in the first half with a chance that Bognor keeper Grant Smith pushed onto the post, but Bognor went even closer when on-loan Portsmouth defender, Snorre Nilson, had a goal ruled out for a handball offence. However, three minutes into the second half, Nilson and the large home crowd got the goal they deserved and craved when a curling shot from Ollie Pearce came back off the post and Nilson was there to head in the rebound. That one goal was enough to put Bognor in the semi-finals whilst Torquay were left to concentrate on a desperate league campaign.
Match action from the Quarter final clash with Torquay United
This was the stuff of dreams for a club from the seventh tier of English Football. After seven cup ties and five scraps against higher placed teams, Bognor Regis Town were now just two games from walking out at Wembley Stadium. A truly memorable run that propelled the West Sussex club into the spotlight and showed what an extremely talented manager Jamie Howell was. Could this team now make it to Wembley after such a truly heroic run?
The two legged semi final would be against Grimsby Town who were riding high in the National League. Bognor would be playing at home first which meant they needed a very good result from the first encounter before an extremely tough trip to Cleethropes in the second leg. Unfortunately, despite a gallant team performance by every player in Bognor green and white shirt, Grimsby was a tough nut to crack and the 1-0 win for the Mariners meant the task in the second leg suddenly got a lot tougher, and so it proved. Grimsby won the second leg 2-1 and the tie 3-1 on aggregate which cruelly ended Bognor’s epic run.
Despite coming so close to playing at Wembley and suffering the heartache of defeat in the last four, Jamie Howell, Darin Kilpatrick, the players and the 200+ travelling Bognor supporters had so much to be proud of as they made the long journey back down to the South Coast. Six years on from that double relegation and the arson attack that almost crippled the club, Howell’s transformation of the club is nothing short of remarkable and surely one day he is destined to manage at a much higher level. In my opinion the West Sussex club have one of the most talented managers outside the football league. If you don’t believe me, get down to Nyewood Lane and judge for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.