Tomorrow, a small but oddly significant club plays the first of three games against teams immediately above in the sixth-flight National League South. At stake is a place in the play-offs for the National League. But the rise of Whitehawk FC, a Sussex County side only six years ago, is not just about status and success. In fact, as Peterjon Cresswell hears from the club’s ultras, it’s almost anything but.
Raise up the Whitehawk sail
Our message will never fail
We say, ‘Football’s for all!’
Football’s for all
We’re Whitehawk FC
We’re football for all
(Sung to the tune of ‘Sloop John B’)
Only weeks after hovering above the relegation zone of the National League South and bringing in a caretaker manager, Whitehawk FC suddenly find themselves with a chance of a fourth promotion in seven years.
For the club squeezed between a deprived east Brighton housing estate, the sea and the South Downs, this has been a remarkable rise.
In 2014, a last-minute penalty kept the Hawks in the Conference South. In 2015, two last-gasp equalisers in consecutive heart-stopping games with Dagenham & Redbridge kept them in the FA Cup. Right now, Whitehawk are on a four-win streak in the league.
So, another at home to third-placed Maidstone tomorrow, a win at fourth-placed Truro on Tuesday and a win over fifth-placed Hemel Hempstead next Saturday, and…
Truly, this is the stuff of fiction.
The funds and ambition of approachable chairman John Summers enabled Whitehawk to bid farewell to 50 years of Sussex County football in 2010. ‘We’ve got big plans, watch this space!’ is how the entrepreneur puts it, setting his aims on full league status. A local lad made good, Summers once lived close to the ground.
But this isn’t even half the story.
The real tale is on the terraces.
It was also six years ago that a small band of like-minded fans took up their drums, banners and horns and made their way to Whitehawk’s Enclosed Ground. The reason why is hazy – a random suggestion in a pub the night before or a supporter fed up with the prices at Brighton & Hove Albion. Just as few in Hamburg can pinpoint when a bunch of punks, freaks and leather-clad layabouts first appeared at St Pauli and turned the club into a cult, so Whitehawk’s motley but marvellous following evolved by word-of-mouth.
‘Whitehawk made me fall in love with football again,’ says Mark Doidge, a Senior Research Fellow at Brighton University. An expert on international fan culture – an active member of Football Supporters Europe and author of Football Italia that follows calcio from the ultras movement to its current crisis – Doidge is a Whitehawk regular. ‘I first came because of the ultras – the Whitehawk Ultras. But soon I wasn’t here for any research purposes. I was going because I loved it. I was hooked.’
Photographer JJ Waller, whose striking images from the 2013-14 campaign embellish the walls of Whitehawk’s club bar, has a similar tale. ‘I knew the kit manager. The club hired me as official photographer for the first season in the Conference South,’ he remembers. ‘I had stopped going to football and found other ways to fill my Saturday afternoons. Whitehawk gave me the bug again. I just became a fan, embedded, indentured. It’s like rekindling a basic instinct. It’s in your DNA, an imprint of football, the earliest memories of games you went to as a kid.’
His mission completed in April 2014, and the campaign saved thanks to a late penalty that relegated Hayes & Yeading, Waller is still a regular home and away. His lens tells the story of Whitehawk’s rise – and how an ultra culture developed.
Leading the charge at the home end has been Mick Foote, a regional officer at trade union GMB and one of the Whitehawk originals. ‘We started bringing in drums, then fox-hunting horns, then bugles. I had to learn how to play by watching cowboy films on TV.’
As Doidge writes, the Italian ultra movement brought politics from the streets into the stadiums. Livorno or Lazio, at each end of the spectrum there was a communal and at times mixed message to impart.
At Whitehawk, the St Pauli of Sussex, the approach is far more straightforward. For a start, there are only a few hundred fans. Twenty-two minutes into a cheek-freezing fixture with Havant & Waterlooville, you’ll hear a hearty ‘NO TO HOMOPHOBIA!! NO TO HOMOPHOBIA!!’ Hearty and completely spontaneous. UEFA spend a crock of Swiss francs and juggle a mess of agendas to bring Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to say three words at a camera or get Clarence Seedorf to take his shirt off. A bunch of oiks from ‘one of the most deprived areas of the country’ (‘The Politics Show’, BBC South East, 2010) do the business every Saturday – and pay £12, cash, at the turnstile, for the privilege.
Here, the rainbow flag is flown, a red rag to some visitors still stuck in a 1970s’ sit-com. (That means you, Wealdstone. What is your club actually doing about your fans?)
‘This is not just another club,’ says JJ Waller. ‘This one has integrity.’
‘I started going to football back home in Białystok,’ says Adam, a former steward at Brighton & Hove Albion and now a drum-beater at Whitehawk. ‘But Jagiellonia fans are fascists. When I came here, I first tried Brighton, which felt a bit corporate. Someone told me about Whitehawk. I felt at home immediately.’
For any first-timer, a trek to the Enclosed Ground is unlike any other stadium visit. You know those house parties when you and the hardcore merrymakers have seen it out to the bitter end, you all stagger into the daylight and outside, decent, upstanding locals are going about their business? So, imagine at the end of the street there’s a football ground and you, the hardcore merrymakers and the upstanding locals, have all donned red-and-white scarves and together you are heading up to the match, with one communal purpose. That’s what it’s like.
Except that the Enclosed Ground isn’t at the end of any street. As if to accentuate the lingering sense of farmer’s field rave c.1990, you reach Whitehawk via a narrow, twisting path after trekking through East Brighton Park with few landmarks, signs or even floodlights to guide you. (Yes, there are floodlights, but barely visible as you stagger over grassy banks past random dogwalkers.) On match days, a lone hiker might plot up on the Downs that encroach almost to the touchline – to be serenaded by the home end.
It’s a situation chairman/co-owner John Summers is keen to address. After all, investment from Summers and business partner Ned McDonnell has paid the salaries of ex-Crawley striker Sergio Torres, ex-Macclesfield (and now ex-Whitehawk) manager Steve King, and dozens of others. (King was the one seen dancing with the fans in the away end immediately after the draw at Dag & Red. Magic of the cup, anyone?)
‘We’ve put a lot of money into this club,’ he outlines. ‘But we need to make it sustainable. Currently our capacity is 3,000. We need four-figure crowds and a 5,000 capacity. We are looking at various possibilities around Brighton.’
But the ground and its limitations have not been Summers’ only concern. Before the recent FA Cup run that put Whitehawk’s name in lights, Summers tried to have it changed to Brighton City FC. Typically, part of the fan consultation process involved Summers leaving the boardroom at Chelmsford, going over to the away end and talking to Hawks’ supporters on the terraces. At the same time, brand-conscious Brighton & Hove Albion were badgering the local media so that the Premiership-seeking Seagulls could keep their monopoly on the city name.
The chairman’s argument is that no-one knows where Whitehawk is. A Brighton name would widen the club’s profile – and attract more sponsors. Working-class Brighton City would be Espanyol to Albion’s FC Barcelona.
‘Fans would almost certainly go to a different ground if need be,’ reckons football writer and researcher Mark Doidge. ‘But any name change is a completely different issue. No Italian knows where Aston Villa is. I think Whitehawk is a great name.’
For the time being, it stays.
Photographer JJ Waller sees both sides of the argument. ‘Focused investment is part of a long-term plan at Whitehawk. These people are businessmen, entrepreneurs. Alongside is a groundswell of fans disaffected with football’s anonymous gloss.’
‘I love spending my Saturday afternoon with like-minded people and a pint in my hand,’ says Doidge. ‘But the owners are looking to gain league status. There seem to be two different camps.’
So would fans actually want promotion? It’s not a question you would need to ask fans of Peacehaven & Telscombe or Chichester City, fellow members of the Sussex County League in 2009-10.
Tomorrow, of course, the few hundred Whitehawk Ultras will lug their drums and bugles and banners through the turnstiles at the Enclosed Ground and beat and blast and bawl their way to victory over Maidstone. There can be no other way.
‘Yes, this is what football’s about,’ concludes Doidge. ‘And really we should be thankful. What a season we’ve had. Really. What a season…’
Whitehawk v Maidstone United, Enclosed Ground, Wilson Avenue. Saturday April 23, 3pm. Admission £12/£7 reductions. Bus 7 (every 6-10min) from Brighton Station (stop B-7, H-N7) or Clock Tower/Boots (stop N) to Roedean Road, journey time 15min. Head for East Brighton Park up Wilson Avenue straight ahead. Walk up 100 metres then head into the park, following the main path past football pitches and another sports ground before it veers right.