Youth will be the foundation for success in years to come at Worthing Football Club as their original five-year plan to reach National South remains in place.
When George Dowell took over as owner and chairman in 2015, he outlined a goal of two promotions in five years to reach National South. After going up to the Ryman League Premier Division in his first full season at the club, Worthing stabilised and finished 14th last season – their first in the Premier Division for nine years.
The club is ambitious and wants to progress – and talk of league football and a move away from Woodside Road has been spoken about – but one thing that will not change while Dowell is at the club is the investment in the youth set-up.
The club’s aim is to produce players from the Worthing Development Centre. They feel there are enough talented youngsters in the area who can play for the first team, without spending money on players from further afield.
Since last season ended, local lads Harvey Sparks, Reece Hallard, Henry Watson, Ross Edwards, Ben Pope and Matt Boiling are among the players who have signed contracts for next season.
Worthing general manager Calvin Buckland said: “Youth is the key to success. We haven’t got the money to just go and spend willy-nilly and bring people in. It would be crazy to put the club in debt and we wouldn’t, it’s been tried before and it usually fails miserably.
“Youth is the only way forward for longevity.”
The Worthing Development Centre has teams from under-seven to under-16 and financial consultant Pete Stone said: “We’ve got the first team, the ladies and the under-18s but the Development Centre is massively important for the club. It will probably take a couple of years for it, as it now is, to filter through to the first team.
“Having it builds a huge emotional attachment to the town for the younger players, which then breeds loyalty when it comes for them to choose between playing for Worthing or Lewes, or Worthing or Burgess Hill or Bognor. They’re more likely to stick with the club they’ve grown up through.
“That then also stops you having to spend thousands of pounds a week on wages because you’re bringing the players through, so there’s a commercial side to it as well. And it’s going back to our vision of having a club the town can be proud of.
“It’s not fair on the town to come here, watch football with a crowd of just under 700 and to see the vast majority of the money they’re spending going out of Worthing and out of Sussex.”
With the playing budget significantly increased for the coming season, there is ambition to have a stronger campaign but no-one at the club will be saying a target in public.
Buckland said: “We’ve spoken internally and it will remain internal what our expectations of next season are and what we think is achievable.
“We won’t go down the route of saying we’re going to smash the league or anything like that. We will keep it in-house because otherwise it’s just something for someone to hit you over the head with.
“We’re realistic but the expectation this season is higher than it was last season.”
Stone added: “If you look at the playing budget last year, Gary (Elphick) and Jon (Meeney) would have said it was not hugely competitive relative to the rest of the Ryman Premier but we did all right.
“We finished mid-table-ish. This year, the budget is significantly higher and it’s still within our means because our means have become slightly higher and we’ve become more educated about what needs to be managed.
“The management team have got a budget that allows them to be competitive and our longer-term aspiration is no different. We want to be a National League football club.
“The original aspiration was to get two promotions in five years and we’ve got one in two. The aspiration to be in the National League is still there.
“This year has to be more progressive from last year. There has to be indicators, like can we be consistently competitive throughout the season?”
Worthing’s average home crowd continued to grow last season and regular four-figure home gates are something the club hopes to achieve in the not too distant future.
Stone said: “Outside of the National League, Worthing has the third highest home Non-League attendance (661) in England, which is pretty impressive.
“Playing decent football at a decent standard is a big factor. Another component is who’s playing – if your team every week is 12 unknowns from South London, people aren’t really going to come and watch.
“If your team is built on people in the locality who they know because they’ve played football with in one of the local youth teams, word starts to spread.
“We could easily be a 1,000-plus every home crowd and I think a 1,200 average home crowd is within reach with real pro-active marketing.”
Worthing also hope Brighton’s promotion to the Premier League could attract more fans through the gates at Woodside Road.
Buckland said: “It’s done us a massive favour because it’s going to excite a whole new batch of kids and parents in the Sussex area.
“We won’t clash with them as much and there’s going to be a buzz around. People might not be able to get a ticket or afford it, so the next best thing if your kid has suddenly got an interest in organised football in a stadium, is maybe Worthing, a family club, where it’s only a tenner and kids are free.”
Looking further down the line, could we ever see Football League games being played in Worthing?
Buckland said: “My personal view is that Worthing, as a town, is big enough to sustain a Football League club.
“There are a lot of things that would need to be put in place to be a Football League club but if we’ve got the right people around us in the background and have the town behind us, League Two is not an impossible dream.
“You’ve just got to look at Crawley and say if they’re on our door step and have a smaller population, why couldn’t it be done here?
“I’m sure George won’t mind me saying that he’s spoken to me about it and would like to one day find a bit of land in town so a stadium could be built and we could do that.
“It’s obvious that couldn’t happen at Woodside Road, you couldn’t play League Two football there. But a full-time football club? Yes, absolutely, that’s where we’d like to be.”
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