THE NIGHT THAT CHANGED WORTHING F.C. FOREVER
This feature originally appeared in Issue 17. It's very sold out, but you can buy our new issue here.
People around here call Worthing a “sleeping giant”. At first, you might roll your eyes. But the town has a population of more than a hundred thousand, one of the biggest in the country without a team in the football league. At once it’s an excuse you cling onto and a frustration that eats away at you. People are embarrassed by it. They look down as they mention it.
A friend’s dad had told George that Worthing was in trouble. The club’s debts were growing while the gates were slipping down and down, some games even threatening double figures. George had grown up nearby, playing for the youth teams in town. He had enough money now, after the accident. But he had his own thing going on. Running a team with his friends down in the lower reaches of the Sussex County leagues, having fun, enjoying football again. Then he saw it in the paper, and it became real: Worthing were about to go under.
George finally picked up the phone. I want to buy the club, he told his friend’s dad. They relayed the message to the board. The incumbent chairman, Morty Hollis, wasn’t pleased. He’d been there fifty years. You think you could just come in here and change everything? Who was this kid?
Worthing is a place steeped in mythology. Early stories of the area were dominated by cults, dancing skeletons, haunted woodland, and knuckers—sea monsters that lived in deep pools of water by the beach, only venturing out at night to gobble up livestock and unsuspecting local residents, particularly misbehaving children. But contemporary Worthing’s woes were less magical. Their team was running out of time. Everyone knew that. The club had debts of over £200,000. Fan representatives and the board sat in the clubhouse. It was dark and dusty, like a working men’s club. It was stuck in the 1970s. Ceilings stained tobacco yellow. Not the kind of place you’d bring your family. They sat at tables, and each said their piece. Maybe they should wind the club up, one said. There’d been rumblings of it for a while. Maybe they should just let this one go, start again. 129 years of history, but everything comes to an end. Then came George and his offer.
He was twenty-one. The name Worthing comes from the Old English ‘Weorð’ or ‘Worth’, meaning “valiant”. He’d have to show courage now. He wanted to bring the club into this century. This boy, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, the board said. And maybe he didn’t. But he had to do it. Like many seaside towns, there wasn’t a whole lot for people to do. People call it ‘up-and-coming’, but it’s not up there yet. Deserted high street, shuttered shops, clanging railroad crossing. If the team went under, something more than a club would be lost: a part of the community, maybe a part of George too. And the money was sitting there. He just had to do it.
“In school, we used to play this game,” says George, his hood up over his head in the chilly clubhouse bar, his back to the pitch, bright winter morning sunlight slaking through new double glazing. “You’d play football at lunchtime, and you used to go one-up and protect the lead. That was the fun of it, not letting the other team score. We’d throw ourselves into tackles. Flying everywhere. We’d block everything, really throwing your body into it. Whoever got the biggest block was such a hero, we’d be running over and bumping our chest with them. We used to call it ‘bodies’.”
“We could play football too,” he says, smiling. “Our college team were decent, and the coach always made sure we could play the game properly. But we always ended up playing that same way. We’d score a goal and all start screaming ‘BODIES!’ and we’d all protect the lead. We loved it. We’d set up like those Serie A teams you’d watch when you were a kid. You know, when they’d play all those defenders? We’d try and play it like that. We were tough. It was the way we all played.”
George and his mates played for Worthing United, an amateur team, and they won a lot. At sixteen, the best players from United go and trial with the semipro Worthing F.C. and, if the player was good, they’d join with their academy teams. George was good.
“I was alright,” says George, giving a small shrug. “I was a defender. A scrappy right back.”
“He was a natural,” said former team-mate Harry in the club bar after one of the games while George was away doing some post-match admin. “We all had to work hard, but he didn’t. We had good players, but he was better. It was a little annoying, actually. He could just turn up and play whenever he wanted. He was a quite small, but he’d really put himself about... He was so good. He could do everything.”
At sixteen George was playing for Worthing’s under-18s team, getting watched by coaches from the firsts. When you’re that age, the possibilities are endless: you want to explore the outer limits of your talent. You want to stretch your legs. How far can you go?
George was realistic but optimistic: a few injuries ahead of you in the team, a few lucky breaks, he’d tell himself, and you might get your chance. You might be able to do this for a living, this thing you’ve been doing almost every day since you were a kid. It might not be in the pro leagues, but you can make a solid living in the semipro game. Some people pay off their mortgages with a career down here at the bottom of the pyramid. And you never know who might need a good fullback a little higher up...
At seventeen he made the bench for the first team for the first time. Two weeks later he’d never play again.
George was at college, studying public services. He wanted to be a fireman, that was the long-term goal. He thought it’d be quite cool. Not a lot more to it than that, really. Everyone said it was hard to get in with the cuts and stuff, but he wanted to do it. It was a good shift pattern, he said. You know, four days on, four days off. Plenty of time for football.
He was studying, playing for Worthing at youth level, and working on the side, delivering food and helping a lady who ran her own business from home selling gardening stuff. He’d pack stuff up for her, put it in the post.
One night he was out with his mates. It was late. There were four of them in the car, coming back from McDonalds. George was sat in the passenger seat while his car was parked in town. There's a dual carriageway from Worthing to Arundel, and as you get into Arundel there's a McDonalds, and that's where they were. And from there, there’s this road that veers off up and to the right, and as they were coming home, George’s friend Matt, the driver, lost control of the car. It wasn’t raining at the time, but maybe it had earlier in the day. It flipped multiple times and landed in a field.
“I don't remember too much from just before the crash happened, and then how I got from the crash to hospital,” says George, eyes looking off around the room at the clubhouse. “I think I said ‘Whoa!’ and then I remember waking up in hospital. I was being quite heavily drugged and that, and they were doing tests.”
It was disorientating. Hospitals are always asking where you are. They kept asking and asking, and I was like ‘Yeah, I get it, stop going on about where I am’. I was more concerned about how everyone else was because I didn't realise how serious my own condition was. I was like, ‘How is Matt? How is everyone else in the car?’”
The longer the night went on, George become to understand the severity of his injuries. “You realise how serious it is when you have family coming in at 3am and crying,” he says. “My uncle came in and said ‘So I take it you aren’t playing Sunday, then?’”
In the crash George broke his neck, two vertebrae in his back, and severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralysed from the chest down. His friends walked away with cuts and bruises. George’s car got a parking ticket in the town centre while he lay unconscious in hospital. Two of the passengers visited George in the following weeks but the third, the driver, did not.
“I think he obviously blamed himself,” says George. George and Matt were former teammates and their families close, their dads friends. “It wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t speeding or anything—there are signs up on that corner now—but I think it was quite hard for my family to not want to blame someone at the time, so for a while things were a bit frosty. We’ve seen each other around since. We’re friendly and stuff.”
The accident is one that reminds you how much you take for granted each day; as footballers—whether cigarette-blaming 5-a-side cloggers or pin-sharp pros—how easily things can be taken away from you in a moment.
“It's crazy,” says George, breaking eye contact again. “Obviously I was glad nobody else was hurt, but you do think, ‘Why me out of four people?’ Not that I want any of them to have this injury, but how can it happen that there's one so injured and nobody else is injured at all?”
When you wake up in the kind of situation George found himself, doctors are blunt. It doesn’t pay to be vague. You don’t want to give someone false hope. They told him in no uncertain terms that he was paralysed and wouldn't walk again.
“My family knew about the injury before I did,” says George. “I was slipping in and out of consciousness for two weeks. When I found out, the first thing I thought of was never playing football again.”
Football meant everything to the young man. How could it not? Everything was ahead of him, everything within reach. He was playing for the college and Worthing under-18s and had England schoolboy trials coming up that summer.
“All I’d ever wanted to do was play football with my mates,” says George. “Try to play at a semiprofessional level and work alongside it... That was the plan, really. That was my plan.”
After a frustrating two-year wait, the compensation from the driver’s insurance company came through. George has never told anyone how much the final settlement was.
When he finally bought the club after assuming and paying off its debts, he was the youngest chairman in the country. The outgoing chairman had finally warmed to George when he saw the young man was serious: Morty just didn’t want to not be running this club anymore. He knew that he couldn’t be on the board anymore—who would believe that things were different at a club if there were still all the same faces in the boardroom? But George promised he wouldn’t be jettisoned, keeping him on as club president, an experienced figure always able to give advice. George was honest in his intentions, in his affection for a club, and that meant a lot more than many realised. “You know, if it was someone else,” the chairman told him, “I would’ve said no.”
Things changed quickly. George poured nearly £600,000 into the club, rebuilding the clubhouse and tearing up the pitch, laying a fancy 3G synthetic one in place of the grass. The purists will moan, but then they always do: what the field lacked in tradition and aesthetics, it more than made up for in practicality.
“Now we can play all year ‘round without worrying about the weather,” says George in the clubhouse, an iPad placed in the lap of his wheelchair, hood still up as a coach from a local school lays cones on the pitch outside. “And it’s become a centre of a community in a way that it wasn’t before. Now people use the pitch every day of the week: schools, colleges, and Borough play here too.”
Worthing Borough were George’s first tentative steps back into football after the accident. He’d spent the best part of the year in the hospital, undergoing exhausting rehabilitation for his injuries. When he was finally allowed home, he didn’t know what to do with himself.
“For the first two years after the hospital, I didn't do anything,” he says. “I found it hard to even watch football. I’d spent my life playing, and I couldn’t help but watch it as a player. It was frustrating. You’d watch games and think: ‘What would I do there?’ But now I was stuck at home doing nothing. I was bored. My mates were at work during the day, so I couldn’t see them then. I figured I needed to do something sooner rather than later. I couldn’t keep waiting indoors every day.”
Friends suggested he start a team, start one from the beginning. He had mates from all kinds of levels in the game, and they all pledged to play for him when the team finally began.
“We started right at the very bottom,” says George. “Funnily enough, a lot of those who said they'd play for us didn't when they saw we were so far down...” But they had their team and had enough players (or just about, thanks to plenty of WhatsApp group haranguing), although George struggled to find places for them to play during the week. “I was ringing around, talking to other clubs, asking them where they were training, and they didn’t have anywhere either. I was thinking of buying some land and building full-size 3G pitches so teams could train on them year-round, rather than having adult teams stuck on these small kids pitches...”
It was at Borough that one of George’s mates—one of those who did keep their word to play—brought his dad over to a game. His dad had been involved with Worthing’s under-18s, and it was he who told him about the club’s mounting debts and their need for a 3G pitch, too.
“I didn’t think much of it, at first,” says George. “Then it got more serious when I read Worthing were about to go bust. That’s when I called. I told them what I wanted to do. They heard me out but, really, I don’t think they thought I was going to buy the club. I think they thought I was just going to pay for the pitch. In the nicest possible way, if they've got to this stage and are about to go bust, why would I put my money in and let them run it? So I thought, ‘Why not do both?’ I used to play here; used to come watch them play sometimes. I thought to myself: ‘Why not do the whole shebang?’”
A few days before Christmas, Worthing face local rivals, Bognor Regis. Though the transport links are down and out-of-towners need a rail replacement bus to make the journey from Brighton, they anticipate a big crowd.
From the town centre, an hour before kick-off, you can hear the singing from the ground half a mile away. You think: “That can’t be them.” As you get closer towards Morning Road, you hear the music from the bar and see the hundreds of people done up in Worthing’s red-and-white, broken up with smatterings of Bognor’s green.
Inside the ground, it's packed. Two thousand people are expected. A banner behind one goal reads: “I’d Rather Be A REBEL Than A ROCK”. Bognor are the ‘Rocks’ (“Something to do with the seaside, I guess,” says one fan) and Worthing are the ‘Rebels’, the nickname the club took when they pulled out of the West Sussex League in a huff at the turn of the twentieth century. When George came in, he changed it back to the original nickname, 'the Mackerelmen'.
“‘Rebel’? I hate that fucking name,” says one fan. “We’re the Mackerels. They’re on our badge. That name has history in the area.” He pauses. “Here,” he said to his mate, “are you a Mackerel or a Rebel?”
“Rebel,” he replies.
“I hate that fucking name,” says the first fan.
“We’re the Mackerelmen,” says George, firmly, when asked which is the correct name. “But that sign is here every week.”
The ground is buzzing before kick-off, the renovated clubhouse rammed with people. The queue for the bar is obscene, though the staff do a good job smashing out drink orders, remembering regulars’ rounds and getting them lined up before they even ask. Across from the bar are six large bags of balloons to be released as the teams leave the tunnel, with volunteers blowing and tying yet more, unaware that the strong coastal wind will take them off course as soon as they’re released, leaving them conspicuously stuck behind the goal in the nets that guard the neighbouring gardens.
George has his spot at the opposite side of the ground. A space he parks his wheelchair between the two dugouts. “Should be a good game,” he says. He wears Asics in Worthing colours. His hands have limited movement, but he scrolls quickly through Twitter on his iPad. “We’ve been getting pelters online all week. We’ll be getting them from Worthing fans, too, if we lose.”
Fans say hello to George as they pass, on their way to congregate behind the away keeper’s goal in preparation for kick-off. Worthing’s main fan group are called the Away Boys. They’ve got a drum and everything. They pile in under a small, roofed stand, maybe fifty or sixty of them there. You half expect a bunch of swotters and groundhoppers, middle-aged men in grubby fleeces marking their programmes with starters and goal scorers. But the fanbase is young—aged between fifteen and mid-twenties—and funny. That the ‘Away Boys’ name is generic is probably the joke. Their chants are self-aware and silly; the crowd is boisterous and in genuine love with their team.
We ain’t Real Madrid / and we ain’t Barcelona / we are Worthing Football Club / and George Dowell is our owner
Even as they laugh and piss-take and shout ‘dog nonce!’ at the opposing keeper, their love for the team is sincere. They know what impact George had on this club and why he did what he’s done, singing about him with the kind of affection that comes for someone who rescues something you care about.
George Dowell had a dream / to save this football team…
George’s plot to give Worthing their all-weather artificial pitch was a smart one. Youth teams from all around town play on it and, with that, comes a legion of new fans. And young fans need chaperones, so their parents are dragged along too. And their parents need a beer. And nobody wants to drink alone, so they bring a mate. And their mate brings their wife. Who brings her niece and nephew. Who bring their friends from school. And before you know it, what was once a team representing the biggest town outside of the football league with barely two hundred fans to show for it was playing to crowds five or six times bigger than almost all the other teams in the league.
While the old guard had kicked off about the little black bits of rubber crumb, George’s pitch had helped bring a whole new kind of football fan to the club. Some people didn’t even realise Worthing had a football team before George joined. And he’d done it all without losing the sense of identity that made Worthing so important in the first place.
But one thing Worthing do lose, however, is the game. 2–0. Pretty soundly beaten thanks to a slew of injuries that run throughout the team. Their captain, a central midfielder, has to be deployed at centre half and changes were made all over the pitch. Despite the excuses, George is a little annoyed with the performance, bristling with a fan’s sense of frustration, but he soon softens. Far from the pelters George predicted, the mood around the clubhouse is only a little less enthusiastic than that of the few dozen ecstatic Bognor fans who’d made the short trip across Sussex to Woodside Road.
The bar is busy once again with people who’ve stayed post kick-off to watch the evening games in the Premier League. “A few years ago, nobody would’ve stayed, even if they were showing the football in here,” says Harry, George’s former teammate. “It was horrible. It was like an eighties Conservative club in here. The people who did turn up would head home immediately after full time. Why would you stay?”
“If you had that money, would you put it into a football club?” says Jamie, a local amateur football mainstay who coached George when he was younger, overhearing Harry’s conversation. “I don’t know if I would, and I’ve done a lot for football in this county. Sussex football is struggling. In the past we had dozens of adult leagues, now we’re down to just two. It’s a commitment thing. The players these days, they’re not fit to lace George’s boots.” Jamie takes a large swig of his pint. “And you can call me up, and I’ll tell you the same thing when I’ve not had a few drinks, too. It was a terrible thing that happened to George. Nobody will tell you differently to that. But he took a negative and made it into a real positive.”
As you navigate the bar, you overhear half-a-dozen people talking about George. Everyone speaks in glowing terms. Quiet and suspicious locals turn open and effusive at the mention of his name. “George? What a lovely man.” “George? The stuff he’s done for this club...” “George? He changed everything.”
The mum of an ex-teammate of George’s glows at the mention of his name. “You can’t think of anything worse to happen than what happened to that boy...” she says. “It was a tragedy.” She puts down her white wine and leans on the table. “But if he hadn’t been in the car that day, if he hadn’t been injured, if it hadn’t happened to him... He did something important instead of feeling sorry for himself, which I know is what a lot of people would’ve done. He did something special.”
“And it is special,” says Jamie, getting his coat, the crowd starting to thin out a little as the day cedes to evening. “It really is. This is a love story. It’s a love story about football. It’s a love story between George and football. It’s a sport about something bigger than him, about a community. He brought a whole town together here. That’s the kind of man he is.”
George has a five-year plan to stir the sleeping giant. When he bought the club in 2015, he wanted to bring Worthing from the Isthmian Division One South to the National League South in five years.
“We’re still on that course, yeah,” he says, with typical understatement, drinking coffee from a mug through a plastic straw. The club were promoted in George’s first season in charge and consolidated their position in the Isthmian League Premier Division before struggling a little in his third year. “We’re taking last season as a write-off because of pitch issues. I can’t talk about it because it’s still ongoing... Drainage. But besides that, we’re still on course.”
The move up two leagues may seem like a small one. The money will change but not by a huge deal relative to the sport. What can change with that move, however, is validation and increased professionalism. It’s already gotten so George has had to step back from his chairmanship of the club and designate himself as “just” the owner.
“As soon as you get promoted, there’s a huge increase in paperwork,” he says. A smile moves across his face again. “That’s... not really my thing.”
People can pay their mortgages playing football at clubs like this, making a living alongside other work, just as George dreamed he could. But the ability to give young men a chance with the facilities to make them into better players with more options further up the pyramid is even more special, one George beams when telling you about. That fact doesn’t speak to a lack of ambition on Worthing’s part but encapsulates the deep and meaningful levels of empathy of those who run the club.
The things football can do for people, for young players, for old players, for young fans, for old fans, is important. Winning is important, too, but it’s not what matters in this story. To be able to help someone to achieve their dream is one of the special human goals. At a time when the humanity of football is lost in so many areas and aspects of the game, Worthing is ripe with it, bursting with it. And sometimes that leads to nerves on the pitch and a 2–0 loss to your biggest rivals. And sometimes that leads to George throwing himself into working with the club that meant so much to him when he was kid throwing himself in the way of strikers to make last-ditch tackles. This time the goal he was protecting was simply existence.
“I genuinely think that football saved me,” he says. “It saved me from being at home, alone, moping around, not doing anything with my life. It got me out of the house and back and interacting with people. For the first year or so [after the accident], I only mixed with the people immediately around me. Football made me talk to people again and interact with people I don't know.”
Football opened up his world at a time when so many of us would’ve felt closed off from everything. George would’ve stuck to speaking to a small group of people, only his closest friends and family, maybe for the rest of his life, without ever getting out to experience what else may be out there.
“I wouldn't have bought a basketball club and done that,” says George. “It's all because of football. Football got me out of that slump.” He looks out from the clubhouse at the artificial turf, now empty but for a few cones. This week it will host two adult teams and countless kids, from school lessons and organised training sessions to the impromptu displays that see a hundred children flood the pitch with their parents after full time on match days, beaming at getting the chance to play football in a real stadium with its goals and nets, stands and terraces, floodlights and trapped balloons, a real stadium right on their doorstep that belongs to each and every one of them as much as it does to their heroes in the first team. George nods to himself quietly as it’s time to leave. “Football has been very important, I suppose.”