NEARLY 50 years ago a young Langney youth player, after a game on a local recreation ground, turned to a team-mate and commented, “Wouldn’t it be nice, one of these days, to have our own ground, changing-rooms and bar.”
Today that ambitious youngster not only has all of those things, he can boast one of the finest stadia in the county and a team that has reached the pinnacle of the non-league football.
The young man with what, at the time, seemed a modest vision was Len Smith who has since the early sixties has been at the forefront of possibly the most phenomenal feat ever known in football, guiding a little-known parks team on an amazing journey to eventually become a non-league force admired and respected across the nation.
With his dream fulfilled and his team currently at the top of Conference South after a three-year stay in the Premier, Len is standing down as Eastbourne Borough football chairman and board director, while remaining a member of the Langney Sports committee and the East Sussex Community Trust which is based at Langney.
Although making a steady recovery following a stroke three years ago, Len feels it is time to take more of a back seat in his new role as club president. “I am not going anywhere, but I feel I need more time to look after myself,” he said this week. “I am doing this with the hope of being around longer to enjoy the football.
“Hopefully, they will still let me in without having to pay!’
In addition to his leadership and negotiating skills which have been so invaluable during the club’s growth and rise to fame, Len has always been very much a hands-on chairman.
During the building of the magnificent Priory Lane clubhouse with a dedicated group of volunteers, he worked every weekend and two evenings a week over a period of 18 months in addition to doing a full-time job and bringing up a young family.
“We got it done simply by having a group of like-minded people who had different skills and who came together at the same time. We only had one actual builder and the rest of us learnt from that one person.”
Due to Len’s astute house-keeping the club has always remained in the black while others across the country have fallen in dire financial straits by the wayside. Silly money paid to players has never been on his agenda.
“We have only ever paid out what we could afford,” he insisted. “When we were chasing Lewes for honours in the Southern League, people were shouting at us to spend more money on players, but we were not willing to mortgage our future. We have always tried to live within our means.”
“To be honest, we never dreamt of getting into the Conference and until Mike Spooner (chief executive) came along we were not sure what went on above the County League. We just wanted to enjoy our football, but we always said we would build a ground that would always be ready for the next promotion.”
And unlike so many chairman of today, he has always been reluctant to sack his managers and there have been remarkably few during Len’s involvement.. Pete Cherry reigned for 13 memorable years and Garry Wilson for 10. In the early days, Derek Canham and Chris Bishop occupied the hot seat with Steve Richardson also in the chair for a brief spell.
He has seen many talented players perform in the Sports colours, but Len has to go back to the County League days for his two favourites, goal-scoring ace Nigel Hole and skipper Mick Green, who was tragically killed in a building site accident.
And while there are so many marvellous memories to recall, including the play-off win against Hampton & Richmond Borough that took Borough into the Conference National, his favourite occasion remains the Sussex Senior Cup Final at the Goldstone resulting in a 1-0 defeat against Brighton reserves when he felt the Sports finally established themselves among ‘the big boys.’
The achievements of Langney Sports/Eastbourne Borough under Len’s astute guidance. could easily be taken out of a Roy of the Rovers Christmas annual..
From humble beginnings in the Eastbourne & District League which they entered in 1964 came promotion to the league’s premier division at the end of season 1973-74.
In 1983 came what was regarded as a major step, entry into the County League’s newly-formed third division and relocation from the playing fields of Princes Park to their current home ground at Priory Lane.
County FA officials publicly scoffed at the idea of a ‘parks team’ surviving among the big guns of the County League, but Len and his team had other ideas.
From 1986-87 came successive promotions and a coveted place in the first division of the County League. The popular Pete Cherry was the man in the managerial hot seat and during nearly a decade in the County League top flight, only once did the side finish outside the top four.
Cherry finally gave way to Steve Richardson, but it was Garry Wilson who brought the golden years to Priory Lane when he joined the club in 1999.
With the help of chief coach Nick Greenwood, the side immediately won the County League title and, as newly named Eastbourne Borough, steadily moved up the pyramid via the Southern League eastern division, the Southern League Premier and into Conference South as founder members.
Then in 2008 came the biggest leap of all; victory in the play-off final at Stevenage against Hampton & Richmond and promotion to the Conference National.
The club’s stay in the top flight lasted three seasons as the part-timers of Borough continually struggled against full-time sides, many with Football League experience behind them. For the first time in half a century Len was to suffer his one and only experience of relegation.
But following the departure of Wilson and Greenwood, Borough have been building again under Tommy Widdrington. Following a season of transition, they are setting the pace in Conference South and Len is looking forward to a return to the Premier without the burden of chairmanship duties. Len’s successor in a temporary capacity is Mick Grimer who actually moved to Eastbourne on the same day as Len back in May, 1955. Both were pupils at Bishop Bell School.
Mick said, “It was Len’s vision and enthusiasm that realised a dream of a successful football club for Eastbourne. His drive overcame apparently insurmountable obstacles to build the club into what it is today.
“We never had a sugar daddy to give us any money. It has been a long, hard slog led by Len and supported by many dedicated volunteers.
“The end result has been a community project we can be proud of. Langney Sports has been unique in the people it has got and what it has achieved.
“Other clubs have asked how we have done it. Our answer is simple. Sheer hard graft. There is no magic wand.”
Manager Tommy Widdrington added, “Len has been a great boss to me and has given me superb support since I have been here. He could not go out on a higher note in terms of where we are at the moment. He has been the life and soul of this club.”
There have been many stars and incredible feats performed by talented individuals on and off the field over the past 50 years. But the inspiration behind it all has been Len Smith will always be remembered as THE Langney legend.
As a young man he had a vision, a dream shared with team-mates of the day, that has been exceeded beyond his wildest dreams.
For years the people of Eastbourne pleaded for one good side which would bring a high standard of non-league football to the town.
Len, together with his loyal band of never-say-die volunteers, achieved that wish and every football-lover in town should be grateful.
In addition to those dedicated volunteers, Len has had the continual support of his wife Karen who herself has been an ardent worker behind the scenes.