Rowland making his mark in Oval dug-out

Simon Rowland
Simon Rowland

He is the United manager without a six-year contract, without a budget of millions and without the expectations of half the nation on his shoulders

He isn’t a Scot, and he wears a broad, genial smile and not a frown. He is Simon Rowland – and he is four steps from Wembley.

Rowland’s United are doing rather well. Since the 34-year-old took over at the Oval in the summer, he has rebuilt the squad, led them to the top of County League Division Two, and steered them to the last 32 of the FA Vase.

Oh, and on a manic night in December they tipped Crawley Town out of the Sussex Senior Cup.

In truth, Eastbourne United are a club reborn. Older football followers still lovingly recall the teams of Gordon Jago and Gerry Boon, and the 1979 Vase campaign that ended in the quarter-final in front of 1,700 spectators at the Oval.

But then for many years the club bumped along the bottom, until new investment in the last two years has seen the ground transformed and the spirit regenerated.

Rowland is quick to pay tribute to club stalwarts off the field. “We have terrific support, which will make itself heard at Hanworth.

“And the likes of Brian Dowling, Les Aisbitt and John Pinyoun – just three of the best committee I’ve ever worked with.”

And he has worked with a few. After a decent playing career in Sussex non-league, and some useful coaching experience with Ian Chapman at Whitehawk, Simon pitched into a “baptism of fire” as manager of Division Three Uckfield.

“They had played seven and lost seven when I went there, but we finished in mid-table.

It was learning from the ground up - putting the nets up, filling the water bottles, the lot.”

Then there was success at Wealden and a chastening season managing Burgess Hill in the Ryman.

“It was in a mess. I probably got 10 years experience in one year there.”

He sees Eastbourne United as “a fantastic project” and the club is clearly progressing.

Early in pre-season, he had “scarcely enough players for a five-a-side”, but tapping into his extensive local player knowledge – and recruiting Shaun Loft and Scott Price as experienced coaching support – has enabled Rowland to build a team capable of promotion and maybe, he thinks, a tilt at the Division One title next season.

“We have added players above and beyond expectations – Sean Ray, Adam Kneller, Joe Dryer, Jason Taylor whose broken leg will mean a massive loss.

Without any arrogance, it’s a squad that would frighten opponents just by looking at the team sheet.

For the FA Vase, it’s not hard to get ourselves prepared and keyed up, and we’re loving it.”

And Hanworth Villa? “We believe we can do it. They are about the same level as us, but it’s also about playing styles, and I think we can go there and set up in the right way to get the win.

South Park (in the last round) were one of the top five favourites to win the competition, but we knew how to cope with them.

“We have watched Hanworth Villa. They are not the biggest of sides but they are busy and workmanlike. We will need to adapt to their playing style, but I’m confident we have the experience to do that.”

What about the future? “Initially we need to look at the next two years at United. The Ryman League is a realistic target, sooner rather than later.”

And for Rowland personally? “More of the same.

I played for Garry Wilson at Borough and for Neville Southall at Hastings, so I’ve taken all their best bits.

Tommy Widdrington has been very open and helpful, and I’d like to think my way forward lies in management plus coaching.”

Happy to roll his sleeves up, and unafraid of a challenge. The affable Rowland is making his mark, and Eastbourne United are reaping the benefit.