FA Vase campaign brings back memories of Eastbourne United's brush with national fame

In the FA Vase, Eastbourne United’s history is rich. Was it really just six years ago that Simon Rowland’s legendary side came within minutes of Wembley?

Friday, 18th September 2020, 10:00 am
United celebrate a goal in their Vase semi-final v Sholing in 2014 / Pictures: Michael Cunningham and Stuart Martin

This Saturday, United make the short trip to play Langney Wanderers in the 2020-21 Vase - with dreams alive and memories of that famous run to the semi-finals still vivid in many minds.

With the iconic figure of Ryan McBride scoring goals for fun, United plundered their way through round after round. They survived a surreal monsoon at Hanworth Villa which bizarrely sent teams and spectators dashing for the tiny clubhouse.

Only your local radio reporter stayed out, vainly trying to protect his broadcasting gear in the cycle-shed of a main stand – until the teams re-emerged, the match restarted and United splashed their way to a 7-3 victory.

United's Sean Ray in action v Sholing / Pictures: Michael Cunningham and Stuart Martin

Then a quarter-final against Morpeth from the far North-East – who lost a player to a red card in the first ten seconds. Seriously, the storylines were all lifted from old Melchester Rovers comic strips. Before you knew it, United had reached a two-leg semi-final against Sholing FC – a club who really belonged at a higher level.

United stalwart Les Aisbitt, watching from the sidelines of a recent United league game, took up the story. “Just once, and probably only once, in every few decades you get your all-time best team. Simon pulled a squad together who had enormous experience and phenomenal team spirit.

“We drew 2-2 in the away leg, and the Oval was packed tight for the return leg. I remember there were people watching in Channel View Road from their garage roof!

“Ironically we were without the suspended Ryan McBride – we managed to keep that quiet till the last minute – and we had a disastrous first half-hour, going three-nil down. We stormed back in the second half but could not quite find an equaliser.

Wes Tate's penalty / Pictures: Michael Cunningham and Stuart Martin

“Missing Wembley? You can look back and regret, or you can look back with relish,” added Les. “With the prize money from the run, we spruced up the ground and kept ourselves in business. It’s what we always do at United.”

Indeed, Eastbourne United really is the club that refuses to die. Too many clubs, say observers, Eastbourne just isn’t big enough for a National South club and three more at Step Five. All very well – but United simply continue to defy gravity. They count on a small but loyal core of supporters, and attract a fair few neutrals – welcoming all with the same broad smile.

The real glory days were arguably further back in club history – when Ron Greenwood and Jack Mansell had spells in the manager’s job, and regular four-figure crowds packed Princes Park. More than any other Eastbourne ground, the Oval is the place where you meet old friends and neutrals, have a natter, enjoy the match and treat those two imposters - defeat and victory - just the same.

“We’ve had to adapt,” says Les Aisbitt. “We lost the old semi-derelict main stand in the Great Storm of 1987 – I remember a man with a clipboard arriving from the Council about ten years after that, and asking what had happened to it! Then, without too much regret, we lost the running track when athletics was moved to the new Sports Park – and I remember a half-promise of United moving there, until the powers that be realised that the Sports Park would only be big enough for a junior pitch! And here we still are.”

Action from the Sholing semi-final / Pictures: Michael Cunningham and Stuart Martin

Covetous eyes are sometimes cast on Princes Park Oval – potentially valuable land for housing or other development. But the land itself is safe for now.

It is owned, with various covenants, by the Davies Gilbert estate – that remarkable force of benevolent enterprise which built pretty much the whole eastern end of Eastbourne’s original Victorian town. The popular end, you might say – and that is where Eastbourne United belongs.