Consolidation achieved in first season back in Ryman Premier Division
Following promotion last season the club’s aim of staying in the Ryman Premier Division was achieved but that doesn’t tell the whole story of the 2016/17 season.
It took until the penultimate fixture of the season to be mathematically sure of survival but the season also saw a brief spell at the top of the division, a lingering flirt with the play-offs and a skirt with relegation in a roller-coaster 10 months.
It was a busy summer at Woodside Road, joint-managers Gary Elphick and Jon Meeney wasted no time in building on the promotion winning squad by bringing in proven players Kane Wills (Margate) and Sam Rents (Whitehawk) while Molesey striker Reis Stanislaus was also added.
The only disappointment of an otherwise productive summer was losing top scorer Lloyd Dawes to local rivals Lewes for an undisclosed fee.
The pre-season schedule started slowly; draws with Whitehawk (0-0) and Lewes (3-3) were followed by a narrow defeat to league opposition in the form of Crawley Town – all away from home. A first win of the campaign came in the next match, a 5-1 win over Thamesmead at Woodside Road before an eleven goal mauling of neighbours Worthing United. Then a very good performance against Watford under-21’s was marred by a serious injury to forward Ben Pope that caused the match to be abandoned with the Mackerel Men leading 2-0. The final pre-season outing saw another win by a heavy margin as Horsham were seen off 5-1 at home.
The real business began on Saturday 13th August as the club returned to the Ryman Premier Division for the first time in six years with a fixture at Hendon, making the perfect start to the season by claiming a 3-0 win, debutant Stanislaus scoring twice.
That result was quickly followed up by a 3-1 win over Metropolitan Police in the first home game of the season, after which the club topped the division. Expectations continued to rise as the reds squeezed past Harlow in their next outing despite having Steve Metcalf sent off.
The first drop points of the season came at Leatherhead as Omar Bugiel rescued a 1-1 draw late on but the honeymoon period came to an abrupt end August Bank Holiday weekend. A very disappointing home defeat to eventual bottom side Grays Athletic was followed by a humiliating 5-0 reverse at bitter rivals Bognor Regis Town.
Those results were the start of a five match losing run in the league that sandwiched progression in both the FA Cup with wins over Carshalton Athletic (in a replay) and Hayes & Yeading, and the Ryman League Cup with a routine 5-0 win over Three Bridges, Brannon O’Neill netting a hat-trick. That game also saw the first goals by Dawes since his return in early September following the mutual release from his contract at Lewes.
September also saw the departure of club captain and crowd favourite, Steve Metcalf to Horsham.
October began in difficult circumstances as a patched up side were comprehensively beaten 6-0 by national league St. Albans City in the FA Cup third qualifying road. The return of former defender Jack Cook coincided with an upturn in form though as Worthing finally recorded their first league win since the third game of the season when they edged past Merstham at home thanks to Kane Wills first goal for the club. A further six league fixtures in the month yielded a return of ten points following 3 wins, 1 draw and 2 defeats. There was still time to progress in the FA Trophy courtesy of a comfortable 3-1 win over Kempston Rovers.
Two of last season’s squad then left club in the form of goalkeeper Rikki Banks (personal reasons) and midfielder Matt Axell (released), while midway through November also saw the end of Stanislaus’ brief spell as he joined Hendon.
Worthing lost all three league games in November (To Enfield, Dulwich Hamlet and Havant & Waterlooville) but faired far better in cup competitions again making progression on two fronts.
Stanislaus’ final goals for the club came as he got both in a 2-1 win over Dorking Wanderers in the league cup while a hard-fought victory over league below Cray Wanderers in the FA Trophy set up as tie with National League opposition once more in the form of Hemel Hempstead. A 1-1 draw at Woodside was proceeded by a magnificent 1-0 win in the replay at Vauxhall Road thanks to substitute O’Neill’s late goal.
Those fixtures also saw the beginning of a fourteen match unbeaten run in all competitions heading into December.
December began with Zack Newton rescuing a home draw with Billericay Town in the league before the result of the season at Dagenham & Redbridge in the FA Trophy. Worthing travelled to Victoria Road to face a side who at the time were the highest-ranked non-league club in the country and came away with a famous 2-1 win thanks to goals from Will Hendon and Lloyd Dawes.
At this point the team was playing the best football of the season and won the next four league matches scoring 13 times in the process.
The turn of the year saw the return fixture with then top of the table Bognor, a match which the reds dominated but were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw. Convincing wins over Canvey Island (5-0) and Grays (4-1) followed before another titanic FA Trophy tie with National League opposition.
Sutton United visited Woodside Road in mid-January and a pulsating game ended with 17-year-old substitute Sam Lemon snatching a draw for the home side, heading home Dawes cross in the dying stages.
Before the replay the unbeaten run came to an end as Leiston left Woodside with all three points courtesy of a 3-1 win but just three days later Worthing again pushed Sutton all the way. Dawes’ injury time penalty sent the game into extra-time before Adam May’s goal eventually gave the hosts a 3-2 win.
The month ended with a rather surprisingly poor showing at Harlow Town that saw the team on the end of a 6-2 hammering.
They bounced back from that defeat and arguably the game of the season followed as Worthing edged a seven-goal thriller with second placed Needham Market. With fixtures pilling up the management fielded a team of under-18s for the league cup quarter final with Billericay and the experienced visitors ran away with a 7-0 win leaving Worthing with just the league to concentrate on.
Their hopes of pushing for a play-off spot for the remainder of the season were dealt a huge blow when talisman Omar Bugiel attracted interested from club’s higher up the pyramid and eventually signed for National League Forest Green Rovers for an undisclosed fee in early February.
It didn’t seem to effect the team in the next match though as new signings Louis Clark and David Adjiboye (on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion) were instrumental in a 4-2 away win at Folkestone Invicta. A win that saw the Mackerel Men sit in 8th position but also signalled the end of goalkeeper Jack Fagan’s season when he broke his hand during the second half.
Then started a wretched run of form that would last until the end of the season that would see the side pick up just 7 points from the remaining 15 games, scoring just 7 times in the process.
Three Bridges ‘keeper Kieron Thorp was bought in as Fagan’s replacement but he experienced a difficult start to his Worthing career conceding 11 goals in defeats to Enfield Town (3-1), Harrow Borough (4-0) and Staines Town (4-0) in his first three outings.
An improved display saw a narrow defeat to play-off chasing Dulwich Hamlet before another disappointing reverse to struggling Canvey Island.
A run of six straight defeats was briefly halted by a 2-2 draw with Harrow Borough, a game that saw new signing Dan Summers score on his debut. Further defeats would follow though to Lowestoft Town at home (1-0) and away at Leiston (2-0) and the club continued to drop down the table.
The month ended with a win, finally after nine without victory, Hendon and Wills’ goals insured a 2-1 win over Merstham.
Despite this win goals were becoming increasingly hard to come by at home and two 0-0 draws followed on home soil with strugglers AFC Sudbury and Kingstonian as the club searched for the few points it needed to guarantee survival in the division.
Following the goalless draw with AFC Sudbury the club was shocked by Jon Meeney’s decision to stand down as joint-manager, leaving Gary Elphick in sole charge for the remaining four fixtures.
They drew another blank in the next match at Wingate & Finchley, Elphick’s second in sole charge – losing 1-0. That meant Elphick’s men still weren’t mathematically safe with just two games remaining although a just a point was needed at home to Burgess Hill on Easter Monday. Youngster Jack Newhouse’s goal deep into injury-time secured a 1-1 draw and the point necessary to finally secure the club’s step 3 status for next season.
A final day defeat to Tonbridge Angels saw the club eventually finish 15th in it’s first season back in the Ryman League Premier Division.