On Tuesday night (January 17th), one of football’s longest-serving management teams, who brought unprecedented success to their club, was told their services were no longer required.
No, you haven’t missed any newsflashes – Alex Ferguson is still at the helm of Old Trafford and Arsene Wenger and Pat Rice remain in their seventh trophyless season at Arsenal. The drama unfolded further down the football pyramid, on England’s sunny south coast.
Garry Wilson had been in charge of Eastbourne Borough, currently in the Blue Square Bet South, for almost 13 years when he and assistant Nick Greenwood – with the club 15 years – were sacked by chairman Len Smith this week. Together, Glaswegian Wilson and Lancastrian Greenwood masterminded the club’s rapid ascent up the divisions, from the Sussex County League to the summit of non-league football, the Blue Square Bet Premier. To put that into context: in 2000, they were playing the likes of Saltdean, Sidley and Shoreham; by 2010 they were taking on Luton, Oxford and Wrexham. Comparisons could be drawn with Wimbledon’s run through the Football League – although no-one has yet suggested Eastbourne relocate 60-odd miles to give Croydon or Guildford a decent non-league club.
The Wilson/Greenwood partnership began in February 1999, when the club, then Langney Sports, were mid-table in the Sussex County League. Greenwood had been with Sports for two years already while Wilson, a one-time Scotland youth cap, was smarting from his abrupt sacking by Hastings Town’s lottery-winning owner. Between them, they transformed an underachieving side barely above park level into one of the best part-time clubs in the country. On the way the club achieved several promotions, a play-off final appearance at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium and a dramatic FA Cup first round game with Oxford featured on Match of the Day. In 2008, Borough beat Hampton and Richmond in another promotion final to complete the journey from County League to Conference in just eight years.
But no footballing marriage lasts forever, and cracks in the relationship began to show during the part-timers’ valiant attempts to mix it in a largely full-time league. They were eight minutes away from being relegated in their second season, until a late penalty against Oxford kept them up. But the club’s relative lack of resources when compared to the Conference’s big boys – Luton Town’s police bill is said to have been greater than Eastbourne’s wage bill – took its toll and they succumbed meekly to the drop last season. At one point during a stressful campaign, Wilson handed in his notice – but was persuaded to stay on by Smith. The pair were then ‘reappointed’ for this season in a show of unity – but after slumping to 16th in the Blue Square Bet South, they were given their cards just days after a 4-1 home defeat by Dorchester Town.
There would appear to be mixed feelings among the club’s supporters, who feel immense gratitude for the pair’s achievements while acknowledging that changes had to be made to arrest the current slump in form. Now the speculation starts as to who will become only the club’s fourth manager in 30 years (the club itself has only been in existence since 1964).
Football has become notorious for its fickleness – the current 20 Premier League clubs have been through more than 100 managerial changes between them since Wilson took charge at Eastbourne. But the Sussex outfit has proved that stability and a bond between chairman and management can breed success. And while that bond may have been broken this week – Wilson and Greenwood should be undeniably proud of their achievements, which deserve highlighting beyond the often parochial world of the non-league game.