Willingdon Athletic FC: The story so far…

Willingdon Athletic FC was formed in 1918, with the club playing on a piece of land owned by Farmer Vine, a local man who wanted to help out the village. When the local Recreation Ground was left in Trust to the village, the club relocated to its current Huggetts Lane Ground in 1934. After the Second World War, The Dons competed in the Eastbourne and District League but began to struggle for players in the 1968/69 season.

A group of very keen, local 16 year old boys took over the club and played friendly matches throughout the 1969/70 season. Two successive campaigns of title wins, enabled them to gain promotion to the top division of the Eastbourne and Hastings League. Willingdon then lost its best Youngsters to Senior football but consolidated their place in the top division nevertheless.

Throughout this time, local football clubs did not have Team Managers, with Substitutes only introduced at grassroots level in around 1969. When The Dons were playing in their early days in the Eastbourne and Hastings League, there were no Coaches, Trainers, or First aiders on the sidelines and the players had to stop the game to retrieve the footballs if they ended up in the adjacent main road.

At this time, Den Shimmons, a retired Wing Commander, was Chairman of the club. Shimmons was a real stickler for rules, hated his players swearing and any behaviour he deemed unacceptable would not be tolerated! The Dons added a second XI in 1972.

Wanting some leadership and guidance, Willingdon advertised for a First Team manager in the local newspaper in 1974. As it transpired, local man Paul Roberts was looking for a new challenge. Having coached and managed at Eastbourne Town and United, coaching both their Reserve teams some years before. Roberts came in, doing a great job training and managing the club, as well as bringing new players in and helping to organise fundraising. For a short period, Roberts even held the position of Club Secretary and also missed a summer evening training session in order to help build a ‘temporary’ Referees Room. This room was an urgent requirement of the now defunct Southern

Combination League, which Willingdon joined thanks, in part, to Roberts’ enthusiasm in 1979. Though the room was supposedly a short term measure, development work to the Huggetts Lane changing facilities was not carried out for almost 40 years, opening in time for the 2017/18 season!

Willingdon Athletic FC's successful Sussex intermediate cup winning side - 1981

The successful Sussex intermediate cup winning side – 1981

Back Row: Jim Partridge, Barry Paine, Martin Coles, John Dallaway, Ian Turner, Dick Shepherd, Dave Booker, Graham Light, Paul Roberts, John Shepherd, Chris Bennett.

Front Row: Pete Snashell, Kevin Langley, John Tingley, Rod Santos, Gary Askew, Alan Plummer

In his final season with Willingdon, Roberts was helped by Barry Paine, another hard working and enthusiastic Team Manager. The Club flourished in this period, with the return of Dick Shepherd and other senior players, all of whom were entering the latter part of their footballing careers. A good number of Eastbourne Challenge Cup and League Cups were won in the 1970s but the biggest achievements were winning the Sussex Intermediate Cups in 1981 and 1983 and the Southern Combination League in 1984. Roberts, who managed the team for nine seasons, is certainly one of the club’s most successful managers and his all-round contribution set a tough benchmark for others to follow.

After this period of success, the club suffered for a short period, with a good number of experienced players retiring from playing at the same time. This resulted in Willingdon taking the decision to drop down to the East Sussex League, where they reached a number of cup finals without winning any of them. Throughout the 90s, the club benefitted from the youth players brought in by the hard work of Adrian Spencer, Brian Kensett and Steve Mintrim, with a third team formed in 1997. In 2003, Willingdon switched into the Mid Sussex League with the League itself keen to recruit a club with such a good local standing and reputation. In fact, the MSFL even changed their Constitution to allow a side from the East of the County to join the league.

Manager Rod Santos took charge of a successful Dons team for seven seasons, gaining promotion to the Premier Division in 2003/04 before lifting the Montgomery Cup the year after. Since gaining promotion to the top flight, Willingdon have been runners up on
four occasions, the closest they have come to winning the league. Santos stepped down in 2010, with Ben Davis taking over. The side has been very strong contenders in each of the last four seasons, winning the Monty again in May 2017, followed by the Allen Washer Cup at the start of the 2017/18 season.

Both the second and third teams have won a number of cups and promotions down the years, helping to contribute very strongly to the success of Willingdon AFC. A good number of the current Dons players’ fathers’ played for the club too, with Richard
Fitzgerald, Malcolm Manton, Rod Santos and Bill Wheatley turning out in green during their playing days. The Junior teams the club possessed, run by Mick Stevens, Kevin Bywater, Tom and Sam Morton’s Dad, Brian Kensett, Bill Scott and Steve Mintrim have given the club many of its current players. 2019 saw the introduction of a Fourth team at Huggetts Lane managed by Simon Hamilton.

The past decade had seen a lack of Youth or Feeder teams for the Club which caused a problem, effectively cutting off what had been a profitable supply line. In 2018 Gary Norwood and partner Laura Dempster, re-established the Youth section with a strong U14 team entering the Mid Sussex Youth league. The Team’s success, coupled with hard work from the Committee in establishing a reputable Youth Section encouraged 4 other teams to join Willingdon at the start of the 2019/20 season with another 5 having started throughout 2020 and a waiting list for other teams to join once further facilities are found. Most importantly perhaps for the Club is the link between the Youth and Senior sections with the promise of players moving up for following Seasons.

The Youth Section has also started an annual Summer Fiesta with teams from East and West Sussex and Kent competing for a place in the Competition.

Off the pitch, Willingdon has always tried to give back to the community, and the club has completed 30 Boxing Day swims in Eastbourne’s glorious sea! Over the years, the teams have raised around £30,000 for charity. After games, the players from all four Senior teams congregate at the British Queen pub in Willingdon.

Willingdon squad members after competing in the first boxing day swim – 1978

The 20’s did not get off to a roaring start for Willingdon Athletic or the footballing world as a whole for that matter. The rise of the COVID-19 virus swept through all levels of the game and forced many non-elite leagues to declare their seasons null and void. Government lockdown restrictions were implemented and the whole world stayed at home. During this time many of the players took part in long-distance running and helped raise money to support the NHS as they battled the virus on the frontline.

There was brief light at the end of the tunnel with the return of outdoor sports and the start of the 2020/21 season. This was short-lived due to the rise in infection rates and eventually lockdown coming back into effect. A gloomy winter ensued with no football for Willingdon in sight and elite levels forced to play behind closed doors all we could do was wait. Finally, as winter ended and spring had sprung, football was given the go-ahead. Many leagues across the country immediately called a null & void once again and eventually organised mini-tournaments. The Mid Sussex Football League decided to split the Premier and Championship divisions and gave clubs points based on a points-per-game method. They would then proceed to play 6 games throughout April. All other divisions in the league would continue as normal. This created a chaotic fixture schedule, with Willingdons second and third teams playing three times a week!

Willingdon Athletic would go on to take 6th place in the premier division for the 2020/21 season. The second and third teams finished 6th and 4th respectively.