Worthing Town eye Lewes route to the Premier League

Another Sent Her Forward exclusive

Tony Lelliott on the balcony of the pavilion at Palatine Park (Oct 2014)

Tony Lelliott has ambitious plans for Worthing Town’s men’s and women’s sides

Worthing Town are planning an ambitious transformation at Palatine Park as the club gears up for a push at the big time.

Sent Her Forward can reveal that Worthing want to create a county FA-standard all-weather pitch and accompanying stand, complete with players’ tunnel from the changing rooms, which were built only two years ago.

But as well as the practical changes, the club also intend to revolutionise their female football set-up, and have appointed a director of football to oversee everything from the creation of a network of girls’ feeder sides, from the age of seven to adult, to future footballing strategy, and formal coaching and football facilities at a local school.

Chairman Tony Lelliott says he wants to follow the template created by Lewes’s community club and to see his ladies’ team follow the Rookettes into the FAW Premier League as soon as is practicable.

The Lelliott revolution – which he says is backed by the club’s board – is still at the very early stages, although Sent Her Forward understands that tentative talks with Adur and Worthing Councils, which own the ground, have begun.

And while no formal planning application has yet been submitted, the chairman believes the new ground could be ready even by the start of next season.

“If you don’t set yourself ambitious targets, you vegetate. If you don’t achieve them, it’s not the end of the world,” he said.

The 15-acre site at Palatine Park was redeveloped and opened in 2012 at a cost of £1.6m, with the aid of a £450,000 grant from the Football Foundation, secured with the help of a formal partnership with the football club, who have a long-term lease.

Flagship teams

The old pavilion was demolished and replaced by a two-storey building, containing offices, social facilities and around half a dozen changing rooms, including separate facilities for match officials.

The pavilion at Palatine Park, opened in April 2012

Worthing Town lease Palatine Park’s facilities from the district council

At the same time, the pitches adjoining the building were relaid after major drainage works to reduce flooding problems. First-team matches are usually played on the pitches farthest from the pavilion, as they tend to survive the winter better.

Now, little more than two years after Sir Trevor Brooking opened the new facility, which is managed by the club on the council’s behalf, Worthing Town want to transform the site again to maximise their chances of progressing in both the men’s and women’s game.

Lelliott told Sent Her Forward: “I want to create flagship teams for men and women, so that when these kids start at five years of age, they can actually see the ladies in the women’s Premier League, the men in the county league, and they can aspire to that from day one.”

By growing it organically, we won’t have this constant battle to get players – Tony Lelliott, chairman, Worthing Town

The Worthing chairman, who works in the field of motor sport sponsorship and funding, said the intention was to use his fundraising expertise and harness the support of the local community to cover the anticipated £1.5m cost of the entire project.

“We have very little difficulty in attracting sponsorship and support from the local community because we are very pro-active in the local community,” he said.

Worthing Town currently have about 650 players – around 85 of whom are female – playing in 44 teams, from under-6 to adult.

The men’s sides currently play in Divisions One and Two West of the Brighton, Hove and Worthing League.

The women play in the South East Counties Division One West and Sussex County Women’s Division.

While the men’s structure incorporates teams right down to five-, six- and seven-year-olds, there are currently only two girls’ teams – at under-13 and under-15 level.

Last year’s under-16s had hoped to play in this season’s Sussex Under-18 League, but the division was scrapped because of insufficient interest, leaving the bulk of young players to vie for places in the adult teams – although the youngest of them cannot play until they reach their 16th birthdays.

Director of football

Lelliott’s plan is eventually to have a complete structure of age groups across both genders, creating a natural progression through the ranks to adult level, which he hopes will engender a sense of loyalty and belonging to the club.

He explained: “Retention of players is as important as recruitment, and I don’t understand why players would want to go anywhere else than here.

“Do they want to go somewhere where they change in the middle of the park, or they change in changing rooms that are falling down all around them?

“I’ve played a lot of parks football, and to play at this sort of facility is way, way better than anywhere else.”

Part of Lelliott’s motive for appointing Sian Elliott – a 23-year-old, who has played for the club for seven years – as their first ever director of women’s football is to nurture the sense of belonging by stepping up their links with local schools.

Club coaches already have a presence in schools in the town, but Lelliott believes the club need to throw more resources at it, and his aim is to have a formal link with one of them – as yet not identified – where the club will provide an indoor 3G facility.

He said: “I think we need to be in schools. We need to be driving this at the earlier ages, and by growing it organically, we won’t have this constant battle to get players, which clubs have up and down the country.

“If you catch them early enough, you tend to get the parents involved, as well… The ambition is to get the girls and ladies up to the point where we can sustain probably three (adult) teams.”

Several teams around the region have similar ideas, but it is Lewes’s example – where the men’s club embraced the creation of a women’s team, which now also boasts two development sides – that Lelliott is keen to follow.

“Ten years ago Lewes Ladies were at about this level, and most of us know what they’ve achieved under (long-term manager, now ladies’ head of football operations) Jacquie Agnew.

“I’d like to see Sian develop into a Jacquie Agnew figure.”

Seating for 200

Lelliott says all the town’s schools will be able to use their 3G pitches, which will also give the club’s community projects a more solid foundation, as well as providing ideal training facilities for all Worthing Town’s teams, saving, he estimates, more than £5,000 a year on the cost of hiring all-weather facilities.

The current plant room at the pavilion, which would need to be moved for the players' tunnel at Palatine Park

A players’ tunnel would emerge from the changing-room area, through the stand to the main 3G pitch

The redevelopment would require the building’s plant room to be relocated to enable the tunnel to run from the changing area, through a new 200-seater stand, and on to the pitch, which would be floodlit.

Neither Lelliott nor the council wanted to talk about what stage talks had reached, but a council spokeswoman confirmed to Sent Her Forward that the “ongoing discussions” with the club were at an early stage.

The Worthing chairman believes his August 2015 target is achievable, although he acknowledges there are likely to be a number of obstacles to be overcome – not least the fact that no formal planning application has yet been lodged.

He insisted all the funding would come from external sources and not directly from the club, whose board members, he said, were “all onside” with it. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t be going ahead.”

He added: “It’s not just a flight of fancy. It’s actually a thought-out, practical solution to the problems we have year in, year out.”

According to Adur and Worthing Councils website, Worthing Town run the pavilion on behalf of the council and take up most of the pitch availability. And with a danger of damaging the surface, other organisations are not allowed to train on them.

If all-weather pitches are installed, Lelliott believes there will still be no spare capacity for other clubs, save Worthing Town’s own commitments through their community charity.

“But he said: “By freeing up the other facilities in the area that we currently hire for training, etcetera, clubs will have greater access to training facilities, as Worthing Town will no longer need them.”

An interview with Sian Elliott, Worthing Town’s new director of football, will appear on Sent Her Forward shortly.

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