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 for almost 13 years when he and Nick Greenwood – who had been with the club 15 years – were sacked by chairman Len Smith this week. Together, Glasgow-born 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 (or the Conference, as most people would know it). To put that into context: in 2000, they were still playing the likes of Saltdean United, Sidley United and Shoreham; by 2010 they found themselves taking on Luton, Oxford and Wrexham. It’d be the equivalent of a Conference club with no history outside the division, such as Fleetwood or Tamworth, making it all the way to the Premier League. Where once Eastbourne’s Priory Lane ground could expect no more than 250 through the gate, crowds of 1200-plus became commonplace, as Borough survived three seasons in non-league’s top flight. In the mean time, Graham Turner’s decision to stand down as Hereford manager in 2009 put Wilson third in the list of English football’s longest-serving managers – behind the illustrious Ferguson and Wenger.
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 Simon Weatherstone’s penalty against Oxford kept them up, but the lengthy journeys up and down the country trying to match sides with massive wage bills took its toll and they succumbed meekly to the drop the next season. At one point during a stressful campaign (which admittedly did see its highlights), 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.
The Wilson/Greenwood partnership began in February 1999. Greenwood had been with the club for two years already while Wilson, a one-time Scotland youth cap, had been unceremoniously jettisoned by Hastings Town after they were taken over by a lottery winner. The pair obviously felt the club was ripe for taking through the leagues and together they did exactly that, transforming them from an underachieving side barely above park level into a team capable of competing with the best non-league clubs in the country. On the way they achieved several promotions, a play-off final appearance at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium and a dramatic FA Cup first round game featured on Match of the Day. And all that while refusing to spend money the club hasn’t got, and putting improvement in facilities first.
Football has become notorious now for its fickleness – one result turns a manager from a world-beater to a pariah, or vice-versa. The current Premier League clubs have been through more than 100 managerial changes between them since Wilson took charge at Eastbourne – while further along the coast Portsmouth and Southampton have had 12 different names each.
But one club has proved that stability and a bond between chairman and management can breed success. That bond may have broken this week – but Wilson and Greenwood can be undeniably proud of their achievements, which deserve highlighting beyond the parochial world of the non-league game.