With cup action having dominated headlines for most sides in the last week, the SCFL Premier Division returns to the limelight this weekend as AFC Uckfield Town, now with added narrative, take on an interesting dual challenge; to defend their status as early league leaders, but also claim a first ever league win against visitors Horsham YMCA, writes Will Hugall.
Of course, the odds weren’t necessarily in favour of a quick Uckers start just a month ago. A new management team and revamped squad, even with close links to each other, are seldom expected to gel immediately, particularly in a league where consistency and experience count for so much.
In matches so far, there have been moments of good fortune too, but luck is earned by teams who maintain their high performance levels, just as Graeme Mintrim and Steve Ives’ side have done.
The challenge, after a spell of three wins and two draws in league action, is to now push on during the nation’s transition from summer to autumn, and with upcoming opponents boasting as high a calibre as visitors Eastbourne Town did just last week, there will be no doubt about the usual quality of the division.
Horsham YMCA are one such side; behind only Newhaven FC for the record number of seasons spent in Sussex football’s top tier (this their 43rd), and regarded as regular contenders for title honours, having finished 5th or higher in four of the last seven seasons.
The big disclaimer about YM this season, after such consistent performances in recent years, will be the significant departure of manager Peter Buckland in June.
A huge driving force of success throughout his time at Gorings Mead, Buckland had been in charge since April 2012, and besides his first season steering the side away from relegation, had never overseen a bottom-half finish before 2019-20, as YM sat 12th at the time of abandonment.
Julian Miller has been given the reigns at the club this season after previously being Buckland’s assistant, and will be clear in his objectives to return YM to the upper echelons of the table as nearby sides, including Broadbridge Heath and Alfold, expand their own reputations.
YM’s run of fixtures has not been kind in September, however, and with league matches against Eastbourne Town, Crawley Down Gatwick, Peacehaven & Telscombe and Horley following an early FA Cup exit to Fisher, the West Sussex side are yet to really get going, despite claiming an impressive early 1-0 win against Town.
A 4-0 home FA Vase victory against Arundel last weekend will restore optimism, though, and given that in five consecutive seasons of meetings, Miller’s new side have never lost to the Uckers in the SCFL Premier – only once, in 2018-19, even dropping a point – there will be expectation on them to perform at The Oaks.
Equally, as all league leaders will attest, pressure is part of the package with such honours. The Uckers have only had fleeting experiences with topping the table in their past six years of existence, but after their best-ever start to a season to claim 11 points and go unbeaten from five games, have very much earned their position at this stage.
In fact, Uckfield are one of just three sides across the entire English ninth tier – with the caveat that some leagues have had later starts – that can claim to be unbeaten after five matches. The Uckers’ fellow holders of this honour are Sporting Khalsa, of the Midland Football League, and the Western Football League’s Plymouth Parkway, while six other sides across step nine are unbeaten after four games; a statistic that goes some way to proving how rarely sides do achieve such a feat.
That will of course be consequential information to those involved, but all the same, the achievements of Ives and Mintrim’s men are to be highly commended at this stage.
With a significant focus on club development this season, as too are strong starts for the Uckers’ Under-23 side – who drew their first league match against Newhaven 1-1 last Thursday – and the Under-18’s, who after a narrow 3-2 defeat to Montpelier Villa the week prior, secured their first points of the season at Peacehaven & Telscombe on Sunday with a 3-1 victory.
As an unpredictable SCFL season gradually works itself out in the coming weeks then, both the Uckers and YM have the opportunity to make a big difference in the table with this fixture, and with no shortage of motivation on either side, it should certainly be another cracking game at The Oaks.
Kick-off is 3pm this Saturday for the match, with admission at £6 for adults, £3 for concessions, and free for under-16s.
All the usual safety procedures are in place, including a maximum crowd capacity of 300, so your support will be much appreciated for the game.
Come on you Uckers!