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Saturday 26th November 2022 ko 15:00

Isthmian League Premier Division

HASTINGS UNITED 3 (Pope 9 McKenzie 13 Scott 72)

CORINTHIAN-CASUALS 0

Att 652

Entry £12

Programme £2.50

There are football grounds that do what they need to, there are some that I’d recommend you visit, but the list of football grounds I recommend you drop everything and go and see is extremely small, but top of that list is the Pilot Field. And a small part of the reason why, is that is in a fashion you get another ground thrown in too!

Park up in Elphinstone Road, and you’ll soon spot the remains of The Firs adjacent to, and further up the hill from the Pilot Field. The final tenants there were St Leonards FC, formally known as Stamco who folded in 2003. It will always be a point of pain for me, as I turned up there two years earlier for a Southern League game just as it was being called off due to a waterlogged pitch. No, I didn’t manage to ever see a game there, and fairly soon after St Leonards folded a caged 5-a-side pitch was built, making sure no other club took the place on. I had a look round in  July 2007 and there was still plenty left. 

Sadly nearly 5 years later, there’s very little left and even that isn’t long for the world, judging by the planning notice by where the turnstile block used to be.

But this is about the Pilot Field below it on Elphinstone Road. There is a connection, Hastings Town played at the Firs from 1949 having moved there from the Pilot Field when they were known as Hastings & St Leonards Amateurs. From then the tenants “down the hill” was the original Hastings United, who played Southern League football here until their bankruptcy in 1985. Hastings Town moved into the Pilot Field, took over the lease and United’s place in the Southern League, and changed their name to Hastings United for the 2002-3 season.

You can still see signs of the Pilot Field’s former tenants, look at the light box showing the way to the bar, the word “United” is in a slightly different font, and look in the main stand to where the paint has peeled. And yes, its that stand, dating from 1926 that is what will draw you here, and do make sure you check out those amazing buttresses keeping the hill at bay! 

You’ll spot the route of the former speedway track too, Hastings Saxons rode here for two seasons, 1948 and 1949 before a campaign by local residents saw the sport cease on the grounds that the noise was a public nuisance. It is quite something that over 70 years later the track is still so obvious.

But there is a sadness to all of this loveliness. The problem is that the stand, nearly a century old, is close the end of its life. To make things worse, the cost of pulling it down and replacing it is prohibitively expensive. The club have put in for planning permission to build a new home at Tilekiln Playing Fields, but this has been so far scuppered by the local council refusing to sell the land citing a “Climate Emergency!” The upshot of it, is that Hastings United have agreed a groundshare with Eastbourne Borough starting next season. If nothing else, we’ll find out how much Hastings’ elected officials want a successful semi-professional club in the town.

So you have a minimum of to the end of this season to watch a game at what I’d argue is one of England’s finest non league grounds, even down to the cake shop in the clubhouse! Perhaps the best comment came from my wife Robyn, who took one look -at the Pilot Field, and immediately apologised to Gainsborough Trinity, her previous favourite English ground. 

Whatever you do whenever you get here, take time to explore, more than just about any other ground, with the possible exception of the magical Nanpean Rovers Victoria Bottoms, this is place where every inch of the place tells a different story, even down to the disused turnstile block high above the massive grass bank that backs on to The Firs. 

I’ll admit the game came close to being secondary to it all. As it was United didn’t have to reach top gear to beat a troubled Corinthian-Casuals side who at times couldn’t do right for doing wrong. I did feel for them, semi-professional isn’t easy, but being in it as an amateur club makes life even tougher. 

I regretted leaving at the end, even delaying our departure slightly to buy another piece of superlative cake from the clubhouse. Much as though I wanted to linger I appreciate that’s a luxury Hastings United don’t have right now. I wish the Pilot Field could remain as it is but football is not a heritage piece, and it is clear that Hastings United do need a new home. I hope the local authorities will take a more forward thinking view of the needs of both the club and sports provision generally. 

But whatever the future holds, cherish the Pilot Field while you still can,