To visit Bourne Park is to be reminded of everything that can go wrong for a Non League club, but also of the spirit and determination that makes the game at this level so captivating.
In February 1990, Sittingbourne made what was probably the most important decision in their history when they opted to sell their quaint but aging Bull ground in the town centre for development. This venture enabled the Brickies to move to a 23-acre site: Central Park, on a vast industrial estate on the outskirts of the town. A 2,000 seat stand complete with executive boxes, executive lounge, boardroom, restaurants, bars and sports hall was constructed, while greyhound racing was introduced in 1994. In their first season at the new ground, Sittingbourne ran away with the Kent League. Further promotions followed in the wake of the huge ambition at the club, and 1992/93 saw them promoted to the Premier Division of the Southern League, then just two steps away from the Football League.
A record attendance was set when 5,951 spectators watched a friendly with Tottenham Hotspur on 26 January 1993, whilst the BBC television described Sittingbourne as "the Manchester United of non-league football" Financial problems however, were just around the corner, with the 4.5 million pounds that they received for the Bull ground having been spent, plus in excess of a further million as well.
As finances inevitably dried up and relegation followed, the local council stepped in to purchase the ground for £750,000 and leased it back to the club. Results improved on the pitch but the following season saw Sittingbourne locked out for non-payment of rent. This was followed by the liquidators pulling the plug. It looked odds on that the Brickies would be no more, however an agreement with the council and the liquidators as well as financial support from the supporters’ club allowed the club carry on.
Sittingbourne FC was finally saved from extinction when a deal was brokered with the council to run greyhound racing at the ground in return for a seven year lease for the use of the facilities that satisfied the Southern League. Although the immediate future was now secured, with little money coming in and the crowds dwindling, further relegations followed and in 2000/01 an ignominious return to the Kent League was looking likely only for the club to be spared by the demise of Baldock Town
Season 2002/03 saw the management committee make the decision to move out of the main Central Park stadium, as televised greyhound racing made it impossible to guarantee that the club could continue to use the stadium on a Saturday afternoon. Instead, they signed a 10 year lease with Caernsport for the use of the training pitches and feverish activity during the summer of 2002 by an army of volunteers led to a new ground being developed for the new season. The ground was given the name "Bourne Park" and a temporary stand shipped in from Mount Ephraim Gardens which was used throughout that season.
The irony of visiting Sittingbourne these days, is that once you’ve navigated your way around industrial estate (don’t worry, it’s well signposted), you still have to pass through the huge gates proclaiming “Bourne to Win” that guard the equally capacious car park that fronts the old Central Park ground, before bearing left and going down the hill to the new Bourne Park ground. Perhaps it’s no bad thing that playing in such close proximity to their old home, there is a constant reminder to the club and its supporters of what can go wrong when when ambition loses touch with reality.
Visiting in 2003 the facilities were frankly, barely adequate for Southern League football. A new administration block with changing rooms was in place just inside the entrance, but the stand was a very basic affair mainly consisting of scaffolding poles. A return visit in August 2005 however, confirmed the hard work that has gone in behind the scenes. Ironies abound. For example, the ‘new’ stand was originally purchased as a ‘temporary’ arrangement when money appeared no option, whilst the original Central Park was being built in order to satisfy Kent League requirements. For years in languished in a farmer’s field before being spruced up and resurrected. Purveyors of prefabricated stands will no doubt feel victicated. It is typically bland but does serve its purpose well and provides a good view. Adjacent is a smaller stand of the Arena Seating variety – too low and poorly situated to be of much real benefit, other than providing additional refuge from the elements.
During the club’s heyday traveling Brickies’ fans used to taunt home opposition that their shed was bigger than the home side’s stand. As a tongue in cheek memorial to that ill-advised jibe, one of the two very basic shelters on the far touchline at Bourne Park has a fascia proclaiming “Blakey’s Garden Shed”, after the supporter than initiated the chant and who now stands in that area of the ground.
The far end of the ground remains undeveloped. However, there is a new clubhouse and programme shop behind the near goal. In real Non League tradition, the club has been on the scrounge, acquiring rubbish bins from the Millennium Dome, and a new turnstile that was surplus to requirements at Gillingham FC. There is ample car parking for the level of attendances that the club attracts these days.
Maidstone United – another club with a similarly chequered history – currently share the ground with Sittingbourne; although the Stones hope to be able to return to a new ground in at James Whatman Way in Maidstone for the 2006/07 season. Further information can be found on their comprehensive website.
Leave the M2 at J5, and take the A249 towards Sittingbourne. Bear left at the first slip road and take the A2 towards Sittingbourne Town Centre. Follow the A2 into the one way system and follow directions to Faversham. At the roundabout outide the railway station, take the third exit, St Michael's Road, pass the fire station on your left and turn left into Crown Quay Lane (at the first set of traffic lights). Go under the railway bridge and up to a roundabout where you turn right into Eurolink Way. Central Park is well signposted from here.
Sittingbourne FC now play on the Lower Pitch and NOT in the main stadium. Go immediate left once through the gates. Once in the car park follow the Sittingbourne FC sign under the barrier and down either the slope to your left or right to the lower car park.
Sittingbourne BR. Follow directions from the railway station as above (20-25’ walk). Taxis available - 01795 437 000.