Rowland eyes Vase history for United

Simon Rowland

Simon Rowland

First published in Sport

Leading his side out at Wembley would be a major step from where it all began for Simon Rowland.

Still only 34, Rowland is a seasoned campaigner in management after his own playing days were cruelly cut short by injury.

In his first job at County League division three side Uckfield Town, Rowland put up the nets before games and sometimes ran the line in the absence of linesmen at that level.

Now he stands on the threshold of doing something no other Sussex non-league manager has done – guiding his side to the FA Vase final at Wembley.

When Eastbourne United visit Sholing today for their semi-final first leg, they will have in their dugout a manager whose experience belies his youth.

As a County League division two side playing against higher league opposition in every round, their run to the last four is remarkable.

The players have done fantastically but behind the team is a young manager whose reputation has grown with every game they have played.

Rowland is a tactician, a thinker, a man who can easily identify other’s strengths and weaknesses, someone bold enough to make big decisions in pursuit of honours and, most significantly, a manager with a winning habit.

As a teenage player making progress in the non-league game, Rowland was already coaching a Preston Panthers youth team. He continued that with Withdean 2000 while his own career progressed to Eastbourne Borough under Garry Wilson and then a successful loan spell at Hastings where he suffered the injury which was to define what was to follow.

Rowland said: “I was averaging just under a goal a game for Hastings, was the fittest I have been and ready to go back to play for Eastbourne Borough to play at Conference south. Then I ripped my cruciate.

“It was in a game against Ashford in May 2005. I had scored that game and was playing well. The goalkeeper came out, I went to lob the ball over him, missed the ball, went down and my knee cracked.

“There were 200 people behind the goal and they all winced. At that point I knew it was serious.

“I tried to come back a few times but it was never right.”

Rowland attempted a comeback with Whitehawk, scoring a few goals, but the injury was so bad that he needed further surgery last year just to help him walk up the stairs at his Brighton home.

After doing some coaching at Whitehawk under Ian Chapman, he took his first job at Uckfield.

“They had played seven, lost seven and were bottom of County League division three. I had to run the line, put up the nets,” said Rowland.

“I signed some players I knew were right for that level and we ended up finishing mid-table, then the following year we were really competitive.”

Rowland then moved away from the area, living with his great pal Paul Ifill, the Brighton-born former Millwall, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace player, shadowing his friend at training where he would study coaching techniques.

On returning to Sussex, Rowland was asked to take over at Wealden (now AFC Uckfield). Again he built a team from scratch, turning around a struggling club to finish eighth in division two, then doing the division two league and cup double in 2010-11.

In the summer of 2011 he moved on again to Burgess Hill, initially as assistant to Gary Croydon before being named manager two weeks before the start of what was a transitional season for the club.

Rowland was asked to change the club’s traditional style of play and build a new side embracing the club’s youth team, a combination of challenges which would test any manager, let alone a rookie in his first job at Ryman League level.

It was a struggle until Christmas when Rowland and coach Ben White changed the style again, going against their own footballing principles, and engineered a recovery, leading the Hillians to the brink of survival.

And then they were sacked.

Rowland said: “I have no regrets taking the Burgess Hill job. I had to build a whole new side, playing a new style of football, all in my first year of Ryman League football.

“Our budget was reduced a number of times, it was more than halved in three months. I had to deal with pay cuts, budgets, working with youth teams, I had ten years’ experience in that one season at Burgess Hill.

“Burgess Hill was a massive success story for me and Ben. We ended up second in the form table, 11 points clear of relegation so being sacked hit me hard and I took some time out.”

Now everything is Eastbourne for Rowland. He took the manager’s job at The Oval last summer – again building a team from scratch – and also works in the town as sales and marketing manager at the Eastbourne Centre Hotel where the FA Vase run is a great topic of conversation for guests and clients.

Injury may have forced Rowland’s hand but management was always his destiny.

With the support of girlfriend Rae, the former Cardinal Newman School pupil puts everything into what he does.

He said: “I have always been one of these boring people who looks at the smaller element, like the preparation of players.

“My mindset was never that of a footballer who had been told he couldn’t play football anymore. I was always someone who liked the coaching side of the game.

I always knew that was something I wanted to get involved with.”

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