The Bottom Corner: Hope, Glory and Non-League Football by Nige Tassell. It is out now from Yellow Jersey Press (£9.99) penguin.co.uk.
‘HOPELESS DEVOTION, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE’
Our story today focusses on a club close to the heart of Grays Athletic. Their Chairman gave the club some very helpful advice when we were working towards setting up our own one hundred per cent supporter-owned “Community Benefit Society”. He even became one of the founder-shareholders of our new club in July 2016.
There’s a great sign outside the Dripping Pan, the curiously named home of Lewes FC, ten miles east of Brighton. ‘No ball games are to be played whilst the match is in progress.’ It appears that this season the players have been taking the sign too literally. The club is bottom of the Ryman Premier League in December 2015.
Their league position doesn’t seem to be too strenuously concerning the regulars here. There’s plenty of festive spirit around, particularly from a bunch of early-arriving fans in the car park. They’re watching one shopper’s attempts to squeeze a decent-sized Christmas tree into the less-than-decent-sized boot of a Ford Ka. Each time the driver gets into his seat, thinking he’s been successful, the boot springs open again. He goes through the routine three or four times. The good-natured laughs get louder with each attempt.
The Dripping Pan – so named as it occupies former marshland where the local monks used to pan for salt – is one of the most attractive grounds in non-league. The pitch sits in an amphitheatre bordered on two sides by steep grass banks, with the ancient city walls running high along one length of the playing surface. Lewes has played here for 130 years and owes its continuing survival to the hopeless devotion of a fine and upstanding brigade of volunteers.
Upstairs in the office, one of the volunteers, Roger, who looks after the match-day music, is searching YouTube for Christmas songs that no-one is yet sick of. Across the desk, Issi – a chartered accountant, who splits her time here between a part-time salaried position and unpaid hours as a volunteer – is checking the PayPal account for recent deposits into the club’s coffers. The club secretary and four-year-old son (both unpaid) are running out the team sheets to pin up around the ground.
The chairman, Stuart Fuller, enters and reveals a mysterious package to the excitement of the rest of the office. It’s a new electronic substitutions board that the league has insisted every club in the division must use from today. It’s unclear though, whether the edict has come from the league’s secretary, the fabulously named, Kellie Discipline. But, as ever in the wonky world of non-league football, there’s a problem. The boards can’t be charged because they’ve got European plugs!
Fuller has had to lug the package halfway across town as he can’t get a space in the club’s car park, due to today’s Christmas shoppers using it. Unlike everyone else at the club, he’s not a local. This morning, Fuller has driven the sixty miles down from his home in south-east London. ‘I’m West Ham born and bred. My eldest daughter, who’s now fifteen, used to love coming to football from the age of four or five. We had West Ham season tickets, but it increasingly felt like you didn’t matter there. A friend of mine said, “You should come to see this team Lewes. They’re abysmal, but it’s a great laugh. You can have a beer, the food’s brilliant. And they don’t take themselves too seriously.”
‘I came down and really got into it. They were in financial trouble playing in the Conference and were within a couple of hours of going out of business. So six local guys took over the club and made it a community model. One of them approached me. “Do you think you can help us out? We’re trying to change some things – the website, the programme – to bring new supporters in.” My day job means I spends a lot of time travelling around the world trying to spread a message. So, in November 2010, I was elected to the board and have become more and more involved ever since. It becomes like a drug.’
The decision to proceed down a fan-owned direction wasn’t born out of protest and a sense of injustice like other clubs such as FC United of Manchester. Lewes’s rebirth was all to do with financial expediency, with survival. The club now has more than a thousand owners, meaning it’s on a much sounder footing off the pitch. On the pitch though, their footing is less sure. ‘At the moment, our results are in the toilet,’ agrees Fuller. ‘Perhaps we’re playing at a level that we can’t sustain. Time will tell. The club was really successful a decade ago, but was funded by one or two people. When the bottom fell out of their construction market, they essentially withdrew their money. Now we have owners all around the world and we’re not reliant on one person or two people. That’s the beauty of the community model.’
This is a club of modest means. Fuller explains how their wage bill is £2,000 a week for a squad of seventeen or eighteen, while local neighbours Whitehawk – just one division higher in Conference South probably spend around five times that on their players’ wages. [Asst Editor – we know from our own experience since becoming a supporter-owned club that £2,000 a week at Isthmian Premier level is a pretty sure route to relegation and £10,000 a week should comfortably win you the title and put you very near the top of the next level up – now called the National League South]. Such a tight budget means that recruiting and retaining a strong team of volunteers is crucial to keeping noses above choppy financial waters.’
This all-in-it-together, democratised environment is in sharp contrast to the boardrooms of so many professional clubs, an environment motivated by spin, disinformation and hidden agendas. Here, on match-day directors are manning the turnstiles, selling programmes and raffle tickets. [Asst Editor – and at Grays they are also preparing team sheets, selling club merchandise and planning how the next set of bills will be paid without imminent fear of bankruptcy!].
At precisely 1.30pm, the first click of the turnstile sends one of those precious volunteers, septuagenarian Ethel, into action. ‘Golden Goal?’ she calls out to the first soul in the ground, regardless of the fact that he’s already making a beeline for her bright orange bucket filled with lucky-dip tickets, a couple of quid in his hand in readiness. He’s eager to select the winning ticket whose number tallies with the number of minutes on the clock when the first goal goes in.
It’s a ritual that Ethel has presided over at hundreds, if not, thousands, of matches before. ‘My mum and dad used to bring me down here when I was little. I used to play on the grass bank over there while they watched the football. When I first left school I used to sell programmes out the front when they had the big gate there. Then I did the raffle, then they started the Golden Goal and I’ve been doing that ever since.’
Never mind Ethel’s near eight-decade affinity with the club. She’s actually intending to be connected with Lewes FC in perpetuity. It turns out her late husband – who played for the club, naturally – had his ashes scattered over the Dripping Pan pitch. ‘That’s where I want to go when I die,’ she says defiantly, extending an arm behind her. ‘Out in that centre circle.’
While chatting with Ethel, a party of around two dozen men in their twenties, pass by her table. Just one of the party took his chances with Ethel’s lucky dip. Instead they were galloping towards the bar, the scent of beer in their nostrils. They’re a curious bunch, though, wearing pink and navy scarves, the colours of neither Lewes (red and black) nor today’s opponents Leiston (royal blue). It turns out there’s no mystery. They’re sporting the colours of Dulwich Hamlet, the division’s in-form, on-trend club. The Londoners were supposed to be Lewes’s opponents today, but their progress in the FA Trophy they’re in cup action instead.
The party knew this, but they’ve still ventured to East Sussex, with a perfectly logical reason. They are on a stag-do. With accommodation and travel already booked before the fixture was rescheduled, they decide to head south anyway – a match in Lewes and a night out in Brighton. This is very much to Lewes FC’s gain. A couple of dozen extra punters through the gate, plus plenty of cash going into the till from a thirsty party appreciative of the bar’s impressive stock of craft beers.
The club shows its appreciation in return. They’ve got a neat take on corporate hospitality here – four beach huts sitting on top of the bank above the nearside goal. Kevin the chief executive has given the stag-do use of three of the huts as a gesture of goodwill, their windows cast wide open to take in the excellent view. Kevin also rewards the groom with the honour of shaking hands with the players on the pitch beforehand, as well as picking today’s man of the match. ‘Community football in action,’ the savvy chief exec whispers in my ear.
The takeover of the club also became a makeover. It now boasts an identity unlike any other at this level. Not only are the first-team’s shirts sponsored by the band Squeeze (whose chief songwriter Chris Difford lives nearby), but huge imagination goes into their match-day posters, each one bespoke for the particular game in question.
The poster for today’s encounter salutes Brian Clough, reproducing a youthful shot of him along with one of his finest quips: ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job.’
As the craft beer selection might suggest, Lewes are also progressive on the catering front. Here, carnivores can enjoy smoked BBQ pulled pork in a brioche bun or a pile of poutine, that hipster-approved, nutritionist-baiting Canadian dish of chips, gravy and chees curd.
It’s an admirable balancing act, too – reinventing the club to appeal to new followers without alienating the existing ones who’ve been coming here season in and season out. PJ, the club’s other Golden Goal ticket seller, first came here to watch Lewes play Tilbury in 1967 when he was six years old. ‘It hasn’t changed that much since. Best ground in the league by a long way. Everything about the club now is fantastic, apart from one thing…’ A pause for dramatic effect. ‘…The first team. I can’t put my finger on why we’re so poor at the moment. But no matter what league we’re in, we’ll still support the club. Gates will drop off if we get relegated, but having said that, if we’re winning games in the league lower, they’ll turn up. Probably.’
Programme-seller Gary agrees. ‘If the team regroups in the Ryman South and we start winning, people will come. People support a winning team, regardless of what level they’re at.’ Although he first came to the Dripping Pan in the mid-sixties, a devotion to Chelsea got in the way – at least, until top-flight football started to price him out. He’s been back supporting his hometown team for the best part of twenty years now. ‘Here you’re part of the team. In the Premier League, you’re just a number.’
Gary appreciates the fans can travel to way games with the players on the coach. Such trips are fine while your team is in a regionally segregated league, pitching up at grounds at most two or three hours away. That changes when you reach the national level. ‘It was a step too far when were in the Conference. Some of the away trips were horrendous. I went all the way up to Barrow in a minibus. You can imagine what that was like…’
To prevent slipping down a division, with four teams getting relegated, Lewes need to start getting results quickly. Instead though, it’s Leiston who come flying out of the traps this afternoon. They’re one up within five minutes. Strangely, the goal is greeted by a hail of cheers from the club shop. The shop’s volunteers, Barry and Jon, have put their allegiances on hold because both of them have drawn the five-minute mark in the golden Goals lucky dip, bagging them £25 apiece. Ethel comes across with their winnings. ‘I reckon it’s a fix!’ she laughs. My tickets – for minutes twenty-six and fifty-two – go into the nearest bin.
Barry, the shop’s manager, not only does he man it at every home game, but he also runs the online shop from home. He’s also responsible for organising the ordering, manufacture and printing of what is an impressively wide stock. Aside from the customary shirts, scarves and hats, Barry’s stall offers a multitude of Lewes FC-branded souvenirs. Water bottles, cufflinks, darts flights, you name it. And for thirty quid, you can even become an owner. [Asst Editor – anyone reading this who hasn’t joined our band of shareholders at Grays Athletic need do no more than seek out David Barnes or Glyn Balmer at our game today and for the same £30 you can become an owner of our club].
Barry became a regular at the Dripping Pan in the early 1990s, but only got involved in the retail side five seasons ago. ‘One of the original directors was running the shop. One day I was watching the game and said if he ever needed a hand, I’d come and help. Four games later, I was made shop manager! My hours vary from week to week, depending on whether we have a match day, or two match days, or no match days. I do this on top of my normal, full-time job. One week, I managed to put in forty hours here.’
Jon also gives as much time as he can. ‘I’m a teacher, so if they played during the summer, I’d have loads of time to spare, but at this time of year I really don’t. I had a couple of years where I really didn’t have much time to give, but I thought “This is crazy. I can’t just be devoted to teaching.” So I came back and now help Barry out. When we’re quiet, one of us will do the shop and the other can watch the game.’
It does beg the question as to why they devote so much of their downtime to the club. ‘I played for the reserves for one season,’ explains Barry, ‘but soon realised I wasn’t good enough. Then I had to give up football at twenty-eight because I’d got rheumatoid arthritis. I still wanted to be involved somehow so, for me, volunteering is probably a replacement for playing.
‘I’ve worked behind the bar, I’ve done the PA. I’ve even been linesman for a couple of games.’ There’s a pause in the conversation as we strain to see how another Leiston attack fares in the goalmouth below us. ‘Getting to see a full game is unheard of,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve had to sign up to [non-league highlights website] Football Exclusives because nine times out of ten I miss the goals. So I go back home to watch it, to see what I’ve missed.’
I don’t want to miss any goals either, so leave Barry and Jon to prepare for the pre-Christmas half-time retail rush. That early Leiston goal divides the teams for nigh-on ninety minutes. Then after an inordinate and unexplained amount of stoppage time, Lewes scramble an equaliser and the ground explodes. The stag-do spills over the advertising boards and onto the pitch to mob the players. Their euphoria – admittedly beer-flavoured – is unquestionably genuine. You’d think that the club they had supported for years had just won promotion. Instead, it’s just a hard-won point for their new second-favourite team.
Roger, the DJ, makes a swift change to the end-of-match music, swapping an anonymous, vocal-free trance track for Yazz & The Plastic Population’s ‘The Only Way Is Up’. The message is in the music. Appropriately, for a club nicknamed The Rooks, a pair of the said birds appear to be dancing along the touchline.
The stag-do heads for the fleshpots of Brighton, wide grins on their faces, beer in their bellies and the obligatory inflatable penis under the arm of the groom. For the Lewes faithful and their 1000+ owners dotted all over the map, there could just be some light at the end of the tunnel. And it may not be the light of an oncoming train.
After the stoppage-time draw with Leiston, Lewes saw a distinct upturn in their form. In their last ten games of the season, they lost only one. However, eight of those were draws, including one with Grays Athletic, when, after Lewes took a deserved second-half lead, we scored with an added-on-time equaliser through Bradley Fortnam-Tomlinson, to deny Lewes the additional two points. Relegation inevitably followed and it meant Lewes would be reacquainting themselves with life in Ryman Division One South for the 2016-17 season.
UPDATE FROM THE WANDERER
Updated 15:36 - 15 Jan 2018 by GAFC News
After their relegation, Lewes finished the 2016-17 season in ninth position.
This season, they have improved considerably and at the time of writing sit proudly atop Bostik League South and have a great chance of returning to the Premier Division for 2018-19, although only seven points separate the top six in a very competitive division. If they do achieve promotion, they will again be presented with the challenge of funding a team at that level on limited resources. For their sake, I hope their football budget will stretch well beyond the £2,000 a week in their 2015-16 relegation season. Otherwise they may become one of the ‘Yo-Yo’ clubs of non-league football, which would be very sad for a club with such devoted volunteers who unconditionally support their amazing club.