They had talked, during the week, of what the crowd might be on Saturday. That the average home crowd of Lewes FC in the Blue Square South has risen by fifty per cent this season in spite of being near the bottom of the table says something in itself about the moves that are already being made to restore the links between the clubs and its community, but the club’s hopes of getting the crowd up to 1,200 for the visit of Chelmsford City seemed optimistic. They needn’t have worried. The weather on Saturday afternoon was fine and, with a large travelling support having travelled down from Essex, the crowd swelled to 1,326 as a real festival, a half-time procession of former players and a birthday cake gave The Dripping Pan a carnival atmopshere.
“Celebration” by Kool & The Gang played over the tannoy as the teams lined up to kick-off. It might have been more appropriate to play “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John because, after the tribulations of the last couple of years, there was an element of thankfulness at the club’s continuing existence to the celebrations. There have been some hard times at The Dripping Pan over the last couple of years and there may yet be more to follow, but the club still exists and its future feels more secure than it has done for some time. The recent publicity that the club has earned has been almost universally positive, and this in itself towards happier times to come after a couple of miserable years.
For all of this celebration, however, the harsh reality of their current situation on the pitch shone brightly for an hour and three quarters as Lewes were comprehensively outplayed by a Chelmsford City team with title ambitions. The only goal of the match came four minutes into the second half, but it took Lewes seventy-odd minutes to break out of second gear and the truth of the matter is that Chelmsford’s win would have been considerably more comfortable had it not been for an outstanding performance from the Lewes goalkeeper Chris Winterton, who pulled off a string of excellent saves to keep the score down. Ultimately, though, it was a more comfortable win for Chelmsford than the result might suggest. They were quicker to the ball and made considerably less unforced errors in possession than the home side.
Credit should also go to the boisterous travelling Chelmsford City support, whose appearance at The Dripping Pan (and, by logical extension, the financial contribution that they put into Lewes FC) gave the match the atmosphere of a cup tie. There wasn’t a hint of trouble throughout the entire afternoon, and the good humour on display from both sets of supporters made a welcome change from the atmosphere of underlying menace that seems to accompany so many other matches these days. At the end of the match, as seems to be traditional at The Dripping Pan, both teams were given a generous round of applause as they left the pitch. It was an appropriate end to the day.
And yet, and yet. Six defeats in a row and now starting to slip adrift at the bottom of the table with only newly-promoted Boreham Wood beneath them in the table is a problem that may or may not be resolvable, but the club will not be trying to save itself from relegation by throwing money at this particular issue. Lewes Football Club has to find its level, no matter where that may be, and if relegation back to the Ryman League ends up being the cost of ensuring the long-term survival of the club, then so be it. After 125 years, this must be the most important thing in the future, and this is a critical point. The future of the club is more important than the present at the moment.
Some people have fretted recently about the effect that nearby Brighton & Hove Albion moving to their new stadium at Falmer (just five miles away) might have on attendances, but this doesn’t feel at the moment as if it should be a major concern. Lewes, with pints of real ale on a terrace and the cost of entry at just £10, offers an alternative to the shininess of The American Express Community Stadium and it feels unlikely that their bigger local rivals will make too much of a dent in their support. Lewes are building themselves a new identity just in time for this to be a serious issue, and the 125th anniversary was a celebration of this, as well as a celebration of the fact that the club is still here in the first place.
Thanks, also, to Stuart from The Ball Is Round for allowing himself to be talked at by me for a while at the end of the match.