According to White Hart Lane legend, upon leaving White Hart Lane after an irrepairable breakdown in his relationship with the new owners, Keith Burkinshaw looked over his shoulder at the ground that he had rejuvenated so much during his time there and said, “There used to be a football club over there”. This is the overriding impression that one comes away with from a visit to Lewes this season. The removal of Steve King at the end of last season and the subsequent break-up of the Blue Square South winning side tore a hole through the heart of the club, and this season has been a constant struggle to keep their head above water.
Gutted, filleted and laid out to dry, they sit one place off the bottom of the Blue Square Premier, kept from the bottom place by the crisis torn Northwich Victoria, but still ten points from the safety of fifth from bottom in the table. At every point in the season at which things could go wrong. They were humiliated at home by Eastern Counties League side Leiston in the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round – a match which, because of the competition’s prize money, they couldn’t afford to lose, literally or metaphorically. Last week, they were knocked out of the FA Trophy at Havant & Waterlooville, a team a division below them. The small diversion that they had from the turmoil of the league campaign was snatched away in a 4-3 defeat. It has been six games since they so much as scored in the league.
Outside the ground, they’re giving away free promotional copies of the fanzine, “Ten Worthing Bombers”, a throwback to a more innocent age in more ways than one. It has been a very long time since I was approached by anyone selling a photocopied fanzine, and I am delighted. It contains more truth about the condition of the club in twenty pages than you will see in any official publications all season. I was more than aware that there had been problems at The Dripping Pan this season, but was still surprised by the condition of the old place. The pitch has what looks like a massive brown stain on one wing, where the grass has all but vanished. The requirements of television coverage mean that the ground’s idiosyncratic grass banks have been defiled by three scaffolding and boarding towers. The goal nets have, at some point over the last six months or so, been torn and tied back together by hand. The scoreboard is still broken.
We get to the ground at twenty to three, and the bar is already shut. It’s a strict interpretation of their new league’s rules on alcohol consumption, and we retire to the terrace behind the goal to watch the warm up. A gaggle of squad players – one of whom is wearing a Brighton & Hove Albion training top – fire shots at the reserve goalkeeper. We are standing about three feet higher than the crossbar, and it feels like a very dangerous place to be standing. We have to remind ourselves that they are paid to be out there this afternoon. Well, they might be. The teams come out to 70s glam rock trash “The Bump”, by Kenny, which jars against the sombre atmosphere within the ground. A quick scout through the programme confirms that Lewes are up to player number thirty-six already this season. One of their players has no sponsors logo on the front of his shirt, no club badge, no name on the back of his shirt and no Blue Square badge on the sleeves. The crowd is a feeble 598, of whom about a quarter have made the the trip down from Nottinghamshire. For those travelling supporters, this is a harsh reminder of how far they have fallen. On the corresponding weekend last season, they were at home to Middlesbrough in the FA Cup Fourth Round in front of live “Match Of The Day” cameras. From Middlesbrough and the FA Cup to Lewes and the scramble to avoid the drop into the Blue Square North in exactly twelve months. Considering this and the length of the journey, it’s an impressive turnout. They have been deducted four points this season for fielding an ineligible player, and this has left them looking nervously over their shoulders at the relegation places.
Mansfield start the match in seventeenth place in the table, but they are clearly better organised, physically stronger and better disciplined. In five minutes they should be ahead when Curtis Woodhouse shoots wide of an open goal after the improbably-named Rikki Banks saves at the feet of Aaron O’Connor. Lewes look capable, but hopelessly disorganised. They have almost no attacking power whatsoever, with long passes into where you might think a player should be but isn’t being easily swept up by the visiting defence. It would be easy to say that they are playing as if they don’t know each other, and there’s a reasonable chance that they don’t. According to the man standing behind me, only five of the players starting this afternoon started on the opening day of the season. Within fifteen minutes, the home supporters that can summon up the energy are singing, “We’re shit, and we know we are”. Woodhouse, completely unmarked and six yards out, heads over, and then Banks (who, this time last year, was playing in the Ryman League Division One South for Worthing) tips O’Connor’s shot onto the post.
A goal for Mansfield is inevitable, and follows after twenty-two minutes. They win a free-kick just outside the Lewes penalty area and Paul Mayo, making his debut for them after having signed from Notts County during the week, curls the ball over the wall and past the flailing goalkeeper. There’s no angry shouting or gesticulation in the home end, just a murmured, understated resignation to what long since started to resemble their fate. They’re getting used to this sort of thing down here. Half-time comes with Mansfield continuing to press for a second goal and the crowd starting to get on manager Kevin Keehan’s back. Standing alone and motionless at the front of the home dug-out, he cuts, even from eighty yards distance, a lonely figure.
Darkness starts to descend during half-time, and with it comes the cold. In the second half, Lewes look stronger, and Mansfield start to show some of the vulnerability which has meant that their first season of non-league football more difficult than they thought it would be. Alan Marriott is only playing his second match for them, but he is already proving his value to them, making a very good save from Josh Klein-Davies. At the other end, Tomi Ameobi (who is the brother of Shola), also making his debut for them on loan from Grimsby Town, has a golden chance to wrap up the points for Mansfield but, unmarked and five yards out, he completely misjudges his header and the ball falls almost embarrassingly to the ground. In the final ten minutes, the crowd starts to find its voice, but Lewes are too blunt to make very much of it. David Wheeler has a header cleared off the line and Klein-Davies has half a shout for a penalty turned down by the referee.
At full-time, there is generous applause for the players from the home supporters. They haven’t lost this match for a lack of effort. One cannot help but feel sympathy for Lewes’ fans. Their club continues to teeter on the brink of administration, and they are now eleven points from safety. The club is up for sale, but obtaining planning permission to develop The Dripping Pan may cause problems and they have serious debts. Most troublingly of all, even relegation to the Blue Square South may not bring any respite. The top of the Blue Square South is considerably stronger than Lewes were this afternoon. Indeed, it’s not completely unreasonable to suggest that any well organised semi-professional side may have beaten them this afternoon. Now, they have a run of a further five matches against former Football League clubs – Torquay United, Oxford United, Wrexham, Rushden & Diamonds and Cambridge United all lie in wait. Where is that elusive next goal going to come from? By the time that they play Sussex rivals Crawley Town at the end of next month, their relegation might just be cut and dried.