It’s been a long time coming, but spring might finally just about be in the air in East Sussex. After what felt like months of constant high winds and rain, the sun is out in Lewes for this afternoon’s Ryman League Premier Division match against league leaders Dulwich Hamlet, and a combination of the good weather and a beer festival has attracted a large crowd of just over eight hundred people to The Dripping Pan for league match of significance to both of the clubs taking part. By the end of the afternoon, though, the large, rambunctious travelling support from South London would be cursing their luck while the home side continues to crane its neck for a glimpse of the play-off places above them.
The weather has not been kind to the Ryman League over the last few weeks. This is Lewes’ first home match in six weeks, and they didn’t play at all between the twenty-fifth of January and the twenty-third of February. With time now starting to run out before the end of the season, that most dreaded of characteristics of the weather-affected football season, the Thursday night league match, has already started to put in the occasional appearance. Lewes travelled to Grays Athletic less than forty-eight hours earlier and lost by four goals to two. Hopefully, their supporters reflect in the bar before the match, at least that match might have shaken off a few cobwebs.
Dulwich Hamlet, meanwhile, might even have bigger fish to fry than hanging on to top place in the Ryman League Premier Division table at the moment. We wrote about their current difficulties on here a few weeks ago. There have been developments since then – an update on that will appear on here over the next few days or so – but none of these appear to have stabilised the situation. To cut a long story short, the football club is now owned by Hadley Property Group, the property developers who own the leasehold on the club’s Champion Hill stadium. Debts are believe to have been paid and the club’s future at Champion Hill has been guaranteed, but beyond that there seem to be few long-term assurances for Dulwich Hamlet at the moment.
Small wonder, then, that the travelling supporters are making hay while the sun shines this afternoon. The politics and finances of football can be a wearing experience, but Saturday afternoon is a time to set aside those concerns fir a couple of hours, to drink beer in the sunshine and re-engage with the reason why we get involved in all of this in the first place: the game itself. The omens should be good for Dulwich. A minor wobble that involved a league defeat against Canvey Island and a home cup defeat against Metropolitan Police seems to have stabilised with wins against East Thurrock United and Carshalton Athletic, whilst playing opposition that played less than two days ago should be to their advantage… shouldn’t it?
For all that Dulwich control possession in the opening stages of the match, though, there is more than a hint of huff and puff about the team. Indeed, when the match does finally the start to warm up it’s Lewes who create the best chance of the half, a glancing header from Luke Blewden which thuds off the the foot of the left-hand post before Nathan Crabb heads the rebound over the crossbar from close range. As the half progresses, Dulwich find themselves pinned further and further back, with Lewes managing to fashion themselves a further couple of half-chances, and the half-time whistle feels like a little respite for the visiting team.
It’s not a period of respite that lasts for very long, but there is more than hint of luck about the opening goal of the match. An inswinging corner from Nick Wheeler two minutes into the second half looks as if it should be a comfortable take for the Dulwich goalkeeper Chico Ramos, but Ramos instead makes a complete dog’s breakfast of trying to claim the ball, instead dropping the ball over his own goal-line to gift the home side the lead. It’s a rare aberration from a goalkeeper who has, by all accounts, had an otherwise superb season. The goal does at least seem to wake Dulwich up a little bit, but for all the possession that they enjoy, they seem to carry little actual threat in front of goal and with nine minutes to play Lewes put the result beyond any serious doubt.
A through-ball from Fraser Logan unpicks what may or may not have been passing for a Dulwch offside trap, and Steve Brinkhurst runs through, takes the ball around Ramos and rolls the ball into the empty goal. It’s a moment that proves to be the tipping point for te Dulwich manager Gavin Rose. Some of the officiating throughout the entirety of the match has been of the head-scratching variety, but Rose is infuriated by the fact that his team was down to ten players at the time of the goal because he hadn’t had the opportunity to replace Mathieu Boyer, who had limped from the pitch. It was through the gap left by Boyer’s departure that the goal came, and Rose’s intial refusal to leave the dug-out after being sent from it by the referee also means that there is substantial time to be added at the end of the match. Not that this made much difference. This afternoon has the feel of those upon which Dulwich might have continued to play for several hours without scoring.
There is some succour for the travelling supporters in the bar after the match. Dulwich Hamlet do at least stay at the top of the Ryman League Premier Division table after second placed Maidstone United are beating by a last minute goal at Lowestoft Town. Their big threat, however, comes from one place below Maidstone United. Wealdstone didn’t play this afternoon, but they sit in third position in the table, four points behind Dulwich Hamlet but with four games in hand and having lost just three league matches all season. There’s plenty still to play for at the top of the table, but we’re at the point of the season that dropping points in league matches against mid-table sides starts to feel more expensive than it might have done earlier in the season. Lewes, meanwhile, remain in twelfth place in the table, twelve points from the play-off places but with games in hand on most of the teams above them in the table. More performances like today’s and they will start to start to wonder whether scrambling up the table isn’t beyond them.
This afternoon has the feel of being an oasis of normality after a few weeks during which the non-league football calendar has gone somewhat haywire. The weather can’t be controlled, of course, but the decision of the clubs of the Football Conference to continue their ban on artificial surfaces in their league has come to look all the more ridiculous for the vast number of matches that have fallen foul of the incelement conditions over the last few weeks or so. For Lewes, the life-blood of the supporter, hope, remains following a performance of considerable maturity. For the supporters of Dulwich Hamlet, meanwhile, the lingering suspicion that there will be lengthy battles ahead remains, regardless of the team’s position at the summit of the Ryman League. This afternoon, though, they came in numbers, they drank in prodigious quantities, they sang, and they did their club proud. When the future of your club is uncertain and your team is misfiring on the pitch, alcohol can be a great comfort.
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