It’s a fresh, spring evening, and the eyes of most of the football world are fixed upon the North London derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. In one small corner of East Sussex, however, a match is being played out in the Blue Square South between two clubs that have both had their degree of problems over the last couple of years but have reacted to them in broadly different ways. While Lewes sit in the relegation places with their supporters facing an end to the season that promises to reduce their fingernails to tatters, St Albans City are playing out their final games against a backdrop of incrimination that threatens to tear the club completely asunder. It feels as if Lewes may be over the worst of their woes, but that this is all yet to come for the club that they host this evening.
For the home side, it’s a critical match and the club seems to know it. They have halved their admission prices this evening in a bid to bring in some extra support, and the reasons for this are evident from the league table. A 2-1 win at Worcester City on Saturday leave them two points behind Worcester, but with two games in hand on them, of which this is the first. That they are still in with a decent chance of staying up at all is little short of miraculous. As recently as three weeks ago they seemed adrift in the relegation positions at the bottom of the table, but three wins from their previous four matches have hauled them back into a race that appeared lost just three weeks ago.
At St Albans City, the league season is already effectively over, yet a comfortable lower mid-table position masks a distinct scent of dry rot in the air at the club. That manager Steve Castle has managed to keep the team safe from relegation is an extraordinary achievement. The club has a transfer embargo in place at present (unpaid tax is believed to be the reason for this), and savage cost cutting has been introduced over the last few weeks. Amongst the away supporters’ chit-chat in the pub before the match is nervous talk that they may not even be to field a team this evening. Several of the players are said to be on just £50 per match, and at least one is playing for free. In addition to this, the players have had to make their own way to The Dripping Pan this evening. They may be safe for this season, but the club’s record of not having played below the sixth tier of English football since 1986 (ironically, they won the Isthmian League Division One championship at The Dripping Pan on the final day of the 1985/86 season) is surely under threat next season.
Matters have come to a head this week with the resignation of the club’s tannoy man, Tony Watts, who issued a stinging attack upon chairman John Gibson on an official supporters’ forum which was set up after the club threatened to close the official forum on its own website. The chairman’s response was as brusque and dismissive as supporters have come to expect from him.
Do I have to deal with everybody who has a complaint? Is it going to be the programme seller next week or the bar staff the week after?
Well, the answer to those questions – which were presumably meant rhetorically – is probably “yes”. With crowds plummeting and the true state of the club’s financial position unknown, he can ill-afford to continue to alienate what is left of the club’s support – quite what the club’s programme sellers and bar staff are supposed to make of it is anybody’s guess, but at least they now know their place in the overall scheme of things – but this doesn’t seem to be a policy that he is terribly interested in pursuing. What we do know is that, according to former director Ian Ridley, Gibson turned down £100,000 from two people that wanted to take over the running of the club because they wanted, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the amount of money that they were putting in, ownership of the club. The question of why Gibson remains at the club stays unanswered.
At kick-off, though, such considerations are put to one side for ninety minutes, at least. The thirty or so travelling supporters that have made the trip down to Sussex still live and breathe every kick of the ball, and City are the stronger of the two teams in the first half, with Lewes having cause to be grateful to their goalkeeper Rikki Banks for a superb flying save from a shot from seventeen year-old Ross Dedman. Other than that, it’s largely half-chances and scuffs, but City look more like the team that is playing for its life than Lewes, for whom three points will mean at least a few days outside of the relegation places for the first time in many months.
As the second half wears on, however, Lewes start to assume control of the match and the introduction of Jean-Michel Sigere with twenty minutes left to play gives their attack the extra dimension that it has needed all game. With twelve minutes to play, Jack Walder’s low, angled shot catches the City goalkeeper Paul Bastock unsighted but strikes the base of the left hand post and bounces away to safety. As the game runs into injury time, though, the seemingly ageless former Boston United goalkeeper rescues a point for his team with a brilliant diving save after James Fraser had crossed to David Wheeler, who had seemed certain to score. It’s one point instead of three, then, for Lewes, and the gap between them and Worcester City is now down to just one point. They entertain Dorchester Town on Saturday while Worcester City travel to play-off chasing Chelmsford City. By Saturday tea time, they could yet be out of the relegation places and this in itself is a massive achievement, considering the free-fall that the club seemed to be in earlier on this season.
For St Albans City, however, the prognosis looks grim. Stuck with a chairman that doesn’t seem to be too interested in going anywhere for the time being (for whatever reason), the holy grail of a place in the Blue Square Premier that they can hold on to couldn’t feel any further away than it does at present. Indeed, the current situation at the club is starting to feel reminiscent of that at Bognor Regis Town, who plummeted from the Blue Square South at the end of last season after cost-cutting brought about by the withdrawal of a benefactor. Anybody with any illusions that the Ryman League would be a breeze by comparison should probably note that Bognor are now in the relegation places in the Ryman League Premier Division, and that this is happening at a club which has become characterised by its supporters and owners all pulling in the same direction. The manager, who has performed an extraordinary job against a toxic atmosphere at the club this season, deserves better than this. The players, who played their hearts out at Lewes, deserve better than this. The St Albans City supporters that travelled to the south coast from Hertfordshire to support their team in what is (to them, at least) a largely meaningless end of season fixture deserve better than this. Something has got to give at Clarence Park this summer and a less confrontational attitude from the club’s chairman might help in starting to rebuild a few of the bridges that have been burned over the last year or so. Very few of the club’s supporters are holding their breath in anticipation of this happening, though.