There’s something not quite right about going to the football on your own, but it was a late decision to visit The Dripping Pan on Saturday afternoon. As things stand, though, it’s too good an offer to turn up. A nervy midweek 1-0 win against Fisher Athletic has pushed Lewes to within touching distance of a place in the Conference, and the good news was doubled by the confirmation received last week that their home ground had reached the required grading for Conference football. They need just one more win from their three remaining Conference South matches to win the title and even if they don’t manage that, Eastbourne Borough need to win their two remaining matches. The match also has a double significance – a defeat would relegate Dorchester Town into the Southern League. This season has been an unmitigated disaster for Dorchester, who started the season as one of the favourites for the championship, but face relegation to the Southern League if they lose today.
There have been some concerns that the might not even take place. In Brighton, at least, it has been raining solidly all morning, and the forecast is for it to continue all day. Thank God, then, for the internet. A quick look at the Lewes supporters messageboard confirms that one of their supporters has received a telephone call from the club, confirming that the game is definitely on. The atmosphere at The Dripping Pan is one of of relaxed, easy confidence. One gets the feeling that the nerves came on Wednesday night, and were allayed by that late goal against Fisher. On the short journey over to Lewes, I have time to ponder the nature of going to matches on my own. I make a resolution to keep very quiet this afternoon. There is every chance that, should I open my mouth, I will end up looking like a Lone Lunatic At A Football Match. Far better that I keep quiet. The flaw with this plan is that, when combined with turning up at the ground just after 2.00, drinking is more or less the only option. So, I stand and watch the players warm up with a pint of beer. When the teams come out at five to three, it’s to the strains of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, rather than the more traditional “Sussex By The Sea”, and I’m starting to go off Lewes a bit.
As it turns out, the first half is a bit of let down. Dorchester look enthusiastic but limited but, even so, Lewes seem impatient and after ten minutes of trying to play the ball through them with no success, they start launching long, high balls towards the target men up front. Dorchester are having the better of the opening exchanges, but the defensive disorganisation that has cost them so dearly this season is on display, when their goalkeeper flaps at a corner, but there are no Lewes strikers on hand to push the ball over the line. At the other end, Dorchester have a less than convincing appeal for a penalty turned down, but it’s news from elsewhere that provides the highlight of the first half – second placed Eastbourne Borough have gone a goal down at Newport County, meaning that when half time comes with the score tied at 0-0, no-one at The Dripping Pan is too downhearted. As things stand, it doesn’t matter what happens there. They’ll be the champions by 4.50 unless Eastbourne can come from a goal behind and win.
The second half begins very much as the the first half ends, with what looks like being the biggest cheer of the afternoon coming with the announcement of a crowd of 1,665 – their second highest of the season. The key moment of the half comes just after the hour mark, when Lewes are forced to make a change after an injury forced them to replace Lewis Hamilton with Anthony Barness. Seven minutes later, Barness gets a little space on the left wing, and crosses for Paul Booth to head into the bottom corner and finally give them the lead. Dorchester haven’t really got much to offer, and Lewes are now just running down the clock. They do have time to add a second goal, though, with a couple of minutes to play. The news has, by this time, filtered through that Eastbourne Borough have levelled things up at Newport, so it is with a degree of relief that Jean-Michel Sigere heads in from close range to make the final score 2-0 and sew things up. At full-time, the crowd, somewhat surprisingly, stays on the terrace, as the team dance around on the pitch, drinking from over-sized champagne bottles and waving corporate-sponsored flags.
The jury is, for the time being, out on Lewes’ chances of staying in the Conference. It is somewhat ironic that they haven’t played terribly well on any of the three occasions that I have seen them play this season (yesterday, and against St Albans City and Bath City earlier on in the season). Their results, however, speak for themselves, and wining the league with two matches to spare is a considerable achievement, for which they should be congratulated. One can’t help but suspect, however, that promotion will cost The Dripping Pan some of its considerable charm. One can’t help but think that the Conference will not stand for people being allowed to take alcohol onto the terraces in plastic glasses, and it remains likely that the famous grass banks will also have to go at some point. There are also concerns within the town of the effect that Brighton & Hove Albion in moving to nearby Falmer. Those issues, however, are for another day. For now, it’s party time in Lewes. A club that was in the Ryman League Premier Division just seven years ago is approaching the summit of non-league football. All they have to do now is keep their place there.