It has probably been the strangest seven days in the history of Lewes FC. The club won the Conference South last Saturday in front of a crowd of 1,700 and it must have felt, to their regular supporters, as if the sky was the limit. The events of the last week, however, have plunged the club into something approaching a crisis at what should be the happiest time in their history. Last Tuesday night they went to Hampton & Richmond Borough for their penultimate league match and inexplicably lost 6-0, but the bombshell came on Friday morning, when rumours from the club started to circulate that manager Steve King had been sacked. The club didn’t move to quell the rumours and, by Saturday morning, and with the supporters’ message board practically on fire, there was open talk of invading the pitch in protest at the decision.
Eventually, the club released a statement that would have set no-one’s worries at ease. The Dripping Pan itself has had to have a significant amount of work done to it over the last two or three years or so, and has had a terrace put in behind each goal as a new main stand. The club has estimated that the cost of this work at approximately £1m, and has recently been looking for new investment. The rumour mill currently has it that new investors have been found, but that they wish to bring in “their own man” to run the club. It was in some respects surprising to see that The Dripping Pan had got the required Conference B grading required for them to get promoted, but Conference rules give them one year to bring it up to Conference A grading, which would make it good enough for the Football League. Failure to do so would result in their relegation from the Conference after one season if they fail to upgrade their ground to the required standard. Rumour has it that they are set to become little more than a nursery club for Brighton & Hove Albion, but, while it’s probably fair to say that they do need the extra investment, but it’s also fair to say that they have treated King, who has just taken them to unprecedented heights, pretty shabbily.
It all made for a curiously tense atmosphere on Saturday afternoon. The crowd was 1,017, over a third less than the previous weekend, and although the opposition, Weston-Super-Mare gamely formed a guard of honour (very gamely, considering that St Albans City’s 0-0 draw at Maidenhead United on Tuesday night had relegated them), the team still came out to strains of “Sack the board, sack the board, sack the board” from the terrace behind the goal, as fireworks went off in the far corner of the ground. The match, when it started, was limp and half-hearted. There was no question throughout the whole afternoon where the players’ loyalties laid, and one got the impression that they only got their act together enough to brush their dispirited opponents aside for the sake of the crowd. Jean-Michel Sigere put them in front on twenty-one minutes, and Steve Robinson doubled the lead six minutes later. On the hour, Sigere made it 3-0 from close range, and the second half was otherwise most notable for being an unnecessarily bad tempered affair, with three players being sent off – two from Weston, and one from Lewes.
Things started to take a turn for the strange with about ten minutes to play, when about a dozen policemen appeared from the back of the terrace and trotted down to the pitch-side to a chorus of “It’s just like watching The Bill” from the crowd. At full-time, the whistle blows with the crowd giving a polite, but distant round of applause, but there is still something in the air. The PA man is on the pitch with a microphone, which leads to my favourite exchange of the afternoon:
PA Man: “We’d just like to think our generous benefactor…”
PA Man: “Now, come on. There’s no need for that.”
He gives the microphone to Steve King, who manages to just about thank the crowd and the players and then bursts into tears, giving the microphone back to the PA man before being engulfed by the whole squad. They are then given the trophy, but a sizeable amount of the crowd is already starting to stream out of the ground. Lewes’ big day has already gone rather flat. The players have already been explicit in their support for the manager and it has been rumoured that over half of the current squad could be on their way out of the club. One suspects that Lewes FC has taken too much of the recent hubris surrounding it to heart. It is a town with a population of just 16,000, and to get crowds of 1,000 at all is a major achievement. A number of regular supporters are furious about recent events and some are talking about not turning up next season. Can Lewes FC afford to alienate its hardcore support? I would venture that this might turn out the make next season even longer than it was going to be before.