After a defeat at Staines Town in their opening Blue Square South match of the season on Saturday afternoon, the real test followed for Lewes this evening. Tonight’s match against Thurrock wasn’t merely their first home match of the new season. It was the first test of a brave new world, the first chance to see if they have a chance of stabilising their club under new management. The rise of Lewes from the lower reaches of the Isthmian League to the Blue Square Premier between 2002 and 2008 could, in theory, have been described as a fairy tale, but in truth it was largely funded on a house of cards. The club got financially way ahead of itself, and the resulting mountain of debt, as well as a degree of mismanagment, almost led to its death.
The Rooks125 group is promising a rebirth for the club, and it looks extremely promising. A group of supporters have taken over the running of the club and their aim is for the club owned by its own entire community. It doesn’t merely require supporters to be members an owners of the club, but for the whole of the town to fall in behind the club and help it to work. It is making an appeal for volunteers to assist in the running of the club and even benefactors are welcome, as long as they understand the proviso that, “this is not an investment and there will be no return on or of the money you put in”. For a small town with a strong sense of community such as Lewes, it’s a bold, yet eminently achievable mission.
Pre-season optimism might have wavered with a stagnant defeat at Staines at the weekend, but tonight was an examination in more ways than one. A gushing two page article in The Times this morning gave them publicity in the national press, and the opportunity was there to be seized with the first home match. On a mild autumn evening with the South Downs looming behind the goal at the far end of The Dripping Pan, it is an idyllic setting for football – one of the best in the south of England – and, with twenty minutes still to go before kick-off, things are already looking good, with the covered terrace behind the goal is already starting to fill. But if there is a larger than expected crowd here tonight, a performance would be needed to persuade them to come back for more.
Some aspects of the Lewes matchday experience remain the same as before. The beer in plastic glasses on the terraces. “Sussex By The Sea” over the public address system as the teams take the pitch. Somehow, though, there was a feeling in the air that this is the start of a new era, and the team responds accordingly. Lewes were neat and tidy, and they made a Thurrock team that finished in tenth place in the Blue Square South last season look very ordinary. After twenty-five minutes, their pressure paid off when George Jones, who seemed at first to have got the ball stuck under his feet, digged it out and crossed from the right for Lewis Ide to hurl himself at the ball and, at full stretch, send it cannoning into the top corner of the goal from twelve yards out. It was a perfect start to the season, quite possibly the best goal that anyone at The Dripping Pan will see all season, and it is enough to give the home side a lead which they held with comfort until half-time.
At half-time came more traditions – more beer, the raffle results and a toddler on the pitch straining everything to toe poke the ball over the line to cheers from the crowd behind the goal. With the start of the second half, though, there was renewed vigour from Thurrock, who started to push a suddenly nervous looking Lewes defence back into the second half. Eighteen minutes in, though, the nerves were, briefly, quelled, when Simon Wormull spotted the Thurrock goalkeeper Andre Charles-Smithoff his line and looped the ball over him from forty yards out and into the empty goal. It’s the sort of goal that is treated like an early Christmas present by the crowd, with a degree of surprised laughter along with the more customary cheering and applause, but the sense of relief lasted less than a minute before some smart play on the edge of the penalty area from Thurrock’s Cliff Akurang led to a low shot that bounced in off the Lewes goalkeeper Chris Winterton’s post and in.
With half an hour to play, Lewes were suddenly penned back again. Thurrock, however, found clear cut chances to be thin on the ground, although Kenny Clark hit the post for Thurrock, it felt for the remainder of the match as if the Lewes defence would comfortably be able to take care of the visiting attack. Some of the defending was more panicky than it needed to be (a pane of glass in one of the portakabins was the unfortunate victim of one over-eager defensive clearance), but Lewes hung on to collect their first win of the season. Thurrock, whose dozen or so supporters sung themselves almost hoarse from the beginning of the match to the end and may have felt hard done by to come away from the match with nothing, came close to coming from two behind to snatch a point for the second time in successive matches, but not quite close enough.
The result on the pitch is always important; of this there can be no question. Just as important for Lewes FC as three points this evening, however, was the result from off the pitch. A crowd of a shade over 600 people – considerably more people than most would have been expecting for this match, considering that it was being played on a Wednesday evening against a team that didn’t bring a sizeable away support with them, turned out for it. This is proof in itself that the Rooks125 vision of a club for the community can work in Lewes. They may never reach the Blue Square Premier again, but it feels as if the future of the club is in safe hands and the long-term security of the club is the most important thing to safeguard for the time being. If success on the pitch does come for Lewes, it will be success that is sustainable and that will have been worked for by a good number of people, both on and off the pitch. It has long been one of the most welcoming enclosures in the south, and it now feels as if the clouds are really starting to lift from over The Dripping Pan.
Further information on Rooks125’s plans can be seen here.