Non-league football has experienced a culture of boom and bust for as long as it has existed. From the shamateurism of the 1950s and 1960s, through to more recent vanity projects, there has never been a completely level playing field in the semi-professional football, and what becomes troubling about this is, of course, what happens to a club when the money runs out. This afternoon at The Dripping Pan, two clubs that boomed and busted during the last decade but which both found their level in subtly different ways, meet in the Ryman League Premier Division. Within the last ten years, both Lewes Football Club and Hornchurch FC lived beyond their means. One of these clubs died and the other came as close to the same fate without actually expiring, yet this afternoon they meet in a top of the table league match.
The story of the fate of Hornchurch Football Club is a by-the-numbers story of over-ambition and financial doping. The club rapidly through the non-league ranks during the early years of the last decade. Lavishly funded by Karl Williams’ Carthium group of companies, they seemed set for a place in at least the Blue Square Premier, but their collapse was as sudden as it was unsurprising. Early in 2005, Carthium suddenly collapsed with debts of £7m – Williams was subsequently disqualified from acting as a company director for eleven years – and Hornchurch followed shortly afterwards. A new club, AFC Hornchurch, was founded in the summer of 2005 started its life in the Essex Senior League the following season. In the six years since then, they have risen back to the Ryman League Premier Division and they go into this match as the league leaders.
Lewes FC, meanwhile, have ended up in the same position, only from the opposite trajectory. Plumpened by outside investment, the club reached the Blue Square Premier for one single, solitary season. With the money having run out, the hangover from the party that took the club as high as it got turned out to be a lengthy one. Relegation was followed by further struggle in the Blue Square South, but a second relegation last season has had a transformative effect on the club. Now mutually owned, their drop into the Ryman League Premier Division has had the feel of the sweet release of relegation about it. After three years of struggle on the pitch, Lewes FC has, perhaps, found its level. It has certainly started winning matches again, and the atmosphere around The Dripping Pan today is one of a club getting back to health after several seasons of mistreatment.
The last, flickering embers of summer have passed now, and this afternoon there is a slight chill in the air which hints at the shorter evenings to come. By half-time, though, it feels as though we have learnt little about either of the two sides playing this afternoon. Hornchurch look the stronger and better co-ordinated of the two sides, but it is Lewes that have the clearest chance of the first half when Michael Malcolm gets through on goal but, instead of trying to shoot past the Hornchurch goalkeeper Joe Wooley, he attempts to take the ball around the goalkeeper, who smothers it comfortably. Half-time arrives with the match still goalless, but Lewes have been wobbling.
Within three minutes of the start of the second half, though, Hornchurch have the goal that they deserve. A needless trip on the edge of the penalty area gives the visitors a penalty kick, and Martin Tuohy rolls the ball past the Lewes goalkeeper Fabian Speiss to give his side the lead. The second goal also comes from Tuohy via the penalty spot, again after the referee’s whistle follows a stray leg just inside the penalty area. These two awards, both of which seemed to be a little from the “six of one, half a dozen of the other” school of refereeing, effectively kill the game as a competition, but the afternoon continues to deteriorate for Lewes, with Speiss misjudging a Rickie Hayles cross, allowing Lewis Smith a free header from close range for goal number three. For all of their possession – and they have a reasonable amount – the home side fail to manage so much as a single clear chance, and with only minutes left to play, a superb free-kick from Jonathan Hunt which curls into the top corner of Speiss’ goal.
The win keeps Hornchurch at the top of the table, a single point ahead of Billericay Town, while Lewes, in this tightly-contested division, drop to sixth place in the table. In the bar after the match comes the post mortem. This has been an almost inexplicably bad performance from Lewes this afternoon (although some are prepared to admit that the team has won a couple of games this season without playing well and that this result might have been coming), and they now need to lift themselves for another league match, to be played against struggling Margate on Tuesday night. The openness of this division allows clubs the occasional slip-up, but Lewes cannot afford too many performances like this. Hornchurch, meanwhile, were impressive and looked excellent value for their top spot place in this division. Physically strong and well-organised, yet plenty capable of showing flashes of technical quality, it would be unsurprising, on this evidence, to see them still at or near the top of the table when the spring-time comes.
Meanwhile, though, the bar at The Dripping Pan continues to hum. Lewes is now a Community Football Club, and it is one that has, in the last couple of years, become a model for how to run a small club. The attendance for this afternoon’s match was well over 600, which is a very healthy crowd for this level of football. The conversation in the bar after the match is as much concerned with travel arrangements for their FA Trophy match at Harlow Town next weekend. Those concerned with the running the club now – and now seems like as good a time as any to offer our congratulations to Stuart Fuller from the redoubtable The Ball Is Round on being elected as a director of the club, as well to thank him for putting up with our frankly superfluous shouts of “Sack the board!” as the full extent of this defeat became apparent – are treating it with the care and attention that it deserves, and that the club’s future is considerably more secure than it has otherwise been in recent times. It is something to be very grateful for indeed.
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