It’ a warm and pleasant Saturday afternoon, and it’s a scene that is being repeated the length and breadth of the country. From the tip of Cornwall to the top of Northumberland, Non-League Day is upon us and at The Dripping Pan Lewes were at home to Hampton & Richmond Borough in the Blue Square South. The initiative has put something extra in the air – a sense of heightened expectation that, in some small and modest way, we, for once, are in the spotlight this afternoon. There are a few nursing hangovers from the night before’s unexpectedly comfortable England win, but these are eased by a welcoming clubhouse, local beers and greasy food. Saturday afternoon isn’t a time for being healthy, on the whole, though.
On the pitch, Lewes have a problem. Their reasonably bright start to the season is starting to feel like something of a distant memory already. They have lost their last three matches and their team is shot through with injuries. They managed four new loan signings by the closure of the transfer window to try and plug the gaps, but there has been talk that they may even struggle to fill their substitutes bench this afternoon. The reality of their financial predicament is that they can’t afford to just go out and replace injured players with new ones. They can see the light at the end of that particular tunnel, but they’re not quite there yet.
Hampton & Richmond Borough, meanwhile, have had a peculiar couple of seasons. Two years ago, they pushed Wimbledon all the way at the top of the Blue Square South table before falling at the last and then missing out in the play-offs. Last season, however, the hangover continued and they found themselves in greater danger of getting relegated than repeating the previous season’s excitement, although they did eventually stabilise to fourteenth place in the table as Newport County ran away with the title. Still managed by the former West Ham United midfielder and England international Alan Devonshire, they have had a mixed start to this season too and sit in the middle of the BSS table.
It’s soon apparent that there is a clear distance between the two sides. Hampton feel that bit stronger and better organised, and although Lewes start brightly enough, Hampton are soon completely in control. When Lewes have possession, all routes through to the Hampton goal are quickly shut up and they are reduced to long, over-optimistic passes that more frequently than not end up with the ball going out of play or returning possession back to the visitors. Still, though, Hampton don’t create that many clear-cut chances and they are dependent on a large dollop of good fortune when, with twelve minutes to play of the first half, a low, driven cross from the right by Dave Tarpey catches the Lewes defender Scott Manning in two minds and he turns the ball over his own line to give the visitors the lead.
At half-time, though the match doesn’t yet feel like a foregone conclusion. Lewes will be attacking the home end in the second half, and even the appearance of an unshaven Jonathan Pearce at half-time to read the results of the raffle fails to shift the feeling that the second half should be better for Lewes than the first was. Indeed, they impose themselves more successfully in the second half than they did, but it takes a moment of individual brilliance to bring them level after thirteen minutes. A free kick on the left-hand side of the penalty area looks slightly too wide to try a shot from, but Simon Wormull curls the ball over the wall and into the top corner of the net to bring Lewes level.
This should be the turning point of the match, but Lewes fail to build on the momentum that the goal brings them and they slowly allow Hampton a route back into the match. Lewes goalkeeper Chris Winterton makes a splended one handed save from a shot from Hampton’s Charlie Moone, pawing the ball over the crossbar from a twenty-five yard lob that seemed certain to drop under the crossbar and in, but his line of defence only provides a temporary respite, and with eight minutes to play Hampton snatch all three points when Moone drags the ball back for James Simmonds to drive the ball in.
The full-time whistle comes to groans of disappointment from the home supporters, but their applause for the their team remains warm. Lewes may find that this season is as much of a struggle as the last was, but it doesn’t feel as if this will be for a want of trying on the part of the team. This afternoon feels like something of a missed opportunity, but it’s not all bad news today for the club. Non-League Day seems to have had the desired effect upon Lewes, and the crowd of 694 is an improvement of about a hundred on their average home crowd (which, already for this season, has improved by about 150 on last season’s average). In addition to this, their next home match, against Chelmsford City in two weeks’ time, will be to celebrate their one hundred and twenty-fifth anniverary and BBC cameras will be there to mark the occasion. They remain one place above the relegation positions, but after last season’s narrow escape things may yet improve for them this time around. This may feel a little further away than it had done previously, though.
In a wider sense, Non-League Day has been a great success. Attendances seem to have, broadly speaking, been encouraging and the amount of exposure given to the non-league game – not a level that it usually receives until the First Round of the FA Cup, which is still two months away – has been excellent, and while the numbers themselves may not have necessarily set too many pulses racing, the truth of the matter is that for many smaller clubs it only requires a few extra people to turn up for it to make a real difference to that club’s finances. The extra hundred or so at Lewes, for example, could well have been worth upwards of £2,000 to a club that a continuing uphill battle on its hands to stay functionally solvent. As such, we look forward to more of the same next season.