Leaving Brighton yesterday afternoon for the Boxing Day match between Lewes and Bognor Regis Town, all seemed quiet and all seemed fine. There was a little light rain in the air and a chill in the air which merited the addition of an extra layer, but nothing excessive. Spirits couldn’t even be dampened by the decision of Southern Rail to not run any Boxing Day trains between Brighton and Lewes, meaning that we had to make this relative short journey by bus instead. By the time that the full time whistle blew at The Dripping Pan yesterday afternoon, however, the horizontal nature of the rain washing across the pitch meant that the players weren’t the only people in the ground that were soaked to the skin, and whilst the players had the consolation of having had an hour and a half’s worth of decent cardiovascular exercise to keep themselves warm, all that the rest of us could do was to squelch to club bar or the nearest pub and drink mulled wine in an attempt to stave off what was starting to feel, by this time, like the inevitable onset of hypothermia.
In the overall scheme of things, the rivalry between East and West Sussex might not count for much in the overall football universe, but it was enough to drag almost 900 people – the highest crowd of the season in the Ryman League Premier Division so far this season – away from their festive revelry on this cold, wet bank holiday afternoon. Bognor were only promoted into the Premier Division of the Ryman League at the end of last season, but they have continued their form of last season into this and went into yesterday’s match in the play-off places near the top of the table. These were the sort of ambitions that Lewes may have held before a ball was kicked at the start of the season, but the home side have frequently flattered to deceive so far and while lower mid-table is hardly a league position that should be setting too many alarm bells ringing, even the mere possibility of sliding almost unnoticed towards a relegation battle may be enough to keep those running the club glancing over its shoulder as 2012 turns to 2013. Yet while the intricacies of rivalries between these twin counties may escape all bar the sharpest-eyed, the similarities between the recent histories of these two clubs seems obvious. Both have recovered from near-calamitous financial positions and are stabilising after chastening periods when the possibility of their clubs no longer even existing was a very real one. This match was one which quite easily might easily never have been played again after the events of 2008 and beyond.
The stars of the show yesterday afternoon, however, were the weather and the Lewes goalkeeper Kieron Thorp. The clouds darkened noticeably as we reached Lewes town centre, and by the midway point in the first half whole sheets of rain were falling across the pitch from south to north. Such conditions can prove a distraction to players, and the best chance of the opening stages of the match came when a curling Lewes free kick from the left caught the wind, bent in towards the goal and had to be pawed away by the Bognor goalkeeper Tom Boyle. As the players struggled to come fully to terms with the inclement conditions, however, much of the fare on the pitch was made up of bossanovas of short passes which to reach their destinations followed by the ball being leathered seventy feet straight up in the air for little other apparent purpose than to allow a brief break to catch breath.
With the clock starting to run down to half-time, however, came a golden opportunity for the visitors. A trip on the left hand side of the penalty area gave Bognor a penalty kick, but Kane Wills’ shot fell within boundaries of the proverbial ‘good height for a goalkeeper’ and Thorp leapt to his left to push the ball away. No goals, then, at half time and the sense was already starting to build that in such poor conditions only one goal would be enough to decide the destination of the three points on offer. As the second half wore on, though, it started to look as if Lewes might just have enough about them to snatch that all-important goal, and with ten minutes to play and the bar already starting to fill, it came. It was the sort of simple manoeuvre that teams work on hundreds of times throughout the course of a season, frequently without reward. A corner from the Lewes left taken by Karl Beckford found Nathan Crabb unmarked, and his skimmed header shot across the face of goal and in. There was still time for a moment of panic in the Lewes defence, though, of course, as the ninety minutes ticked over into stoppage time. A corner kick at the other end of the pitch found Stuart Axten, and his close-range header was brilliantly blocked by Thorp, who then also recovered to bundle the rebound high and wide of his goal.
Such is the congestion around the middle of the Ryman League Premier Division table that Lewes are, even whilst in thirteenth place in the table as things stand today, only five points off a play-off place. There are a lot of teams between them and that end of season eventuality, but yesterday afternoon’s performance was a clear step in the right direction for a Lewes team which has been plagued by that most devilish of footballing curses, inconsistency, so far this season. Bognor Regis Town, meanwhile remain in one of those sought-after play-off places, although they are also only five points above Lewes at the time of writing. If yesterday afternoon was a disappointment for their supporters, it might be worth taking a step back and considering that their team was only promoted into this division via the play-offs at the end of last season, and this marked the end of a terrible run of luck for the club which reached a nadir with the burning down of its clubhouse in August 2008. If Christmas and the New Year is a period during which we should pause to reflect upon the previous twelve months, then perhaps the supporters of both Lewes and Bognor Regis Town are better placed than many to raise a seasonal toast to the continuing existence of their football clubs.
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