As the pleasingly basic scoreboard tucked away near one corner of the pitch ticked over ninety minutes at The Dripping Pan on Saturday afternoon, there was a hint of quiet satisfaction in the air. Leading by two goals to nil and with the home defence having seldom been threatened all afternoon, it looked just about certain that the biggest Ryman League crowd of the afternoon, some 788 people, was going to retire to the bar happy with a comfortable win against the limited if obdurate opposition that the Metropolitan Police, lower table opposition of no discernable ambition, were offering. This, however, is Lewes Football Club, and scripts around here are seldom kept to for very long.
The rest of the afternoon had been pleasingly routine. The cost of it may have risen somewhat in recent years and there is little question that the current generation of players that come through in the middle ranks of English football – of which the Ryman League Premier Division is probably just about the bottom level – are more generic those that preceded them, but there is a comfortingly timeless quality to non-league football. The pint before the match. The moment which hits about twenty minutes after kick-off when you realise that absolutely nothing has happened so far. The agonising choice over whether to head for the bar before the referee blows his whistle for half-time and improve your chances of seeing the first five minutes of the second half. Some things never change.
Before the match, I took the opportunity to meet up with Stuart Fuller, writer of the excellent The Ball Is Round and a Lewes FC director. He seemed quietly happy with the way that the season had been proceeding. “This is a different Lewes team”, he told me, “we don’t throw away points in injury time anymore.” After last season’s surprise flirtation with relegation from the division, this feeling of security must come as a blessed relief to supporters of a club that ended last season in nineenth place in the table. But new manager Garry Wilson, who had previously in his career spent thirteen years taking Eastbourne Borough from the Sussex County League to the Football Conference, had, we were reliably informed, shored up a defence which had taken on many of the qualities of a string vest over the course of the previous season. It’s reasonable to say that he probably spoke a little too soon.
Half-time had come around with indecent haste, goalless but with Lewes a man to the good following the dismissal of Stefan Fox – a former Lewes player, but of course – for a series of niggling and largely needless fouls which somehow accumulated into two yellow cards. The home side looked the stronger by a margin, but they managed this without ever seriously threatening the Metropolitan Police goalkeeper and a goalless score with the prospect of better to come in the second half seemed like a reasonable return for the first forty-five minutes of football. The sort of half during which you watch the match out of the corner of one eye whilst idly wondering if the visitors should use their badge numbers as squad numbers and whether subsitutions will be marked by the announcement, “Substitution for Metropolitan Police – replacing number ten, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Burnside…”, none of which could conceivably happen, sadly, because you don’t have to be a serving police officer to play for the Metropolitan Police. Heavens, their nickname isn’t even “The Boys In Blue”, with the club preferring the somewhat more prosaic “The Met” instead. Understandable, yet somehow disappointing.
Nine minutes into the second half, Lewes finally found a way of breaking through the Police defences which led to Ade Olorunda’s shot being blocked by the goalkeeper into the path of Sam Crabb, who placed the ball tidily into the goal to give the home side the lead. The goal felt like all the confidence boost that the home side needed, and much of the remainder of the second half felt like a damage limitation exercise for the visitors, with the notion that they could find a way back into this match being further deflated by a second Lewes goal, again from a rebound after a sterling effort by the Metropolitan Police goalkeeper Stuart Searle, this time scored by Nathan Crabb. Job done. Game over. Or so we might have thought.
The headlines, of course, write themselves. Such had been the comfort with which Lewes had played out the second half that there was no wave of anger when three minutes of stoppage time was announced at the end of the match, but tensions rose about sixty seconds later when a fine shot from Steve Sutherland pulled a goal back from the visitors. On such a spin of the dice can two teams’ come to rest. With immediate effect, it was Lewes who were looking jittery. From the kick-off, Lewes tried to close down the remaining minute and a bit, but the ball was launched almost immediately back towards their penalty area where, after three seconds of defending of which Buster Keaton may have been proud, Manny Osei poked the ball in to bring the Police level.
A few seconds later, the full-time whistle blew to a reasonably stunned silence around The Dripping Pan which slowly broke into a polite round of applause for the shell-shocked home team as they trudged from the pitch. This, for the home side at least, was the ultimate two points dropped. There had been little indication that the Metropolitan Police were capable of this sort of turnaround, but with a little bit of luck, the resilience to not give up and a spoonful of munificence from the Lewes defence had proved to be enough for them to salvage something from a match that had looked like a lost cause barely three and a half minutes earlier.
Glasses that felt half-empty at the full-time whistle were replenished in the bar after the match and, for all the gloom that surrounds throwing away a lead in this manner, Lewes supporters still have much to be optimistic about. The Non-League Day attendance was a good one and – a matter that is especially important considering how close to the drop zone the team finished last season – one minor abhorrence at the start of September doesn’t alter the fact that Garry Wilson’s team remains in seventh place in the table, just outside the play-off places and still unbeaten in the league, with three wins and five draws from their eight matches played so far. As for the Metropolitan Police, well, for all the determination that they displayed in the closing stages of this match, there can be little doubt that… they played a get out of jail free card on Saturday afternoon. Like I say, sometimes the headlines just write themselves.
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