It was a cold, blustery autumn evening and as I made the short walk from Lewes railway station to The Dripping Pan, the welcoming if not quite palatial home of Lewes Football Club, and a sense of foreboding hung heavy in the back of my mind. There was the small matter of the thousand words on Coventry City that required a final paragraph to be written before it was ready to go live. Then there was the nagging suspicion that the rest of the world would be curled up on their respective sofas watching what I believe to be called a ‘feast’ of Champions League football on the television, a global party to which I’ve seldom felt particularly invited. And then there was the recollection of the last time I’d made the short and inconvenient hop from Brighton town centre to see Enfield Town play, a six-nil thrashing at Whitehawk at the very tail end of last year in the cold and pouring rain which was so dismal that I briefly started to believe in God just so that I could curse Him for an hour and three-quarters.
On one of my musings at least, I was not alone. Lewes are one of the best-supported clubs in the Premier Division of the Ryman Football League, but last night it appeared that the locals, by and large, had better things to do and the crowd was little more than half of this season’s average so far. Still, it left the bar a little quieter than usual and if the fare on the pitch didn’t pass muster the flat-screen television hanging on the wall was showing flickering pictures of a certain match being played in North London as this one was taking place in front of me. Enfield, who steered themselves just clear of the relegation places at the end of last season, though, hadn’t won in the league since the end of August and since then had conceded six goals at St Albans City in the FA Cup and five at Bognor Regis Town in the league a couple of weeks ago.
It didn’t even take a quarter of an hour for my fears for the evening to start to come to some sort of fruition. Enfield had actually started reasonably positively, but their defence has developed something of a reputation for having the resistance qualties of a soggy paper bag, and when Lewes won a corner after fourteen minutes their parting like the Red Sea for Ben Austin to head in. The freedom of Middlesex granted in the heart of East Sussex. Still, though, this wasn’t quite the shambles that I had been expecting. Well, it wasn’t until six minutes from half-time, when Austin scored a second so similar to the first that I might have been convinced that the players had quietly erected a giant video screeen while no-one was looking – which is far from impossible at an average non-league match – and simply showed a recording of the first one. This led to a somewhat surprisingly eventful end to the half. Enfield pulled a goal back, a goal bundled in from a corner at the far post in a manner which may be most honestly described as “a typical non-league goal”, but any notions of a fightback, whether heroic or otherwise, don’t last for very long. Ninety seconds later, the best passing movement of the evening cut through the Enfield defence like an flaming axe through chocolate mousse and Nathan Crabb scored to restore the home side’s two goals advantage.
Half-time. The bar. A second pint of Harveys Best, on a school night. There was a time when I would have thought nothing of this, but real ale bypasses all obstacles to tickle my brain synapses in a most alarming way, nowadays. Still, the warming effects of a couple of pints and a blessedly event-free second half – Would I have taken a three-one loss at half-time? Hell, yes – at least allowed room for forty-five minutes of chatter and contemplation. They’re not so different, Lewes and Enfield Town, you see. Opposite ends of the league table, yes, yes, but both owned by their supporters as the result of a near-literally existential crisis. And they both exist, which is an achievement far greater than it is ever likely to be given credit for. Both clubs are run by volunteers who give up more time than could ever be considered reasonable to keep their little grounds ticking over on a Saturday afternoon or a Tuesday night, and both clubs not only exist, but will continue to exist. There are good people involved, sacrificing their spare time – and, I rather suspect, sometimes their sanity – to make sure that this happens.
Every cloud has its silver lining, though. Perhaps it was as much as I could wish for at the end of an evening that ended in a comprehensive defeat, and mine came later on that evening when a quick check of the league table confrmed that at least Enfield Town hadn’t slipped into the relegation places at the bottom of the table. Instead, they teeter just above them, in a precarious twentieth place in the division. At least, for now, there are four teams worse than they in the table. After all, the league table never lies, does it? And, whilst I will probably never be a supporter in the generally accepted sense, I’m pleased to see Lewes edge their way into the play-off places near the top of the table. It’s a good club, staffed by friendly and enthusiastic people. They can consider me a well-wisher, at the very least. In comparison with the bear-pit atmosphere of the Champions League – a competition so self-important that it has its own anthem, for Christ’s sake – last night at The Dripping Pan may have been comparatively inconsequential. But, I considered as I nursed something of a mild hangover the following morning, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
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