Court battles, grass verges & Alan Partridge - the Lewes FC story
Our man Terry Duffelen takes a break from all things Bundesliga-shaped to check out a non-league club with one of the most curious grounds in football...
Unless you're a Palace supporter, it is hard not to notice the enormous stadium on the A27 being constructed for Brighton & Hove Albion FC. The new Amex Stadium is set to become one of the newest sporting arenas in the UK. A short drive down the road from there is, arguably, the oldest.
The Dripping Pan, Lewes is said to have held sporting events as far back as 1745. Today it is the home of Lewes FC of the Blue Square South in the English Non League Pyramid. I first clapped eyes on it as a cocky DFL (Down From London, in the local parlance) standing atop the Mount that looks over the ground, about ten years ago.
I've seen many non league grounds but none as distinctive as the Pan, situated as it is, within the bounds of what was once upon a time, Lewes Priory. A stone wall surrounds it and one side consists merely of a grass verge. The opposite side has a grandstand with a fantasic laser line from one end of the roof to the other. Very olde world yet very spacey.
While it's always a good idea to use avoid using the words "charming" and "quirky" to describe non-league grounds for fear of being accused of condesention, the reality is that the Dripping Pan is both charming and quirky. However, what it is not, is a Football League ground or, with the greatest respect, a Conference national ground. Not, at least in its current guise.
Photo courtesy of Alex Leith
When the club was promoted to the Blue Square Premier in 2008, eyebrows were raised. Could Lewes survive at this level. Were they realistically a club, only one good season away from the Football League? When the manager, Steve King, was sacked immediately after celebrating promotion and almost the entire first team squad followed him out of the door, the answer seemed a very emphatic, no!
So it was that under the stewerdship of Brighton's former commercial manager Kevin Keehan, the club endured a season from Hell, on the pitch. They were relegated on 24 points. Worse still the season at national level had cleaned the club out financially. The following season, Lewes FC successfully battled against relegation from the Blue Square South managed by the chairman Steve Ibbitson and against the courts as their creditors sought to wind the club up.
However, while football may have had a romance bypass at the top level, there are still white knights willing to ride over the hill to the rescue of an ailing football club at the last minute. True to form, that's pretty much what happened. With all the timing of an award winning script came a board of six knights to save the Rooks, among them, an award winning script writer.
Patrick Marber wrote the scripts for the Alan Partridge radio and TV shows. He along with five others formed the Rook125 Group and rescued the club, apparently within minutes of it's extinction.
The board plan to lauch a new share scheme which will allow the club to pass into fan ownership. In the meantime, there is work to be done.
I met another member of the Rook125 group, Alex Leith, last Saturday when I was down at the Pan for Socrates Lewes - a football bloggers meet-up which the club were kind enough to host. Alex was in somber mood as he reflected on another defeat for the team, this time a dissappointing 1-0 loss to Staines Town. He talked about the problems of running a club at that level with so few revenue streams (only one bar, no additional facilities or oil-rich sheiks etc). However, he steadfastly believes that Lewes are well capable of competing at their current level and was excited at the prospect of improving the facilities at the ground.
In the short term however, Lewes may have to go down and go back up again. Rock bottom of a league in which four clubs are relegated and eight points from safety, Lewes have it all to do. However, in manager Tim O'Shea they're in good hands and despite their on field travails, the supporters can at least rest assured that their club is safe and soon will be in their own hands.