Peterjon Cresswell visits Lewes FC, whose astute, ambitious and committed owner-membership has salvaged a century-old football club and created a going concern out of little-known non-leaguers. First, though, Sussex’s own Rossoneri must overcome Harrow Borough in the Isthmian League Premier this Easter Saturday at the equally venerable Dripping Pan.
The first thing you see are the beach huts. Lined up as solid as Arsenal’s back four of 1998 and as seaside-pretty as a Kodachrome postcard, they stand out chalk-white against the blue Sussex sky, as uncorporate a corporate box as–
Actually, that’s a lie. The first thing you see are the match posters, as incongruous at a 3,000-capacity non-league ground – or at any football ground, for that matter – as a beach hut. Irreverent, iconic, uncorporate, these fanzine-type flyers make it seem as if Tudor-looking Lewes must have some secret, heaven-sent indie venue, the kind to raise Peel from the depths of darkest Peru to catch the second coming of Alternative TV at the Anne of Cleves House tonite.
Plastered behind the Philcox Stand home end and perched up four-in-a-row beside it, these posters and beach huts signify what can happen when football fans get together to save a football club – and then get savvy.
True, this Easter Saturday sees ‘The Rooks’ stage a relegation battle against Harrow & Borough, fellow strugglers in the seventh-tier Isthmian League Premier.
But with healthy season-average attendances of 500-plus, a bumper holiday crowd is expected at the Dripping Pan, preferred and then permanent home of Lewes FC since their foundation in 1885. After all, this is a community-run operation with 1,000 owner-members. While FC Barcelona may have 100 times that and more, plus Lionel Messi, for these heretofore unnoticed non-leaguers, to swim against the jetsam of towering ticket prices and boardroom blue meanies is nothing short of heroic.
Next month, a 3G training centre opens here, part-funded by the Football Foundation and club members, to serve seven teams, boys, girls, men and women. Coming through the ranks, La Masia-like, is a new generation, thanks to a two-year football academy initiated here in 2012.
Lewes Community Football Club, owners of Lewes FC since 2010, reached financial break-even in 2013. From 2016, work starts on a clubhouse bar, to replace the portakabin that provides match-day pints of Sussex Best brewed at nearby Harveys. Closer still is Lewes station, a convenient three-minute walk away.
Phoenix-like tales of fan-backed takeovers are legion from Wimbledon to Manchester and beyond – but Lewes are a case apart. Not thumb-nosing breakaways – however far AFC and FCUM have travelled, new stadiums and all – post-2010 Lewes FC are willing custodians of their 130-year home. These former Victorian pleasure grounds are today decked out with guerrilla posters and beach huts.
There would be no need for Beckham to be coy about throwing on a green-and-yellow scarf here. Brighton & Hove Albion, whose own Houdini act is embodied by the Amex Stadium proudly perched halfway to Lewes, fill the Dripping Pan each traditional pre-season friendly. Being associated with Lewes FC is a matter of local pride.
And a matter of marketing know-how. The Banksy-style match posters, the bizarre skyboxes – all are differentials in the Lewes factor generated by the Gang of Six who formed Rooks125 in the takeover of 2010.
Enter Patrick Marber, BAFTA award-winning screenwriter, co-creator of comic smash ‘Alan Partridge’. Enamoured with this epitome of smell-that-turf non-league football (the Dripping Pan still has a grass bank of terracing), Marber dove in willingly when the club was foundering in tax debt in 2009.
His prompt was Steve Ibbitson, the engagingly dedicated caretaker manager who then steered Lewes to safety, engendering a committed community ownership as he did so.
Since retired, ever popular ‘Ibbo’ is a life member at Lewes. Marber, meanwhile, has taken this feel-good story to the stage. In fact, the stage – ‘Red Lion’ starts its run at the National from June 3.
But LFC are no PR plaything. Fans still meet at the Royal Oak and raise a pint on anniversary day, September 23, when and where convened bowler-hatted parties established Lewes FC in 1885.
Meanwhile, those corporate beach huts hire out like hotcakes, £240 for six people, collectable match poster thrown in.
Lewes FC v Harrow Borough, the Dripping Pan, Saturday April 3, 3pm. Tickets £11, £6 reductions, under-16s free.