Equality for all at Lewes FC

All clubs are equal but some are more equal than others

Based at the Dripping Pan since 1885, fan-owned Lewes are breaking new ground

In a week when Canada’s Olympic-winning women’s team threatened to go on strike for equal pay, the ladies of Lewes FC were preparing for a game at Bristol City in the second tier of the national set-up in England. The men, meanwhile, host Horsham on Valentine’s Day, a derby game between two sides chasing promotion from the Isthmian League to the National League South.

Even at this elevated level of England’s semi-pro game, here at Lewes, both teams earn the same and benefit from equal resources. It’s a model that was introduced in 2017 by this venerable club on the south coast, community-run since 2010.

Six fans, including current chairman Stuart Fuller, bought the ailing Rooks for £1 between them, taking on half their debt and the responsibility of turning the operation into one that could hold its own and be a force for good.

The Dripping Pan/Josh Minton

To this aim, round the corner from the 18th-century coaching inn where Thomas Paine shaped the principles he took to revolutionary America, Lewes FC have extended their global reach. The club currently has some 2,300 owners, “as far afield as Chile, India and Israel,” says Fuller, whose stint as chairman must come to an end later this year. “And we have plans to expand in the US.”

Membership (‘OWN IT!’) costs as little as £5/month or £50/year, but communal involvement must go hand-in-hand with results every week.

“We’re now acting like a proper football club should. Our teams are playing on nearly a million pounds’ worth of pitch,” Fuller points out, referring to the grass-hybrid surface with built-in sprinklers, mainly funded by a Premier League grant of £750,000 received in 2020.

The Dripping Pan/Josh Minton

Ironically, the fact that Lewes can compete in the same FA Women’s Championship as big names such as Sunderland, Crystal Palace and, last season, Liverpool, is not only due to the dedicated training they put in five days a week. Despite the vast riches pouring into the Premier League, many clubs are still penny-pinching where their women’s teams are concerned, farming them out to play at much smaller grounds, often out of town.

This, too, is slowly changing. In the wake of the hugely successful Women’s Euros in 2022 (partly staged, it must be said, at Leigh and Manchester City’s Academy Stadium), Sheffield United WFC have moved into Bramall Lane while Southampton FC Women are now at St Mary’s.

The quaint Dripping Pan was a site of recreation and gentle sporting endeavour for at least 150 years before Lewes Priory cricketers met at the nearby Royal Oak pub in 1885 to form a football club. Four years later, Lewes station opened by the football ground, providing access from Hastings and Worthing, later to be the Rooks’ biggest rivals.

Royal Oak/Josh Minton

Proximity to Brighton is both a blessing and a curse. “Every time our game clashes with Brighton’s,” admits Fuller, referring to the nearest Premier League team currently chasing the European dream, “it affects our gate by a couple of hundred”.

Yet, having an enlightened metropolis on the doorstep also attracts the city’s many metropolitan creatives and their young families. Towards the end of the 2021-22 season, the men’s team took on table-toppers and local adversaries Worthing with a play-off for the National League South in the offing. The capacity 2,347 crowd that day was a record gate for the season across the division. Then, when Women’s Championship winners Liverpool visited, the Dripping Pan was again a sell-out. Few of the big-name clubs Lewes face every week can ever claim the same.

Then again, no other club offers spectators the use of a beach hut to watch the match, four six-person chalets catching the setting sun behind one goal. Two of them are sponsored.

Lewes FC beach huts/Josh Minton

“Businesses like to be associated with an ethical club such as ourselves,” says Fuller, referring to the Lyle & Scott clothing and Xero software companies whose logos embellish the Dripping Pan backdrop, framed by the South Downs. Betting firms, meanwhile, are turned down, despite the potential of significant sums. Here, again, Lewes go against the grain, actively advocating kicking gambling out of sport as happened with the tobacco industry in days gone by.

Also involving half-a-dozen other teams – men’s under-18s and women’s youth from under-14s to under-21s, over-35s, walking football and, uniquely, football therapy sessions – the Lewes operation is a multi-layered one, all underpinned by ethical notions of equality. 

The question remains, can it sustain?

The Dripping Pan/Josh Minton

“We’re now at a crossroads,” says Fuller. “If one of our senior teams goes up, it will play against clubs with far bigger budgets. Funding a squad to compete at that higher level will mean allocating the same sum to the men and the women.”

With only one team going up automatically from either of their divisions, it’s a conundrum the club has yet to face, although the men are again within touching distance of a play-off place in the Isthmian Premier. A win against nearby rivals Horsham on Valentine’s will bring promotion, and tackling that conundrum, closer to reality.

Lewes v Horsham, Isthmian Premier. February 14, 7.45pm. The Dripping Pan, Mountfield Road, Lewes BN7 2XA. Tickets £12, seniors/students £6, under-16s free. Beach huts £110.