Visits to the lower leagues are becoming more and more appealing as the greed of the Premier League and Championship clubs (and some 1st and even 2nd division clubs) flies in the face of the credit crunch. The realisation that us fans can no longer control the same level of disposable income is completely lost on the fans and born out by my beloved West Ham who are hawking Christmas special packages for our “exciting” game versus Stoke City at Christmas for £100 a head if you want a meal as well. A real festive season bargain. Add in some of the other places I have seen this year such as the Aldershot Chairman who bemoaned the fact that fans weren’t turning up in their thousands at over £20 a head to watch the 4th level of English football. So it is refreshing to dip my toe into the Blue Square Premier League once a month and see what is happening. After away days at Grays Athletic and Crawley Town so far this season I looked forward to a short trip south to the town of Lewes, which according to BA’s High Life magazine this month is one of the top 50 places in Europe to visit in terms of its unspoiltness (a new word?) as well as its smart High Street and of course the presence of the Harvey’s Brewery, brewer of one of my favourite tipples, Sussex Best Bitter.
This would also be a meeting of great powers on a scale of Reagan and Gorbachev’s first ever conference in Reyjkavik as I was meeting Danny Last of http://europeanfootballweekends.blogspot.com fame. Between the two of us we control majority of the reporting of European football weekend away market – pretty impressive eh? I had to check the insurance policy to see if we were allowed to be in the same room together as well as ensure we did not take the same route to the ground just in case a sniper wanted to take us both out at the same time.
Lewes is one of those towns where few people could point out on the map. Fans of the A23 and A27 will know it well as it sits just a few miles north east of Brighton. It is actually the county town, and more importantly home to Harveys Brewery and the old fashion town centre is dominated by the castle. However, the rise of the football was planned to bring the town to national prominence.
After years playing in the local leagues the club moved through the Isthmian League with speed in the late 1990′s and early part of this decade until they found themselves in a position to challenge for a place in the Conference National league. Stiff ground regulations meant that they could not take part in the end of season matches, but once the work on the Dripping Pan had been completed they cemented their meteoric rise in May 2008, capturing the National League South title. On the final day of the season every single player in the squad, bar one plus the manager Steve King were basically told they would not be offered a contract for the club’s first season at the highest level in a move most fans today still cannot begin to understand.
This season has unsurprisingly been a struggle from day one. It is unclear whether they are officially up for sale or not, and up until now they had only managed two wins all season as they propped up the rest of the league. Just two places and four points above them sits Grays, in a very similar position off the field as the club struggle to continue to be able to financially compete at this level. A money spinning replay in the 1st round of the FA Cup was spoilt by a floodlight failure with the team 1-0 versus Carlisle United. More importantly it would bring me face to face with “our Barry” again (see http://theballisround.co.uk/2008/10/26/the-magic-of-the-fa-cup-in-deepest-essex/) and hopefully his fan club.
I headed down with the little Fullers and after a very pleasant lunch in the High Street they headed off to a play area and I off to meet Mr Last in one of Lewes’s finest pubs. I was introduced to Dave, a man with a trivia head after my own and we were soon swapping a few facts that needed dusting off from the grey matter (Q: Most expensive ever British teenage signing in the 1970′s? Answer at the end of this post). Both Danny and Dave explained how they have turned their back on League football, finding solace in the rough beauty of football at the Non League level.
We walked the few hundreds yards from the pub to the ground, passing the station on the way. Such was the proximity of the railway to the ground meant that within 3 minutes of the final whistle you could be on a train on the way back to Brighton. The club had a small issue, as we discovered on reaching the gates. Due to an issue with the printers there were no match programmes available for the game, which for some ground hoppers I know would have been a disaster and would have not counted on their “done that” list.
The ground is certainly unique. I tried to ascertain why it was called the Dripping Pan and got a number of different answers, none of which were 100% certain. I liked the idea that the club simply wanted to be different. It has a small modern main stand with around 8 rows and ran 2/3rd of the pitch. Opposite this was a large steep bank with a single barrier at the top where some fans would stand. Overlooking the ground were some flats that were obviously acting as “executive boxes”. The focal point of the ground though was the west terrace which included the club offices, changing rooms and the infamous club bar. Changes to the regulations in the Blue Square Conference has meant that the bar is not able to open during the game, and they even have to close the blinds with ten minutes to go prior to kick off.
We headed into the bar, but had not factored the fact that the Norwegian branch of the Lewes fan club were in town, and the nine of them had cleaned the bar out of every beer except Guinness. Quite an impressive achievement and only the second time it had happened in the history of the club. Quite why they were Lewes fans, and why they were over for the game is still unclear although one did explain that their ancestors had landed close by on their Viking raids and they settled the town, building the first castle in the town. I thought this was quite believable until he also added that John Arne Riise is the biggest ever export from Norway. Hmmmm.
Lewes FC v Grays Athletic – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 22nd November 2008
If ever the term “six pointer” could be applied to a game, then this was one. Lewes were stranded at the bottom of the league with Grays one place and four points above. The good news was that the club were bouyed by the performance of their youth team who had made it through to the next round of the FA Youth Cup and had drawn Hull City at home. Some of these players were in the squad for this game, notably the left sided midfielder David Wheeler who was in action from the first minute.
Four minutes were on the clock when a smart ball past the Grays static defence allowed ex-Grays striker Scott Taylor the opportunity to round the keeper and slot the ball home. A great start for the home team but could they keep the pressure up? The answer was yes and after a blatant penalty shout was turned down, Wheeler beat Grays captain Stuart for pace and he could only try and illegally block him, conceding a penalty. Michael Standing calmly slotted the spot kick home to double the lead.
Despite a two goal advantage the crowd were restless and felt that every Grays attack would lead to a goal. Yet there was very little that should have worried them. Somehow four minutes of injury time were added that did little for the nerves of the home fans.
After the customary change of ends at half time we were joined by fifty or so Grays fans who seemed more pessimistic that the home ones. Their unease spread onto the pitch and apart from a late free kick that hit the bar neither team looked capable of scoring and after another ridiculous five minutes were added (9 minutes in total yet only one injury stoppage) the referee brought an end to the suffering and three points belonged to Lewes. And sure enough three minutes later my hosts Danny and Dave were on their train, and I was in the Fullermobile on our way north.
A very enjoyable afternoon in a very hospitable place. If the club have the balls to throw some of the youngsters in the team then they will pick up points. All it needs is the locals to get behind the team – a crowd of just over 500 were rewarded with some good football so more of the locals sould have a walk down the hill from the town centre and take in a game.
A final word – Our Barry had a stinker and was booked in the second half, although at least he didn’t have his fan club in tow today.
The answer to the question from above was Ray Stewart who joined West Ham United from Dundee United for £430,000.
About the Dripping Pan – Capacity 3,000 (600 Seats)
Thanks to Lewes FC for providing the following information on the ground:
Lewes’ uniquely named ground ‘The Dripping Pan’, had previously been used by Lewes Priory Cricket Club which continues to play in the fields behind the ground, though the arena itself had been used by the people of Lewes as a centre of recreation as far back as records exist.
The original purpose of the ground is unclear, although local legend suggests that it was part of a salt making industry run by monks from the adjacent Cluniac Priory.
The spoil from the excavation forms the mount behind the ground and both appear in the very earliest maps of Lewes from 1745. The ground may merely be the excavation pit for the mount itself, which has been suggested as the original ‘temporary’ motte and bailey fortress constructed by William the Conqueror’s close ally, William de Warenne, before he developed Lewes Castle on higher ground. An archaeological survey during construction of the new terrace failed to reveal any further insights into either the purpose or the age of the banks. In recent years, the grass banks which used to provide a natural amphitheatre have been replaced by concrete as the club looked to secure ground grading standards.
In 2003 the Philcox Stand was opened behind the west goal and three years later, the 500 seat Rookery Stand replaced the old wooden South Stand which ran virtually the length of the pitch on top of the grass bank.
Last season the Terry Parris open terrace was built at the Ham Lane end, despite the protests of some local residents who opposed the destruction of a section of historic flint wall to make way for emergency access and a turnstile
A “B” grading was secured in April 2008 and work continues on the rest of the ground to ensure it gets the required “A” grade certificate by April 2009.
How to get to the Dripping Pan
The ground is located very close to the station – in fact I do not think I have visited a ground that is closer. If train is your arrival mechanism come out of the station, turn left and after 50 yards turn left at the roundabout and the ground is straight ahead of you. If you are driving and coming via the A27 from Brighton then take the first Lewes turn off. When you reach the crossroads where Lewes prison is, turn right and follow road down hill. When you reach small roundabout turn left into Southover High Street and follow until you see the ground straight ahead. There is a small pay and display at the stadium, and one the other side of the station.
How to get a ticket for the Dripping Pan
Crowds are disappointingly low at the stadium and there is no need to book tickets in advance for virtually every game. If you are here to see the local derby with Eastbourne Borough then it would be advisable to purchase in advance by calling the club on 01273 472100. Tickets are £12 for Adults and £8 for Children and this allows you to either stand or sit in the main stand.