It’s always nice to build up to a climax in your season, knowing that those cold Tuesday night away trips to the corners of Suffolk when the last train leaves before you have entered injury time have not been in vain. The thought of a cup final or a final play-off push gets everyone behind the club, pushing attendances up and general adding to the club’s bank account. But for many Non-League clubs, that cup final often happens before the season has started in earnest. The visit of a Premier or Football League club can have a massive boost to the season ahead as well as re-engaging with some fans who may have drifted out of love with the game or the club.
This is especially true for clubs who sit in the long shadows of bigger teams, having to stand by and watch glumly as hundreds of fans park up outside their grounds, only to walk on by, tucking their real team colours in their jackets as they head for their slice of Premier or Football League action. We see this frequently down at Lewes. The fight that Brighton & Hove Albion fans endured to a) come back to the city and then b) have a home of their own has been well documented in hundreds of places. Three years ago they were finally given the keys to the superb Amex Community Stadium and since then, things on the pitch haven’t been too bad with two consecutive play-off spots. All should be rosy in the Tony Bloom garden? Well, not quite. In the last two seasons the club has dispensed with the services of their head coaches, Messrs Poyet and Junyet after the play-offs for differing reasons, so to try to make it third time lucky they have employed former Liverpool defender, Sami Hyypiä. No sooner had he brought the players back for pre-season than he was off down the A27 to visit the Dripping Pan.
So this is our cup final. There is no shame in admitting it (unlike Spurs fans who lost their cup final three times last season to West Ham). Bar four or five of the Premier League teams, a game against Brighton & Hove Albion is probably as big as we could hope for, especially one where the Seagulls would bring down the whole first team squad. Two years ago they came, weathered a Lewes early battering and left with a 3-0 victory in front of just over 2,000 fans.
We are fortunate that we do not have many fixture clashes with Brighton & Hove Albion. When there has been conflicts in the past, we have tried to change our kick-off times so that we can try to accommodate those fans who support both clubs. Unfortunately, it is not always possible – we have to have the agreement of the League and our opponents. Whilst we may see the merits of a 7:45pm Friday night game, or a 12pm Sunday kick off, they normally don’t, so we have to play at the same time, knowing our car park will be full of Seagulls fans heading for the station for the 5 minute train journey to Falmer.
We decided to make the game all ticket. There were a number of reasons for this. Our capacity is limited, although due to changes in the whole health & safety, ground grading and licencing laws, we have never got to a point where we can say we are “full”. Secondly, we did not want to have to try to deal with hundreds of fans trying to pay at the turnstile five minutes before kick off. And finally, we wanted to not have to worry about having thousands of pounds floating around the ground. Two thousand two hundred tickets went on sale two weeks ago and yesterday the last one was sold. The game was officially a sell out.
You’d think everybody would be happy, right? Alas no. Putting aside the fact he is a Scotsman, our manager Garry Wilson wasn’t best pleased. He broke the news about securing this valuable friendly along the lines of “the good news is that I’ve got us a friendly against Brighton here….the bad news is that I am on holiday.” After a few minutes he broke our excited babble with “you are still thinking of the good news aren’t you?”. Cheer up Garry, I am sure Danny Bloor will do an excellent job…but what happens IF we win??
Oh, and have I mentioned the beer? Well, once again, ridiculous football laws in this country mean that alcohol couldn’t be consumed in sight of the pitch. FFS – it is a friendly. All the rule does is create absolute chaos and a very packed club house, leading to a more dangerous situation than if those having a beer could take it outside. Football authorities + logic = foreign language.
So after a few days of temperatures officially hotter than Greece (Gravesend 28 degrees at 12pm on Friday, 27 degrees Mykonos), the start of the 2014/15 season started with….rain. Lots of it. “It’s good for the garden” my Mum told me on the phone…but not particularly good for the 1,000 or so fans who would be without a cover this afternoon. Fortunately, an hour before kick off the sun was shining on the carpet-like Dripping Pan surface, Sky Sports News were capturing the mood of the afternoon and the ground was filing up nicely.
Our excitement so far had been around our new signings. We had somehow sneaked into the Tonbridge Angels Big Brother house this summer and came away with the signatures of a few of their players. Attack would be the best form of attack this season with three (THREE!) new strikers joining the club. Messers Wilson and Bloor had obviously been reading Kevin Keegan’s coaching manual during the summer, finally binning Otto Rehhagel’s 2004 Greek tactic book. Alas, being Non-League football, it wasn’t only Garry Wilson who was absent overseas – our new hot-shot centre-forward Terry Dodd was also enjoying his Club 18-30 holiday.
Having co-edited the world-famous, award-winning programme for this game (a sell out long before kick off I am pleased to say), it was time to not only grab the mic for this game but also to slip into twitter mode as a substitute for Orlando-bound Rookmeister. And where better to situate myself than between the two dugouts. If there was going to be 20-odd substitutes then I needed to know what was going on.
Lewes 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 5 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 5th July 2014
Rule number 1 of pre-season. It is all about the performance and not the result….assuming that you lose or draw to a team lower than you. Did we seriously think we could beat the Seagulls? In our hearts, yes. But our brains are in our heads and logic says that a team playing six levels above should win and potentially win with ease. And that is exactly what happened. Over 2,400 saw Brighton & Hove Albion win with ease, with football and the club’s bank balance the winners today.
The media hype was all about Hyypiä with Sky Sports bringing their cameras down. When you haven’t the rights to the World Cup, Wimbledon or the Tour de France then live coverage of headline sports is a bit difficult. Their loss was our gain. For the first thirty minutes the main talking point was how many times the new Brighton manager would jump up from his seat in the dug out and hit his head on the roof (five times in the first half).
Lewes certainly held their own during the opening period and could count themselves unlucky to go 1-0 down just after the half hour mark when Calderon turned in the ball at the far post after corner had eluded the 18 players in the penalty area. If that was unlucky, then LuaLua’s strike a few minutes later from distance to double the score certainly wasn’t.
The half-time whistle was the signal for a complete 11 man substitution by the Seagulls, which as the announcer made it a relatively straight forward second half for me. Less than a minute after the restart Craig Mackail-Smith scored a third (his father-in-law Barry Fry was in the crowd btw) and that killed off the game. Whilst Lewes toiled, the absence of graft players such as Walder and Nathan Crabb meant that it was always going to be a mountain to climb to get back into this game.
Two further goals from Goodwin put a one-sided gloss on the final score but there were no sad faces from the Lewes fans or management. Today was raising the profile of the club, and some kind words to the TV cameras from the new Brighton manager helped the cause no end. Our season starts in earnest when we finally get to see our opening fixture…or if we beat Hassocks on the 16th July.
Football is back…we’ve missed you. Don’t leave us again.