LIfe in the gutter

Hope is a viable strategy for many football clubs – in fact for many it is the only strategy. It’s a motto, held together by duck tape, that underpins the grass-roots of our beautiful game. That’s not to stop the dreamers dreaming. As Oscar (Wilde not the Chelsea midfielder) famously said, “we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars”. Today we were most certainly looking up at the stars.

Our day started at 8am discussing the future of the football club surrounded by history and tradition. Our home for the first part of the day was The Royal Oak, just a stone’s throw from Lewes Station,  where back on Wednesday 23rd September 1885 our football club was formed. In an article published in the Sussex Agricultural Express a few days later, it was reported under the headline “Formation of a Football Club” that a meeting the previous Wednesday at The Royal Oak Public House, chaired by Mr J Plummer Chapman had seen the created of Lewes Football Club and that “The Dripping Pan would be available for football matches during the winter months. Over 130 years later and we are still going, with the Pan now being one of the oldest 20 football grounds in the world used continuously by the same club.

FullSizeRender (1)One hundred and thirty years later, our objective was to create a strategy for the next five years for the club. In some ways we had to thank our lucky stars we had made it this far, having come so close to letting unbridled (and some might say unfounded) ambition take the club away from us. Just like any organisation in the commercial world, we need to have a clear vision, a set of objectives and a framework for growth. We may be tiny when compared to Premier League clubs but our ambitions boil down to the same thing – progress. The difference is that we have to grow within our means and in a sustainable manner, with every programme we sell mattering whilst they can just sit back and watch some of that £1bn a year TV money roll in, not even caring today that they have priced out a generation of fans.

Creating a strategic plan that everyone buys into don’t just happen overnight. An initial strategy was created back in 2010 when the football club passed into community ownership under the leadership of the original Rooks125 group. Most of those initial objectives have been met during the last 5 1/2 years with Charlie and Ed the two remaining members on the board from the original six. The new plan would see us through to 2020 as well as providing a framework for growth past that date, where it is hoped we will have more willing individuals invested in the club.

I took on the initial task of drafting the first draft of the new plan. It’s quite daunting to start writing such a document, having to balance the core, day-to-day tasks with trying to find the inspiration, aspiration and perspiration for growth. You look for clues from other clubs but have to be mindful that you don’t want to simply copy something someone else does – one size certainly doesn’t fit all. I’m used to having to write strategies for others in my other life, being a paid outsider looking in on the business models created by others, making recommendations for improvements and hammering home the point that they, not me, have to own the actions. A strategy without owners prepared to make changes and buying into the vision is simply a word document with pretty pictures.

Some fans may question why we need a strategy – we are after all a football club – our only objective games should be to win games. If only that was the truth. Others simply lament for the free spending, couldn’t give a toss about what happens tomorrow, days gone by. The work that goes on behind the scenes will never be enough for them. But for the majority of our 1,200 owners they want to know that the club is in good hands, not just today but years into the future. That’s what today was all about. Assessing whether the ways we did things today were the right ways, and right things as well as looking for other ways to grow the club.  No idea was a bad one (even some of Ed’s ones).  The football club has many moving parts such as our community work, our ownership model, our commercial proposition, our 3G and our Academy as well as our footballing sides.  Each is somewhere intertwined with another, so creating a plan for one, would have a knock-on on another.

1_NeedhamMarket2015-282x400As a group we have differing visions of where we could and should be and what our motivations were for sitting around the table in the first place. We have different backgrounds, different skill sets, different strengths and different temperaments – as the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your fellow board members in a democratically elected organisation. Or something like that anyway. But we all are gathered in the same place at silly o’clock on a match day to discuss the same thing. What can we do to make the future of this football club better.

Strategising over, and safe in the knowledge that we think we were heading in the right direction it was time for some football.  To turn again to Wilde, Lewes came into this game well and truly in the gutter but recent form had seen us not only looking but in the words of S Club 7, reaching for the stars. Unbeaten in 2016 versus a side who had just one win since mid-November and had slid down the table to sit just above the relegation zone. It made a welcome change that we weren’t looking to the stars for signs of poor weather for what seemed like the first time in weeks. A Rooks win and we’d not quite be breathing down Needham Market’s neck but we’d be sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend in preparation.

Lewes 0 Needham Market 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 6th February 2016
After our enthusiasm at looking into the future, the present was a little more like the weather.  Dreary.  A point and a clean sheet would have been a good result a few months ago.  Today it is a small step up a big mountain.  The frustration was we did enough to win the game, and should have been celebrating another win tonight, especially as the linesman’s flag to deny Jonte Smith’s late effort was proved to be wrong on the edited highlights (in fact it was the only second half highlight).

FullSizeRender (3)The conditions were tricky, but it was the same for both sides.  The visitors started the brighter, with centre-forward Michael Brothers proving a real handful for the Lewes defence, and it was his strength and determination that should have seen Needham go in one-nil up at the break but his cross shot failed to hit the target.  A second half change to an all-energy front four by Darren Freeman tantilised the biggest crowd of the day in the Ryman Leagues but never quite troubled the visitor’s keeper, with Smith’s disallowed goal proving to be the major talking point.

Other results at the foot of the table meant we actually gained points on teams above the relegation zone in the most part, and didn’t fall any further behind.  With a game against Dulwich Hamlet to come on Wednesday the unthinkable could still happen.  Even our strategic plan can’t call that one.

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