Bank Holiday Monday and the Rooks are off down the A27 for a local derby against our friends from Bognor Regis Town. Our record on the road hasn’t been that great this season, with just three wins away from The Dripping Pan. That doesn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of our loyal away fans. Even an away trip on a Tuesday in early January to Leiston, the most remote place on the Ryman Premier League map, still saw a hardcore of our fans make the trip, more in hope rather than confidence based on our form this season. Based on our last two seasons visits to our closest rivals, the Rooks will be cheered on by around 75 fans today, around about the same number that followed Lewes to VCD Athletic last week. Whilst that may not sound like a bit absolute number, compare it to our average home crowd.
We currently average 486 fans at The Dripping Pan. Let’s be generous and say 36 of those are away fans (and I am being very generous for 70% of the clubs in our league) meaning our regular, average home support is 450 fans. So a support on the road of 75 is 17%. How many sides, whether Premier League, Football League or Non-League could boast 17% of their home attendance follow their side on the road? Granted, there are a few clubs, but having seen away followings from Football League clubs in some instances not reaching three figures I’d say that Non-League fans are just as passionate as their bigger brothers. But the difference between the two sets of fans is realism.
There seems to be a growing trend of professional clubs, in some kind of misguided knee-jerk reactionary way, to offer fans a refund should their side fail to perform on the pitch away from home. The beauty of football, especially in the Non-Leagues is that sometimes anything can happen. Should we come away from Bognor Regis Town with a sore backside after a spanking, we will dust ourselves down, ready for the game next weekend away at Metropolitan Police. Sure, the Fans Forum will go into overdrive for a few days but most of our fans keep a sense of perspective. But the one thing they will never start demanding is a refund.
Gary Andrews, one of the best football writers in the land, recently wrote a piece in When Saturday Comes about this growing trend a few months ago. We’ve all been to away games where it seems it has only been the fans who have turned up, but that’s what we sign up for as football fans – crushing disappointment and more than not, a great day out spoilt by 90 minutes of turgid football.
So why do clubs feel the need to offer such gestures? In some ways, the offer to refund the fans, such as the gesture made by the Sunderland players after they lost 8-0 to Southampton, rumoured to be in the region of £60k, highlights the huge golf between the wages the players earn and the world the fan lives in. Assuming 20 people contributed, how many people could afford to simply donate £3k as a penance for doing their job poorly once? Likewise, what would have happened if that result would have occurred at The Stadium of Light in front of 40,000? Would the fans have been compensated then? I doubt it.
Daniel Taylor, the Guardian football writer, wrote in the aftermath of Millwall’s defeat to Bradford, which resulted in the travelling Lions fans being offered a refund, that buying a football ticket never comes with a guarantee of performance. Last season West Ham were humiliated away from home not once, but twice in a matter of days in front of the TV cameras and a global audience at Nottingham Forest and Manchester City (not forgetting a similar performance live on TV at West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup back in February). Perhaps it was because of the low expectations of the fans under Allardyce, Sullivan and Gold but there were no calls for refunds, nor were any forthcoming for the 5-0 and 6-0 drubbings.
In the same vein, perhaps teams who travel to the likes of Stamford Bridge, The Etihad or Old Trafford should refund their fans if they win against the odds? You won’t find many Bradford City fans complaining that they humiliated Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, yet if they had lost 7 or 8 nil perhaps they would have been clamouring for their money back?
We’ve seen our share of poor away day displays in the last few years but even the wrath of Big Deaksy’s Saturday night tweets haven’t yet called for refunds for the Lewes Lunatic Fringe. A 5-0 half time score line a few years ago on a chilly Monday night at Wealdstone had Cynical Dave shouting more about the lack of dry roasted peanuts than the abject performance on the pitch, whilst the three goals in the first ten minutes scored by Oxford City in November’s FA Trophy game saw the fans moaning about the lack of chips rather than the defending. Non-League fans travel more in hope than expectation, and that is why a call for refunds will fall on deaf ears. I did try to placate a few of the fans who made the trip to Witham Town in the FA Cup back in September with an offer of a beer in lieu of the shocking 4-2 defeat although with only Fosters and John Smiths on offer in their club bar, few took up the option. As the famous strap line goes for financial products, past results are no guarantee of future performance.
After the last gasp defeat on Saturday against Harrow Borough, our league status was still precarious as we headed westwards to Bognor. A defeat and we would be sucked right into the relegation mire. A win, and whisper this quietly, we could rise to 15th in the league which would be our highest league position since the opening day of the season.
Bognor Regis 1 Lewes 2 – Nywood Lane – Monday 6th April 2015
The pre-match mood in Wetherspoons, Bognor Regis’s premium tourist attraction, was upbeat. Despite our poor away form, there was something in the air that we simply put down to Romain Fever. Elliott had been missing for the past six games after his mad five minutes at Canvey Island saw him pick up potentially the goal of the season award for a stunning strike, his 15th yellow card and then his second red. Young George Brook had seen the signs in his morning cereal – Lewes to win 2-0 with Elliott and Wheeler to score the goals.
With the shirt-sleeves in order for the first time since August last year, Lewes produced possibly their best away display of the season, despite arriving with a depleted squad. Injuries during the game to Chris Breach and Aarron Hopkinson meant that The Rooks finished the game with three 17 year olds on the pitch, valiantly defending a single goal lead. After a first half full of huff and puff without much in the way of goal mouth action, the second burst into life just three minutes after the restart.
A deep cross saw the Bognor Regis keeper Winterton overstretch and drop the ball at the feet of Blewden who reacted quickly, hooking the ball back for Romain to head home. One became two three minutes later when Romain turned his marker from a quickly taken throw-in and slotted home at the far post. The Lewes fans behind the goal were pinching themselves. Away goals have been at a premium this season and this was only the third time we had scored more than once away from home. A glance at the in-play league table saw us hit the heady heights of 15th. Our work was done. All we had to do was defend for 39 minutes like our lives depended on it.
It was inevitable that ex-Rook Terry Dodd would pay us back for letting him go in the Autumn as he pulled a goal back with thirty minutes to go. Lewes rode the pressure and could have scored a third themselves when Hopkinson’s shot flashed across the edge of the box. Then with five minutes to go, disaster. Dodd was adjudged to have been fouled by Elphick in the box. Lewes Assistant Manager Dave Jupp suggested to Rikki Banks that Prior would hit the ball to his left. He dived left and saved magnificently.
The drama wasn’t over. In injury time, Elphick was penalised again, this time on the line of the penalty box. Prior had to content with a solid wall of red and black but still managed to curl it around them but the ball cannoned off the post. Full time.
There would be no calls for refunds tonight. “Well done Mr Chairman” was the first text I saw when I looked at my phone (Thanks Mum). It had been a difficult 24 hours as a couple of others at the club would atest to. But tactics, passion and above all believe had won the day.