The Price of Progress: Lewes FC

Progress is not necessarily a good thing. Lewes Football Club, who won promotion to England’s Conference (the fifth tier of English football) this week, are proof of that.

Lewes is a very, very small and rather charming town, the capital of my home county, East Sussex. With a population of around 16,000, nestled in the natural beauty of the South Down hills not far from the sea, it’s best known for its Guy Fawkes night fireworks rather than its football team. Lewes Castle gives the team its nickname, the Rooks, and its outstanding brewer Harveys provides the delicious beer served in the bar at the stadium, the delightfully named Dripping Pan.

When I went back home to Sussex last Christmas and made the trip from Brighton to Lewes to watch a match there, the locals seemed bemused by my choice. “You came all the way here and you’re going to see Lewes play footballl?”, one lady exclaimed in utter bemusement.

Lewes Outside the ground

The match was enjoyable. For less than a third of a price to watch my hometown club Brighton and Hove Albion, I had a better supporter experience: I was not squeezed into a tiny, overpriced plastic seat miles from the action in an all-seater stadium. Instead, there was open terracing where fans could gather together and sing, chat and even drink reasonably-priced beer sold in the clubhouse overlooking the pitch.

The rolling grass banks on one side gave the place a relaxed feel, as Lewes comfortably dispatched the soon-to-be-famous Havant & Waterlooville 4-0. It turned out to be a key win on Lewes’ way to winning the Conference South, and thus promotion to Conference National. This will mean big changes off the field: within a year, the stadium will have to be upgraded further to meet minimum requirements for the Conference. This will probably mean the end of the grass banks and beer on the terraces.

Lewes Away Fans

But the most shocking change has already apparently happened: after guiding Lewes to promotion, rumours began to fly that Steve King, the manager, has already been told he won’t be retained next season. New investors have taken over and want to bring in their own man, as Lewes’ ambition seems to have gotten the better of them.

As Lewes collected the trophy for their title win last weekend, blogger Ian King (no relation) reports that Steve King burst into tears and was engulfed by his squad, many of whom are expected to follow him out of the door. Meanwhile, the crowd booed the club’s benefactor. Lewes is a small place, and sustaining crowds over 1,000 when your population is only 16,000 is no mean feat; pissing off half of them doesn’t seem much like progress to me.

Ian King asks and answers the key question: “Can Lewes FC afford to alienate its hardcore support? I would venture that this might turn out the make next season even longer than it was going to be before.”

It’s a shame that promotion has already brought tears to the Dripping Pan.

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