Tag Archives: Brighton

Placing the fans first at Lewes’ Dripping Pan

It’s shortly after 3.30pm on a glorious Saturday afternoon on the East Sussex South Downs. Under clear blue skies, Brighton & Hove Albion have just netted for the second time in their FA Cup 5th round tie against Coventry City.

But just five miles away, lowly 8th tier Lewes FC are leading as well in front of a respectable crowd of 591. This small Sussex town is steeped in history. It’s perhaps best known for hosting Britain’s largest annual 5th of November Bonfire Night as well as being home to Harvey’s Brewery, founded in 1790.

It’s also home to Lewes FC, nicknamed the Rooks. Founded in 1885, the club plays at the Dripping Pan ground and has come to represent everything that is great about non-league football.

Lewes has a genuine connection to its community and is giving local young talent a platform. Not to mention being an activist hub for social change and hosting large charity drives.

Fans, players and officials, home and away, are encouraged to donate to food banks

Equal pay

In 2017 Lewes became the first club (either professional or semi-pro) to pay equal wages to its mens’ and ladies first team players through the Equality FC campaign.

“The idea was driven by one or two of our directors who saw this as a real issue,” says chairman Stuart Fuller.

“We’re on a clear one club philosophy. We believe in shared resources, shared infrastructure.” That philosophy includes sharing everything from the same pitch to physios between both Rooks and Rookettes.

“Lewes is not a town or football club that will just sit back and accept unfairness and inequality. We’ve fought for a number of things over the years, whether that’s against Page 3 or betting in football. Or some of the crazy things the FA have done,” adds Fuller.

But up the road, the Seagulls’ rise up the football pyramid has not been good news for everybody and attendances at Lewes have dwindled.

“People forget that 10 years ago Brighton and Hove Albion were in the third tier of English football and playing at the Withdean Stadium, which holds 5,000 people,” Fuller points out.

“Today they’re in the Premier League, with a 30,000-seater stadium that is five minutes on the train from Lewes.”

West Ham fan to Dripping Pan

The Lewes head honcho is an amiable man even by the standards of non-league chairmen. His unpaid role begun in 2015 and has included all manner of jobs, from stretcher-bearer to kit-man. He combines this with a day job in the corporate world as a chief commercial officer.

Oddly, he had no connection to the club until being introduced by a friend in 2011 after becoming fed up with the Premier League.

Lewes are sponsored by the Equality FC campaign

“I’m a West Ham fan and I was one of the few to see the light with what was going on there, long before what’s happening now,” he explains.

“I just got really disenfranchised by the whole thing. I still wanted to watch my football so I went and saw a number of clubs. I didn’t even know where Lewes was, but I went to see it and absolutely loved it.”

The main gripe Fuller has about the Premier League is how it’s becoming less and less about the football and is now purely concerned with business. He argues that fans of Man United still gloat to their City rivals about being a bigger club based on finances alone, despite being inferior on the pitch.

“If you look at how that (revenue) is made up, less than a third of it is from match days. The rest is all about TV deals and commercial rights. That’s nothing to do with football.”

Fuller time

He offers a stark example of how the days of clubs belonging to fans are over: “Clubs could play in front of empty stadiums and they would still make millions!”

It’s a  valid point when you consider that out of the £581m Man United generated in 2017, approximately £474m came from commercial and broadcast deals. That’s why Fuller hasn’t been to a Premier League match since 2014.

Brighton’s AMEX Stadium opened in 2011

I’m intrigued by this outlook from someone with a professional background in business, but not entirely surprised. Fuller has written extensively about his love of the beautiful game in his memoir, The Football Tourist.

Football has taken him around the world. On his blog, The Ball is Round, he has kept a list of every match he’s attended since September 6 2006, when he watched England beat Macedonia 1-0 away in Skopje. He’s a football fanatic, pure and simple.

“I work in a commercial environment and I’m responsible for a company with a fair few million in revenue and I’m quite rightly looking at ways of making as much revenue as I possibly can,” he says frankly.

“But I don’t do it in a way where I’m disrespecting my clients.” That’s why Fuller feels that the instinct to put fans first is incompatible with the Premier League’s corporate-serving interests.

“What I’m trying to do in business is I’m trying to grow my clients with me and make them successful. That makes me successful. Football is just so alien to that,” he grumbles.

“Interestingly enough, at the non-league level, that principle still exists. We’re trying to make our customers, our fans, have the best possible experience when they come to watch us.”

Beach hut bonanza

The million dollar question is how to do that without all the money washing around.

“More often than not we can’t control what goes on on the pitch. Yes we’ve got a good side, but we could have a poor referee or the weather could be shocking and it stops us playing the way we want to play. But off the field,” he adds, “on the terraces, we influence everything there and it’s about creating this fan experience.”

That philosophy in itself is nothing new, but a look at Lewes FC makes other teams around their level seem conformist. Sometimes, Fuller says, you need to input a bit of fun into how you do things.

All four beach huts occupied for a match

What started out as an April Fool’s joke was inadvertently well-received by the fans. Beach huts soon became a feature at their 132-year-old ground, The Dripping Pan.

With fridges to keep the booze cold and heaters to keep feet warm, not to mention wifi, Lewes FC’s take on hospitality has proved hugely popular. And of course, that means turning a tidy profit for the club too.

Fuller’s enthusiasm for football is plain, but it’s impossible to forget he is also a businessman and everything has it’s purpose.

“They (four beach huts) cost us initially about £1000 each to fit out. We charge £150 per game (£50 for Ladies fixtures) for them. They’re great, they work and they generate lots of revenue for us.”

Aiming for the League?

The quirks don’t stop there. The match posters and programmes feature some rather novel artwork created in-house by one of the club’s directors. It’s a minute detail but something that makes them distinguishable from the multitude of other teams based nearby.

After relegation to the Isthmian Division One South in 2016, and a poor start to the new season, some were unhappy with how things were going. “Some of the fans were saying ‘right we need to change the manager’,” Fuller recalls. He, however, disagreed.

“We were working to a three-year plan with our man. So we came out and said ‘look, we’ve had enough of sacking managers. We’re backing him’.”

The manager was former Brighton and Fulham winger Darren Freeman and he remains at the helm to this day. “Darren’s got us here with the core of the same team that we had three years ago. It’s just about the younger players being given an opportunity,” says Fuller.

Currently perched at the top of the table, there’s a quiet confidence that they will soon be reinstated to the Isthmian Premier League, the third-tier of so-called ‘non-league’.

Ambition

As for the third-tier women’s side the Rookettes, they’ve been going from strength to strength. An FA Cup run became the source of huge local excitement after they beat Huddersfield Town, and went on to reach the fifth round.

The Rookettes’ home tie against Everton drew a crowd of almost 1000 people. The wealth of positivity, however, wasn’t enough to stop Super League 1 side Everton running out 6-0 winners at the Dripping Pan.

A poster to advertise the fixture against Tooting & Mitcham FC

So what is the ultimate ambition for the club? They only have to look five miles south to see a shiny example of just how far football can take you in a relatively short period of time.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re trying to emulate them (Brighton). I think it would be very difficult. Not impossible, but difficult to support League football. You would lose so much of what is special about the club and the ground.

“We would have to do huge amounts of work to bring that ground up to league standard. You wouldn’t be able to take drinks outside the bar, segregation, all those types of things. The ground really isn’t set up for that.”

But far from being stuck in the past, the club, and its patrons, are evidently progressive even by the standards of this liberal area.

Solar powered

A cluster of solar panels on the roof of the main stand, not only power offices in the day time but actually feed energy back into the National Grid, something totally unique for a football club in Britain.

An electronic sign behind the goal displays how much energy is being produced. The panels are owned not by the club, but by individual investors who receive a share of the feed-in tariff to the Grid.

“We’ve got plans to do further development work when the money is in place that will certainly bring parts of the ground into the 21st century, adds Fuller.

“But to me, Lewes is a non-league club and I want to see Lewes get to the highest level of non-league. I want to see us going up against Tranmere, Wrexham, people like that. But that’s three promotions away so we’d certainly have to do it over a course of time.”

But Lewes do have time on their side. Having the patience to let coaches impart their philosophy and placing the fans first allows them to plan for the long-term. Many other clubs could learn from the club’s sustainable strategy.

LISTEN: Elephant Sport’s EFL Podcast is back!

Aaron Paul and Shannon Gambling dissect the weekend’s action whilst looking at managerial movements within England’s second tier.

There is also a brief look at the plights of Charlton Athletic and Leyton Orient.

Audio clips from Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic is  available in the link below – courtesy of BBC Radio London

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Slavisa Jokanovic chats to BBC Radio London after Fulham’s 3-1 win over Newcastle United:

Football’s beautiful nitty, gritty side

Ten miles from the 30,000 padded seats of Brighton and Hove Albion’s AMEX Stadium, sits Leylands Park, the home to Ryman Premier side Burgess Hill Town.

Last weekend I swapped AMEX for a small terrace and the smells of hot burgers and crisp lager to watch the Hillians, as they’re nicknamed.

I even managed to get a cup of Bovril and large chips for £2.50 – now that wouldn’t get you very far at the AMEX…

Yes, the facilities aren’t quite up to Championship standard, but what Leylands Park has in spades is a sense of community, of friends and families who work hard for and take pride in their local club.

“You get to see the other side of football, the nitty gritty. A lot of people at our club put a lot of unpaid, hard work in,” Hillians manager Ian Chapman told me.

“We as a team, try to be successful for them, we want to give back, because they deserve it. All the work they put in, that’s their reward if we do well for them”.

High tempo

The turnstiles at Leylands Park

And rewarded the fans and staff truly were this weekend, with an exciting 3-2 victory over Jimmy Bullard’s Leatherhead.

My first experience of Ryman Premier football brought five goals, cheap refreshments, sunshine and a game of high tempo football. Oh, and surprisingly no bookings!

The standard may not be exactly that of Brighton down the road, but there are similar traits on show: pace, passion and determination to name a few.

Believe it or not, there is a world outside of elite football, a world in which many stars of today have risen.

The likes of Chris Smalling, Charlie Austin and Jamie Vardy are all now excelling at the highest level after starting out in the non-league game.

Big names in non-league

“Look at Greg Leur who we sold to Hull, there’s some good names and good footballers in non-league these days. We’ve got that with an ex-Brighton player on loan with us; Dean Cox,” said former Seagulls defender Chapman.

jimmy bullard
Jimmy Bullard gets his point across

There are plenty of current big names in non-league football too, including the likes of Jimmy Bullard at Leatherhead and Gary andf Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt at Salford City.

Just to watch these ex-pros and current coaches from close up on the sidelines can give any fan an invaluable insight into football.

Especially when it comes to seeing and hearing the touchline antics and choice words from the likes of Bullard himself.

Better yet, you can even share a pint or two with these players and managers afterwards.

“By being in non-league football, you’ll get more affiliation with the players for example in bar afterwards and around the club,” Chapman explained.

Give it a go

Every fan should take advantage when their professional clubs stop for the international break; go out and see the ‘nitty, gritty’ beautiful side of football at non-league level, where every penny counts.

“It’s everything you want from football, and those people have come back”

In certain areas of Brighton’s stadium you can pay up to £42 for a seated ticket. Add that to the bill of £12 to park your car at the ground and already you’ve gone way over £50 before eyeing up the pricey pie (£4.20) and pint (£4.30).

Its £10 for adults and £6 for concessions at Burgess Hill, with the ability to stand and watch the football (something you’re not supposed to do at the AMEX). Oh, and there’s free parking at the ground, too.

Chapman would “love” to see more people at Leylands Park.

“If local league clubs like Brighton and Crawley are playing away and people are at a loose end, I’d love to see more people come down to have a look and see what they think

We’ve had that this season, proper games of football, end to end, excitement, goals, tackles and bookings. It’s everything you want from football and those people have come back”.

Community matters

Clubs at Burgess Hill’s level do genuinely care about their fans, their community – it’s visible.

“We’re a community club, we get 300-400 at home and I’d like to think they get entertainment and value for money,” Chapman added.

Realistically, a club of Burgess Hill’s size do have a ceiling of how far up the football pyramid they can hope to go, but as long as they are “always looking to improve” as Chapman puts it, and give back to the community, they’re achieving their goals.

Burgess Hill warm up at Leylands Park

“The chairman would love to get to the Conference South,” admitted the Burgess Hill gaffer. “However he knows at the moment, the club isn’t geared up to do that. Financially, we’ve got to establish ourselves.”

But the opportunities to continue to improve are there for the club.

Burgess Hill has a good catchment area of around 40,000 people. Chapman believes the club has the base to have “decent crowds of 600-700 each week” providing the side are doing well.

The attendance does appear to be ever growing for the Mid-Sussex side, who are on a current 10-game unbeaten run.

Last weekend saw one of the highest crowds of the season; 482, with another high turnout expected for this weekend’s home clash against National League Dover in the FA Cup.

Chapman admitted honestly: ‘The opportunity is there to get to the Conference South, but it probably would be the maximum for the club.

“When I first joined, they were second from bottom in the league below (Ryman South). I’ve had four seasons, and this is my fifth.

“In that time we finished 8th in my first season, 6th the next, missing out narrowly on the play-offs and in my third season, we won the league, gaining promotion to the Ryman Premier.

“In this league last season we finished bottom four, but managed to stay up. This season the aim is to finish in the top half. It’s always about improving and getting better”.

Youth recruitment is essential

For a club in the Ryman Premier, it’s about making use of your resources, in this case; the community.

The Hillians’ youth recruitment is a huge part of that, as I saw at the weekend. At least four players in the starting XI were brought through the youth set-up.

“Not only could you spot the next Jamie Vardy, you’ll get your money’s worth of football, which is of a much higher standard and tempo than you might expect”

“We have to work hard on our youth set-up and recruitment at this level. We’ve had two youth team lads in the squad so far this season; one started in FA Cup last round, 17 year old goalkeeper, he was fantastic,” said Chapman.

Curtis Gayler, another youth product and just 16 years old, has appeared twice already this season for Burgess Hill.

“It’s important we keep bringing through the youth players. We always need to keep finding homegrown talent – it’s important to us as a community club.”

Chapman added the most rewarding aspect of his job as a manager is “seeing youth flourish”.

Personally, I’m sold. Not only is non-league much more affordable, it’s also a reminder of where football began, at the heart of our communities, with every penny counting and clubs wanting to give back.

Not only could you spot the next Jamie Vardy, you’ll get your money’s worth of football, which is of a much higher standard than you might expect.

The next international break comes on the weekend of 12th November, and I’d strongly urge you to go and sample the beautiful delights of the non-league game.