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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.