Lewes football club doesn’t give you a gentle tap on the shoulder or wave from across the room, it makes a beeline for you and locks you in a soothing bear hug as soon as you walk through the door. Like a mug of soup cradled between frostbitten hands on a winter’s night, there’s something about the club that just makes you feel good and warm inside.
Vegan-friendly, environmentally conscious, feminist, dog-loving Lewes FC is a mix of Forest Green and St. Pauli. The club has an almighty reach across the footballing world, with members from 26 different countries (and as you’ll be told, you too can become an owner from as little as £40 a year). There is something so deeply wholesome about the club. You might even spy a charitable flyer on the tables of the Rook Inn (the small bar between the terraces and pie shop – “You must try the pies!”) for Lewes open door or something equally as community based and vital.
The club’s history is well documented: the near collapse and ensuing fan-ownership initiative that not just saved the club but saw it become a train for social change, blowing through each station along the way.
Literally just around the corner from Lewes Station, the Dripping Pan – the club’s home since 1893 – could be any non-league ground in the country from the terraces behind each goal, to the solitary squat stand running the length of the pitch, to the obligatory stationary van that sells chips and burgers (in Lewes’ case: the Chuck Wagon). The pitch, like the head of an aging fan, will have patches of thinning turf – partly from use, partly from the weather and partly due to the budget. On match days, fans will scatter themselves from the terraces to the seats to the raised and railed walkway that runs parallel to the stand, a brass band in attendance with at least one well-fed football-supporting dog patiently occupying a patch of concrete.
Results wise, the team is no galactico. The scant pieces of silverware accrued by the team pre-date the players and the majority of the fans. But the humble little team from Sussex rally around their own community and the ownership model has allowed out of the box thinking, empowering the club to act for those who support it as well as the wider community. As marketing director and one of the last remaining members of the Rooks125 (six supporters who took the club from the brink to a fan-owned entity), Charlie Dobres has become Mr. Lewes.
Dobres is a key voice not just in the Equality FC work that ensures pay parity across Lewes’ men’s and women’s teams – an initiative that has seen the club ripple into the mainstream consciousness – but in the initiatives that have made Lewes FC what it is today. As he recalls, when the club moved into the hands of the fans, the first shirt “sponsor” was in fact the local hospital who were in need of support and fundraising.
Day to day
The grandiose Equality FC and recent HeForShe award only tell part of the story of the club that exists as a beating heart of the community. Even whilst sitting and chatting to John Peel (one of the board of directors, not the legendary DJ) about the more prominent initiatives of the club, we were interrupted by a volunteer (one of the 95 or so who give their time to the club) who needed to talk to him about the plumbing. The club is still very much a footballing one with the same pedestrian day to day operations.
Away from the pay parity and the plumbing, the club pledges so much to its community, from the recently set up women’s walking football session to the long-standing football therapy (free drop-in football sessions for anyone with mental well-being issues). The club even has a row of solar panels on top of the stands and manages to generate more solar power than the ultra green Forest Green Rovers.
Of the people, for the people
For a club that does so much, like giving season tickets away to local refugee organisations because as Peel says, “We know that the idea of coming to a new community and not being able to adapt quickly is a big thing and we know our responsibilities and it’s the right message we want to portray.” It would be easy enough for Lewes FC to come across as self-righteous or sickeningly pious but the overwhelming feeling is of friendliness and care.
The board refuses to lose touch and most members will spend their weekends milling around the ground, talking to fans, owners and volunteers, taking in their concerns as they take in the match. As football moves further and further from what it once was, Lewes stands out as a club that isn’t ashamed to care or use its profile for good, “zigging where others zag.”
As the women’s team ready themselves to face the might of full-time, Champions League semi-finalists Chelsea this weekend, the Continental Cup will see one of its biggest mismatches, both on and off the pitch.
But if you’re heading down to the Dripping Pan on Saturday, don’t forget to try the pies.