Lewes pay for success
Thursday 12 March ~
When Kevin Keehan found himself vacating the manager’s office at Conference strugglers Lewes on March 11, it was the culmination of one of the most extraordinary tales of mismanagement that British football has seen for some time. Former Chelsea youth coach Steve King did a remarkable job in his five years as Lewes manager, taking the club from a town of 16,000 people in East Sussex into the Conference at the end of last season. But it was already known that chairman Terry Parris was concerned about the club's financial health and wanted to replace the current squad with younger, cheaper players. Even as King lifted the trophy – in tears, surrounded by his players – he probably knew that his contract would not be renewed. On the last day of 2007-08, he was removed.
The board’s excuses were novel, at least: director Martin Elliot claimed that the club’s recent habit of getting promotions – King had taken them up three levels – meant that they were spending too much on keeping the ground in line with FA guidelines and on upgrading the playing staff. The entire first-team squad (barring veteran defender Anthony Barness, easily their best known player) duly followed King out.
New manager Kevin Keehan was the figurehead of a "sponsorship consortium" which included Sussex-born Gareth Barry. Keehan had previously worked as commercial director of Brighton, but had no tangible experience of club management. When he finally resigned on March 11, the club were 19 points from safety at the bottom of the league with a first team including several youth players. At least there was no repeat of the 9-0 drubbing Weymouth’s kids suffered at the hands of Rushden – Keehan’s last game in charge saw Lewes lose just 2-1 to the same opponents. The team is nonetheless on a 14-match losing streak in the Blue Square Premier, without a victory since mid-December 2008.
There is justifiable concern about what will happen to Lewes back in the Conference South in 2009-10 with little cash to bring in new first-team players. The club were knocked out of all four of their cup competitions by teams in lower leagues this season and were humiliated in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup by lowly Leiston, four divisions beneath them.
Surprisingly, most fans place little blame with chairman Terry Parris, who has been striving to secure new investment for some time. But with limited potential for expanding, Lewes are simply not an appealing prospect to investors and administration is likely. Perhaps the only real ray of light comes from the youth team – two prospects David Wheeler and Matt Whitehead have been called up to the England schoolboys team. At the time of writing the two under-18 coaches, Jason Hopkinson and Steve Ibbotson, seem most likely to take over the first team. Nevertheless, unless new financial backing can be found for the Rooks, Lewes FC risk becoming yet another casualty of a growing trend for football clubs to pay players far more than they can afford. Matt Gregory
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