Few promotion parties have been as damp a squib as Lewes' and, as Joel Abraham explains, it's been all downhill from there
How do you reward a promotion-winning team? In Lewes’s case, you sack the manager and sell the entire squad. The Rooks’ first ever Blue Square Premier game against Kidderminster Harriers saw ten of the starting XI making their debuts, led by a manager who had never managed before. Four months and 12 defeats later, they are rock bottom of the league, and will in all likelihood be returning to the Blue Square South considerably worse off than when they left it.
Lewes’s final game of 2007-08, a 3‑0 win against Weston-super-Mare that confirmed them as runaway champions with 89 points, will live long in the memory. Manager Steve King should have been basking in an astounding and historic season, but was instead fighting back tears as he said goodbye to the fans and players.
Days before, the board had chosen to renege on a verbally agreed second year of King’s contract, forcing him out of the club at considerable expense. Given that King had taken Lewes from the Ryman Division One South to the Blue Square Premier in just five years, the atmosphere was more like that of a wake than a celebration. King’s dismissal had, for many, ruined the greatest day in the history of the club.
The board claimed that King’s management of Lewes was financially unsustainable, but the sceptics say that his departure was down to a personality clash with the board. King, a football purist, never saw eye-to-eye with directors with a history in property development, who seem to care more about Lewes as a business than a team.
The fans’ outrage was compounded when King’s replacement was named as Kevin Keehan, the outgoing commercial manager at neighbouring Brighton & Hove Albion, and also the nephew of Albion chairman Dick Knight. Keehan’s management CV began and ended with the Horsham YMCA football team, and he did little to inspire confidence by turning up to his first training session in full Albion training gear.
Lewes soon discovered that the players’ loyalties were with King, rather than the club. They were consequently faced with the departure of most of their title-winning squad, bar 35-year-old defender Anthony Barness. The suspicions are that Lewes have now become an Albion reserve side. To add insult to injury, Steve King has recently been appointed manager of fellow strugglers Northwich Victoria.
With promotion came the sizeable burden of stadium improvements. The club have been given a year to refurbish the magnificently named Dripping Pan up to A-grade, the standard necessary to avoid automatic demotion. £1 million has already been spent on achieving a B-grade, and an additional £250,000 is required.
Needless to say, money is scarce. At the last home game, a mere 100 burgers were available, the club bar was only restocked thanks to donations from fans, and the batteries in the broken scoreboard haven’t been changed for weeks. Lewes has 16,000 residents, but the club’s hinterland support is severely limited by the fact that League One Albion are just down the road. Huge sums being pumped into improving facilities for a mere 600 paying spectators watching footballers picking up £500 per week is a frightening prospect for a club of Lewes’s size.
Investment is badly needed and there is clamour for a fan-led consortium to buy the club and reinstate King as manager. The board’s financial management is cause for major concern, with rumours that they had assumed they would qualify for the FA Cup first round, and had budgeted accordingly. The proverbial hit the fan after an embarrassing 3-1 home defeat in the fourth qualifying round at the hands of Leiston, the lowest-ranked team left, costing the club £32,500. Keehan, who allegedly didn’t bother to scout the opposition, admitted in the aftermath: “We should have won and brought much needed revenue in.”
The club have been put up for sale with alleged debts of tens of thousands of pounds. A statement read: “Although prudent budgets were set, circumstances have left the club to review the position.” The board will have to choose their buyer carefully, due to involvement in a £5m scheme to develop the town into a centre of sporting excellence, which may be a jeopardised by a change of ownership.
They therefore insist that they will only sell to an owner who will put the club’s interests first, with nearby Crawley Town providing a stark reminder of the dangers of football takeovers. Crawley were sold to local businessmen a few years back, who ran up debts of £1m within a year, leading to administration and points deduction. Lewes’s debt is not insurmountable by any means, but finding a responsible buyer is a tall order indeed. The fear remains that without investment, Lewes may go bust.
From WSC 263 January 2009