It was always likely that a day out in a brewery town – and not just any brewery town, but a brewery town set in a beautiful National Park, no less – would have no shortage of volunteers, and so it proved, as no fewer than eight intrepid adventurers line up for the short trip to Lewes. In this particular instance, it’s not exaggerating to describe ourselves as intrepid adventurers given that the weather was truly extraordinary: flurries of snow carried by a Siberian wind, so cold that it was actually managing to settle in the normally tropical central London streets. The mood upon meeting up for breakfast near Clapham Junction station was downbeat – how could any non-league game survive these conditions? So it was an extremely pleasant surprise to find out at 10:30 that the pitch had passed its inspection and that the match would go ahead after all. It was also a very well-timed piece of news, coming as the eight of us stood shivering on the platform watching the train to Lewes arriving.
Buoyed by the unexpected bonus of actually having a football match to attend – that, in other words, we were indeed embarking upon a football away day rather than simply an away day – several of the group tucked into the beers on the journey. What none of the drinkers had bothered to find out was the fairly crucial fact of how long this train journey was, and as such they’d been over-ambitious in their alcoholic purchases. In particular, the look on Matt’s face as the guard announced “the train is now arriving at Lewes” was a picture, given that he still had an entire can of ale to drink. Those of us who’d abstained on the journey down were more than a little smug for the next half an hour or so, given that Lewes is famous for its beers. It even trumpets this fact from the station!
The first stop was the Lewes Arms, one of the prettiest pubs anywhere, let alone in Lewes. The first bloke I bumped into at the bar was a perfect example of the sort of people you meet in Lewes. Spotting our K’s scarves, he immediately asked who we supported, how we were doing, expressed surprise the game was on, wished us luck, and said he might bump into us ‘down the Pan’ later on – in short, an absolute gent. Sadly, a group of eight lads telling stories in what we later found out was the designated ‘family room’ didn’t go down particularly well with the landlord, and we were tutted out of the pub and back onto the mean streets of Sussex.
A short hop across town to the Harvey’s brewery tap – the John Harvey Tavern – led to a superb couple of hours in an upstairs room seemingly designed for a large group to sit, talk football, and drink the fantastic local ales. We worked our way through Best, Old and Armada, and having set the world to rights, it was off to the Pan for a game of football. Truth be told, this was the part of the afternoon we were all dreading: two teams in dire form playing on a pitch described by the referee himself as being akin to “sticky toffee” was never going to be riotous entertainment. Or so we thought.
Attacking the covered end in the first half, K’s were solid and committed, a pleasant change from the halfhearted effort against Bury Town last Saturday. It was perhaps no coincidence that Simon ‘Kingstonian FC’ Huckle had been brought back into the starting eleven, and his no-nonsense approach was typical of the hoops’ industrious performance in the opening 45 minutes. Still, it was going to take either a spectacular moment of individual quality or a defensive error to allow either team to open the scoring, because the pitch really was every bit as muddy and cloying as the referee had said. Realistically, proper patient passing football was simply not possible, and K’s seemed to realise this sooner than Lewes, attempting to get the ball out wide to Dean Lodge and Matt Pattison whenever possible, and as a result looking the more likely to score.
Then came the first controversial moment of the afternoon. A high ball was played into the area, and the home keeper Kieron Thorpe went out to jump and claim it, under challenge from Paul Vines. Thorpe dropped the ball, and Matt Pattison kept his cool to stroke the ball into the unguarded net from the edge of the area. The home fans felt it was a foul, and it is probably fair to say that at least 50% of the time, a referee would have given a foul in the same circumstances. However, from my position behind the goal – and therefore close to the incident – it looked at the time like weak goalkeeping from an unusually small ‘keeper under a challenge that was firm but fair. Thorpe went on to have an uncertain afternoon, and didn’t react well to the banter dished his way from behind the goal, becoming increasingly distracted as the game went on.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the goal, the K’s following were now in excellent voice, especially considering that we weren’t there in excellent numbers. Optimism was back in the air, for the first time in weeks, and it felt good. Unfortunately, the second half performance was poor, and without an undeserved late winner – and more on that later – this would have been another disappointing afternoon. Encouraged by the sloppy way the K’s begun the second half – with misplaced passes, poor hold-up play, and the return of the complete failure of the wide players to track back – Lewes grew in confidence, and from about the 60 minute mark the Rooks dominated the game. Even Harry Harding, mysteriously playing for Lewes despite ‘retiring’ when leaving K’s, was orchestrating proceedings from the middle of the park rather than delivering the standard flaky performance of his Kingstonian days.
The deserved equaliser eventually came from the first bit of genuinely good football from either side. Lewes swept down K’s left, and an excellent cross to the back post found a Lewes player in acres of space, who scored (via a brave attempt at an off-the-line clearance). The reason the Lewes player was in so much space was that Matt Pattison was standing on the half-way line with his hands on his hips watching their attack unfold, rather than doing his teammates the favour of tracking his man back. (Matt is a tremendously talented player, and at times it really feels like a privilege watching him play for K’s, but he has to learn to do the hard work off the ball that all good players do in addition to their work on the ball.) Lewes pressed for the winner, and were on top to such an extent that even the normally somnolent home supporters found their voice. This wasn’t because K’s players weren’t trying their hardest, or were pulling out of challenges or shirking responsibility – it was simply that we were being outplayed. But the seemingly inevitable home winner didn’t arrive, in part due to good fortune, and in part due to K’s regaining a foothold late in the game by switching to a narrow 4-3-3 following the withdrawal of an ineffective Dean Lodge.
But K’s didn’t just escape the Pan with a point: there was a sting in the tail, a K’s winner deep into injury time. Paul Vines again challenged for a high ball in the box, and this time tangled not only with Kieron Thorpe in goal, but also with a Lewes defender. Thorpe dropped the ball when he fell, and the two Lewes players both lay motionless on the ground in the area; an initial K’s attempt at goal was cleared off the line, but only as far as Vines, who powered a 20 yard header into the other (unguarded) corner of the net to spark absolute bedlam in the away end and potentially reignite K’s season.
The home fans weren’t happy, viewing Vines’ challenge as a foul – and it’s fair to say from our vantage point behind the goal, which offered by far the best view of the incident, they had every right to feel aggrieved. The challenge wasn’t malicious, but it was the sort of challenge that when made on a ‘keeper is given as a foul 99 times out of 100. But to the Lewes fans who bizarrely suggested K’s should have kicked the ball out, I would simply say this: neither the goalkeeper nor the defender were actually injured; both were up and ready to play again within thirty seconds of the goal being given. Players know when a peer is genuinely injured, and react accordingly. As such, yes, K’s had a major stroke of luck, benefitting from a very generous refereeing decision, but to chant ‘CHEATS’ at our players when they exited the pitch must have embarrassed the Rooks fans who’ve been watching football at the Pan for decades. Lewes would have done exactly the same thing in the reverse situation, and the Kingstonian players did nothing wrong at all. Play to the whistle. K’s got lucky, but as Alan Dowson so rightly said in his post-match interview, we have had a spectacularly unlucky season. This would be a very good time – with three games a week between now and the end of the season – for Lady Luck to turn in our favour.
Given that I’ve made a habit of criticising referees so far in the brief existence of this blog, I feel I need to jump to the defence of Mr Spain, Saturday’s official. He made a big mistake in allowing Kingstonian’s winner – but referees at Ryman League level will always make errors of judgment from time to time. It is why they are refereeing in the Ryman Premier League, rather than the Barclays Premier League. In general, Mr Spain’s refereeing performance was exactly what the game needed. On a gluey, tacky pitch, there needed to be a vast amount of leeway given to the players, otherwise there would barely have been a game of football to watch at all. In K’s away match against Hendon earlier this season, played on an equally poor surface, the game was completely destroyed as a spectacle by a picky and fastidious referee – which I bemoaned at length on this blog. The fact that Lewes were able to play some exciting, attacking, sweeping football on a quagmire was almost as much of a tribute to Mr Spain’s unusual approach to refereeing (which essentially involved putting his whistle in his pocket and leaving it there) as it was to any of the players. A whistle-happy official would have destroyed the game, even if he made a series of technically ‘correct’ decisions. In short, give me Mr Spain over someone like Stuart Atwell every day of the week.
So, three points in the bag, and back to the Lansdown for a celebratory drinking session on the local beers before the train back to London. If only all away days could be to Lewes: we’ve had two visits, two late K’s goals, and two terrific days out in a lovely town. Here’s hoping the Rooks manage to stay up.