The Early Years
Lewes Football Club was formed following a meeting at The Royal Oak pub on 23 September 1885. For the first eight years, the players wore light green shirts which were designed to reflect the scenery of the surrounding South Downs, but black and red finally became the club colours in 1893.
The club has played at the Dripping Pan ever since, apart from a couple of seasons prior to the First World War when the club was banished to the adjoining Convent Field. The early years of the club produced only mediocre results and successes were few and far between. In 1920, Lewes became founder members of the Sussex County League.
Progress was slow and despite four runners-up places, by the 1960s Lewes had only one Sussex RUR Cup win to their name. In 1965, the club’s fortunes changed dramatically, winning the County League title for the first time with a massive nine-point lead over runners-up Lancing, as well as both the RUR and Sussex Senior Cups.
Lewes became members of the Athenian League and after winning the Division 2 title in 1968, promotion to the Premier Division was gained just two years later when the Division 1 title was snatched from Boreham Wood, with a further Sussex Senior Cup triumph added in 1971. Six years later, the club entered the newly expanded Isthmian League.
Promotion to Division 1 soon followed although two sixth-place finishes in 1982 and 1989 were the highest positions attained in Division 1. During that time, Lewes reached the final of the Sussex Senior Cup on three occasions, and won the trophy in 1984/85.
Disaster struck in 1990/91 when Lewes were relegated for the first time in their history. An immediate return as runners-up to Purfleet followed, but that success was short-lived and relegation in successive years meant that by the 1994/95 season the club was down in Division Three.
The slide continued and the first season in the basement division would have been the last in the league if it hadn’t been for Cove who conveniently propped-up the league and saved Lewes from automatic demotion.
The club survived rather than thrived until the 1998/99 season when Jimmy Quinn joined as manager, and at the first attempt missed out on promotion by just one place. Midway through the 1999/2000 season Martin Elliott and a new board of Directors stepped in and immediately the fortunes of the club began to improve, with the capture of the Sussex Senior Cup in 2001 following victory over Bognor Regis.
The Ryman (Isthmian) League Division Two Championship was won in 2002 and the club’s first appearances in both FA Vase Quarter-Finals (lost to AFC Sudbury) and the FA Cup 1st Round (lost at the Britannia Stadium to Stoke City) occurred in the same year, as well as a Senior Cup final defeat to Eastbourne Borough.
In 2002/03 the Rooks were denied a promotion to the Ryman Premier when the Dripping Pan was deemed to not be of the necessary standard. Quinn departed the club at the end of the season and was replaced by a virtual unknown in Steven King.
Lewes won the Division One (South) title in King’s first season but better things followed when, following a series of play-off victories at Yeading and Basingstoke Town, and a 1-0 win over Kingstonian at the Dripping Pan, Lewes were promoted two divisions to the newly formed Blue Square South.
Lewes enjoyed an excellent inaugural season in Conference South although the fine fourth place was tempered by the fact that the club were told in February 2005 that they would be barred from the play-offs due to the Dripping Pan not meeting grading requirements.
Sadly this was also the case in 2005/06, with the Club again finishing in a play-off position although Lewes did win the Sussex Senior Cup following a 3-1 over old rivals Horsham.
The club stepped up work on the Dripping Pan and the new Rookery Stand along the south side of the pitch was completed in time for the visit of Division Two side Darlington in the 2006 FA Cup 1st round which Lewes lost 4-1 in front of 1500 fans.
Lewes began the following season in tremendous form, forging an early lead by Christmas. An FA Cup first round tie saw the Rooks go down bravely at League Two side Mansfield, but a keen local rivalry with Eastbourne Borough continued into the spring, with Lewes finally securing promotion to the Blue Square Premier with a 2-0 win over Dorchester.
The fairy tale ended acrimoniously though following King’s departure on the day the Rooks were presented with the Blue Square South trophy as the first signs of financial problems became apparent for the club.
Former Brighton & Hove Albion Commercial Manager Kevin Keehan was named as First Team, Commercial and General Manager but the club’s money troubles became serious.
On the pitch, Keehan’s lack of managerial experience was cruelly exposed in the league and most notoriously in an FA Cup 4th Qualifying round replay exit at home to Eastern Counties side Leiston.
Keehan resigned in March 2009 following a fourteenth successive league defeat away to Rushden & Diamonds, and relegation came with seven games remaining, by which time Under 18 coach Steve Ibbitson had become caretaker manager.
Ibbitson accepted the position permanently in May 2009 and faced another difficult season as the financial pressures off the pitch saw the club face three winding up petitions from the HMRC in four months.
On the pitch, Ibbitson steered the Rooks to Blue Square South safety with a magnificent run-in, dropping just five points in the last six games with a final game victory at Hampton & Richmond ending the season on a high in front of over 150 travelling fans.
A New Dawn
Behind the scenes, a group of six supporters calling themselves Rooks125 were working hard to take the club into community ownership having witnessed the serious financial problems that had befallen the Rooks.
Finally on July 8th 2010, Lewes FC was officially transferred out of private ownership into a mass-ownership Community Benefit Society called Lewes Community Football Club, consisting of benefactors and members of the former Management Committee.
The six members of Rooks125 formed the inaugural Executive Board, working as volunteers to install improved working practices and procedures during the season before planning to open up the wider ownership of LCFC to all the club’s supporters in 2011/12. The first chairman of the Community Club was appointed in 2013 with club legend Terry Parris taking up the position. Terry was succeeded by Stuart Fuller in 2015. All Board positions now are elected by the whole Ownership base.
So where are we now?
Despite on-field performances not yet hitting a consistently high level, crucially, the club did hit its target of attaining financial break-even within five years of becoming Community owned and now has a very solid foundation on which to build for the future. It has over 1,000 Owners and has gained a great reputation for all its community work and stand-out marketing.
In July 2015, the club opened a state-of-the-art 3G all-weather facility adjacent to The Dripping Pan, for the whole community to use as well as all Lewes FC teams to train on. Planning permission has also been gained to build a new Community Clubhouse inside the Pan and the estimated £1.2m required is now being raised.
On the pitch things weren’t so rosy. Steve Brown guided the club to safety and a Sussex Senior Cup Final against Whitehawk in 2014/15 but he resigned just six weeks into the 2015/16 season after a disappointing start, replaced by Darren Freeman. Despite an upturn in fortunes on the pitch post Christmas which saw the club lose just 4 games and go unbeaten at The Dripping Pan during the first half of 2016, the damage had already done and the club will start the 2016/17 season in the Ryman League South.
The future is bright, the future is black & red…