After launching their ground-breaking ‘Equality FC’ initiative off the pitch in the summer of 2017, Lewes FC have gone on to enjoy a so-far successful season on it during 2017/18. The men’s side are currently in the hunt from promotion in the Bostik League South, while the women’s side have embarked on an historic cup run. Having already surpassed their best ever performance in the Women’s FA Cup, Lewes LFC take on Everton Ladies today in the fifth round, hoping to reach the quarter finals for the first time in their history, and add a giantkilling to an already memorable season. Here’s the story so far…
“When we first started in 2010, and this might sound ridiculous, we really had no plan. We knew we had a football club we needed to turn around. We needed to get revenue through the door, we needed to engage with people who had lost the love of the team.” In an interview with the Non-League Paper in December, Lewes FC chairman Stuart Fuller was forthright about the job he and fellow Lewes supporters had on their hands when they embarked on a fan-led takeover of the club eight years ago. Fuller, a former season ticket holder at Upton Park, had become disillusioned with top-flight football and became a regular at The Dripping Pan, home of his local side Lewes. The fan takeover gained attention from the national media thanks to the involvement of Patrick Marber, erstwhile writing partner of Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, as well as a critically acclaimed playwright in his own right, but Fuller stepped to the fore in 2015, having been invited to take the role as chairman. Fan ownership arrived on the cusp of a rollercoaster period in Lewes’ history. The men’s team had achieved promotion to the Conference in 2008, having been denied the opportunity to compete in the Conference South play-offs in 2005 and 2006 due to ground regulations, but with their manager and the majority of their first team leaving on the eve of the 2008/09 season, Lewes finished rock bottom. By the time the fan takeover was completed, the team were heading down to the Isthmian Premier League, suffering their second relegation in three years. Amidst financial struggles, and with a team made up largely of youth products, Lewes dropped into Division One. But with the decks cleared, and a semblance of vision in place, a fresh start has afforded new hope for The Rooks. Chances of promotion back to the Isthmian Premier this season are high, and excitement around Lewes FC has been restored. The academy installed by Fuller and co. after the takeover is beginning to bear fruit, and the club are hitting the headlines for all the right reasons.
“We use the same pitch, the same facilities, the same ball. As football fans we all want our team to win regardless of gender. Parity means giving everyone the same opportunity and getting the same rewards.”
Darren Freeman – Lewes FC Men’s Manager
In July 2017 Lewes launched its ‘Equality FC’ initiative, which pledged equal pay to both men’s and women’s teams and ensure a level playing field. Alongside equal pay, the aims of the initiative were set out to provide equal resources for coaching and medical to both sides, upgrading facilities to give both sides the best chance to compete with clubs at higher levels, and to invest in grassroots outreach to drive equal participation from both girls and boys in the region. The hope is that, by becoming the first club in the country to commit to equal pay, other sides will follow suit and raise the profile of the women’s game in England. Though perhaps on a smaller scale, it’s still a massive step forward for women’s football, and shows the kind of progressive thinking seemingly absent from the offices of the FA. Lewes’ commitment to equal pay is the latest uplifting chapter in the story of women’s football struggle to be taken seriously. It wasn’t until the First World War that women’s football teams were first recognised, formed by female workers in munitions factories and watched by large crowds – often outdoing the attendances for men’s games. The stuffy suits at the FA weren’t having any of it, and so effectively banned women from playing football in 1921 – a ban that would last fifty years. The women’s game has slowly rebuilt since the early 70s, with the Italian National Team becoming the first professional female side in the world, with the first semi-professional women’s league following in Japan in 1989. Popularity has soared year on year, with over 109,000,000 viewers taking in the 2017 Women’s European Championships, but the Equality FC initiative is the first time equal pay has been addressed in the game. Lewes might be a little town in East Sussex, but it could well become the trailblazing capital of equality in football.
Whether the commitment to equal pay has had any effect on Lewes’ two sides is a moot point. While the men’s side have their eyes on promotion from the eighth tier, the women’s side have embarked on an incredible cup run. Lewes LFC were founded in 2002, and since 2012 have competed in the FA Women’s Premier League Southern Division, Step Three of the league pyramid. Despite competing against sides with much larger budgets – the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace and West Ham United – Lewes have firmly held their own in the division, earning mid-table finishes in each of their five seasons so far. Last season they won the first trophy in their history, the FAW Premier League Plate, comfortably beating Huddersfield in the final, and they’re on course for a top half finish this season as well as having reached the semi-final of the FAW Premier League Cup, but it’s their progression in the Women’s FA Cup that has created a buzz around The Dripping Pan this season. Having never been beyond the third round before – they’ve been knocked out at that stage in each of the last three years – The Rookettes have gone one better this year, making it to the fifth-round and setting up a mouth-watering tie against Women’s Super League side Everton. While the luck of the draw has been kind to them – in the three previous rounds they’ve faced two sides from the fourth tier and one from the third – Lewes’ tenacity has deservedly earned them a shot at a big side, and Everton will be wary when they travel down to East Sussex for this afternoon’s game.
Lewes’ success so far this season comes is in no small part down to a defence marshalled by Rachel Palmer. The Rookettes commanding centre-back, along with goalkeeper Faye Baker, has helped her side grind out five clean sheets in the league this season, along with two in the cup. The driving force of Rebecca Carter from midfield, the club’s top goalscorer this season with ten, saw Enfield Town crushed 7-0 in the second round, and Carter opened the scoring at Huddersfield in round three. The promotion chasing Terriers equalised but a late goal from Katie McIntyre ensured Lewes’ safe passage to the fourth round for the first time in their history. Elsewhere the flair of Dani Lane and Sarah Kempson give Lewes a threat going forwards – Kempson’s wonder-strike against Keynsham Town in Round Four capping off an accomplished performance.
Though on paper the match-up against Everton looks a bridge too far, there’s plenty of evidence to encourage Lewes ahead of today’s fifth-round clash. The Toffees are currently struggling towards the bottom of the WSL, having earned promotion last year, and despite adding some continental know-how in the summer with the signings of Dutch internationals Siri Worm and Martha Munsterman, they’ve picked up just nine points from nine games so far this season. Lewes will have to keep an eye on striker Chloe Kelly, the 20 year old loanee from Arsenal is the leading scorer for Everton this season with eight, though five of those have come in the Super League Cup. The Toffees weakness looks to be in defence, with Australian born ‘keeper Lizzie Durack registering just one clean sheet so far in the league, and even that that came against a Yeovil Town side that have yet to score this season. With an average age of around 23 – forward Courtney Sweetman-Kirk is the oldest member of the squad at 27 – a lack of experience could be levelled at this Everton side, and should they fail to click in the opening stages of today’s game, Lewes may well find an opportunity to exploit their visitors’ callowness.
Whatever the result of today’s game, Lewes can point to marked progression after another very good season. With the semi-final of the FAW Premier League Cup still to look forward to, defeat against a top tier side would not spell the end of the Rookettes season. But with a guaranteed fellow third tier side in the Quarter-Finals thanks to Cardiff City being drawn against Charlton Athletic, Lewes might fancy their chances of taking a giant stride towards Wembley with a win today. The green shoots of recovery planted by Fuller and his fellow Lewes supporters are finally starting to bloom.