Words by Lorcan Barnett
Non-league football has always and will always be very special for me. Before leaving for university I was lucky enough to play and be involved in some fantastic non-league teams where I was able to really explore what makes non-league football so unique. It’s easy to look way beyond what non-league has to offer and view the type of football solely on what meets the eye: the muddy pitches, the rusty stands and the screaming and shouting from fans, coaches and players, but when you look behind the curtain we begin to understand how crucial it is for communities. People’s lives are based on working for their local clubs, supporting them not only financially but also physically through hardships. Whilst Premier League clubs are run by billionaire businessmen, grassroots football are braced solely by the people that live and breathe their communities and clubs.
On Saturday the 13th of November, I decided to visit one of Sussex’s many non-league football teams; Lewes FC. In 2010, after being relegated from the conference south league, Lewes FC was bought by 6 fans aiming to turn the team into a community-based club. Lewes have been able to maintain a solid position within the non-league hierarchy which greatly credits the work of the owners. Another extremely honourable action carried out by the club and its owners happened when they decided to pay the women’s team the same as the men’s and the club became the first professional or semi-professional club to do so. I arrived at Lewes’ ground, ‘The Dripping Pan’ (due to its pan-like look) around 2:30, 30 minutes before the usual 3 pm kick-off. The atmosphere was already relatively tense. I decided to try the local cuisine so I headed down to the food bar where I ordered a chicken and mushroom pie with peas, mash, and gravy. I then took my food to the top of the ‘Dripping Pan’ where I began watching the players warm up. Instantly the anticipation kicked in. I have no connection to Lewes FC whatsoever however I was desperate for Lewes to win that day. Balls began flying around the ground, children chanted at their favourite players and the crowd looked raring to go. Lewes who are placed 6th in the league were up against Haringey Borough FC, a team in the lower half of the table meaning a win was definitely expected.
As the game began, the whispers travelled around the ground concerning Lewes’ 19-year-old winger Ollie Tanner. Tanner began his career as an academy player at Arsenal before he spent time with Bromley FC. He has started the season incredibly strongly with several goals, assists and eye-catching performances. Tanner is tall, athletic, powerful and most importantly has a tenacity that is rare for a player his age. As the game began, both teams looked fairly even before Haringey Borough opened the game with a goal. However, Lewes very quickly asserted themselves within the game with a goal wonderfully set up by Ollie Tanner that was finished excellently by left-back Tom Carlse. Lewes quickly took control of the game with the midfield dominating possession of the ball. Around the 25th minute of the game, Lewes’ goalkeeper gained possession of the ball before accurately picking out the darting run of Tanner. As soon as Tanner picked up the ball, the outcome seemed inevitable. He powerfully beat his first man before taking the ball around the centre-back where he then proceeded to chip the ball exquisitely over Haringey’s goal-keeper. The crowd erupted as it became known to everybody that we were witnessing a special performance. Lewes spent the rest of the half rotating the ball in effortless fashion. Every player seemed far more in control than their opponent and as the half-time was called it seemed clear Lewes were dominating the game.
The second half started very similarly to the first with a wonderful finish by Lewes’ number 9 Joe Taylor. However, only 3 minutes later Haringey equalised through an unfortunate own goal. The atmosphere became tense as a contest seemed apparent. Momentum on the other hand didn’t go in favour of Haringey as Lewes began a swift counter-attack. The ball was worked to the right-hand side before falling just left of the penalty area to Lewes’ winger Ollie Tanner who looked in no doubt as he swept the ball into the net. Tanner’s second of the game and an overall outstanding performance. Nerves eased around the ‘Dripping Pan’ as Lewes cruised towards the finish line. The game ended 4-2 in favour of Lewes FC who displayed class, efficiency and grit throughout the entirety of the game. As I left my seat to walk towards the exits, the whisperings of Ollie Tanner turned into calls, claps and cheers. The young winger was incredible as he capped the game off with 2 goals and an assist. In an interview after the game on BBC Radio Sussex Sport manager Tony Russell praised Tanner as a ‘superstar’. Shortly after the game, Tanner signed a contract extension until the end of next season which is fantastic news for Lewes FC. Alongside Tanner, Centre Back Will Salmon was also dominating in defence and showed great leadership, especially within the nervy moments. Match sponsor Giancarlo Caldesi kindly invited both Will Salmon and Ollie Tanner to eat in his restaurant. Gestures like these are what makes this type of football so special. Although financial incentives may not be massive, kindness from communities is what allows grass-roots to continue to grow.
It is very easy to take the win of Lewes FC over Haringey borough as the value of what the game had to offer. Although the game did include incredible football, what happens behind the scenes is what we must commend most. From the kitmen, cooks and cleaners to the committee and the owners. What makes non-league football so special is the hard work and passion that isn’t rewarded with money but with a sense of worth within your community. It is easy to look at the matchday and solely view the football that is being played, but the hundreds of volunteers working tirelessly every day to uplift their communities is what truly makes non-league football so beautiful.