FOCUS ON THE CONFERENCE: LEWES
The manager who was sacked for being 'too successful'
Lewes' decision to axe Steve King for getting promoted too often was quite sensible, and that says a lot about what's wrong with football
May 16, 2008
My grandfather, an American immigrant to Britain, loved waffles. So much so, in fact, that he would actively look for excuses to visit London, so he could go to the café at Paddington station and order waffles and syrup for breakfast. One day, however, he cheerfully ordered his plate of waffles, only to be told they were no longer on the menu. Dismayed, he asked why. "There were just too many people asking for them," came the response.
My grandfather was left wryly amused by this turn of events (he had eggs, by the way). It is difficult to imagine fans of Lewes FC can treat recent events with similar equanimity. Their manager, like so many cheap waffles, has just been discarded for being too successful.
When I say 'just', I must confess, this happened a couple of weeks ago. But when you read that a manager had to go because he won too many games, you don't generally accept it as fact. You wait for the real story to emerge, the grubby details; that he was caught with his fingers in the till or, even worse, in the chairman's wife. But in this case, there was no subtext, no dirty little secret. He just did too well.
Appropriately, for such an outlandish plot, the central figure is called Stephen King (OK, Steve King, but cut me some slack!). King had presided over a phenomenal period of success at Lewes; two promotions in four years before his crowning achievement this season, leading the tiny Sussex side to the Blue Square South title, and promotion to the Conference, the apex of the non-league pyramid. And he had done it with a side playing quick, attractive football.
But, as the fans gathered for the last game of the season and the resultant celebrations at the club's Dripping Pan stadium, word leaked out: King had been dethroned. A day that was meant to be one of celebration and euphoria turned into one of confusion, anger and sadness. And that was before the club's owner, Martin Elliott, and another director, Kevin Powell, explained their decision. Although it beggars belief, these are direct quotes Powell gave to the Sussex Express.
"One thing I think is important is that at no time has Steve King been asked to get us promotion," said Powell, proving once and for all that you really can't make assumptions about people's ambitions in football. "He's created the problem, if you like - and I don't mean this in a negative way - because he's been so successful."
It seems that the directors are alarmed at the prospect of making the ground improvements necessary to maintain their Conference status beyond next season, and at the same time having to fund a squad playing at such a high level. Something had to give, and it was the manager's payslip.
There is irritation, too, at King's replacement. Lewes have appointed the commercial director of Brighton and Hove Albion, Kevin Keehan, as the new boss. That's right, the commercial director. It's a bit like appointing an accountant at the MoD to be Field Marshall: They might work in ostensibly the same industry, but the skills required are a little different. It's sufficiently baffling to have made me check my keyboard, and yes, the 'g' is next to the 'h'. Could a typo have secured Keehan's appointment? Were the Lewes board attempting to gazump the Geordies?
The club maintains that Keehan has the financial nous, as well as the football knowledge, to run a tight ship without sacrificing too much success. But, were his job not tough enough, almost the entire squad have either been released or have chosen to walk away from the club. And the funds for a similar calibre of players are not there. Keehan is being forced to recruit from lower leagues. Lewes will be playing in a higher division with a far, far cheaper squad. The rumoured injection of cash from a consortium led by local boy Gareth Barry may address some of the shortfall, but by no means all of it.
At first glance, then, we're left with the tale, familiar to football fans of almost every ilk, of greed and self-interest dominating the directors' box. Except that the first glance gives an utterly misleading impression.
When Martin Elliott took over Lewes FC in 1999, the club was struggling at the wrong end of Ryman League Division 3, in danger of relegation to the Sussex County League, and potentially going out of business. He saved the club from extinction, put it on a secure financial footing, and presided over a thrilling renaissance at the club.
In the non-league pyramid, Lewes have risen upwards quicker than an adolescent Peter Crouch. When King was appointed in 2003, fans were appalled at his lack of managerial experience. Elliott was right then, and so deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt with Keehan. Meanwhile, off the pitch, Elliott and others have spent £1m on ground improvements, much of it out of their own pockets. The suggestion that it is greed that motivates them is laughable. You're more likely to make your fortune selling Michelob in Mecca than from non-league football.
The ground improvements have seen Lewes attain category B status for the Dripping Pan, which allows them into the Conference. But they must reach category A status before March of next year to avoid being automatically relegated. These further improvements could cost up to £500,000. Once again, unless the consortium stumps up the cash, Elliott and his fellow directors will put their hands in their pockets.
In essence, then, the board have made an unpopular, but pragmatic decision. Short of borrowing heavily, and gambling with the club's future, they were given a stark choice: pump money into the squad, ignore the planning issues, and face automatic relegation; or tighten the belts, improve the ground, and try and stay up in the Conference against all the odds. That they will very probably fail is hardly their fault.
Yet we are left with a situation where a manager has lost his job for being too successful, and a team that achieved promotion has been broken up.
Next season West Brom and Stoke, with their shiny stadiums and bulging coffers, will earn an estimated £60m by being promoted to the Premier League, while little Lewes, struggling to pay the bills year in, year out, have to pay £500,000 to play in the Conference. If you needed a better illustration of what was wrong in English football, you'd be hard pushed to find it.
But who cares? It's only little Lewes. Most people are more bothered about issues like why we don't produce enough skilful English players, why we are forced to import from abroad, and why there are so few successful young English managers. It never occurs to them that the problem at Lewes is in any way related to these bigger issues.
But that's the problem with pyramids. If the foundations start to crumble, the stones at the top have a long way to fall
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