Lewes mark the next stage of their march towards the Super League next week when the first phase of their regeneration project – a state-of-the-art all-weather training complex – is officially opened.
The collection of 3G sports pitches, a stone’s throw from their Dripping Pan ground, was completed pretty much on time, enabling both the community club’s men’s and women’s teams to conduct the bulk of their pre-season training in their impressive new surroundings.
The complex, to be known as The Rookery, will become the new home of the women’s two development sides, saving tens of thousands of pounds in pitch-hire costs and more or less guaranteeing games will be on throughout the winter.
Lewes’ first team will continue to play at the Pan, as will the men’s senior side.
But as FAW Premier League rules allow for the use of 3G surfaces – and the likes of Brighton already using their own training facilities for matches on occasion – it is conceivable that the frequency of use of artificial pitches by teams at the top of the women’s winter pyramid will grow in the coming season.
All three of Lewes’ women’s sides will train on the pitches, which Jacquie Agnew, ladies’ head of football operations and now a director of the community club, says have the best 3G surface in the country.
Funded by a combination of grants from sports and business organisations and a share option, in which members of the public could invest a minimum of £100, phase one of the club’s ambitious regeneration project has been delivered at a little over the envisaged £850,000 cost, according to Agnew.
But she promises that adjustments will be made to ensure the budget for the entire redevelopment does not spiral out of control.
“We’re not an out-of-control sort of club,” she said.
But Lewes are both community-minded and progressive, and the club see the step into what Agnew – and many other key figures in the women’s game – believe is the future as an opportunity to position themselves to meet the off-the-field criteria for entering the Super League.
Of course, they need to meet them on the field, too, and after a season of little more than consolidation by the first team but rapid progress by the two new development sides, manager John Donoghue and the Lewes board will be looking to address that.
Donoghue’s new coaching team is being finalised, with Mark Currier and Martin Perkins, managers of the Premier League development squad and younger development centre sides, set to receive additional support, too.
— Lewes Ladies FC (@LewesLadiesFC) July 4, 2015
But the completion of phase one puts the club in a position to offer attractive training and playing facilities – with the promise of suitably impressive off-field facilities to follow very soon.
In fact, Agnew believes phase two – a new clubhouse in the south-west corner of the Dripping Pan, which will house four new changing rooms, physio facilities and a general manager’s office, as well as a new stadium entrance – could be ready in time for the start of the 2016/17 season.
“And that will make a big difference because we haven’t got a lot of indoor space here, so by having a two-tier clubhouse, [the existing changing rooms, office and club bar] become much more accessible in terms of what we want to do in the future.”
But first of all, there’s The Rookery – a development that has come along at just the right time, with the bulk of the Women’s World Cup being played on 3G pitches across Canada, and, many would argue, largely dispelling the scepticism surrounding artificial surfaces.
Agnew insists she never had doubts about the installation of 3G at Lewes. “The technology with that type of surface has improved incredibly over the last few years, and it continues to improve,” she said.
“I think it is becoming a truer surface to play on because the technology is so good. The [Dripping Pan] pitch is looking very good, and that’s dictated a lot by the environment, whereas a 3G pitch isn’t necessarily dictated too much by the environment – although, when it’s hot, as you’ve seen in the World Cup, it is like playing on hot coals.
“When you come off it, you need to put your feet in some sort of ice bucket to cool them down, but then it’s the same on grass. On a hot day (as it was when she showed me around) you can come off and your feet are very hot and sweaty, so there’s no real massive difference there.
“But we’re not going to have [many] days like today, let’s be honest.”
Significantly – and entirely in keeping with the club’s community status – the regeneration of Lewes includes massive provision for the town’s youngsters.
Later phases of the development will include cafe and community youth facilities, with provision for music, drama and other activities.
And two of the town’s schools will have guaranteed use of The Rookery – Lewes Old Grammar and the Priory, whose land the new complex was built on.
With the club looking to forge stronger, more formal links with the girls’ teams at Lewes Bridge View Junior FC, and all the club’s own sides – including the academy students – training there, the facility is already virtually booked up for the foreseeable future, although Agnew says there is in-built provision for some turn-up-and-play use, probably at weekends.
The Rookery contains a full-size football pitch that can also be used for rugby and hockey (with appropriate goals on site), two nine-a-side pitches that can be used simultaneously and a number of five-a-side pitches.
There is also the facility to play stoolball, plus cricket nets for use by local sports clubs – in essence, an all-round sports provision for most of the town to use.
After the successful introduction of Lewes Ladies’ two development sides last season – albeit baptisms of fire as the largely teenage group of players had to step up two or three levels – the mission in the coming campaign is to build on that.
That means strengthening playing staff as well as the coaching personnel, and, reflecting the great strides made by some of their youngest performers last term, every player will be registered to play in the Premier League this year.
The reserves (development squad) eventually came to terms with playing Premier League second strings every week to end the season out of the bottom two, with three wins and a draw in their final seven matches.
And the development centre – featuring largely 16- and 17-year-olds – finished in mid-table in their first season in adult football, winning more than half their games in the Sussex County Women’s League and taking the League Cup for good measure.
Agnew said: “They’ve evolved incredibly over the last few seasons, and they’re a really great bunch of girls to work with… Mark [Currier] and Martin [Perkins] did a fantastic job with those two set-ups, and they’ve come through the other side much stronger.”
Now they have a bigger and better stage on which to train and play.
“If you look at the criteria for the WSL, you will see that there’s lots of things that you’ve got to put in place. And this is going to have a massive impact,” added Agnew.
“Our [Development Squad] and [Development Centre] can play on it. They can play their home matches here now. We don’t have to go and rent anywhere.
“We’ve got personnel in place now, which will further bolster [Donoghue’s] coaching staff, and there are other criteria that we are working towards, as well.
“And we’re going to do it in our own time. We’re going to make sure we keep building layers on top of layers, and that the foundations are as solid as they can be.”