More than decade ago, Garry Wilson and Steve King respectively created probably the two finest non-league sides that Sussex has ever seen. And on Saturday’s evidence, the two clubs are building back.
Well over 300 local folk turned out to watch a highly competitive encounter, with no quarter given. A completely new Rooks side, refashioned under incoming manager Tony Russell, claimed the bragging rights with a 3-2 victory.
The result in a pre-season friendly is either exciting evidence of progress, if you win, or completely irrelevant, if you lose. Sports boss Danny Bloor will not be losing any sleep, despite watching his side concede three goals in moments of uncharacteristic shoddiness, and on the credit balance there was plenty to be pleased with.
Russell will have been delighted. He watched his refashioned team recover from a wobbly opening phase, to play with power, pace and imagination. True, for each of their three goals, they pushed the Borough defence open as easily as a creaky shed door on one hinge, but they were never second best.
Watch out for Russell’s Rooks: Lewes will not be the lower mid-table side of recent seasons. The new man at the Pan has a playing budget possibly higher than Bloor’s, and he has brought in fine players. A number are from Tony Russell’s old Kent patch – the squad will actually train in Tonbridge this season – but Dripping Pan locals will soon adopt them as their own.
Borough lost powerful new striker Josh Oyinsan in the first challenge of the afternoon, and replaced him as a precaution. On came Charlie Walker, who instantly smashed the goal of the afternoon, a missile of a volley from Chris Whelpdale’s knock-down.
But Rooks found their shape and rhythm, and two goals midway through the half put them in front. New Borough keeper Curtis Anderson, possibly unsighted, misjudged a free kick which looked to be looping wide but sneaked in off the back post, and then a neat short-corner routine caught the home defence cold for an easy back-post finish.
The second half of a pre-season friendly generally dissolves into a procession of substitutions without much shape or meaning. Not this one. With Leone Gravata on fire on the left flank, the Sports created chance after chance. Before the hour mark Whelpdale equalised with a low shot in-off the post, and the home side looked likely to take the honours.
They reckoned without Lewis Carey. Returning keepers always conjure up blinding performances – and Lewis, talented and hugely popular at the Lane under Tommy Widdrington, produced several good saves and three absolute blinders to deny the home forwards.
And, like party guests who sneak the last slice of cake, Rooks sneaked a winner in the final phase. A feeble back-pass from Greg Luer was intercepted and popped past Anderson for 3-2. It might even have become 4-2 just afterwards, but for an incredible goal-line clearance by Borough impressive new defender Jake Elliott.
Phew. If the friendlies are this good, fans should be revelling with anticipation when the real season starts.