One of the joys of returning to live in the UK, is the opportunities it provides to fuel my lifelong passion for football. In real time.
No more having to stay up until midnight or set the alarm for 5am to watch Premier League games from my Sydney couch.
Instead I get to watch games when I am fully awake, along with all the media coverage and other razzmatazz that surrounds the whole circus.
But football in the UK is far more than just a bunch of big, generally foreign-owned clubs, flexing their cheque books to buy expensive players and compensate sacked managers.
Football permeates popular culture in myriad ways, from schoolboys kicking a ball around the schoolyard, to office banter about the weekend’s games to middle-aged men tweaking their hamstrings in local Sunday league or 5-a-side competitions.
Football is a British institution.
But many levels below the moneyed Premier League and its slightly less moneyed sub-divisions, their exists a whole microcosm of amateur leagues, populated often by very good footballers playing for the love of the game and a much reduced pay packet.
One such team exists in my new home town – Lewes FC, otherwise known as The Rooks, who narrowly avoided relegation from the Rymans Isthmian League at the weekend.
I first became aware of The Rooks soon after moving to Lewes last year and, in line with my views of the rest of the town, was struck by their individuality and quirkiness.
For a start, they have introduced a distinctive share ownership structure which means that by becoming a member you also become a shareholder in the club. “A bit like Barcelona”, was how it was described to me (the ownership structure, that is).
So, for a mere £30 a year, I am now a part owner of a football club – Roman Abramovich, eat your heart out (and I bet you don’t get a discount at Specsavers either).
And it seems I’m in good company too with co-owners including Nigella Lawson, Charles Saatchi and Steve Coogan.
The ground itself is a delightfully ramshackle affair.
Nicknamed ‘the Dripping Pan’, I always thought this was due to its vague similarity to an item of Sunday roast ovenware, but according to Wikipedia, it was the site was where monks from the local priory used to dry water from the nearby river to make salt.
Well there you go.
Either way, it boasts mini terraces at each end, a stand along one side and a steep grassy bank on the other, all set against the ridiculously picturesque backdrop of the South Downs in the distance.
Inside the ‘stadium’, you can buy a pint of Harvey’s (the local ale) and a gourmet pie, before wandering around the ground to find somewhere suitable to consume them, probably bumping into other familiar local faces along the way.
With crowds usually in the 500-700 zone, marketing budgets are understandably tight, but the club has found an innovative way of promoting upcoming fixtures via match day posters that are real works of art and even attracted the attention of the Daily Mail.
The posters’ blend of wit, creativity and popular culture helps to give the club a real character that even non football loving Lewesians can appreciate (or certainly should).
After a very disappointing season, The Rooks entered their final game of the season against Bury Town with a possibility of being relegated.
To show some sort of local solidarity, I went along to the game on a sunny springlike day, bringing my young sons along with me to experience the dramas of a last day of the season relegation scrap – an important life lesson, I felt.
While the boys frolicked on the terraces with their friends, Lewes FC fell 2 goals behind, clawed their way level and then conceded an injury time goal to leave players and supporters anxiously checking the results of other games.
Fortunately these worked out in The Rook’s favour, enabling them to avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth to fight another season (albeit this will be with a new manager, following an Abramovitch-style axing at the end of season review).
But for now the goalposts will come down and the players will drift away for their summer holidays (or more likely back to focusing again on their day jobs), dreaming of next season and what might be.
And when they return to the field, I’ll be there with them every week, in spirit, if not exactly in person.
But I’m sure there will be the odd Saturday afternoon when I fancy a casual stroll down the hill for a pie, a pint, a bit of live football and of course some terrace style banter.
And when those itches occur, where better to scratch them than at My Local Team.