By Tony McDonald
Former General Manager of Independent Sports UK
IT is getting on for two decades since a large group of us from an east London-based youth football team, Redbridge, first descended upon Lyme Regis.
We were there at the invitation of Philip Evans, a well-known pillar of the Lyme community, recent MBE recipient and then chairman of his local non-league football club.
We raised a few eyebrows around town – not because of the quality of our play, I hasten to add, but more for our ‘cosmopolitan’ look. Our pacy forward Stefan Mackintosh was a black kid (or should we now refer to him as a ‘person of colour’?) with eye-catching dreadlocks that glistened like silk in the unseasonal afternoon rain. That would have been in the year 2000, when our boys were playing at under-11 level.
The following August, we had within our ranks another black lad, Daniel MacDonald, a product of one of the worst estates in inner-London, and Ian Virk, an Indian boy.
Multi-cultural Britain had come to this delightful corner of West Dorset, big-time! Our lot loved it: the beach, the sea and the promenade with its fish and chip and ice cream outlets.
And I must say, the welcome afforded us, from opponents, officials and everyone else we encountered, was never less than warm and friendly.
Our accommodation for two nights was the Lyme Regis FC clubhouse, or rather its floor. We visited for six consecutive summers – a squad of around 15 boys, half of them accompanied by their fathers – and after the last local punters had left the bar and gone home, we’d all be sprawled out, wall to wall, snuggled up in sleeping bags and covering every available inch of the carpet. But no-one minded at all. It was all part of the fun, like an indoor camp site.
‘We immediately fell in love with Lyme Regis’
The worst of the snorers, ‘Big’ Lee Templeton, was always banished to the away team dressing room, where he spent the night in solitary on one of the benches. The foundations of the wooden construction reverberated all night to the din emitted from his large torso.
The point is, we all immediately fell in love with Lyme Regis and that passion has never faded. On the contrary. Many years after the boys’ team was disbanded once they reached the age of 16 and discovered ‘beer and birds’, the Redbridge Dads maintained an annual pilgrimage to the town. One of our number, Sean, has even asked for his ashes to be scattered from the Cobb wall!
What was true then, and happily remains very much the case today, is how the football club is the social, vibrant hub of the town, at the heart of the community. Or as the FC Barcelona motto goes, ‘Mes que un club’ (more than a club).
I was reminded of this, and their impressive evolution, when I visited again last week. A pre-match pint in The Volunteer with Lyme’s born and bred Pip Evans and Richard Austin, the acclaimed photographer whose serial abuse of match officials once infamously generated the local paper headline ‘Lyme’s Bad Boy Off Again!’, set me up for a thoroughly pleasurable afternoon at the Davey Fort ground on the hill on the opposite side of town.
No Russian oligarchs pumping money into this club
The clubhouse has been transformed, refurbished and extended to more than twice the size of the basic room we used to fill at bedtime. The small, old TV set that was for years perched in one corner has been replaced by two large screens showing live satellite sports coverage (the Manchester derby is today’s golden offering). Dressing room facilities and toilets are also unrecognisable from that period.
The adjoining kitchen, where kindly ladies dispense half-time tea and coffee (Custard Creams at no extra cost) and where all the food for luncheons and evening dinners can be prepared and cooked, is another huge upgrade.
But there are no wealthy Russian oligarchs or Middle East sheikhs pumping billions into this club. As ever, Lyme Regis FC relies heavily on the fund-raising efforts of a small army of volunteers: Howard Larcombe, the current long-serving chairman, and president Pip Evans are omnipresent patriarchs, but there are numerous unsung heroes and heroines working hard behind the scenes who also help make this humble, homely club tick, including Pip’s daughter Francesca, a chip off the old block if ever there was one.
There are significant improvements and investments wherever I look. Over on the far (sea) side of the ground is the covered 63-seater grandstand, which was installed this season at a cost of around £13,000. The presence today of only 20 die-hards is due to the fact that this isn’t a first team fixture – it’s Lyme Regis Reserves against Exeter-based Pinhoe.
‘Family still important in this neck of the woods’
Even so, despite the game’s relatively low-key status, I’m staggered to be handed a complimentary match day ‘Seasider’ programme, a very professionally produced, glossy, 12-page, full colour effort that would put some Football League and many senior non-league clubs to shame.
Seated in his wheelchair at the front of the new stand is another friendly face I instantly recognise. It’s fellow Hammer Martin Rowe, a former star playmaker for the club, whose son Alex now captains the team managed by Martin’s nephew, Dom Rowe. Family life is still important in this neck of the woods.
As a long-suffering lifelong supporter of West Ham United (we all have our crosses to bear) who has become cynical and embittered by Premier League excess, it made a very refreshing change to enjoy a game – deservedly won 2-0 by the hosts – that wasn’t marred by diving, overreacting and other forms of cheating by overpaid prima donnas. The players proud to wear Lyme’s amber and black stripes and Pinhoe blue were simply out to give of their honest best, facilitated by a fair referee who tried to let the game flow and didn’t want to be the star of the show or need the intervention of VAR. This was a throwback, old school football if you like, and there’s an awful lot to be said for it.
It was a fine day all round for the club – founded in 1885 – who celebrated victory by all three of its men’s teams. The Firsts and Rovers (third team) both won away but – and this is typical of the prevailing community spirit – most of their players drove their cars back to Davey Fort afterwards to join the Reserve team and the rest of us gathered at HQ.
And why wouldn’t they? For the Seasiders’ hat-trick of wins meant ever-busy barmaid Pat Neale had to serve customers drinks during what became ‘happy hour’ – the club’s traditional reward for thirsty players and supporters whenever all three Lyme teams win on the same day (just a thought, but wouldn’t it be nice if West Ham introduced an ‘unhappy hour’ every time they lose, then we could all quickly drown our sorrows on cheaper booze instead of the exorbitant £6 per pint nonsense at London Stadium).
To cap a heart-warming day, the club held its annual Christmas auction, which attracted bids for items as bizarrely wide-ranging as chocolate cake and unplucked pheasants, to tickets for the renowned Hix restaurant and a Premier League game. Around £1,400 profit was raised for this very worthy cause.
My wife and I live in France these days but I shall always continue to look forward to return visits to Lyme Regis, the town and football club, with very keen anticipation. As I remarked to Philip, my former boss and trusted friend from our sports publishing days together in ‘The Smoke’: “You and all the other folk in Lyme are very fortunate to live in a lovely town such as this.”