The latest in our Club Files series, Rob Heinzl, Lewes club chairman, on raising funds to replace an old hockey astro and having pivotal support of members

Most people will know Lewes for its bonfire celebrations when the town is mobbed with up to 20,000 extra people taking part in the November event. It will not be known for having a hockey club, but like most towns you just have to search around and you will find the generous sporting facilities and associated clubs to cater for most leisure needs.

The hockey astro is the jewel in the crown at Southdown Club, allowing development of some of the best facilities for a Sussex club to have onsite alongside squash and tennis.

During the 80s, Lewes would train midweek in Horsham and then Saturday matches in Seaford when slots allowed. Grass and ‘redgra’ were still on the agenda, but astro was taking over and LHC wanted to have their own pitch.

Ours was first put down in the early 90s. In 2000, Lewes got hit by floods with the sand-based pitch replaced for a return to hockey in 2001. With a 15-year life span for the pitch, the general attitude was that there was nothing to worry about until nearer the time. How simple it all seemed.

The men’s 1s reached national status for a few years followed by settling again at a lower, more manageable level and Ladies hockey soared to the extent we now run five teams, with seven for the men. With Club Mark status in place in 2019, England Hockey came calling with a pitch inspection. It needed replacing immediately.

The replacement process

We weren’t prepared for the enormity of the project. The obvious question at the 2109 Hockey AGM was: “So how are you going to pay for it?”

The co-chair Sara Riley and I managed to half-answer this with our simple plans of setting up a sub-committee and then see what happens. As it turned out, that was adequate for the moment. We then all turned to the bar to lubricate the brain cells and put together ideas.

So how did we do it?

First stop was to interrogate the movers and shakers of the 1990 project who were only too pleased to share the thoughts and give some direction and offer encouragement. This came from the top and our Southdown club chairman Stephen Sharpe, an ex-hockey player, was as supportive and enthusiastic as the rest of us to get this project moving.

The hockey pitch funding

The process started with an initial club fund deposit as players started to add funds earned from pitch usage during the off-season. By the end of 2019, we had about 10 per cent of the final required amount. We were not totally sure what the final amount would be, but the magic figure of £250,000 was put up as a challenge.

This is when you know that you will need some heavy hitters to get the project moving. We felt that a good start had been made with not a load of effort and so we could push harder within the club for efforts to raise money.

My car was washed following general press-ganging at the club by the ladies 2s, but that was the spirit which we were trying to encourage.

We advertised at Town Hall on behalf of the Southdown Club with mannequins dressed as hockey and tennis players just to raise the club profile. Whether it worked or not was not the point as every effort was appreciated.

We had our first success with a grant from the National Hockey Foundation, followed by another community-based grant and we were suddenly over half-way there with existing internal funding.

In 1990, there were a number of members’ loans involved and one very large donation to help attain the numbers, so this time we again went back to the members, past and present and just asked for any donations. We were absolutely flabbergasted at the level of support.

Suddenly, 12 months since we first mentioned the project, works were going to start during July 2020. But we still had some way to go and needed to keep raising money.

The final chunk was achieved with support from other stakeholders whose contributions got us almost home and dry. The relief to have achieved this was immense and I am amazed that this was done in effectively one year from the 2019 Hockey AGM.

Building the hockey astroturf

Members further committed time to helping prep the pitch area, pulling up 30 tons of slabs and helping to strip off some of the astro ready for the contractors with a local farmer and club member loaning equipment to help the already aching muscles. Another farmer took away the old green astro for his dairy cows.

The process involved edge repairs to allow fence-to-fence astro for safety, reboarding the edges to a higher level, taking up astro and the shock-pad, repairing the base tarmac, relaying the shock-pad and, finally, relaying the new astro, staying with green and a blue surround.

The ideal weather for any such project is dry and not too hot. Our hot summer presented challenges with tarmac melting, shock-pads contracting and the workers struggled with the heat.

Just to slow us down, Storm Francis turned up and ripped up a huge swathe of the shock-pad and set us back by a week. It rained even more and the adhesive could not be used in the final laying of the new astro. But, one week into the season, we had finished. Could the hockey season begin in earnest?

Hockey’s interrupted 2020/21 season

As an independent club owning our own pitch, we control how it is used for the club members and also for pitch hire for other sporting requirements such as local football clubs or schools.

This season, we were also being asked for slots by other local hockey clubs who would have had to use council or school controlled pitches due to the pandemic.

With the season blighted, questions were being asked about membership subs with club facilities out of action. Our initial response has been released with a reduction of the subs for next season. But is this enough and by how much? This is not an easy question to answer.

Local clubs however have differing operational costs and Lewes will be different to a club that operates by hiring council or school owned facilities.

The privilege of owning great facilities, which I would argue are the best in Sussex for a hockey club, is that we need the annual income to exist and maintain the facilities so we can exist.

We are helped by furlough and Sport England grants, but that is not enough and we need to maintain some of the income produced from the direct debits.

There will be clearly some savings by not being open and hence the reason we as a club have to work out a respectful solution to the membership, including squash and tennis and gym members.

One major further expense that cannot be forgotten now is that in another 15-20 years the astro pitch will need replacing.

A further cost for the club is to immediately set up a Pitch Sinking fund, so there are adequate funds to replace the pitch at that time. Yet another consideration of having your own pitch!

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