As former Lewes youngster Solly March scored Brighton and Hove Albion’s second and subsequent winning goal to earn the Falmer-based side promotion to the Premier League, Lewes FC were sowing the seeds for a prosperous future in a 4-4 draw against Hastings United, 3 miles up the road. Although, Lewes failed to reach the playoffs in a promotion charge of their own, former Brighton and Hove Albion winger and now Lewes’ manager, Darren Freeman and his coaching staff signed a new two-year contract with the goal of chasing promotion next season and bringing through a new generation of youngsters.
“I am delighted that they [Brighton Hove and Albion] are where they are now, I mean again they’ve worked hard, they’ve never given up and that’s the sort of attitude I have. Now, they are playing in the Premier League, which is great for the city. I am delighted for them but I have had my days, I loved every minute of playing for Brighton and Hove Albion, it is my hometown so for me it was a dream come true. The past and the present players have played a massive part in where they are now and it’s fantastic,” said Freeman in an exclusive interview with Left Back Football.
Freeman worked his way from non-league football with Lewes, Horsham and Worthing to earn promotions at professional level with Gillingham, Fulham, Brentford and Brighton and Hove Albion. Meanwhile, he also earned himself an elite footballing education working under renowned figures like Tony Pulis, Micky Adams, Ray Wilkins and Ray Lewington during his playing career, which was cut short at 28-years-old due to injuries.
“Tony [Pulis] was a very good man manager and I think he found me frustrating at times. You knew exactly what he wanted, if you lost your marker and man, he would go mental. He would give you jobs to do and you would have to do them by the book. He would spend two training days on a corner; everyone knew their roles and responsibilities so you did not make mistakes because it was drilled into you. If you did make mistakes, you would know about it.”
“Ray Wilkins and Ray Lewington had a very softer approach; Wilkins was a proper gentleman as was Ray Lewington. Lewington was more of a coach rather than just a manager. Wilkins on a personal note, I really wanted to go out and work hard for him because he was such a nice person; you just wanted to work hard for him. I try to educate my lads the way they educated me as Lewington and Wilkins were perfectionists.”
43-year-old Freeman is a nurturer with his playing staff as in the game against Hastings, he spent the majority of the game encouraging 16-year-old right back, Harry Reed. After half time, the two were the last ones out of the dressing room with Freeman putting a reassuring arm around the youngster’s shoulder, clapping at him and giving him the thumbs up. Near the end of the game, Reed embarked on a run from right back to dribble past three players and nearly set-up a teammate for an important goal.
“I’ve got a son and I always say that I would treat players how I would expect my boy to be treated and nobody can argue with that.”
Reed is not the only talent that Freeman and his managerial team, Ross Standen and Tony Coade are looking at developing as 17-year-olds Charlie Coppola and George McCarthy, 19-year-olds James Hammond and Ronnie Conlon while 20-year-old Matthew George and 22-year-olds Ghassimu Sow and Jonte Smith have all been within the first team setup this year.
“I encourage players to go out there and do what they enjoy and love but as long as I see them giving 110% and working hard then they’ve got no problems with me. I criticise my players but I will always praise them and when I criticise them, I always give them a reason why I criticise them for them to learn. It is no good criticising a player then not telling him where he is going wrong, constructive criticism is the most important thing because we all want to learn and be better. I want to help the players achieve their goals and their ambitions. I have over the years, I’ve helped many players get into the professional game and I get a buzz out of that.”
“ I think that Charlie [Coppola] has got all the right ingredients to be a professional footballer as Ronnie [Conlon] has and I’ve got a couple of players like Jonte [Smith] and even when I was at Whitehawk, Danny Mills too. There are players at non-league who’ve got that great talent, it’s just a case of going that extra mile and a little bit of luck in being in the right place at the right time.”
With one game left before the end of the season, Freeman is currently in a period of reflection as he bemoans his side losing their first five games of the season but takes responsibility for it. He also finds solace in his young team climbing from mid-table to seventh place within a grasp of the Ryman South Division playoff places.
“This year at the beginning of the season, we lost five of our first seven games. I got it wrong and I knew I got it wrong so I put my hands up. I made some big decisions at the beginning of the season and people thought I was mad. When you lose five of your first seven games, that is 20 odd points; it is massive as people had 15-point head starts on us. Take into account not playing with our first choice centre-back pairing for 20 odd games and the suspensions due to red cards like Matthew George’s and Jack Dixon’s, it shows how well we have done to finish the way we have.”
Freeman also harbours ambitions of managing at a higher level but first, he wants to take Lewes and their playing staff to a higher level. When asked about holiday plans, he pauses for a moment before talking about the need to organise friendlies and find out which players are staying and leaving in preparation for the next season. He also speaks about how his time revolves around football, the gym and family as 43-year-old’s focus is progress and development with his team. Lewes and their young manager are planning to use the disappointing end to their season as the catalyst to catapult them further next season as their Brighton neighbours did.