To open with a rather unforgivable cliché (but please, be forgiving) nine months is an awful long time in football.
As we last left Hayes Lane, on May Day, it was- with the sole exception of the away changing room- a pit of misery. The home support had drifted away into the night having seen the efforts of an entire season wiped out by Playoff Semi-Final defeat, and a campaign which had seen Cray Wanderers occupy a top two spot for many months had ended with nothing to show for it. Walton Casuals manager Anthony Gale was still on the pitch, trying not to look too smug whilst fielding questions from the media, whilst Wands manager Tony Russell was elsewhere, trying to console his side. The cruelty of the end-of-season lottery had never been more apparent.
Home fans before the match had been very clear where the next ninety minutes had fitted into their priorities. They wanted to win, sure, and they wanted promotion, but there was something far more important- getting planning permission for a ground of their own. As one pointed out, quite succinctly, “we’re home fans without a home.” They’d been home fans without a home for forty-five years, and they’d expected not to have to make it forty-six after the local authority had given them permission to build a new ground at nearby Flamingo Park- only for this decision to be overturned by the Mayor of London. They’d put in another application, delivered a wheelbarrow full of supporting letters to City Hall, only to find the next round of decision making put back and then put back some more. They entered the match against Casuals still mired in uncertainty.
Bromley's new stand taking shape behind the far goal
Nine months is an awful long time in football.
So here we were again, on the Saturday prior to Valentine’s Day- a day which the club had designated ‘Ladies Day’ with free admission to the female of the species accompanying their ‘valentine’- and the atmosphere couldn’t have been different. Wanderers were thirteen points clear of their nearest rivals at the top of the South East Division, with only twelve matches left to play. They’d scored more goals than any of their rivals, conceded fewer goals than any of their rivals, lost only one league match all season- none at home- and in their previous match at Hayes Lane had comprehensively dismantled Herne Bay by six goals to nil. And, more importantly than any of that, they had that long elusive planning permission, which was finally granted by Sadiq Khan in November last year. Finally for Wands, everything looked magic!
Bouncing back from heartbreak requires character- but often, at our level, failure can be followed by the need to rebuild as disappointed players head for pastures new. That hasn’t happened at Cray, and to a great extent that has to do with the confidence that the squad has in manager Russell, the former VCD Athletic boss- and former Isthmian Manager of the Year- who joined the club in May 2015 and has been an enormous part of their success. Over the summer he had to deal with the disappointment felt when skipper Lea Dawson, who had just agreed a new deal, decided instead that he was going to head to Ashford United- but Dawson was one of very few high-profile departures. If you compare and contrast this season’s mainstays with those of last season, you’ll find that most of the names are the same. That continuity, and the team spirit that goes along with it, seems to be paying off.
None of the home support today seemed to be taking anything for granted, however. This was typified by the approach of Wands flag bearer, Adrian Jewell. Adrian, who is usually here with his family but had today been abandoned for the charms of West Ham United (if anyone can explain those charms, please send an email and we’ll let you all know), was disturbed for his views whilst firmly fixing his flags against the remnants of Storm Eric, which was still whipping around the stadium. “Season over?” He looked surprised. “Not yet. We’ve still got some good teams to play against, and we can’t afford to slip up. And of course, Ashford United have improved massively, and will still hope to catch us. A few bad results and who knows? I’d say that we were confident, but not complacent.”
How had he enjoyed the season so far?
A Green Lion warm up session
His face lit up. “It’s been fantastic, particularly after the heartbreak of last year. Tony has brought in some very good players to complement those we already had, and we’ve a strength in depth that perhaps Lewes and Carshalton had last season but we were short of. We’ve got more character, too.” He struggled against the wind, holding a flag that bore the name of Cray Chairman, Gary Hillman. It was rather unusual to see the supporters celebrating their chairman, perhaps?
“We wouldn’t have a club without Gary. We’d have been dead and buried years ago. His efforts have kept us going, more than anything else, and he deserves our appreciation more than you can imagine. Make sure you write that!”
How has having a new ground to look forward to changed things for the club?
“Bromley have been very good to us, but the money we spend on a matchday doesn’t benefit our club. When I take family or friends to have a drink here, the money I spend goes to”- here, he gestured at the massive new stand being built behind the far goal- “things like that. It’ll be wonderful to have a place of our own; to be able to grow the club and benefit the community. And it’s been a long time coming.”
We asked for a score prediction, and he pondered the question. “The conditions might be a bit of a leveller. I expect a tough game; they’re well organised, they’ll play on the counter-attack, and we’ll have to work hard. But we’ll win!”
Today’s visitors, Guernsey, were not normally particularly well-supported away from home (although they are the best supported club in the division when at their own Footes Lane). That’s not a criticism; supporters across the rest of the South East Division often- if our end of season survey is correct- look forward to their trip to the Channel Islands once a year, but of course if you live there every away trip requires the use of a plane, and that’s the kind of money that only the very wealthy could afford to find nineteen times a year. Today was a little different, however, as it was a designated ‘Fans Away Day’ which meant that a significant number had made the trip- and we caught up with Steve, Mark, Ray, JP and David in the bar before the game. It must be said that none of them were particularly confident of an away win, but all of them were clearly enjoying their day out and very positive about their football club! By the way, it’s important that we point out that JP’s journey had been rather shorter than the rest, as he’d only travelled from Chiselhurst!
Mark, forever the optimist, predicted a 1-0 victory for the Green Lions. But he was clear that what was important to the island, the club, the supporters and the players wasn’t so much the outcome as the chance to test themselves at the highest level possible. “We’re a community club through and through. If you’re a young footballer, and you live on Guernsey, you want to play for the club; you want to test yourselves. They’re full of enthusiasm for what we do, happy to be out of bed and at the airport at 6AM on an away matchday just to be able to play.
Steve, Mark, Ray, JP and Dave of Guernsey
The importance of the club to the community is demonstrated by our crowds. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, there’ll be seven hundred people or thereabouts turning up on a matchday. The only thing we need now is a place of our own to play- we have to rent Footes Lane from the FA and it isn’t cheap- we need our own ground and an all-weather surface, and there are plans to try and do just that. “
Asked for predictions, Steve went for 2-1 to Cray, Ray- who was celebrating his seventieth birthday with this trip, albeit five months too late- went for 1-1, JP went for a 1-0 away win and then qualified that by explaining he’d never seen the side play so he really hadn’t a clue, whilst David went for a 2-0 home win.
Mark wasn’t too worried. “Our away record is better than our home record. We’ve drawn away with two of the top four- perhaps this could be another one? Sometimes I think the away side arrive in Guernsey having had a day of rest whereas our lads have just finished a shift of labouring- and perhaps the opposite is true when we travel.” We left them to their beer and headed out for the football. The wind seemed to have dropped a little, and there was just a little hint of sunshine, perhaps imported from the Channel Islands.
The match kicked off at 2PM on the dot, whilst the away fans sang, “easy, easy.” We think there was just a touch of irony there, but Cray didn’t make it all that difficult initially.
It took ten minutes for the first real chance, and it came to the home side, Joseph Taylor finding himself unmarked seven yards from goal with a cross from the left heading in his direction. It seemed to catch both him and the away defence unawares, and he couldn’t properly connect with the ball, leaving Green Lions keeper Callum Stanton with a fairly easy save. A couple of minutes later Junior Dadson fired over from the corner of the box, and a fairly low-key opening was perhaps about to spark into life.
The teams line up
In the sixteenth minute Guernsey then had the best chance of the match so far. It was a chance they shouldn’t have had; Wands defender Mitchell Nelson rather inexplicably turned and played the ball out for a corner when around ten yards from half way, attempting a pass back to his goalkeeper but missing him by a country mile- and the corner eventually found Paris Pereira at the back post, where the striker headed wide of the goal.
This woke the slumbering beast. Stanton had to push a shot from Jerome Frederico around the post, and the corner caused consternation in the away defence- but no breakthrough. Next, Frederico again got free down the right and crossed for Taylor, only for a defender to connect first- and the deflection, which looked to be heading goalwards, was smothered by the keeper at full stretch.
As we moved past the half way mark of the first half, Cray continued to press, without threatening enormously for much of the time- although Stanton was forced into a diving save from a Nelson header which was worthy of praise. Guernsey seemed happy to defend deep and force Cray to break them down, and Cray, for all they were moving the ball around nicely, didn’t seem too desperate to oblige. With a couple of exceptions there was more energy being expended by the Guernsey fans in the main stand and behind Nick Blue’s goal than there was on the pitch. The game needed something special- and it arrived almost immediately.
The travelling hordes!
Dadson got the ball by the corner of the box- indeed, almost exactly from where he’d fired his earlier effort. He looked up, he steadied himself, and he let loose the kind of shot that you knew was heading in from the moment it left his boot. Unerring, it arced towards the top corner and, despite Stanton’s best efforts, there was no way he was getting anywhere near it. Dadson ran back to the half way line to celebrate, forcing his team mates to do the same- as if he was telling them to get on with it. It was Guernsey who got on with it, however, Dave Rihoy forcing Blue into a full stretch save to his right, as they looked to respond. The heavens opened, and the game calmed down again- but not for long.
In the thirty sixth minute it was 2-0. A short corner was followed by a curling shot from Karl Dent from the edge of the box. It headed for the back post, and there was Taylor, backheeling it beautifully into the net before looking rather embarrassed, as if it was no more than a happy accident. Whether it was an accident or not- it didn’t look like one- there was now daylight between the sides. “Come on Guernsey, you can do it,” came an enthusiastic shout, but Cray had their tails up, and Stanton had to make another excellent save, this time from Dent, as the clock ticked around to forty. It could have been three just a moment later, as Dent crossed for Taylor to head home, but that one was wiped out by the raising of a flag- but it was a short respite. A through ball found Bradley Pritchard standing all on his own- yet onside- to the right of the penalty spot, and he had time to control and pick his spot, expertly making it three-nil. The half time whistle blew to a crescendo of away encouragement, and the teams trooped off to get dry.
By the time they emerged for the second period the sun had joined them once more. Guernsey started brightly, and began to pass the ball around neatly whilst Cray stood back and looked unworried- although the home side did commit a few niggly fouls, Dent and Taylor getting a talking to from the referee whilst the away support claimed that Cray were obviously rattled by their improved performance! “We’re going to score four,” exclaimed a lady with green hair, and whilst that didn’t seem likely her side were looking far more threatening than they had in the first period- and indeed dominated possession for the first quarter of an hour after the restart.
After that the match opened up somewhat, without giving us a great deal to shout about- although it must be said that this didn’t stop either set of fans from shouting, singing, ringing bells and applauding. Cray shaded things, but Guernsey weren’t overawed, their young side defending well and showing composure when they were allowed time on the ball. It was entertaining without being thrilling, enjoyable without being an experience which would stay with you for years to come.
As we entered the last minute, a moment of controversy. Nobody in the crowd seemed quite sure why, but the referee waved a straight red card at Wanderers Tom Phipp. We all looked at each other, bemused, and the player looked similarly nonplussed. Only the away fans were jubilant- although they then began to question each other as to why the card had been brandished. Perhaps we’ll all find out by watching Guernsey TV later! The match came to an end, and- for an hour at least- Wanderers went sixteen points clear at the top.
The PA Announcer entertained us before, during and after the match with a collection of hits from Madness. It seemed rather appropriate, on this the Cray Valentine’s Day special, that we all got to sing along to ‘It Must Be Love.’ There was an awful lot to love. Both sets of fans demonstrated all that is good about Non-League football- the warmth, the humour, the passion and the commitment that the game should deliver, without any of the anger, criticism, narcissism and irritation often present at higher levels.
And, to use another Nutty Boys reference, unless something goes dramatically wrong, surely Wanderers are about to find themselves One Step Beyond the Bostik South East Division? There was certainly no danger of an embarrassment today.