The last time we headed to Cray Wanderers, on February 9th, they were taking on Guernsey and looking to extend their lead at the top of the Bostik South East table to sixteen points. Ninety minutes and three goals later they had done exactly that, the chasm between themselves and second placed Ashford United almost insurmountable. It was just a matter of time before Wanderers were confirmed as champions- the talk around Hayes Lane, although it must be said it was mainly away supporters and neutrals who were doing the talking, was that this would happen by the middle of March and the rest of the season would be a procession. Yet here we were again, approaching the middle of April, wondering whether today would be the day. The lead had been halved, and whilst only two points were required to secure the crown, Wanderers last two points had taken four matches to collect. With four matches still to go that certainly couldn’t be considered a crisis, but Cray had spent the last month turning what appeared to be a procession into a crawl, like a marathon runner who sets a world record pace only to be afflicted with severe cramp three hundred and eighty-five yards from the finish line.
We all expected, despite the dip in form, that their day would finally come last Sunday. Cray were entertaining a Greenwich Borough side fighting relegation, and they kicked off knowing that a win would be enough to confirm their ascension to the Bostik Premier Division. Borough scored first, after only six minutes, and held out for more than seventy before conceding an equaliser- but by then they were down to ten men. Surely Cray would punish them? Four minutes from time came the moment. Wanderers were awarded a penalty, up stepped Tom Phipp- and down went Borough keeper Oliver Webber to save. So we moved on, the champagne went back on ice, the silver polish went back in the cupboard under the sink, and the celebrations were postponed for another six days at least.
A fresh wind was whipping around Hayes Lane, the folks high in the stand wrapping their scarves tighter around their necks and buttoning up their overcoats as they arrived from the bar. Actually, that may not have been the cold, it may have been nerves; home supporters before the match had the look of people who had no fingernails left to bite and had started on their toes. From the boardroom to the bar, from the turnstiles to the terraces, the tension was palpable. That was understandable, but the fact that their side was making the end of the season far more difficult than expected shouldn’t detract from the magnificent campaign they’ve delivered. Barring a miracle there will be no playoff heartache for Wanderers this year, and the fact that they’ve lost twice as many matches during their last four games as they had in their previous twenty-eight shouldn’t undermine their achievements. Three defeats all season, a goal difference of +39, and with no reliance on one player to score every weekend but instead their sixty-nine goals shared across almost the entire squad; this was a triumph built on teamwork, not on individuals stars. That should stand them in good stead in the Bostik Premier next season.
A Cray flag collection
But first, of course, they had to get there. Ashford United were the club who were determined to spoil the party.
The last time the Nuts and Bolts visited Hayes Lane, in January 2018, they departed on the end of a nine-one hiding. Cray were magnificent, Ashford were abject, and Wanderers marched on to the playoffs whilst United were more concerned with what was happening at the other end of the table- although never really in too much danger due to the dreadful form of Shoreham. This season’s Nuts and Bolts, however, are a different collection of hardware altogether.
The work done by manager Tommy Warrilow since he took over at Homelands in late November has been exceptional. Whilst his appointment was something of a surprise- his predecessor, Gary Alexander, had turned around some rather patchy form and seen his side climb to seventh place, yet still found himself unemployed- the former Thamesmead Town manager has made them incredibly difficult to beat, with only four defeats in the last five months. One of those defeats came last weekend, against Hythe Town, but that wasn’t a loss born of complacency. United came into this match not quite mathematically secure in the playoffs, nor quite mathematically out of the title race- but the most important thing at the moment was points. Points to ensure a home playoff advantage, and points to give them a better points-per-game ratio, given that this may well become important at the end of the season in accordance with the FA’s promotion rules. Ashford certainly weren’t going to roll over and let Cray win. And, of course, they had a score to settle, not only due to that nine-one hammering but because they lost to Wanderers at Homelands back in September. Warrilow may be an ex-Cray manager, but his former club should not expect any favours.
Perhaps fate pointed towards Wanderers today, however. Winning the title today would be rather fitting, given it would mark the occasion of manager Tony Russell’s two hundredth match in charge of the club. Let’s not give him a commemorative plate, let’s give him a commemorative championship win, that’ll be far more memorable!
Spot the Wanderers!
The teams emerged at three minutes to three, and after both performed the customary huddle we were off, United, in green, doing the honours. Their supporters headed to the end they were attacking, huddling under the roof of the covered terrace whilst their side passed the ball around, probing for an opening. The nuts and bolts dominated the opening stages, looking comfortable in possession without really threatening, whilst Cray struggled to get into the match- with perhaps the exception of Ben Mundele, fresh from playing for an FA Representative XI at Luton in midweek, who was dangerous down the right.
Ashford should have taken the lead in the ninth minute. Sam Corne got away down the right, played a lovely ball through to Danny Parish, and that should have been goal nineteen for the season- but Nick Blue made himself big and made a save. A minute later and Ashford were through again, Jay May bearing down on goal, and this time Blue dived at his feet and diverted the ball for a corner, with the striker screaming for a penalty. “Green Army,” sang the away fans, and indeed they were the only ones with anything to sing about. When Parish went down injured and needed treatment on the quarter hour, Tony Russell took the chance to call his team over to the dugout for fresh instructions. It wasn’t difficult to understand why. When Cray finally did get a chance, Joseph Taylor found himself surrounded by five defenders and could only fire the ball at one of them, after which it was cleared. You couldn’t really criticise the striker, as he had no support whatsoever, and shook his head ruefully at his team mates.
The next chance was again Ashford’s, and again came to Parish. Recovered now, he got clear at the right hand side of the box and tried to fire a shot across Blue, but the angle was too tight and the keeper stopped it expertly. Cray’s response saw Archie Johnson fire a shot well over the bar and into the new, unopened stand behind Sam Mott’s goal. Shortly afterwards Taylor did exactly the same, and we reached the halfway point of the half with no goals and Ashford still looking the most likely to get one. That said, Cray then had their best chance so far, a through ball from Mundele finding Taylor on the right-hand side of the box, but his shot went just past the near post.
Wanderers were finally finding their feet, and came closer still, Karl Dent curling a free kick just over the bar. And then…penalty! A one-two, a run into the box, a clumsy Ashford tackle- and the Cray fans in the main stand began to panic. “Who’s going to take it?” Memories of last week filled the air. Up stepped Taylor, and this time there was no mistake. Cray were ahead, thirteen minutes before the break.
Bromley's new stand
Ashford pressed, without finding a breakthrough. They seemed camped in the Cray half, but they were undone once more in the forty first minute. A Cray break led to a free kick down by the corner flag, and when the ball was sent into the box Mitchell Nelson leapt skyward, head and shoulders above any of the green horde surrounding him, and sent the ball goalwards. Cray celebrated, and their supporters breathed a sigh of relief so loud you could hear it in Croydon. Half time arrived, and the job was half done.
The Nuts and Bolts almost hit back immediately after the restart, Blue in action once more, this time tipping a free kick over the bar. They must have been finding it difficult to comprehend how they were two behind, and without the Cray keeper in top form the story may have been altogether different. However the visitors then decided to make it easier for the champions-elect. Six minutes in, Lee Prescott made a rather rash challenge on Tom Phipp. Down went the Cray defender in a heap, and out, without a moment’s hesitation, came the red card. The decision seemed justified, and Prescott made the walk of shame. Surely there was no way back for Ashford now?
Parish tried to disprove this theory just after the hour, making his own space and leading a defender on a merry dance before firing in a shot from the edge of the box, but Blue was once more down to save, full length to his right. Taylor had the ball in the net five minutes later, but was marginally offside, but otherwise the game was rather more sedate than it had been when there were still twenty-two players on the field. Cray took advantage of the extra space to pass the ball around, and Ashford chased it half-heartedly, but the earlier tension had evaporated into the cold spring air. Even the away fans protesting refereeing decisions against their side seemed to be doing it rather apologetically.
And then, ten minutes from time, we had jeopardy once more. The ball was played to Danny Parish, just inside the box. He seemed to struggle to get it under control, but the defence inexplicably gave him time to do so and he walloped it home. Two-one, and the nervous energy returned to the Cray faithful. Ashford had their tails up once more. Could they grab an unlikely- and perhaps valuable- point?
It's all coming up Cray!
They couldn’t. Three minutes from time, a goalmouth scramble, Taylor put the ball across, and there was Tom Carlse to poke it home. Three-one, a roar the like of which we hadn’t heard all afternoon, and the game was over. Cray were champions, and the celebrations began in earnest.
When you approach Hayes Lane, you are assailed by Bromley FC signs at every turn. That’s to be expected, it is their ground after all, but the lack of a Cray Wanderers presence is astounding. Wands have been here for two decades, but with the sole exception of a small sign outside the turnstiles, advertising the admission prices and removed at the end of every matchday, they may as well not exist. If you didn’t know that Cray Wanderers were in residence, you were unlikely to find out.
That problem will end in two years time. After decades as nomads, Wanderers will have a place of their own, having finally got planning permission for a stadium far closer to where they belong; a stadium which will benefit the local community and give London’s oldest football club a focal point- and a residual income. The fact that they are still here is in no small measure due to the generosity of Gary Hillman and other members of his board, and it will be good to see that reliance on individuals end.
Behind the far goal at Hayes Lane a sparkling new edifice rises from the crumbling wreckage that was an old, broken stand. Bromley are going up in the world, and want to have the facilities to match.
The teams arrive
Wands are also upwardly mobile. And whilst their plans aren’t anywhere near as grandiose, that won’t matter to the supporters. It isn’t size that’s important.
It’s having a place of your own.