It’s finally here, what you’ve been waiting for since April 22nd the start of the Bostik South Season, 2017-18 arrives on Saturday after a depressingly long summer.
Pre-season is now over and the serious business begins and what a way to start the season with a local derby against Thamesmead Town and a return to Hayes Lane for ex-Cray boss Tommy Warrilow. That fate should pair the two teams together for the first day of the season is hard to fathom but it certainly whets the appetite for the next nine months ahead. This will also be the first Cray Wanderers home league game to be played on the 3G pitch.
There’s no doubt that the four months Warrilow was in charge between January-April 2015 was one of the most emotional in recent Cray history with the Wands looking certain for a second straight relegation back to the Kent League. With ten games of the season to go, the greatest of all escapes was pulled off and won the Wands the Team of the Season award for the Isthmian North before a new era was ushered in with Tony Russell who rebuilt the side considerably and has made Cray contenders rather than strugglers and are fighting fit for the season ahead. It has to be said at the same time Tony was putting together a great escape plan of his own with VCD Athletic who won their last six games in the Isthmian Premier to stave off relegation. Both managers won the April Manager of the Month in 2015.
Cray had a very efficient pre-season winning seven of the nine games played and their final game at Merstham last Saturday was the best performance showing real quality in attack, good passing and the final scoreline didn’t really reflect the superiority.
Luke Medley was top scorer in pre-season with five goals and was very sharp at Merstham and looks set to lead the line on Saturday with Danny Haynes suspended and Michael Power absent due to his impending nuptials.
Defensively, Cray have been very good and Jay Leader and Mitchell Nelson in the centre look a fine pairing already. Barney Williams looks a quality signing and is a terrific footballer. Nick Blue has been in good form and it appears the acquisition of Joe Vines as Player Assistant Manager has been a wise move and has made his mark working on making Cray more of a threat from set pieces with five goals in pre-season coming from corners.
In midfield, Dean Carpenter adds subtlety to go alongside Lea Dawson whilst Karl Dent has been excellent in the last few friendly games. The club have also re-signed wingers, Brandon Scott and Warren Whitely which will add pace to the side and also Michael Frieter who made such a big impression two seasons ago in the side which reached the Isthmian North playoffs.
Certainly, Cray are on the look out for more players which is not untypical throughout the league early on in the season as teams look to assemble squads for the months ahead.
Cray will certainly be hoping to get off to a good start and the Wands haven’t won their season opener since the 2008-09 season so certainly that is due for a change. It was felt last season that Cray started too slowly and were playing catch up with the leaders after a few games so with two local derbies to start the campaign Cray will be looking to leave a marker for the early weeks.
So what of Thamesmead Town. They have moved across the Bostik League from North to South so are maybe an unknown quantity for many clubs in the league. We know them very well though having met in recent years, in the Isthmian Premier in 2013-14 and two seasons in the North and games against the Mead are always considerable battles. Last season was a rather difficult one after a good start and Thamesmead finished 17th in the North.
It was announced in March that Thamesmead had agreed a five year arrangement to share Dartford’s Princes Park ground thereby moving the club away from their former Bayliss Avenue ground. The club encountered many problems with the landlords in obtaining a deal to remain there and it is a shame that a club created to serve the community has had to leave their natural home Whatever your football allegiances this is rather sad but the club had to make a business decision that keeps the club alive and the Dartford move was the best option available.
Thamesmead will make a game of it and do have a few ex Wands in their side including forwards Alex Teniola, Paul Vines and Dane Luchford as well as Scott Kinch adding considerable experience. The Mead will always compete for 90 minutes and Cray will have to be at their best to win the game.
The last time the two sides met at Hayes Lane came in a top of the table clash in the North on 29th September 2015 and the game went to the fifth minute of injury time when James Duckworth struck the winner in a 1-0 win. It could be that tight again on Saturday. Overall though Cray’s record against Thamesmead isn’t that good. Out of 22 previous league games, Cray have only won six with Thamesmead 17 wins and 9 draws.
There is always a buzz of anticipation for the opening of the season and with this looking like being the most competitive South Division for many years with two automatic promotion places this promises to be a great season with many twists and turns to come before 28th April, 2018.