CHAMPIONES! – Cray Wanderers Review of the 2018-19 Season – Part 2
With many thanks to Jon Hilliger, Allen Hollands, Mike Green, Carl Newnham, Vikrant Dogra & Victor Napolski for their assistance and photos & videos
2018 was a great year for Cray Wanderers on an off the field but with the planning for Flamingo Park kept behind the scenes all focus was on the pitch as Cray Wanderers came into 2019 top of the Bostik South-East by eight points.
Cray Wanderers went into January still very much playing the nothing is yet won card which was wise as many tough games were still to be played including the first game of the New Year on Sunday 6th January as Cray faced the only team of the 19 in the league yet to play in Three Bridges. The visitors had won 7 out of their last 8 games and despite Cray knocking on the door for the duration of the match it looked like the stubborn opponents with ten men for the last 20 minutes would take a point. However, Cray had over the course of the season produced a late sting in the tail and did so again, seven minutes into stoppage time when despite the lack of time remaining the Wands put together a slick passing passage of play which led to Archie Johnson letting fly 25 yards from goal and his screamer hit the back of the net, cue bedlam and Cray were off and running for 2019. Sadly an injury for the returning Aaron Rhule put a dampener on the game for the Wands.
One of the goals of the season from Archie Johnson against Three Bridges
The first away game of 2019 saw Tony Russell’s men head to East Grinstead Town on 12th January. One thing that was becoming apparent even at this stage of the season was the performance of the back four. Aside from the rainlashed game at Horsham the defence had been watertight and did so again at East Grinstead as another clean sheet was obtained while Cray clicked up front in the second half when Joe Taylor scored in the 51st minute and twelve minutes later Freddie Parker with a sweet right footed shot scored a second and Cray moved ten points clear at the top after the 2-0 win.
Freddie Parker scores Cray Wanderers second goal at East Grinstead Town
A bit of a rarity at this stage of the season was a Saturday home match and on 19th January, Cray took on VCD Athletic at Hayes Lane in a match between two in-form sides. Evenly matched for half an hour, Cray went in front with a blockbuster strike from Parker and at this point of the season Cray weren’t scoring ordinary goals and Ben Mundele curled in a breathtaking second seven minutes after half time. A Charlie MacDonald penalty which preceded what turned out to be an errant red card to Archie Johnson led to a tense finish but Cray held firm and with VCD also down to ten men by the end, Tom Phipp stroked home a penalty and the Wands won 3-1 to stay 10 points clear at the top of the table.
Freddie Parker gives Cray Wanderers the lead against VCD Athletic
The final game in January saw Cray travel to Faversham Town where Cray had drawn their last two league games. Faversham were scrapping for points near the bottom and on a grey murky day, the honours were shared in a 1-1 draw. Faversham took the lead with a hotly disputed penalty early in the first half but Mitchell Nelson powered home a header from a corner before the break to level the match. In the second half, Cray twice hit the woodwork but in the end a point was perhaps not a bad result for either side. With Hastings United losing at Herne Bay, Cray extended their lead to 11 points and a record of P. 22 W. 17 D. 4 L. 1 F. 46 A. 19 Pts. 55
Cray’s great form throughout January saw Tony Russell pick up his second Manager of the Month award of the season after earlier scooping the September prize.
Cray Wanderers form going into February was very strong and they carried this on through the shortest month starting on February 2nd with a match against in-form Herne Bay. The visitors were confident beforehand of causing an upset but a Junior Dadson inspired Cray performance which saw a four goal haul and five goals in the second half with Jerome Federico and Daniel Uchechi leading Cray to a 6-0 win and the Performance of the Month award for February. Cray’s lead at the top was now 13 points from Ashford United and Hastings United.
Junior Dadson scores one of four goals against Herne Bay
On Tuesday 5th February came in my mind the most important and telling result of the whole season. Midweek games were rare and Whyteleafe were another side who fancied their chances against Cray at Church Road. Cray carried on where they left off on the Saturday with a faultless display of ruthless efficiency and a Sean Roberts header and two Joe Taylor strikes gave Cray Wanderers a 3-0 lead at half time. In a rain drenched second half, Cray saw out the game bar an injury time penalty for a 3-1 win meaning that the last three games in which Nick Blue had conceded all had been penalties.
To cap off a highly satisfying week, on Saturday 9th February, Guernsey made the trip to Hayes Lane for a 2pm kick off and Cray despite perhaps playing not out of second gear were 3-0 up at half time through goals from Dadson, Taylor and Bradley Pritchard. In the second half Cray managed the game sufficiently to keep another clean sheet and a late red card for Tom Phipp was later rescinded on appeal. Certainly one of the signings of the season was that of the Hudl video software as each match was recorded and analysed and through having that footage red cards for Johnson and Phipp were quashed through evidence to the FA and thereby preventing bans. Cray won the match 3-0 and now led Ashford United at the top by 16 points after 25 games.
Bradley Pritchard scores Cray Wanderers third goal against Guernsey
A supremely confident Cray Wanderers finished their February fixtures on 16th February down at Ramsgate in what is always a tough place to go. This was a fine match with Taylor scoring early against one of his former clubs before Tom Chapman’s superb strike breached the Wands goal for the first time from open play since December 23rd. Junior Dadson blasted Cray back in front after half time but Ramsgate plundered a second leveller and in the end the match ended in a 2-2 draw. Again not a bad result as Ashford had been beaten at Herne Bay and Hastings were now up to second, with Cray 15 points ahead going into a weekend off to finish the month.
After the no game weekend, Cray finished February with a 14 point lead ahead now of Horsham who would remain behind Cray Wanderers for the rest of the season. February had seen some of the finest football of already a stellar season for Cray and the record read: P. 26 W. 20 D. 5 L. 1 F. 60 A. 22 Pts. 65
From checking the fixtures going into the new year, the month of March was looking like potentially the most decisive of the season. Cray had five matches with a trip to Phoenix Sports followed by games against three teams in the top 5, Horsham (H), Hastings United (A) and Haywards Heath Town (H) and finished off with a trip to Whitstable Town. It was envisaged that if results went Cray’s way potentially promotion could be achieved at Whitstable.
Up first was the always tough hurdle of Phoenix Sports away on March 2nd and here Cray despite not having a game for a fortnight were in professional and solid mode and after dominating the first half took the lead just after the half hour with a well worked Karl Dent strike, his first of the season and a strong rearguard display from Cray led to a fine 1-0 win away from home, their 11th on the road and stay 13 points clear ahead of the following Saturday’s big game against Horsham at Hayes Lane.
Karl Dent scores Cray Wanderers winner at Phoenix Sports
Following the win at Phoenix, Cray went and made a key signing from Ashford United of full back Tom Carlse very much on the Tony Russell radar for a while while Daniel Uchechi was released.
The only side to beat Cray so far, Horsham came into the match on 9th March in excellent form and in 2nd place but in a match where the first goal was likely to prove key, Cray got it when Jerome Federico’s cross was turned in by Dadson to keep up his purple patch of form. The Wands played well in the second half and scored a second through a Joe Taylor penalty after Dent was fouled and Cray went on to win 2-0 and go 16 points clear of Horsham with 8 games of the season remaining. No-one was putting out the bunting just yet but this was a big win as Horsham didn’t lose another match after this and certainly put to bed the defeat at Culver Road in December.
Junior Dadson gives Cray Wanderers the lead against Horsham
Big match followed big match and on 16th March, Cray headed to Pilot Field to take on a Hastings side who were just faltering a little of recent weeks. Always a tough place to go, Cray got off to a flyer here and were two nil up in 6 minutes. Both goals probably were not the greatest of the season but both carved out of stone and finished from close range by Archie Johnson and Joe Taylor. Hastings though pulled a goal back with a 30 yarder from Sam Cruttwell. Shortly after Davide Rodari levelled to make it 2-2 at the break. Another great goal after half time from Jack Dixon gave Hastings the lead and they held on to to win 3-2 cutting Cray’s lead to 13 points. A Cray defeat was a rare occurrence and such was the social media outcry of Cray losing that a Wands demise was now on the cards. The fact was it was a great game of football in which Hastings just happened to win just like it was a great game back in November which Cray won.
Joe Taylor scores Cray Wanderers second goal against Hastings United
On 23rd March, Cray took on Haywards Heath Town at Hayes Lane for the first time and the league surprise package came to the Lane in confident mood having only lost once away from home all season. Haywards Heath twice took the lead but on both occasions within two minutes of going behind Joe Taylor scored twice to make it 2-2 and despite late pressure and a fine performance from Town keeper Josh Heyburn the game ended in a draw. Horsham and Ashford drew 0-0 so Cray stayed 13 points clear at the top. Another new signing came to the club prior to the closing of the transfer window, winger Jordan Clarke from Corinthian Casuals.
The month ended on 30th March at Whitstable Town with the remote chance of winning the title but Ashford’s home win against Guernsey meant that couldn’t happen even with a Cray win. As it turned out the game itself was probably beaten by the warm weather and one of the more sleepier games of the season finished with one well taken goal by Harry Stannard in the second half for the Oysetermen separated the sides. The 1-0 defeat coupled by wins for Hastings and Horsham meant at the end of March and after three games without a win the Wands still had a decent 10 points lead with five more matches to play. The record was P. 31 W. 22 D. 6. L. 3 F. 67 A. 28 Pts. 72
For the first time during the season even I admit the jitters were starting to creep in but April could have begun with the title being won for Cray and to end the tension. The Wands were in Sunday afternoon action on 7th April against relegation threatened Greenwich Borough at Hayes Lane and after Ashford United, the only side who could technically catch Cray for total points lost at Hythe on the Saturday, Cray would win the title with a victory. A very nervy match began with Greenwich taking the lead after an award of a very soft penalty and then proceeded to frustrate Cray every step of the way for the remainder of the game. With 13 minutes to play, Cray though deservedly levelled through Karl Dent’s strike and from here battered Borough and had the chance to win it in the 87th minute but Tom Phipp’s penalty kick was saved and in the end the match ended 1-1. With Horsham beating Sittingbourne Cray now led by 8 points but Cray could win the league the following Saturday against Ashford United.
Karl Dent levels for Cray Wanderers against Greenwich Borough
On 9th April, Cray Wanderers full back Ben Mundele was selected to play for England ‘C’ against a Bedfordshire XI for their 125th Anniversary celebrations. Well done Ben to be honoured in this way and helped set up England’s winner in a 3-2 victory.
So to April 13th and after a number of sleepless nights the game with Ashford United at Hayes Lane arrived with no little tension but also a touch of excitement that these are the games that supporters live for from the start of any season. Ashford dominated early on and Nick Blue had to make a couple of saves and a possible Ashford penalty shout was waved away. However, Cray stepped up and Carlse against his former club was upended in the box and Joe Taylor converted from the spot. Then, Dent’s corner was headed in by Mitchell Nelson and a 2-0 half time lead was very welcome. Ex-Wand Lee Prescott was sent off for Ashford and this helped deflate the tension for about half an hour until it was pumped back up again when Danny Parish pulled a goal back for the visitors eleven minutes from time. Cray though ploughed forward and Carlse got on the end of a Johnson cross to score and cue elation and the realisation that Cray Wanderers would now be champions. The final whistle went and Cray won 3-1 and with it became the very first Bostik South-East Champions and ever efficient and on the ball, the championship trophy and medals were on standby and presented to the joyous players and staff and for supporters a truly great day.
With many thanks to Victor Napolski – The highlights of the game against Ashford United and end presentation
There were still three more games to go in which they were all played with a fair amount of tension removed and a chance to play one or two younger players to give game time as well as being professional befitting that of champions. On April 20th the first of the two Easter games saw Cray travel to Three Bridges who were safe from relegation. After a classy guard of honour from Three Bridges before the game Cray were slick and incisive and a goal in each half from Freddie Parker and Joe Taylor gave Cray a 2-0 win and their 12th away win of the campaign.
There was a relaxed, almost serene atmosphere for the Easter Monday home game with Sevenoaks Town which saw a guard of honour for the players from the Cray Massive wound down the home games for 2018-19. First half goals from Parker and Junior Dadson put them both on 12 goals level with Joe Taylor in the race for top scorer. Sevenoaks pulled a goal back before half time and had the better of the second until Jordan Clarke barely 30 second after coming on a sub scored to make it 3-1. The visitors to their credit had a strong last quarter of an hour and scored three times to win the game 4-3 and thereby end Cray’s unbeaten home record. No damage was really done though and was only Cray’s fourth defeat of the season.
Before the last game there was more good news off the field as Flamingo Park officially passed into the hands of Cray Wanderers on 26th April and historically significant as Cray Wanderers will now own their own ground by right for the first time.
The final game of a momentous season saw Cray travel to Hythe Town in what could have been a tricky contest if much riding on the game. As it was Cray were in slick, efficient and classy mood and after another wonderful guard of honour turned on the style and goals from Parker and Taylor put them both on 13 goals in the first half. Hythe pulled a goal back but an own goal twelve minutes from the end sealed a 3-1 win and despite attempts to claim the boot both Freddie and Joe remained on 13 goals to share the golden shoe.
In the end Cray had won the title by eight points and the final total of P: 36 W. 25 D. 7 L. 4 F. 79 A. 35 Pts. 82. Cray had finished with most wins, most goals, fewest conceded and best goal difference, 14 clean sheets and failed to score in just two league games. The Wands perhaps had been more extravagant the previous season in scoring 112 goals but this was a more mature, stronger, durable and resilient side with a strong team spirit and showed their class in many games and also knuckled down to win games often late in the day. The whole team deserve credit from the continued excellence of Nick Blue, to the strength of the back four with Jay Leader, Mitchell Nelson, Ben Mundele (Players Player of the Year), Barney Williams, Archie Johnson, Tom Carlse and Marcus Evans all putting in great performances. The midfield engine ran smoothly all season and the signings of Bradley Pritchard (Supporters and Managers Player of the Year), Tom Phipp and Sean Roberts proved to be shrewd and plenty of width provided by Junior Dadson, Jerome Federico, Jordan Clarke and Daniel Uchechi during his short time with the club. Up front, Michael Power started like a house on fire but his injury meant Freddie Parker stepped up to the plate and continues to get better with each passing match and finished (Young Player of the Year) joint top scorer with the hardworking Joe Tayior who scored 13 matches despite only signing in December. The future also appears bright with the late end of season appearances for the likes of Lee Lewis, Charles Etumnu and Kyrique Garvey-Williams.
The management and coaching team deserve great credit for looking to play football the right way, bring young players through and make Cray Wanderers once again a force to be reckoned with and after one or two seasons of Cray losing their aura of invincibility before Tony Russell arrived, the Wands can go into every match and the step up into the Bostik Premier.
Seasons like this need to be cherished and always looked back on with affection and for me personally this will be one I will never forget.