Cray Wanderers End of Season – The thoughts of Tony Russell

Due to Covid-19 the 2019-20 Isthmian Premier season has been cancelled and declared null and void thereby dashing Cray Wanderers promotion hopes but at the same time ensuring that everyone around the club and their families as well as around the UK and the world are kept safe.

Here Tony Russell gives his thoughts on the effects of the Coronavirus on football, the impact that the FA decision could make, the Isthmian League role in this decision,  that football should never be off topic and the lockdown situation.  


Commiserations to you Tony, your staff and players for the season having to come to an end so prematurely but the health and safety of the players at this time is paramount. How are you, your staff and players and are you in regular contact with them?

Yes, as far as I am aware everyone is fine and staying indoors so fortunately all seem to be alright at the moment which is good.  I’m finding it a funny subject at the moment as I have seen people on social media and going on radio shows and people shoot them down with “how can you think about football at a time like this”. What do people expect them to do? They are following the correct procedures to stay indoors. Just to sit there, all doom and gloom watching the news and only think about Covid-19.  We are allowed to talk about football, it is an escape from a situation at the moment which is a little bit concerning for everyone.  So people should be allowed to talk about it or anything else they wanted to talk about. As long as people are not going outside and mixing with other people and in big gatherings I haven’t got a problem with it. No-one is enjoying the current situation and one hopes it goes away soon but you are allowed to talk about football and shouldn’t be ashamed about it.

A lot of people involved in football agree that what is going on in the world is more important but there are those within the game that perhaps don’t have anything to talk about  because their team hasn’t achieved anything this year and maybe have more to say on health matters.  There is not a person in this country who is not worried about their loved ones and wanting them to be safe. That doesn’t mean they are not allowed to tweet or not allowed to put anything on Facebook or ring someone up or face time a radio station and have a conversation about football. It is people jumping on bandwagons and trying to be dramatic and make it about them and they are idiots. That is the wonderful world of non-league unfortunately.

Going on to the decision by the FA to end the season.  Were you surprised by the decision to do this or did you expect a PPG (points per game) system to be used? The Isthmian League I feel are a little bit embarrassed about this and perhaps were put in a difficult situation out of their hands.

I don’t think so and I’ve been doing a bit of research. In terms of the decision, before the announcement was made I put out a tweet saying regardless of whatever happens I’m proud of the team and what they’ve achieved.  The reason I wanted to do that before the decision was because I understand it was a tough one to make and I understand whatever way they went with it, they were going to upset people and don’t envy them for that position. There was always going to be people unhappy and we have to respect that decision. I haven’t got a problem with it although I don’t agree with it understand that a decision had to be made.

What I don’t get is the process of it and what I do think is the FA have shown their hand and as soon as you have gone bang! Right, steps 3-7 void, everyone else see how it goes. When you do that what you are basically saying is that the Premier League/Football League and Steps 1 & 2 mean something. Anything outside of that is pub football.  That is what the FA have done by showing their hand in that way.

I’ve had a look at how does that process go. Does the FA just come out with that and they didn’t. The way it goes is that say for instance we play at step 3 and there are 8 leagues at Step 3, the leagues committees will vote on what they feel should happen so is it Points per game or is it null and void. Now say for instance we are League 1 Isthmian League and they vote null and void and League 2 vote PPG, League 3 vote Null and void what they do they take the average over that and that is what they go with. Now that is well and good but the problem I have of that is that these committees are made up of various different teams representatives and they will have their vote. Realistically, who benefits from PPG because ultimately let’s have it right we are all going to make a call that benefits us. Who are the only teams to benefit from PPG, the top 2 because they get promotion on the back of it. Who doesn’t benefit and would have a problem with that? 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th maybe 7th and you would have bottom, second bottom, third bottom. The odds on them voting PPG wasn’t in our favour so now you are asking people with a vested interest to make a vote on everyone’s season when the odds are stacked against them voting for PPG because of their interest in their own clubs. That is what they have done. Then they put a recommendation through to the FA and they have to frank it, they haven’t yet and that is where we are at.

I haven’t got a problem with the decision and if the FA turns round and says everyone that is it, this is what has happened, nobody’s seen it coming, it’s no-ones fault and absolutely a once in a lifetime hopefully crazy situation. We just have to cancel the league, I’ll be disappointed but I get it. What I do have a problem with is the process where the league has gone into a draw where only two people in a room would pick something and the rest would go against it. It had no chance.

If the FA invent a law next year where we have to do ten kick ups before the ball can move forward we would have to play those rules because the FA set them. The Premier League all the way down to Step 7, we have to play those rules. So why if we all play the same rules are we all acting on different rules. Why are steps 3-7 doing something completely leftfield when step 1 & 2 and Premier League and EFL haven’t decided that. So why are we doing that. Because, the FA have shown their hand and we are pub football.  The quicker they can do their PR spins about grassroots football and how important it is the quicker we can all get going. It’s all a load of rubbish.  The decision I can accept but not the way they have come to the decision.  That is not right and not the correct way to go about it.  When the FA two seasons ago wanted to promote more teams they sent up the top 2 from the Isthmian South (Carshalton & Lewes), the team that won the playoffs (Walton) and the team that lost in the playoff final (Corinthian Casuals). We finished above both of them on points, but they sent them up even though they were behind us on points per game.  I remember at VCD in the Kent League, Erith & Belvedere won the league on goal difference from VCD and they sent us up on PPG after comparing other leagues. The league will only go with PPG when they have got a situation outside of the norm. Why have they not done that now? It doesn’t make sense.

I’ve heard people say we’ve done null and void before when we had a situation when World War II broke out and they cancelled the league and reverted back to that. The only reason they null and voided then was only 2 or 3 games had been played that season. If this had happened after a couple of games then it is a very easy decision to make. In this situation teams have played 33/34 games, now you can’t compare that to 2 or 3. For me it shows the FA talk a load of rubbish, it’s all soundbites, they couldn’t care less, we’re what we are we are pub football.  Me and Vinesy were talking about it if we don’t like it we’ve got to get ourselves to a level to get into Step 2 where people can start taking us seriously. People can write all these emails or send letters to the FA, they don’t care that someone from the Dog and Duck in their eyes has sent a letter to them.

Now what they have done, and Gary Hillman has made a good point is that they have left themselves open. So today (Tuesday, 31st March) the National League have put a statement out saying the season has finished so no more games in Step 1 & 2. Now they are going to decide if they null and void it or PPG. Now this is where it gets interesting. If they go PPG can you imagine what would happen in the National League if they did that.  Maybe they might go null and void and the teams take it on the chin. If the EFL say they can’t finish and go null and void that too is fine. If however they go PPG then all hell is going to break loose.   The FA have left it open to a load of volunteers who go on the Isthmian league committee who have association with their own clubs and voted against PPG. Why have they done that?

To me it is a hard one, I understand a decision had to be made and sometimes this will go for you, sometimes against you, that’s life and that’s football but what I don’t agree with is the process taken to get to the decision. If it had gone PPG and we had gone up we would have been fortunate, there’s no getting away from that. Folkestone would say they were only a tiny fraction behind, Hornchurch, Carshalton and other teams and they would have a fair argument if we went up through the back door. I 100% get that.  The teams that were down in the relegation places they can argue that they could have had a push at the end of the season and stayed up. I’ve read a lot of different comments from both sides of the fence. It is hard when a manager says that they have put in so much effort, Monday-Friday I leave for work at 6.30 am, I get home at 5.30pm and have half an hour to see the kids and then I go out at 6pm on Monday-Thursday to go to football, I’m out all day Saturday and take the little man to football on Sunday. I do that for 6/7 months only to be told that it doesn’t count and that bothers me.

It does to me too as someone who works for the club and my colleagues who have put so much in from the pre-season games, the likes of Martin who signs players through to the match day staff. This had been an incredible season full of broken club records, your 200th win as manager, Gary Hillman’s 25th anniversary as Chairman yet it all feels like it was for nothing with the results expunged (a word I really hate).

For me I think it is disrespectful. I have been asked to do a few interviews and I have sort of declined them as I think it is right that you just sit back and look at what is going on as until we know what the National League is going to do and the EFL.  I must admit that I thought that they would go PPG but I thought we were in a chain. The Premier League to me will finish, I know that for a fact. The Premier League dictate to the FA what happens, the FA do not dictate to the Premier League. The Premier League have to relegate 3 teams, the Championship will send 3 teams down, League 1 and League 2 will send teams down. Where are League 2 sending them to, the National League and they are going to want teams in return for that.  Now they’ve got a problem and this is why I will be surprised if National League go null and void because it is a chain but they are happy to cut the chain at National League step 2 as that is where they think football stops being serious. This is where people are getting confused and think that the teams at the top are just being spoilt brats. It does not make sense making that decision so early to go null and void and we only found out through Twitter.  Clubs at our level of football deserve a little bit more than that.  I got a phone call from someone who said have you heard the news and I don’t think that is right that a manager only finds out from someone else, a friend not connected to me in a football sense tells me about it, I’m involved and spent 6 months of my life with it only to be told by a friend the season is null and void. I don’t feel comfortable with that but it is going to be interesting to see how this unfolds.

Hopefully we get on top of Covid-19 and get back to normality in the near future, in the next month or so, possibly June time if we can stay positive to get back to the start of next season. People don’t realise the FA have not rubber stamped the null and void decision yet, and was just a recommendation that has been made to the FA. Hence that is why you have over a 100 clubs that have joined together to say can you have a re-look at this. To me it is very unlikely they will make a U-turn as they do not normally because it is embarrassing to them. Fair play to those clubs for standing up for what they believe in. I feel sorry for those teams that have won their leagues like Jersey who have already been crowned champions, Maldon & Tiptree have had an unbelievable season and even Worthing to a certain extent, who have led the league for so long to be told they can’t go up and that is a bit harsh on them.

One problem that could also arise is the situation with Bury who went defunct at the start of the season and rather than leave a team short in the EFL, it had been mooted that maybe Barrow who top of the National League would go up.

The league will not be able to do that as the season has not finished so they will have to promote Barrow on PPG and the minute you do that it opens it up for everyone.  Here is where Gary made a very valid point, the FA dug themselves a hole and they cannot promote a team that season if it has been declared null and void and on 0 points. The league never happened. You could also put Bury back in the league. I’m sitting back and looking out for what the National League do. The problem is the money clubs have higher up the non-league. It is easy to mess around with Step 7 as there aren’t any big hitters at that level.  When you get to step 1 & 2 especially step 1, these boys have got serious money and can put big heat on the FA. I’m intrigued and if they go null and void across the board, I’ll be disappointed but have to accept it that is what it is. If you start treating people differently and doing things rogue and disrespecting leagues and levels then the FA have a problem.

I felt for the league when they had to make the decision on the eve of the Cheshunt game and decided to postpone all Isthmian games while the National League continued on. It seems the Isthmian were following advice from Public Health England and the league were getting criticised for the decision to cancel due to the social distancing rules but the National League who get bigger crowds carried on and this seemed contradictory didn’t it?

You had the same impression that the FA make a blanket decision about everything. The National League runs their league while the Step 3 & 4 leagues run themselves. The problem you’ve got now is if the Step 3-7 leagues decide to go null and void while Steps 1-2 go PPG then there will be questions.  When we get fined and we got fined over £3000 for various different reasons to squeeze money out of non-league clubs. Where does that money go to? It goes to the governing body which is the FA.  So the FA don’t really want to make a decision and let the Isthmian make the decision. At a time when the game needs proper leadership they have left it up to an Association with clubs in our league and a vested interest. How can that be independent and a fair vote. That’s my problem.  There are two teams in our league that will benefit from PPG, everyone else don’t. Teams in the middle probably won’t feel bothered about it, teams at the bottom will vote against it, teams in steps 3-7 will vote against it because they won’t want to see another team go up as they will feel in the next 10 games they would have won it. The teams in mid-table would say they would have had a great last 10 games, they’ve looked at the fixtures and got in the playoffs. They are all scrambling for their jobs, teams at the bottom would be telling their Chairmen we were just going to come good.  We’ve lost 75% of our games all season and suddenly thought they were going to win their last games. It is all a smokescreen and that is very much non-league football.  It was also a little bit rushed, they had emergency meetings here and there, they just needed more time to assess everything and I don’t think the decision should have been made by the Isthmian League and should have been an FA decision.  Unfortunately many of those decision makers are volunteers who give up a lot of time to be a league official and they are busy and have good intentions but they are not decision makers, they are volunteers and a proper social gathering. They should not have been put in that position to make that decision and not just the Isthmian all leagues at Step 3 – 7, their committee members who sit on the league are not qualified enough to make a decision and should have been someone higher up at the FA doing it.

Despite what has happened and the taking out an entire season from the Isthmian League which everyone will know about 2019-20 and will be a historic year for the wrong reasons but everyone from school kids to fully grown adults and key workers will remember it. However, this season was full of great moments, a lot went into it and you must have had some personal highlights

What I have been enjoying you’ve been putting on Facebook games from earlier in the season and reprinted the interviews and I was reading one and it was me talking about the injury crisis, 3 or 4 out every week, only 16 players and playing really well and not winning games. I said just before Christmas that we will finish like a train now everyone is back fit and we were then unbeaten in 2020, we were going into the last 10 games as the form side possibly in the whole of the Isthmian League. We were flying and we are a group of people who have been in this situation before in run-ins so we were never going to melt under the pressure. The fact how far we’d come when we sat down with the Chairman in the summer and he spoke about keeping us up at this level of football and to turn it around and speaking to Gary about 2 weeks before the Worthing game and I remember him saying to me that we could win this league. We were pretty confident in the dressing room we could do that but it was great to hear him say and announce to me, we could win this and I said yes we could. That complete turnaround from keeping us up to seven months later and now you are looking at us going up that shows the turnaround and how far we have come as a club and this group of players is outstanding.

To me the standout game will be the Worthing away game. It was not just that we beat Worthing away with all due respect to them and they are a good side don’t get me wrong but it was the manner with which we beat them. To go into the game with the boys we had out, lose three boys  in the first half, 2 lads making their debut, at half time we’d made three subs, people playing out of position, Martin making his debut alongside Charlie Allen as centre-half, Tom Carlse had his first game after six weeks out, young Femi a 16 year old making his debut, Barney Williams playing in midfield and when you look at that we were one nil down against a team that hadn’t lost for four  months yet come back and win 2-1. It was remarkable not only with the result but the manner that we did it. Their fans didn’t cover themselves with glory and know they played Folkestone a week later and did the same thing and had to put out an apology. We were covered in beer as we left the pitch and it added to it. So for me it was possibly one of the best results I’ve ever had.

We can go on about these memories, me and the players and Vinesey were so proud to have broken the club record to finish above 9th and would have gone down as the most successful team in the club’s history. For some clubs that might not mean much but to us it meant everything. We want to be the best and drummed it into them and now they have been denied that.

Take nothing away from this group of players even when we hit a bumpy road and weren’t winning and had injuries they’ve stuck at it. Training always had big numbers, they never moaned or whinged. They have been unbelievable, the best set of players I’ve ever worked with and I’ve worked with some real good ones both in the dressing room and on the pitch as well. We continue to grow from strength to strength. We will take our positives from games like Enfield Town away. It was a great season and we got to the point where getting through the winter could we get to the last 10 games of the season with all to play for. That was the message from speaking to you and on Hendy’s videos, get to the last ten games and into the mix and we know how we finish and we will come down that stretch when the sun comes out and we’ll know what will happen and we got there. We moved ourselves into a position from 8th at Christmas, Hornchurch and Horsham were all ahead of us and we caught them all. We were picking them up and we were eying up Worthing next and we were confident we could catch them. However, it is all ifs, buts and maybes but if you look at the form table we were all clear of everyone else so feel we were denied the opportunity to win the league, forget PPG and that was a disappointment.

It is up to us now to prove this wasn’t a fluke and because teams can have one good season riding the crest of a wave and now we need to do it again and that is what we will do.

Looking ahead if we can I noticed on social media that Erith & Belvedere have highlighted a friendly game against us. This leaves a glimmer out there doesn’t it that football will eventually return.

This is my point from earlier, why shouldn’t they do that? Why shouldn’t Erith & Belvedere say to another team do you want to have a friendly. Now they might not have that friendly until September but it just leaves a hope that we can get back to normality. I’ve seen things on social media that we shouldn’t be talking about football, Coronavirus is more important and people are dying. We know that we are not stupid, we are indoors watching the news and we understand 100%. I would gladly give up the football season for next year if this can clear now and everyone else stops getting ill. I don’t control that and all I can do is like everyone else, follow the Government rule and stay indoors, remain isolated and ride it out and that is what we are doing.  We are allowed though to talk about football. When I eventually get out of this house, I’m going to go to the pub with my mates. I’ve been talking to mates I don’t see enough of because of football and we are saying we will have a meet up, a good drink and what are we going to get dug out about that and we are not allowed to talk about that. We will give Erith and Belvedere a friendly, I’ve spoken to Del, their manager and as soon as we are ready to. There are some people who only feed on negatives but I’m not like that and I’m a positive person and I understand this is a process we have to go through but I try to remain positive and hopefully this is all done soon, we can all go back in the open and can meet up with friends and family again and back to normality.

It has been a good season and obviously taking it back to the beginning we hope all the players and everyone involved with the club gets through this and we see each other again soon. Obviously for yourself you have three young kids who are probably itching to go back to what those at that age want to do.

It’s one of them ones though, it’s about having a mindset. A lot of people are saying they are stuck indoors. I’m not stuck indoors, I’m indoors being safe with my family so I haven’t got one problem with it. Our kids haven’t got one problem with it. You’ve just got to adapt, we’ve done it in this country before, we will do it again. The boys get up, we’ve got a routine going, we go out for a run, walk the dog, we have a tutor so they have been set some work. They’ll clean their bedroom, have some breakfast and once they have done that they can play on their computers.

Henderson is a bit like me, we have a love-hate relationship with football. We are not obsessed with football, believe it or not you might think we are but we’re not.  So when I’m not at football I don’t miss it, I’m ok with it. We don’t watch a lot of football at home, I’m an all or nothing sort of person so if the football season is on I’m out every Monday-Thursday, all day Saturday and I want to win and be the best, I want to outwork everyone and make sure I know everything about an opponent or make sure my sessions are good.  When the season finishes that is me done, I shut off from it and have to park it up but don’t miss football.  I miss the boys in the dressing room and having a laugh but football is football and I’m not one who is deeply in love with it. For me, I’m going to push as much as I can to manage as high a level as I can and see where that takes me but if it gets to the point where I didn’t think I could progress no more I wouldn’t just stagnate and stay at that level that would be me done. Henderson is the same, as I say he gave up football for three months at the start of the season, he likes boxing, he’s clever at school and has other things. In our house we are not climbing the walls, missing the game. It’s like a boxing match for me, I throw punches until the ref tells me to stop and when the boxer holds his hands up and it’s over I walk away and it’s done. I’m exactly the same with football, when it’s on no-one can be more committed than me. I’ll be on the phone, I will be out, trying to win, I hate losing, push push push, but once they say that’s it it’s cancelled I’m done. That’s why very rarely you will see me in the bar after a game because that is the end of my week, I’ve done everything, I’m knackered and done all I can do on that Saturday, I’ve finished, and I’m going home to my family. I’m not one who wants to stand around and people waxing lyrical about what I could and should be doing. At the end of the season I will go out and have a drink but during the season it is game face on.

Thank you Tony for taking the time to talk during this season. I hope you, your family, your staff and players and their families all stay safe and well and hopefully we can all meet again soon and play out the football dreams of our local team once again.