Following the start of the Coronavirus pandemic which spread around the world football at Non-League level came to an end on 13th March, 2020 and went through an uncertain time. Now with the severely delayed start to the 2020-21 season Cray Wanderers will begin their pre-season countdown on Saturday with a trip to Beckenham Town.  Here Tony Russell gives his thoughts on the repercussions for football following the outbreak, the team getting back together again, how they are shaping up and the return of playing matches albeit initially behind closed doors.  


BROMLEY, GBR – 11 August 2020 – The Cray Wanderers bench during the pre-season friendly match Cray Wanderers v Hollands & Blair at Flamingo Park.
(Photo: Jon Hilliger)

Hello Tony. Welcome back to you, your coaching team, staff and players following the prolonged break and we wish you well for what is a rather delayed start to pre-season. I last spoke to you 31st March and at that time you told me you were quite enjoying the lockdown as you were able to spend quality time with your family, keeping them safe and how have you and your family been keeping during this long break?

Very good, I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve had a good few months at home with the kids. Thankfully, we are all still getting on and talking which is good. It is also good to get back into football, its going to be slightly different obviously. We did the trial game at Flamingo Park and it has been very busy the last few weeks getting in preparation. I think every club across the country will be the same and it has been a real uphill struggle for Cray Wanderers as a whole and financially it has affected us. I’ve had to speak to the players regarding money as the club has lost so many sponsors, we haven’t had the income coming in so cannot do the sort of deals we did last year.  They boys though have been brilliant and bought into it, they’ve all accepted cuts and not one of them wanted to leave which shows the sort of people we have at the club. Two of them batted off some very good offers paying them extraordinary amounts of money and they’ve turned them down and that tells you everything you need to know.

I think 80% of non-league is going to be like that, everybody is in the same boat. There are teams going out and spending and signing 4-5-6 players from other clubs and don’t seem too affected by it but most others have felt an impact.  As a club we’ve really had to pull together and to work as hard as we can.  The club have been brilliant with me, what it was looking like three months ago to what it is now is certainly a lot different and that is testament to Sam Wright and the owners who have done their very best for us and given us a chance to keep everyone and even trying to improve on what we had last year. We are not quite there at the moment, we are still working away but every single week we are getting stronger and recovering more.  With the season not really starting for 5-6 weeks we are confident by the time that comes around we will be in a nice strong position.

When I spoke to you on 31st March, football was going through utter confusion on how to complete last season. Obviously, the Isthmian League had already decided to finish the season and expunge records but divisions above took months to decide what to do. I remember at the time some of your predictions on what would happen did happen particularly in terms of Points per game also the apparent disregard for football at Step 3 downwards from the FA as pub football.

Steps 1 & 2, National League and EFL League 1 and 2 all finished their seasons on Points per game. I was having a conference call with my boss today and I said the same thing, that you don’t find out about things and what people really think of you until a situation comes up. If anyone is under any illusions that our level of football is looked at as pub football then you are nuts. The FA just threw a blanket over anything below step 2 and the rest is Dog and Duck. We know that, that’s fine. I personally don’t agree with that, there are some fantastic clubs and managers in all the steps and the clubs are run by good people and they don’t deserve that.  We weren’t hard done by, there were a few teams that were including some already champions but it’s not just that, it was the way it was done. It was really, really poor to leave the leagues to make their own decisions but it is what it is. For me it has given me and Vinesy more motivation to get into Step 2 because as a football club and as a management group we want to be taken seriously and if you don’t get taken seriously until step 2 then let’s get there and maybe then the FA will take us seriously.

They null and voided our season, they took all our fines and suspensions and now they’ve announced they’ve upped the fines for the forthcoming season and reduced the FA Cup and FA Trophy prize money by half. For non league clubs the FA competitions are gold for them and on the back of that and non-league being on its knees reduced the money. If you get through two rounds £10,000 goes a long way in non-league football. Now all of a sudden you get £5000.  Yet they’ve upped the fines so now if we get a player booked, sent off or we haven’t operated the substitute board properly that is more money they are squeezing out of clubs and rather scandalous to tell you the truth. Teams like Arsenal who win the cup will get £1.5 million in prize money. You could knock a million/half a million off them and drop it back into non-league football and it will mean so much more to non-league teams that it would for say Arsenal who are getting £170 million from the Premier League and more in sponsorship and investors. The FA don’t look at it as they don’t really care as long as you are paying your fines. It is what it is and if you don’t like it and we don’t like it as a football club lets work hard and get the respect we deserve. I always say turn disappointment into fuel and get away from it.

You know me Tony, I’m usually a very corporate, yes man when it comes to the club and what is best for the club but I am so furious that fans cannot attend pre-season games. I think it is barmy and could kill clubs who will have no money coming from ground receipts to lead them into their respective seasons and to be competitive. I know we are still in the grips of a pandemic but when the message is go back and do what you enjoy safely, non-league football games watched by small crowds is hardly going to lead to a spike of cases.

But there is no consistency with it, I’ve seen the last three months, hundreds of thousands of people marching, whatever the cause the authorities didn’t see a problem with that and let it go on and there has been no spike of cases.  Every time the sun comes out the beaches are absolutely packed and they are fine with that and not moving people off the beaches. They opened up pubs, I went and stood in a pub last weekend with my mates and the beer garden was packed and we were fine to do that. Yet in a 3000 capacity stadium they can’t let 300 people in. What they do is, they look after professional teams and judge it through that and getting 27,000 in a stadium but we will just extend that to non-league teams as well even though there is no comparison. They can spin out all the statements they want but everything that has happened in the last four months has pointed to the fact they don’t care about non-league football because it is not loads of money for them. Why does the Premier League rule football because they have the most money! I don’t even think you’ve seen the start of what is going to happen to non-league football.  We’ve lost Droylsden in the last few days and I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. Recession plus Covid-19 can equal carnage and there will be casualties but as far as Cray Wanderers owners are concerned they will always do what is right for the football club so when this wave does come we are not going to go under.

I’ll make a statement now, we will have a conversation this time next year I think you could wipe off 100 football clubs that you know and know well.  There is a recession and it is going to be brutal, no-one is going to have any money and then they are going to start messing around not letting fans in or once they do just a percentage. You are going to see non-league football stripped to the bare bones and you will see only the strongest survive. As much as I was frustrated that last season we had broken records at Cray Wanderers, finished in the highest position in our history and have had to cut the wage bill and to tell the players who have given everything for you that they have to do it all again are going to have to do it for less the club has to make sure that they can maintain and ride this wave out and that is exactly what the club are doing. They will explain to you, if you do an interview with Wrighty, Dave Francis or Gary Hillman I pushed them so much to get that little bit more to get that next level player I want so we can be the best that we can be. They are doing everything they can and I know the futureproofing of this football club, this wave of recession and what is about to come they are still doing that and the stadium. We’ve just got to take it on the chin, ride it out and I’m confident we can emerge strong, we are just going to work that little bit harder as a group of players and management for less and the boys have already looked each other in the eye and said we will do that.

Speaking as a fan and I know on behalf of all the fans we were so proud of that team last season, all the potential bad scenarios were thrown our way but we kept getting through the challenges. I mentioned on the Cray Massive Facebook page, the win at Enfield and also the Worthing win and you can’t just eradicate those memories.

The key for me and Vinesy is that the momentum we’ve got as a football club, the real purple patch and the key is to keep that and that is why is it is hard with exactly the same squad you are in danger of perhaps going flat and you need to keep things moving or you can stagnate. We are still trying to work one or two deals and bring in who we feel are exceptional players. One hasn’t really featured for us yet and no-one anyone would have seen and am working with the club on that. I’m constantly asking the questions can we? Is there a chance? I drive them mad, I know I do and I said to Dave Francis, the moment I stop being like that then I would walk away and means I have stopped pushing to move forward so they understand that. I just want to win and the club to keep on improving. So far so good and Sam called me to say that Dave and Micky Paye are looking to work on one of those deals which is exciting and we will know more on Saturday and see what feedback we get from the person we are talking too.


 New Season & Pre-season preparations

 It’s all very exciting for us at the moment, we’ve being doing an extra days training because the gap has been so big and we were so far ahead of schedule in terms of fitness we decided to invite teams down to Flamingo Park for games. We weren’t going to start pre-season until the Beckenham Town game this Saturday but just decided because the players were smashing the times we were setting them with the fitness stuff, they were at their levels already. We had done about two weeks, six sessions of real hard work and their fitness levels were outstanding so we didn’t see the games as friendlies because there were a mixture of U18s & trialists but it was nice to just sit there and relax and have a look at one or two of them. Some of the youngsters including some 16 year olds have come in and done really well. Grant Hall’s son, Roman has just turned 16 and what a prospect he is. I am convinced he will be our first team keeper one day and is going to be exceptional.  His dad played for Cray of course and when we bought him on for the last quarter of the Hollands & Blair game on Tuesday, I looked at Grant and he winked at me and I could see he was bursting with pride that his son was playing for Cray Wanderers which was lovely.

BROMLEY, GBR – 11 August 2020 – Cray Wanderers goalkeeper Roman Hall catches the ball during the pre-season friendly match Cray Wanderers v Hollands & Blair at Flamingo Park.
(Photo: Jon Hilliger)

I came down to the game with Hollands & Blair on Tuesday evening (2-2 draw) and it was a really good game, they were good opponents and there were some real positives to take from it wasn’t there. It was a game of three 30 minute segments and the team in the first 30 and part of the second was very strong with three trialist players amidst some first team regulars.

Yes, it was good. The team in the first half, that was the first football they had played and the pitch at Flamingo Park is really quite small, it was reduced so more like a kids 11 a side and they came with a 3-5-2 and were a big side and on a small pitch was difficult to break them down. Hollands & Blair were nice and competitive which is what you want and was played in the right spirit. For us, that’s why I’m taking everybody coming off, everybody coming on it more in the first part of pre-season of making sure they get through it safely. We still had a few players missing, Jay Leader didn’t play, Rhys Murrell-Williamson, Karl Dent and Jerome Federico yet we still were able to put two different sides out so it tells you the numbers we’ve got round us at the moment. No-one got injured which is perfect. I know their first goal, it was a short back pass and their player has gone 50/50 on Lewis Carey who has let him go through to score. When you play a team who are lower than in the leagues games like that mean a lot to them and they want to beat a team two leagues above with their enthusiasm and Lewis did the right thing and let him walk the ball in.

To me Saturday at Beckenham is the first real pre-season game. We’re still going to take big numbers there if I’m honest. Some players are not quite ready to play much more than 45 minutes but we will see what team we will take. We are not sure Jay will be there as he picked up a little knock in training last Saturday on his ankle so a precaution don’t think he will play.  Feds will not be there, Denty will train tomorrow as he tweaked his knee so after we did the first bit of ball work two players got injured as it has been just fitness so far and Rhys has got blisters on the back of his heels. He hasn’t kick a ball yet in pre-season but should be there. It will start to take shape, realistically we probably need one more player in so one place available up for grabs.

We’ve been helping some players who Cray Wanderers fan will remember, Aryan Tajbakhsh (who scored Cray’s second goal vs Hollands & Blair) who had been out all season with a cruciate ligament injury so we are helping him get fit and get minutes. I don’t think he is a realistic option for us, he is looking to maybe get a move a bit higher.  Similarly, Tom Bolarinwa, who is looking at a couple of options, so we are helping him too during pre-season so don’t think he is interested but he is a lovely guy and enjoyed having him in.

BROMLEY, GBR – 11 August 2020 – Cray Wanderers’s Trialist watches his shot go in the goal during the pre-season friendly match Cray Wanderers v Hollands & Blair at Flamingo Park.
(Photo: Jon Hilliger)

BROMLEY, GBR – 11 August 2020 – Pre-season friendly match Cray Wanderers v Hollands & Blair at Flamingo Park.
(Photo: Jon Hilliger)

Same with Paul Vines, Joe wanted to come in with his brother and we got him really nice and fit and the boys have really liked him in the dressing room. He is as fit as I’ve seen him and says he’s lost a stone since the start of pre-season so that shows how hard he’s been working. I like his attitude and in a fairly young squad is possibly one of the oldest players in it he was maybe a little bit out of shape and everything we threw at him he just ploughed through it and didn’t stop which shows great determination to get through the sessions. He was helping the other boys and never moaned, got his rewards and against Hollands & Blair was running down channels, scored a goal and almost scored another.  We had a phone call from a club about him and asked would it be alright to talk to him. I said of course it is so was off to see them tonight (Wednesday 12th August), so he might still be with us at the end of that conversation or not. If that club do get him they are going to get a great player, who’s fit and sharp and going to score goals. He had options open to him but really wanted to work with us to help his fitness and working with his brother. I’ve really enjoyed having him in with us, you can see why he has been playing at good levels for so long, his mindsight is spot in and the sort of player you give the armband to and score around 25 goals at whatever level he will play.  If discussions didn’t go well then he could still be with us at Beckenham on Saturday.

BROMLEY, GBR – 11 August 2020 – Pre-season friendly match Cray Wanderers v Hollands & Blair at Flamingo Park.
(Photo: Jon Hilliger)

There were two players names I wrote down on Tuesday night that I think deserve special mention, Tom Phipp and Freddie Parker. Tom had a bit of an injury hit season last time out but certainly a very valuable player for the team. Also great to see Freddie back after his loan spells away and is an incredible talent looking in great shape.

Phippsy last season missed a fair bit of early pre-season and isn’t a natural athlete, so if he doesn’t train puts on a bit of weight so when he came back for pre-season last year he did two or three sessions and then straight into league games so didn’t really have a pre-season. I think that was a lot to do with the injuries he got because he was always stretching, playing catch up so didn’t have the miles or fitness in his legs and pulled both hamstrings at points of the season. If you see him now it couldn’t be more different. He’s done every session, he’s fit as a flea and definitely ready for a full season. His mind is strong, fit and a bit like a new signing because he missed so much of last season and is such an important player for us in the way we play.  Aryan was saying to me that he had never seen Tom play before and he said “he’s a good player isn’t he!” and I said he’s very good.

Freddie meanwhile has grown, he must be around 6’3 now and doesn’t stop growing, he’s stocky, built like a heavyweight boxer, ripped, quick and he is a real specimen and an unbelievable footballer. It’s a simple one with Freddie, we just want him to mature his mindset. There is no doubting his ability, he is possibly one of our most talented players at the club. It’s a fine line with him if his head is right, he will go pro and won’t be with us for long, no doubt in my mind. If he doesn’t then I think we will struggle to have him in with us. He doesn’t have a bad attitude, he just sometimes lets things linger like if he misses a chance or misplaces a pass, he puts his shirt over his head and shouts and starts beating himself up. That can take 5-10 minutes to clear and in that time have lost Freddie in the game.  He knows that, we’ve given him feedback but we are very excited about him and known from when he was 16 he was a great talent. If he clicks god help the league because he and Joe Taylor could run riot as we can play him off JT and they will be a handful and could be 50 goals between them in a league campaign.  He sees himself as a no 9 but we see him as a no 10 and maybe will be one day but feel that JT was the perfect player for Freddie to learn off.  He is a better player facing goal rather than with his back to goal and we feel him coming off of the ball would be a dream. He excites us more than anyone because if he gets it right and trusts me and Vinesy I don’t think he will be with us very long.  We gave him a bit of time out and sent him on loan to Whitstable Town and then to Whyteleafe to learn and mature in his mindset and feel he had done that now.   I feel with one more addition to the squad we will be more than competitive again with the team we have.

BROMLEY, GBR – 11 August 2020 – Cray Wanderers’s Freddie Parker controls the ball under pressure during the pre-season friendly match Cray Wanderers v Hollands & Blair at Flamingo Park.
(Photo: Jon Hilliger)

There was a trialist day/open day on 1st August at Flamingo Park. Is this something you plan to do on an annual basis or something you were just testing the water with at this point.

To be fair it was driven by Vinesy who spent a lot of time under George Wakeling as a manager at Tooting & Mitcham and George was renowned for doing it. Vinesey tells the story there was always different people coming in for training and he used to moan because obviously with the greatest respect you get emails from players and they are nowhere near good enough. So he left it open for people to come along, including West Ham’s Michail Antonio and as George was a very good manager we would take any sort of advice or experience he had to try and do something similar. I know Joe holds him in high regards.  We said we had the pitch now why not try and do it and ended up getting 150 names. There was the good, the bad and the ugly in there, some who couldn’t do three kick ups if you paid them a tenner but there were some good ones in there. We picked one out, Kai who played at centre half in the first half vs Hollands & Blair although he’s a central midfielder by trade. Would I do it every year? I don’t know really know. I think Vikrant Dogra did a fantastic job with that, putting all the players into teams, all colour co-ordinated and Ally did well testing the temperatures and Martin did brilliantly on the day too.  It was a fun thing to do, but it is hard work and it was a long day.

Finally Tony looking ahead at our pre-season schedule there are some good games in there. Corinthian (FA Vase Semi-Finalists), Aveley (FA Trophy QF’s), VCD Athletic, Welling United etc.

I think Beckenham and Corinthian we will still be looking at people as our league doesn’t start until 19th September there is so much time. So we are not going to be going too hard on the players and difficult when you bring trialists in. They don’t really know what we do, you lose a little bit on what we try to do with them in terms of passing and pressing. It can be a bit frustrating, we just need to get through those games and as pre-season goes on we have Hayes & Yeading who we played last season and really loved it, Paul down there is a good guy, we’ve booked Welling United in midweek (8/9/20) and we are trying to get a home game for the last one. We have asked Bromley if we can play them but hasn’t been confirmed at this point. We are looking to finish really strong and probably starting to take it seriously from the Whyteleafe (24th Augus) & VCD Athletic games (26th August), start cutting it down and run with the boys we are running with and then start doing it properly. To begin with results and performances will be a bit mixed, we can’t coach and there is no point doing shapework as there are trialists we have to look at. So Saturday will be whatever it is and Tuesday at Corinthian the same. Whitstable is a good one too and we like Lloyd Blackman down there, we get on well with him.  Same with Nick Davis at VCD Athletic who has recently been appointed.

This is probably the difficult part of pre-season when everything is so disorganised, he’s coming on, he’s coming off, doesn’t really know what he’s doing and you can’t play like you want to play. Once though we get past Whyteleafe into VCD you can start getting the players tuned up and that is the bit of pre-season I enjoy when the team are starting to gel.       

Looking ahead to the new season with what happened last season do you envisage any possibility that the season could be suspended or halted yet again? Also as a club our match day staff will have to ensure fans safety with a host of measures imposed by the league, no printed teamsheets, boardrooms unopened, no post match food etc . Is there a danger of being too health & safety conscious?

Probably not, maybe a suspension but the problem you are going to have during the season is if a team are having a torrid time with injuries will clubs start saying we can’t play the game because we have players ill and that’s when things could become a farce if it goes down that road. If say, four teams in your league say they have three players showing symptoms then what happens. They could have four injured, a team down to the bare bones (like us at Worthing) and we ring up the league and say we can’t play because four players are unwell, they haven’t been tested but we want to cancel the game. Now if five, six, seven clubs start doing that then that could be a possibility and the only thing I think that could stop the league.  All the club can do is plan that the season will be completed as normal.

As for new match regulations, go to Hastings, Bognor Regis, Brighton or Bournemouth beaches and they allow 30,000 people to sit next to one another on the beach all jumping about and having a laugh. It’s a bit of a shambles and baffling. Martin Hodson and Ally have been working so hard to get things in place and done brilliantly and so have many clubs who are on their knees struggling for survival.

Lastly, despite what has been a difficult time for football as a club going forward we are moving in the right direction aren’t we! Our youth teams section seems to get bigger and bigger and that can only be a good thing.

If you speak to Wrighty he is having to bat teams off, I think we are up to 17-18 teams and so many more want to come over but just don’t have the room. If you take a look back to when I came here to where we are now it is amazing. I know I bang on about it but the amount of hard work that has gone on from a lot of people to put us in this position yet I know we are only half way through what we are trying to achieve. I think personally if you fast forward five years we are building a juggernaut of a football club.  Massive youth section, academy, state of the art stadium, a first team where you can have the infrastructure to push forward, no debts or Sugar Daddy needed. A self-sufficient football club with a business plan in place set up which will make this club a big one for many years. We see teams out there spending big money on players and wages, we cannot do that but we could cruise past those clubs over the next five years.  The club has been unbelievable, it’s taken a big hit but what we are fighting back.

What we plan to do is get the last one or two signed up and then we will do a big announcement of the whole squad rather than one signing and Ozay can put a video together and make things a little more interesting. I’ve a couple of ideas of how I want to do that and should hopefully be in the pipeline in the next couple of weeks. We are about 98% done at the moment in terms of the squad. I’m happy with what we have and I know me and Vinesy have squeezed every last penny out of the budget we can get to get the best squad in. Just one more player hopefully we will know by Saturday and we are ready to go.