With the Isthmian League in lockdown since 4th November and with no Cray Wanderers to report  on here is a special lockdown thoughts of Tony Russell as we enter the final week of the lockdown restrictions.  Here Tony looks back on the matches before lockdown, the impact on fixtures once football is back under way and also a couple of key topics, players signing on dual registration for National League clubs from step 3 clubs and what should happen once the Tier system to combat Coronavirus is announced*.

*Please note this interview took place on Wednesday 25th November before Tiers were announced.        

Hello Tony. Thank you for taking the time during lockdown to speak to me.  The first and most important question is how are you, your family, management and playing staff at this time?

Yes, we are all good. We keep in contact regularly with the players and Bradley Pritchard got Coronavirus on the day after the planned Bowers & Pitsea game. He got tested on the Wednesday and it came back that he had it but now is clear and well. Apart from Bradley everyone has been well.

The last time we spoke was the day after the Canvey Island game. Since then we won back to back games, a stylish performance against Merstham in a rare home league game and then a professional performance to win at Whitehawk in the FA Trophy.

At the time of the last interview we were all frustrated as a group and we all sat down with the players and management to watch the clips back of the Canvey game and we also watched every goal we had conceded during the season.  We sat there about two hours, had a real heart to heart and gave a chance for the players to talk about it and there were some heated words in there. It wasn’t just the boys at the back but we were conceding too many goals.  It was stupid that we didn’t even keep a clean sheet in pre-season. It just had to stop, something had to give so we spoke about and mentioned making changes.  It was more really about the mind-set if I’m honest, it wasn’t really about the technical ability but more that we had stopped giving teams the respect they deserve and felt we had so much firepower that we’d outscore them anyway. They may not have and the boys didn’t agree but that was how I saw it.  It was about the mind-set of defending, over my dead body and defending as a team and getting back to the basics. Understanding that if the ball has got to go over the stand, it’s got to go over the stand. There is no manager that wants us to play more than me but there is a time and a place and if you are defending you’ve got to clear the ball first. 

So going into the Merstham game that was all we spoke out beforehand, I didn’t care if we won 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 whatever it may be it had to be to nil. It was really good that we did that. A bonus that we scored the goals we did but it was all about keeping the clean sheet.  It is amazing in football, you keep one clean sheet and then next game you keep another one having not kept one all season. I was really pleased with the response. They are a good group of players and that is testament to them.  We are quite relaxed me and Vinesy we don’t really scream and shout at the players, I know Hendy’s videos might say otherwise but that is pretty much a one off and is more information based rather than volume.  When we start asking questions of the group they generally come back with the right response, don’t sulk about it, they knuckle down and get on with it.

I think against Merstham and all season to be fair we have been good in the attacking third, I think we are the top scorers in the whole of the Isthmian League which I’m not surprised about as we’ve a lot of goals in us. It was just nice to keep the clean sheet.                    

Then we went to Whitehawk and I had alluded in my last comments that we were going to make a few changes. At the end of the day if you make 5-6 changes and you end up getting bashed, as a manager you can look really stupid but I was pleased we did and we went to Whitehawk who have got some really good players and restricted them to one shot on target when David Martin hit a long range shot and Lew Carey pushed it round the post and scored three, possibly could have had a couple more at the end. I was pleased for the likes of Martin Onoabagbe, Barney Williams came back in, Lee Lewis, Charlie Allen came in and did really well. It shows we have a really good squad and we are going to need that squad with the fixtures backlog. We have got to play a lot of games and will get a lot of injuries and suspensions but shows that we have strength in depth. That was pleasing along with the clean sheet.  A shame obviously that we had turned the corner and ready to go on a big run, then we go back to square one.

It looked like after the game at Whitehawk that our injury situation seemed to have eased as well after a difficult time earlier in the season.

It was the same for all the clubs to be fair. The problem you’ve got and it will happen again is when players stop playing for long periods of time their bodies just doesn’t get accustomed to the rigmarole of playing football. Jumping, twisting, turning and tackling. It’s like a cricketer who doesn’t play cricket for three months then when he goes back into training when he tries to catch the ball it hurts his hand and not acclimatised to catching a ball that heavy. Once his body gets used to it he doesn’t even realise and can’t even feel it. Footballers are the same. Once they get over that initial 2-3 months of the season their bodies become accustomed to playing football. So they are not picking up silly little injuries, calf strains, ankle knocks etc. It wasn’t just us it was all teams in the same boat. The problem we are going to have is just as they have got going they have stopped again. So it is going to happen again that we are going to get injuries and not only that when they come back have got to play a ridiculous amount of games in a short space of time.  There is not a lot we can do about it and it is what it is.

I’ve seen the updated fixture list for the remainder of the season and there are 35 league games to fit in between December 12 to May 22nd and then playoffs to follow. It is a very busy few months and if we are going to get promotion this season we are going to have to do it the hard way aren’t we?

Yes, it is going to be a bit of nightmare. It is not going to be an ordinary season and we just need to find a way of coping with it, how we don’t know but all we do is your best and that is all you can ask your players to do. We have a core of 17-18 players and have to get it done. Teams with U23s and Academies are the teams who will benefit. This is when you need the infrastructure of players and back up players but there are lots of teams in the same position.  We just need to take one game at a time and put our best foot forward, pick our best side and I would back us against anyone as we certainly don’t fear anyone and have faith in all our squad as we have good players.  Karl Dent is back now and running and we have a friendly with Basildon on Saturday week so will play in that. I’ve never been in a situation like this before so no idea how it is going to go and how we are going to cope. All the other managers are in the same boat and none of us have experienced this amount of games but all I can do is make sure we are ready for the Uxbridge game on 8th December and after that we will try to beat Hornchurch but after that tick games off one by one.

You mentioned Uxbridge, they of course beat Hayes & Yeading in the last round of the FA Trophy who are a side we know from the last couple of pre-season campaigns so will be hard tie.

I spoke to Paul Hughes at Hayes and Yeading and he said they are a good side and will be a hard place to go but let’s see what we can do. I can’t go to watch them or get a scouting report on them because they are not playing and we will be their first competitive game so don ‘t know too much about them and go into it pretty blind other than what we can get off Hayes & Yeading but otherwise a bit into the unknown.

Another point I wanted to discuss with you. I saw a tweet you put out I believe it was last week in regards to players at Step 3 clubs signing dual registration with clubs at Step 2 or over during lockdown.  Personally I would say I’m not totally convinced by it but what are your thoughts about this?

It’s an interesting topic. I’ve spent this whole time during lockdown watching National League football which I’ve not been able to do before. I’ve always concentrated at our level as that is the level I am trying to conquer so to speak. So I need to make sure I know about every team and player. Lots of clubs stream games but I have been lucky to go to the odd one as well on a scouting pass. I found it really helpful to see what the next level up is like. In your head you build it up and think it is going to be amazing. I think that because a few clubs are signing step 3 players and putting them in games it has allowed me to get a better gauge of the standard. For instance I have watched a couple of Welling United games, now you have two Enfield Town players who have gone there and made a real impact , one a holding midfielder, Blackman who looked the best player on the pitch and an attacking midfielder Della-Verde who got the equaliser against Concord Rangers. I think they played Hemel Hempstead after that and he got the winner.  I went to watch Braintree Town on Tuesday evening over at Tonbridge Angels. We counted nine of their starting XI were from Step 3 clubs. For Hemel Hempstead, their man of the match every week is the Hornchurch centre-half, Cooper and they also have the Hayes & Yeading centre-half. Cooper scored against Dulwich Hamlet with a header so it has been intriguing to see.

Obviously I watch these players a lot in Step 3 and see the impact they have in games. Now I’m watching them play Step 2 football and some are having the same impact. So it gives me a gauge if I happen to manage at that level of football the sort of player I would need and to say he is standing out even at Step 2 or as he does in step 3, controlling the game, scoring goals etc. Dartford won 2-0 on Saturday, Chris Dickson, the Hornchurch striker got both goals. So Hemel Hempstead v Dulwich man of the match was Cooper, the Hornchurch centre half. Dartford win 2-0 and Dickson gets both goals and man of the match. I’ve watched Welling and Blackman & Della-Verde are two of the better players on the pitch. I went to watch Braintree and Jason Banton plays and got man of the match. So it is good, I’ve seen seven or eight teams, I’m trying to see a few more and on a personal level as I’m still learning my trade, I found it very educational, expanded my knowledge on players to dispel that myth you put in your head about how good it must be in the National South. The clubs, the players and managers are of a better standard but it is not unbelievable where you can’t sit there and think I couldn’t manage at that level or if certain players cannot play at that level. 

Ultimately you will never know until you do it but it has given me more confidence to say I could affect it and be competitive at that level. So I’ve used this time wisely and really enjoyed the National South stuff and been grateful to the clubs that have allowed me and Vinesy to go into the stadiums and sit and learn. Hopefully I can watch some more before we resume football again. In my head I feel I’m a better manager than I was before lockdown.

 What I find though a bit hard is that if I was a Braintree Town or Welling United fan and these players are making an impact and I would really like to see them but then they go back to their Step 3 clubs before fans can go and watch them live.

What I find fascinating, if you look at Hemel Hempstead and Braintree Town. They have brought in large numbers of players from step 3 and below and Welling have brought in 3 from steps 3 and on the back of that they have all started pulling away from the bottom of the table. So what is going to happen in a weeks’ time when them players are due to go back? Those same managers will be buzzing that they are now winning but on the other hand they have a problem as that are about to lose 70% of the team who have picked up good points in the last 2/3 games. So this is when things will get interesting! I can see trouble ahead….

Again if I’m a Welling United fan and soon fans may be able to return to stadiums, and have watched these players on streams, I would be keen to see them in person. Perhaps I’m alone in this thought but do clubs at the levels above not bring through young players that would be ideal when resources are stretched like what we are doing or have done in recent years?

I think if you are honest who brings through youngsters in football whatever step you are in. It is very few clubs that do and it is a trust thing.  They would rather take someone else’s youngsters than trust their own or instead sign a has-been. This is a non-league way and always has been.  Don’t get me wrong there are teams like Hastings United and Worthing over the years are exceptions but generally no-one brings anyone through.  It is not why these academies are set up, they are set up to make money but some clubs have got 7 or 8 teams in their academies, 60-70 kids there is not any chance of them coming through. It is not what it is set up for or a purpose for.

From a managers perspective I am interested as me and Vinesy were talking about it on Tuesday what would I have done if I came in at Hemel Hempstead or Braintree would I have gone down that route, I don’t think I would have done and would have taken the hit now and rather build a team. There is nothing worse you are winning games and all of a sudden the new players leave and you have the boys on the bench who are still sticking around and you tell them you can play now. You were not very good a couple of weeks ago but you can play now once the others are gone. To me it can only lead to one thing and what seemed like a good idea two weeks ago getting in players for lockdown and then we send them back. There’s managers that have done that and now looking to break a promise and try to convince the person to stay and then the manager will try to put it on the player as their decision.  I spoke to Jason on Wednesday and we had a conversation and is adamant that he is not interested in leaving us and sees himself as part of what we want to do and looking forward to coming back. That’s fine. If not and he doesn’t someone else gets an opportunity in a Cray shirt. We appreciate everyone who plays for us but we don’t rely on one person, are very much a unit and if you don’t want to be part of it then the train moves on. It will all unfold in the next two weeks as we have Hornchurch on the 12th December. Half of their players are out on loan and we’ll see how many come back.

You know me, I like to make predictions about what is going to happen and my prediction is that there is going to be some upset managers and managers from step 2 ringing those from Step 3 and saying you know we had this agreement, I’ve told him about it and is adamant he wants to stay. Some will go back as on contract and was just for a period of time.  We have Joe Taylor on contract and Billericay Town and Hemel Hempstead contacted him direct about going there which he has referred them back to me and told them he is on contract. As a football club we can protect from that and get them to call me and then I have to ask them why are you tapping our players up?  I hope they do stay at Step 2 as it will make us stronger and our league weaker so good luck to them from a selfish standpoint.

At least you can see the benefits from doing it for yourself and development of you and Joe as a managerial team to see the football being played at that level and has at least changed my perspective somewhat on the validity of doing it.

Back to your original point about crowds coming back if you remember we did an interview about four months ago and I said there was a big movement around about let fans in, it’s not fair and the Step 2 clubs said you need to drop the elite tag, it is not fair we didn’t want this tag, don’t know why they’ve got it. Everyone was jumping on it and I said then that the clubs were being spoilt, last year they wanted to be elite for promotions and playoffs. Now they don’t want it because they won’t let fans in. Now lockdown happens now they want to be elite so they can keep on playing. Whatever happened to the big movement and dropping the elite tag.  Not only do you get to play football and you can get clubs below you, sitting ducks and you get to tap up their best players. We are all meant to support it. These were the same clubs a few months ago we all had to jump on #letfansin and the football community, I said at the time didn’t show the same energy when they null and voided our league.  So it is very much pull the ladder up jack. So next time everyone wants to try and galvanise the football community please miss me out on that. I won’t be getting involved as I know how it works, it’s every man for himself, they would push their Gran over or your head underwater if it means them stepping out of the water and I predicted what was going to happen then.

Finally, another point we need to focus on the return of football is the proposed 3 tier system in England post lockdown. How do you think that is going to pan out?

There is confusion as the problem you’ve got is that it will take some working out, different rules for different tiers and the problem then is that the authorities need to have a plan in place and that is when the trouble will start. Because they are not the most organised of people and will either say we will play or not play. If you are in tier 2 you are allowed fans, in tier 3 you are not allowed fans? They have already said they won’t play if the fans can’t come in so god knows what is about to happen. We just want to play football, Can we not play without fans if need be?

Probably still early as we have only played 7 league games to go down the points per game route I would have thought.  Maybe a meeting of all member clubs to decide which clubs would like to continue to play regardless of tier?

With this lot I wouldn’t rule anything out as they have turned round and said teams have to be promoted and relegated this season so they could well do that and don’t always understand their thinking. I think the worst thing you can do is second guess them, it is like second guessing the village idiot and a dangerous thing to do.  The logical thing will be if that was to happen and no-one wanted to play and want to promote and relegate you would go back to last season as the same teams, no-one went  up , no-one went down and there are eight games to go. You promote and relegate from those standings.