Cray Wanderers vs. Horsham – The Pre-Match thoughts of Tony Russell

Cray Wanderers made it an unbeaten January with back to back victories against Lewes and an injury time winner at Enfield Town to move up to 3rd in the Isthmian Premier.  Here Tony Russell looks back on those wins including a surprise attacking ploy against Enfield, a young star of the future, the departure of Tom Murphy and a look ahead to the challenge of Horsham.  

Well done Tony to the team and yourself and your coaching team for a great start to 2020, unbeaten in January and a tremendous, gusty victory at Enfield Town on Saturday moved us up to 3rd. That must have been a great feeling for you and the players to beat a promotion calibre side?

Yes it was, we do our stats on a Monday and a video session and we looked at it, they were probably one of the best sides we’ve played this year in the first game we played them. So to go to Enfield a few months later having had the experience of the league under our belt and win was great for us as a team.  Also more importantly as I’ve been saying all season, we are getting everyone back now.  We spent the first three months of the season with four or five players out every game. We’ve never had an injury crisis like it over a prolonged period of time.  So the fact we were unbeaten in January it also points to the fact we’ve had everyone back.  I said in an earlier interview that I felt we would come on strong at the end of the season once we had all our players available and would be a real handful in this league and we are now starting to put a run together.

If you look back at the stats of the Enfield game, they are a big club at this level of football, and are an excellent club and we’ve gone there and had over 60% of the ball and had 22 shots.  That’s how far we have come when we go to clubs of that stature and put in that level of performance. The only disruption we had was in the first half we should really have scored two or three.  Charlie Allen has gone through and round the keeper and just pushed it too far.  Phippsy has hit the post, Bradley has had a scissor kick go just over the bar so that was really good.  Phippsy has then felt something in his thigh as he has cleared the ball and had to come off at half time. Then we are having to change it with the top scorer in the league, Joe Taylor not with us and take someone like that out of the side it is going to be hard and then Phippsy has to come off so we had to shuffle it around and put Denty up front and Charlie Allen back in to midfield.  It took us about 15 minutes to adjust to that and Enfield came out fast in the second half and scored two quick goals.  I was sitting there thinking we don’t deserve to lose this game.  So we looked to the bench, we had Rhuley, Feds, but I had a little inkling with Palace Francis and I rolled the dice and just thought let’s give him a go.  He came on and he spun away from Ryan Blackman who pulled him back and was sent off and had a hand in the second goal so made a great impact so it was a good afternoon all round.

The first game against Enfield in October we had four or five out and were new to this level and a bit naïve. They were experienced and kept counter-attacking us and did it well but we also hit the woodwork twice in that game.  We’ve grown as a management group, the players are more experienced now and we’ve got boys coming back. We’ve gone there and dominated possession with 60% of the ball which is a lot.  From my perspective we did enough to win the game.  Even in the second half Jay Leader has missed a chance from four yards out, Denty’s gone through and the keeper’s saved.  From our standpoint it was a really good performance and the last four or five games particularly the Hornchurch game and Enfield what we worked on beforehand has worked to a tee.  The areas where we felt there were weaknesses we played slightly differently as we thought the ball over the top was a weak area for them and we’ve in the first 25 minutes got in twice on the back of it and gone through on goal and been a constant threat.  In the second half they went really deep which allowed us to play through the middle.  When they went down to ten men I thought we were excellent tactically.  If you looked at the subs we made they were all positive, we put a winger at right back, we gave a youngster a go when we could have played the safe option and brought on a Rhuley or Feds.

To score a last minute goal was also special and there were ecstatic scenes behind the goal after Jay’s winner. We’ve scored a number of late goals this season, Potters Bar, Worthing, Bowers & Pitsea and Enfield Town amongst them. The character in this team is special isn’t it?

I think as I said before, we do score a lot of late goals.  If you speak to the chairman of VCD I used to tell him all the time, we never switch off even if we are losing and always score late goals.  It’s because we wear teams down. The players without the ball have to work so hard, when you have 40% of the ball in a game, when you get to the last 15 minutes you are going to start switching off and don’t shut players down as quick because you are tired.  That’s it basically as we don’t do any amazing fitness sessions and we are no fitter than anyone else but we concentrate on looking after the ball and without it we make teams run after it and in the end it fatigues them. We did that against Hornchurch and we felt if the game went on for another five minutes we would go on to win and it worked at Bowers & Pitsea.  So there is a method to our madness.

Tell us a little bit about Palace Francis and the confidence you have in young players like him to make their mark in the team.

When we were losing the game and looking at ways of changing it we felt his skills would affect the game.  All you hope for as a manager when you put a youngster on is does he have the belief to deliver and he certainly did deliver.  You never 100% know and I know he did come on against VCD in the Kent Senior Cup but with respect it was a game where the result wasn’t as important as the performance and just to go out and enjoy it. This was a league game, 2-1 down and I pulled him to one side and said “are you ready for this”. He said he was ready to go and I told him to go out and be positive and it took the shackles off him. I thought he was brilliant and he reminds me a lot of Brandon Scott in the way he goes past people.  Credit must go to Lee Amis and David Coyne at the U18s for bringing this quality of player to us.  I’ve always said I’m not worried about their age but if they’re good enough they will get a chance for us.

Another key element to the game was playing Charlie Allen up front.  He scored two excellent goals following on from a string of fine performances.  In particular his expert lob from just outside the area for the first goal was class.

I saw Charlie when I was at VCD when he was at Margate in the Premier and he was a goalscoring midfielder.  When we found on the morning of the match that Joe Taylor couldn’t play as his wife had gone into labour and we were in the car, me, Nathan and Vinesy and I said I had an idea. I had had the text from Joe really early that he couldn’t play and I was lying in bed thinking of the whole squad as we don’t keep a second forward as we only play one up front as you couldn’t keep a quality striker happy just sitting on the bench, they’d need to play and we couldn’t afford it anyway.  I went through the whole team and then looked to the weaknesses in the Enfield team during training and where we were going to hit them.  I just felt we needed someone with a presence up there, who was strong and if we need to hold the ball up and be strong but also someone with legs as we felt that they would play a highline at the back. So I went through the team and Charlie fitted the bill.  I said to him before the game, I’ve got an idea, it is a free hit for you, no-one is expecting you to score goals but you can do this.  There was a bit of a chuckle when I named the side but you don’t normally see me celebrate goals but I was up when he scored because sometimes you get a hunch as a manager and it came off.   It’s not always that you will get it right but this time it was spot on.

Charlie’s biggest fault is he can play anywhere! So he gets pushed from pillar to post but he is a good lad, a real team man, he said before the game he had no problem playing up front, the only position he can’t play is in goal.  He’s the sort of player who will go through brick walls for you.

Another element of the game which was important, was a few weeks ago we spoke about Rhys Murrell-Williamson it was going to take a bit of time to settle in etc. as he gets to grips with what we are trying to do but I thought he was outstanding, he carried the ball well, he was distracting them and there are good signs that he is beginning to settle down and he will be a fantastic player for us. After the game the whole dressing room was rocking and that was the most we’ve celebrated all season.  We laid it out before the game that we’ve got a five week period where we are playing everyone and some really hard sides.  At the end of it we could be playing the last six or seven games just seeing out the season trying to finish high in the table or get to the last six, seven games and think ok, lets strap ourselves in for the ride.

The injury to Tom Phipp was that an occurrence of his old injuries or was it more precautionary?

No, it was more the fact that when a player has been out for a long period of time they come back with a fatigue injury. He felt a slight stiffness of his quad trying to clear a ball.  I saw him at training on Monday and he had been with Ally and Ben Mundele who had a dead leg.  Ally thinks Ben will be fine but Phippsy is more 50/50 and maybe Saturday might come along too quickly but at this stage we don’t know. It’s a shame as it has been a stop-start season for Tom and he is such a big player for us.

Let’s look back to our last home game against Lewes which ended in a 2-1 win after a hard week. Personally, I thought we started the game really well and was a good three points. How did you see the game?

If I’m honest, I thought we were really flat and possibly the worst we played all season perhaps up with the Maldon & Tiptree game and we were poor.  We had had a big week and put a lot into the Hornchurch game, we had a right ding-dong against a good side.  It was similar to when we won at Margate away and then played Wingate & Finchley three days later and were flat as a pancake.  You almost want with all due respect to Lewes you want them to have a top side to play, and we were going through the motions. We scored early, went two nil up and ended up giving the ball away and Lewes were breaking on us.  They applied a bit of pressure without testing Lewis Carey too much but weren’t really ripping us open. Even at 2-1, Rhys has had a chance where the keeper has made a remarkable save and we’ve hit the bar a couple of times but we weren’t good. I said to them after, we’ve had a big week, we didn’t play well, I get that but well done on the result which was the best I can get out of this.  This kicked us into gear and at training on the Monday, Joe and Nathan took the session, which was fun but with intensity and got to work on Wednesday and done some phases of play and reset them and forget about winning, concentrate on performance and how we are going to press and look after the ball, how we are going to attack etc. IT was a nice gentle reminder that as a coaching team we need to shake these boys up and get them ready for the next game.  It wasn’t a great game but did we deserve to win? Maybe, just as I don’t think they had too many chances and their goal was a cross.  We did enough but we were far from convincing.

A couple of days before the game, Tom Murphy departed the club.  Was this something you were expecting?

Tom got injured earlier in the season and he is one of these players fitness wise who needs to be playing regular games. He was out for 2/3 weeks with a hamstring injury and his fitness wasn’t great but he did well against Margate. I said that he needs to get fit and we tried to get him out on loan, play a couple of games and return for the run-in and we sent him to Sheppey United where he was put on the bench and didn’t think right to drop down two levels. Then Hythe Town came in for him and put a 7 dayer for him. I’m not one of these people who wants to hold people back and just try to look after players as best I can.  I told him Hythe have come in for you, and I know he knows players there. If you want to go there that’s fine we can make the arrangements and there is a game for you Saturday. He said he would like to have stayed but there wasn’t a starting position for him and the problem is if he doesn’t start he won’t get fitter. He went away and thought about it and said he would go to Hythe and give it a go.  I wished him all the best and hopefully you enjoy it there and he scored on his debut and it was a great goal.  Great player and when he is fit and his mind is on it, he’s as good as anyone in our side.  He’s an unbelievable finisher, great turn of pace, good football brain and the boys will miss him from the dressing room but I hope he is a success there and anywhere after that and he is a great bloke and wish him well.

 Finally let’s look ahead to the big game with Horsham on Saturday.  It is not an exaggeration to say both teams who came up from the Isthmian South-East have done well currently 3rd and 4th in the division. This is going to be a great game isn’t it.

Yes, we’ve built up a bit of a rivalry with Horsham and a friendly one too. I like the manager, Dom, a really nice guy and we’ve had a few battles in the past and he’s got a cracking team there who are a credit to the club and will give you a game.  There is always mutual respect after the game even if we’ve been having a go at each other on the sidelines and a handshake after the match.  We’ve had some cracking games and shows how hard that league was last season that the two teams who came up and are in the top 4.  They’ve got momentum on moving to a new ground and our old captain Lea Dawson is there.  It will be a great game and they are a good side. They’ve come a long way from the team we beat 8-0 a couple of seasons ago.  There will be a respect from both sides as we’ve played each other enough so not a lot we don’t about each other.  It’s another big game but we are in good nick and I fancy us when we are confident and on the move and I think we are getting going now and after earlier in the season scrambling to get a team together I feel since Christmas we are getting everyone back and we’re building momentum, confidence is high but I still feel there is more to come from us.