Cray Wanderers vs. Kingstonian – The pre-match thoughts of Tony Russell

Cray Wanderers start their 2020-21 Pitching In Isthmian Premier League season on Saturday with a mouthwatering clash with Kingstonian at Hayes Lane. Here for the first of this season’s interviews Manager Tony Russell looks back on pre-season, the build up to the season, new arrivals and the development of Freddie Parker, the importance of a positive dressing room environment and looks ahead to the Kingstonian game and the romance of the FA Cup against Fisher.

Welcome back Tony for another season of pre-game interviews and good luck to you, your coaching staff and players for the Pitching In Isthmian Premier season and glad you have all kept safe and well during the difficult spring & summer. 

The last time I spoke to you was before the final three pre-season games against Bromley, Welling United and Hayes & Yeading United. These were all very good matches and what are your thoughts on those games?

Yes, we structured pre-season for that really if you look at it. A slow build up, we were looking at players and carrying two squads. We thought after the Whitstable game ok that’s enough of that and let’s get minutes into players legs and don’t worry about the performance and work too much on shape etc.  From the VCD game we started to implement the build up to the start of the season and anyone who may have seen the whole of pre-season they’d have seen a marked change in levels of performance. Against VCD we had a good sixty minutes and started to up it, a good game against Aveley where we missed chances but otherwise played well. Then coming into the remaining three the challenge for the squad ahead of the Bromley and Welling games was we see any coach or manager realistically to do good work you need to have the ball. You can build all the patterns you want but it you are just turning over the ball you are just never going to develop. You can’t start doing pieces going forward and this happens and that player goes into that area etc. So you can’t really do it unless you control the ball. So the challenge for us first and foremost regardless of the result the challenge for the squad was can we still control the ball against sides that are full time and two steps up and one the league above us. For people who went to both games it was evident that we can do it as against Bromley we must have had 65% of the ball and the same against Welling.

For the Bromley game, the two centre-halves put their hands up and felt they had had a ‘mare of a game and are still trying to find their feet. I think we probably played better against Bromley than against Welling although the result doesn’t necessarily reflect it. The level of performance especially first half where Bromley scored with their only three shots on target out of nothing but we missed some good chances in that half and controlled and dominated the game against a decent Bromley side. I was pleased about that and then the Welling game, it is hard to read too much into it as we are at different stages of our pre-season as they like Bromley kick off their season two weeks after us. However because we had done what we wanted to do and controlled the game and made them go long, we scored three, hit the post twice and a couple of stonewall penalties turned down and missed some chances and  I thought 3-1 flattered them a little bit. So that was pleasing.

Then we went to Hayes & Yeading on Saturday, I get on really well with their manager Paul Hughes and a great guy. A the time we weren’t overly happy with it, Mitchell got butted and got punched on the floor in a separate occasion, people squaring up to one another and a bit over the top for a friendly. I thought first half we could have scored two or three more if not for the keeper. The second half we could have changed it and brought the wide boys inside and got on the ball more. I said to Vinesy, let’s let this go as the ball was turning over so much it was really good fitness, it was hard work and the boys were exhausted when they came off the pitch. There were tackles flying in, we lost control of the game but it was a really good last match for us in that sense. Hayes & Yeading treated it like a real game and we could hear them in the dressing room for the game getting fired up. From that perspective it was a really good friendly. In terms of fitness we did a session on Monday night and we were a bit battered and bruised and couldn’t do too much and a few bumps and bruises.

In terms of the latter part of pre-season it was really good, positive signs but the only slight negative is the amount of injuries we picked up but every team seems to be in the same boat. Other managers I’ve spoken to have four or five players out where they haven’t done anything for 4-5 months then all of a sudden they are jumping, turning, sprinting, tackling and their bodies aren’t tuned to it or battle hardened and getting knocks. We are no different and have to assess it on Wednesday to see what sort of side realistically we can put out because at the moment we are walking wounded.

I mentioned in our last interview that all our pre-season games have been unusual in that they were all competitive, no one-sided matches and everyone in the balance going into the final minutes. I felt also in the last three games how strongly we finished each match and that against Hayes & Yeading I was certain we were going to score late on.

We chose to go a different route pre-season. When they lifted the lockdown and allowed competitive games of football some clubs went straight into pre-season games. We didn’t as we decided to use the extra time to do extra fitness work which we did solidly for five weeks to pump it into them.  We are as fit as we’ve ever been in terms of the side although maybe a little undercooked in terms of playing and feel we may have to go three or four games into the season before we hit our stride. The last three games have been very hard to get people out on the pitch as we’ve had injuries and had to constantly keep changing it.  Me and Vinesy though are blessed as we have a lot of belief in ourselves, in our work and what we do and I think that instils into the side. When you drive belief into your messaging and coaching it just goes through the squad and I think you saw that last season with the sheer amount of late goals we scored.

When you look back to the Hayes & Yeading game, I thought first half we did well and opened them up a few times but second half we got a bit shellshocked and got dragged into the game but I don’t remember Lewis Carey having many saves to make. The two goals have stemmed from Jay Leader’s coming out from the back and misplaced a pass to the no 10 who just ran through and scored. The second was when Lewis’s kick came back off the player’s backside and ricocheted and tapped into an empty net. They scored 87th minute and we went up the other end and scored. It was if it was a case of just moving up a gear and score a goal. It is something we have with us and the belief that we’ve got.

Before I came to the club I watched a midweek game vs Aveley at Hayes Lane in the Isthmian North and before the game the fans were hoping they could get a draw from the game. When I took over I wanted to change the supporters expectations and when I spoke to a few, they welcomed me to the club and wanted me to get the team fighting at the other end of the table after three relegation battles and let’s not have another one and under me that won’t be happening.  The mindset of the club was a negative one and hoping rather than believing and I remember in my first interview with you was to change the mindset around the club from boardroom to the stands. We don’t fear anyone who ever we are playing, maybe that is easy saying that and some people say buzzwords and the only way we can do that is by doing it on the pitch and show it when you have self-belief which time and time again they have done the last couple of seasons.  One game that stands out for me last season was the Enfield Town home game when we were 5-1 down but it ended 5-3, we hit the post and crossbar, two off the line. Most teams when they go 5-1 down that is the game finished. Even against Bognor Regis when we lost 7-2, we continued to create chances and kept marching forward.  JT scored to make it 6-2 and ran back with the ball to the halfway line.

I must admit I am really looking forward to the start of the season and after last season feel we are going into it with a lot of confidence. 

With this season starting we don’t really know much about what the other teams are doing. Some are making a few signings, some seem affected after Covid-19, some not so much. Bishops Stortford, Kingstonian have made a lot of marquee signings but all we can do is control us and what we do. Our biggest problem was that Covid hit us hard while the club was working extremely hard to make it as soft a blow as they can in terms of the playing budget. We obviously had to take a little hit on that and we spoke to the squad and it was unaminous we want to be part of this and continue our journey. That was an important thing for us before me and Vinesey thought about bringing anyone else in and to keep the boys together. We had a bit of struggle and a bit of a fight to protect our assets, the likes of JT, Lewis Carey, Jay Leader, Bradley Pritchard, Rhys Murrell-Williamson, there was a lot of interest and clubs ringing them giving them better financial packages. But, only those that know who is in our dressing room know that we have created something that is a little bit beyond the normal. These boys are friends, care about each other and make sure when they go out and play, they play for each other and to go and help them. However much clubs have spent and who they bring in they are not going to be able to create what we’ve got. That is why it was important to keep them boys together.



I did an interview with Kent Messenger a couple of days ago and was asked about our squad, how good it is and how we’ve got them all in. Realistically, if you look it we are a bunch of waifs and strays, players we have as there were issues elsewhere. The likes of Mitchell Nelson, Tom Phipp, Rhys Murrell-Williamson, Joe Taylor, Jason Banton who has had a few clubs before us, moved on and couldn’t settle. We get them as we can offer them an environment where they can settle, enjoy themselves and not be screamed and shouted at. Jay Leader we got as we had to get him out of a situation where people were threatening to come round his house to get money off him. We had to step in as a club and resolve that for him. Bradley Pritchard had to go to court to try to get money from his previous club that they were refusing to give him which is how we got him. Joe Taylor sitting on the bench in the Isthmian Premier for Margate not playing every week and losing his head for football and not wanting to play. We got him on the deal that we could offer him first team football. Barney Williams, under a new manager at Braintree was told that no player should be that small to play football and sat in the stand all season. We got him as he fell out of love with football and came here to enjoy it again. When you get a load of people with issues not enjoying football or with bad experiences of football and when you offer them something different where no-one is going to scream and shout at you, you are going to have to work for us without the ball, buy into what we try to do with the ball you will enjoy it. Our dressing room is very, very good and boys come in and love it and start playing well, then other clubs come in and start throwing money at them. In the summer they all said no! Joe Taylor is being offered lucrative contracts two months ago during a pandemic. It is unheard of and was offered full time football in the National League and something stupid like 15-16 clubs came in for him. He wanted a week to speak to them all, I gave him that and at the end of it we couldn’t offer him a lot of money and said this is all we’ve got and at the end he said via his wife that previously to joining Cray he would come home moaning all the time about football and come in with the hump and since joining Cray he has never come home with the hump. So why would you want to leave there? That is what he said to me and he enjoys his football, even if we lose and enjoys training and coming to the games.


I went into management not really wanting to come into management and when I got asked to take over at Erith Town I thought I’m going to do everything I didn’t like about non-league football and that is how I am going to be and be true to that.  The boys who play semi-pro football whether they are Kent League or National League are all good football players. If you go to a youth section and the top players in that section 95% of them will not be playing at that level of football. No matter how good they are and how much the team wins. A lot of these players are told just to bang in forward, hook it, slide tackle and don’t play in these areas and it just makes them nervous without fulfilling their potential and getting the best out of them. Tell them to get on the ball, if you make a mistake, you make a mistake, be brave, you are a good player you know you are. You do all these keep ball sessions in training and on matchdays you just want to scream at them. I wanted to create an environment where there is freedom in there, you are allowed to make a mistake. If you trust us as a management team, we will coach you and put you in good areas so you can express yourself.

I didn’t understand how managers would treat players like a piece of meat and players are leaving certain clubs now in pre-season with clubs announcing signing 20-25 players, yet one or two quiet games in pre-season they get rid of him, go on clear off, you are no good.  We do not do that, even with the boys who have come in on trial and are always honest with them. We say to them, we don’t want to drag this out, we want to help you find a club, ring up other clubs and let them know about a player who I think would do well for them and take a chance on them.  It is a combination of everything we are at a very good club who are trying to progress.  I think me and Vinesy are very honest with the players and when the players were asked to take a pay cut, me and Joe could have very easily not taken the pay cut but we took the same cut as the players as if they have to do it so should we. That is how we do it so there are no comebacks on that. We could have jigged the squad around where we were alright with our money as I feel in many ways for the work we do are underpaid compared to other managers which is me being totally honest.  We’ve had agents ringing us up when jobs become available saying you should go for this job, this is what the manager gets and it is like “wow” from clubs a division below us. We believe that sometimes in life there is more to it than just money. It is an environment that you create, it is about enjoying training and walking into the dressing room.

Cast your mind back to a year and a half/two years ago when my sister was dying. It was the worst time of my life to sit at my sister’s bedside with my family watching that unfold. I remember she died on the Tuesday and we had Whyteleafe at home on the Wednesday. I sat there and thought, what do I do as I had missed the game with Hythe on the Saturday to be with her. I made the decision late to come to the Whyteleafe game and I dreaded it. I walked into the dressing room and I wasn’t very good in the game, I was sort of daydreaming and cannot remember too much about it but I just remembered the dressing room and the boys coming up to me, leaving me messages of support and it is just the way they are as people. Denty would crack a little joke and everyone would be laughing. To walk into that environment is very special.  What it shows is even when there is nothing major going on the stuff I’ve spoken to players about when they were going through personal problems and didn’t want the others to know about and I say Ok. Then you going into the dressing room and Feds is messing about or Denty or Mitch and you just can‘t help but laugh. Before we start a team talk me and Joe are just sitting there watching and looking at each other thinking these boys are nuts, they are absolutely crackers and not the full ticket, honestly. We like it as there are times when we have gone at a player, for whatever reason perhaps it is half time and we are upset about something. As we are leaving to go out for the second half I can see four or five putting their arm around him saying “come on, don’t worry about it”. They rally around each other as they are so close and that helps us as a club when we go through down periods which every club has where you can’t buy a win or loads of injuries like last season. It helps the belief in the dressing room even if you are not winning games. The training is still intense and you always know you are about to come out of it because you are still training well, working hard and when the football gods turn in our favour then we will go on big runs again. Last season at one point before Christmas we were around 9th or 10th and then when we get our tails up we are hard to stop.  When I was at Erith I think we went 18 games unbeaten, at VCD 34 unbeaten winning 32 of them, 26 at Cray a couple of seasons back and last season it wasn’t really about who we were playing we felt we would win and had confidence we could keep the run going.

For this season the environment is very good and as a football club we are still growing but the infrastructure isn’t quite there and it is going to really test us this season with playing large amounts of games in a short space of time, perhaps three games a week. We haven’t got an u23s, the u18s from last season pretty much gone and the first year u18s have come through way too soon for them. The squad we have is going to have to do it so when we play three games a week we are limited to coaching small sessions which is going to hinder us and might be a problem moving forward for us.

You mentioned earlier, Jason Banton, a newcomer to the club. Also when I spoke to you last we mentioned Kyron Richards who came through the trial day on 1st August. Tell the supporters a little about those players and what they can expect from them.

Jason played against Bromley and he played against Hayes & Yeading and scored in the first minute. He picked up a little injury on Saturday.  The one position we wanted to bring in was a wide player and a forward of high quality. We went in for a couple in the summer and financially couldn’t do it and one went to a team in our league and one to a division above and couldn’t compete financially with that.  We looked at a couple of trialists and heard that Jason may be available and we asked him to play against Bromley and I thought he did well. His pedigree will tell you he has been a pro and at the likes of Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Plymouth, MK Dons. Yes, he has had a lot of clubs so getting him to try to understand the financial position and not able to offer a big deal to anyone but looking at the clubs he has had it is not fun to keep changing dressing rooms and he agreed, trained and really enjoyed it and signed. He picked up a slight knock against Bromley so didn’t play against Welling, scored at Hayes & Yeading even though probably not at his best but looks a really good player, don’t want to talk him up too much at the moment but at training what he did to Barney we’ve not seen anyone do that to him before.

Kyron is getting better and better the more we are doing with him. He is going to be a seriously good football player. My eldest boy came to watch the Welling game and doesn’t watch a load of games and on the car on the way home was just raving about him saying he was the best player on the pitch. First half he was just unbelievable, he’s 6’1, rapid, covers the ground, strong as an ox, good in the air, good on the ball and will be some player for us. He picked up an ankle injury at Aveley and because he was so desperate to play and not let us down played against Welling when he really shouldn’t have done and was probably playing at 60% which shows how well he played but not sure about his fitness for Saturday but that is an indication of how good he is going to be. He’s just 22 and as you say came through the trial day and a real find. The fans are going to love him and I think he will be with us for some time if we can keep hold of him as he is that good.

We are very pleased to have Jason and Kyron signed and that is the squad complete. What we are going to do this year is carry 16 players and 2 goalkeepers so we will have a squad of 18. We have young Roman Hall who I know is only 16 but I am sure he will play for the first team one day he is that good. His height is 6’1 so has a bit of growing to do as well and a couple of pre-season games he has played he’s shown he is very good with his feet.

Denty will be signed even though he has a bit of a knee problem at the moment. We don’t know exactly what that problem is but are trying to get to the bottom of it. He will be in the squad this year.

I think having watched all the pre-season games there were some superb individual performances especially the likes of Tom Carlse, Barney Williams, Bradley Pritchard, Joe Taylor, Kyron Richards and more but one that perhaps stands out almost like a new signing was Freddie Parker who scored seven in pre-season including a hat-trick at VCD.

Freddie is like having a new signing. He is back and a different animal, not necessarily that he has grown an inch, got a bit wider and a great physique but he has matured. I don’t want to put too much on him but personally I feel he has all the tools to go into the professional game. I’ve never had any doubts about his ability and has the potential to be our best player, he is that good. My previous frustrations with him stemmed from his mind set in that he was a bit immature in the way he carried himself, throwing his arms in the air, sulking, beating himself up. We sent him that feedback and that is why we sent him to Whitstable and didn’t like it there and was on the phone all the time asking to come back. Then he went to Whyteleafe where he preferred it but picked up an injury, could hardly play and was frustrated. So in the summer, we told him we can’t guarantee we will sign him but we will have a look at him. We told him what he needs to work on and credit to him he’s been a different man and no longer a kid.  He behaves like a man, acts like a man and when you talk to him during a game you are not getting a sulky attitude, you are getting a response and he will leave you feedback and if he tells you that was because of that, you are having a conversation with him and not talking to a kid. His actual ability is never in question and quite literally go as far as he wants in the game. Whether he stays with us or goes into the pro game, I wouldn’t rule anything out at this stage with him. If he continues this new mind set he will get 25 goals from midfield, someone of his age who gets 20+ goals from midfield would be gone and I want that to be his ambition.

He phoned me the other day and asked me do I think he should have an agent. I said no as you had one before, it spun your head and ended up turning against us as he was at a trial here, a trial there. He admitted it didn’t work before and I said just play! Concentrate on enjoying yourself and playing well and everything will look after itself.  We want him to have ambition and reach great heights. If it doesn’t happen he is at a great football club, alright we are one of the oldest but it is one of the youngest in what we are trying to do with good times going forward.  We’ve been talking about our two new signings and how good they are but I think Freddie is the best signing we have made this year.  Another thing with him is that we have changed his position similar to Ben Mundele a few years back when we signed him as a winger. I see something different in him and think he did well as a no 9 but I think he is exceptional as the highest midfielder. He didn’t initially buy into it which was one of the reasons he used to get the hump and wanted to play in the JT role.  I told him I thought you were betting coming on to the ball rather than with your back to goal. JT is exceptional with his back to goal, you are good with your back to goal but you are exceptional when the ball comes to you and so powerful and quick. He originally didn’t buy into it and I spoke to him in the summer and he said he wants to play in the no 10 role now. So he is a midfielder now, who if he stays fit will score 25 goals this season with no doubt in mind.

He had another free kick against Hayes & Yeading in the first half, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone hit the ball so hard and went inches wide. If that was on target, the keeper never moved and one of the Hayes & Yeading players in the wall said he was glad it never hit him.  The stuff he does in training, his attitude that is the key for him and I hope he reads this. The key to him is attitude, if he just remains positive and enjoys himself and keeps acting like a man as he is now he will be a brilliant player for us. Me and Vinesey weren’t sure when he came back, I remember the first day of pre-season he pulled out on the running sessions and sat down and we thought here we go again. So we looked at each other and honestly sitting there thinking shall we wrap this up with him and lets find  him a club. Vinesy said let us see his reaction to that as he, Ben and Lee Lewis had pulled out of the running and when everyone had finished Joe took the three to one side and asked them to finish the run. They all went back with Joe and finished the run and was a turning point for him. From that point on he has never looked back.

Freddie is friends with my son, Ronnie and was round my house for dinner Saturday night before they went out for the evening. Ronnie told me that Freddie said a couple of months back that I never rated him. I’ve always rated him but I’m on him as it is my job to get the best of your ability out of you and if I think you dip below that I will be on you.  Now I leave him alone and he thinks I am the best manager in the world and loves me. At times last year if you asked him on the quiet he would say he hated me. He realises now I was doing it for the right reasons and of all our players he is the one I am touch wood excited about and this is a massive year for him. He and Joe Taylor are close, they talk a lot, even when he was out on loan and I told him you and JT are bouncing ideas off each other, now the link up play, the little flicks and interchanging so their relationship is good. Freddie is now the closest link between midfield and forward we are now going to see a partnership developing where the ball goes into JT and you see Freddie running off him, and spinning and reversing it and I think they are going to score a lot of goals those two.

You’ve had a free week with no friendly games this week. How do you look at this final week before the start of the season, contemplative, intensify training and prepare for the Kingstonian game? Do you look forward to this week and games against Kingstonian?

It is one of those where usually we keep the final week clear because we want the players to be fit and fresh for the first game. Ideally we would like everyone fit and yesterday we had nine training and Ally looking after the others.  We went upstairs and did some video work, and done some tactical work on Kingstonian as they have a slightly different set up this year and how we can expose that with or without the ball. We had Kingstonian watched on Saturday and know they have watched us. They have gone very attacking this year, the shape and personnel they have brought in. There are two ways of playing against it, you can soak it up and counterattack or bust the game open and could turn out to be a gunfight.  Last season there were a couple of 0-0’s but knowing the attacking players on show I’m not sure it will be this time.

We started last season at Kingstonian and the thing for us is we will go into the game very much in the same position as last year with a number of injuries.  The problem you have is because the last three pre-season games were against very strong sides it does stretch you a bit in terms of injuries. Perhaps next season we may try to get some more easier games to finish with as it is a fine balance between getting the players battle ready and playing good teams but you don’t want to get them stressing out when they are getting injured. Hayes & Yeading the last couple of pre-seasons has been a good finish for us as they are at our level and is a hard game. It is hard to know the right balance as you don’t want to play a load of friendlies against teams you are beating 5-0, 6-0 as you always want a challenge but it might explain why we had a problem second half on Saturday as we could have easily jacked it in, pulled the wide boys in and played 3-5-2, create an overload and done triangles around them. What are we getting out of that though, Phippy came off the pitch and was exhausted, it was a real hard game, hot day, a real edge to the game so good in that sense.

This week we would have liked to have done a little bit to set up for Wednesday’s training but we have the likes of Jay, Phippy, Kyron, Charle Allen, Bradley, Denty, Jason Banton struggling. Some are worse than others, Kyron and Denty have no chance of playing, Charlie Allen trained on Monday for the first time since picking up ankle injury pre-season and did some fitness work on the pitch on Saturday and did a 5k run and no reaction so hopefully ready for the squad on Saturday despite limited minutes so may not start the Kingstonian game.  Ben Mundele trained on Monday which is good, again another one without too many minutes in his legs so maybe a bit touch and go to start the game.  We’ll have a big session on Wednesday with the U18s in as well and got ideas what we want to do for Saturday’s game but that is going to take some work on the training field so have a 2 and a half hour slot at Bromley.   The big positive is that we have rest time this week and no matches before Saturday.

Kingstonian are an excellent side who’ve recruited well and brought in some very good players to add to an already strong squad and Hayden Bird is an excellent manager and they’ve also plenty of firepower too.  We respect everyone and certainly with Kingstonian, last season we drew both games 0-0, how they were both 0-0 I don’t know but I think it will be a very open game. They will try to get a lot of the ball and play good football. Last season we had more of the ball in both games and he is going to want to try and wrestle that back off us and won’t take a backward step for us and we won’t for them and has the makings of a great game. Hayden is one of the few managers that I take time to have phone chats with and he’s been in the game a while and we have mutual respect for each other.  We will both be confident and something has to give on the day.

Finally, the FA Cup draw was made earlier this week and we will be at home to Fisher on 23rd September. They had a very good win at Tooting & Mitcham in the previous round, what do you know about Fisher and what type of challenge can we expect?

I’ve spent Tuesday morning watching the video of the Tooting & Mitcham game, making notes and Tuesday evening they’ve got a game which I think Nathan is going to go and watch. They will get our full respect as everyone does. As you have seen pre-season it is easier to play against higher clubs and often harder to beat those sides you are expecting to beat as you are on a hiding to nothing. You beat them easily you are supposed to. If it gets close people get anxious on the line and can transfer into the games. We are delighted to have a home game, we will give them the respect they deserve. Fisher are a great club, I’ve played against them myself in the past many years ago when they were a powerhouse team. So it is great to see them coming back from the dark side, having their own ground and the video I watched they have some very good exciting young players and will play with enthusiasm and pace. It is up to us to put our best foot forward and we will take them very seriously.