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

Cray Wanderers continue to remain unbeaten in 2020 and in doing so broke new ground for the club in the Isthmian Premier by going 10 matches without defeat and winning 5 consecutive away games at East Thurrock United last Saturday.  Here Tony Russell looks back on the game and the two month unbeaten run, and a look ahead to the challenge of Merstham and the upcoming games.  

Well done Tony to yourself and the team for not only the win at East Thurrock on Saturday in difficult conditions but also the record unbeaten run and consecutive away wins. I know you are a lover of these landmark moments for the club.   

I think these achievements are important, we are in a team environment which all the players buy into but I also think as an individual you should set goals to try and push the bar higher than the people before you. I’ve always been driven by that, wherever I’ve walked into a club and I’ve had three clubs, the first thing I want to find out is, what is the highest they’ve ever been.  So, I can try to be the most successful manager at that club, whether you achieve that is another thing but it is important as a manager that you should attempt to do that.  I did that at Erith Town and took them to the top of the league and won a cup for the first time in their history. At VCD Athletic winning the Isthmian North and breaking new ground by taking them into the Premier which was a first for them.  I’ve been fortunate enough to win a few records at Cray Wanderers, most points, most goals etc and I think we’ve got to finish above 9th to achieve a new highest position for the club. It is important to see what people have done before you and see if you can aspire to beat that.  I do like team and individual stats. We try to encourage that, for Joe Taylor, what is the highest amount of goals in a season at Isthmian level. For Lewis Carey, most clean sheets, can he beat that, so all designed to drive players forward individually whilst being part of a team.

The team have managed to get through a tough February unscathed with three wins and a draw and sitting in the playoff places.  I felt out all the games in the month, the trip to East Thurrock would be the toughest especially as a National South team last season.  You must have been very pleased with the result and performance especially bearing in mind the conditions.

I went to watch them on Tuesday night, they played Carshalton Athletic at home in quite similar conditions with blustery wind and rain.  Carshalton came unstuck and lost 2-0 and East Thurrock were good value for the win and was well deserved.  The challenge was leading into the game that East Thurrock are a  good side but the conditions and the pitch is probably going to be our hardest challenge.  It is quite a small pitch and had cut up quite heavily from Tuesday and they did well to even get the game on. As well as that you have 40-50 mph winds and that was what we had to manage.  We are a different side this year, we have more steel about us and this has shown during the run since the New Year. The togetherness we’ve got, going down to ten men against Horsham for a long period of time and digging in for each other. The defending and the way we do it as a side, the work rate that everyone buys into on top of the quality we’ve got and we are really showing our hand.

It was never going to be a classic game with the conditions and the pitch was never going to allow us to do what we wanted to do, but what we did do very well, we controlled the game for large periods, we got our goal and saw the game out.  It wasn’t one for the neutral and not one that was going to get on any highlights reel but it was an excellent three points against a good side who are difficult to play against and if they had beaten us, they would have moved right behind us in the table.  Not really my sort of game and not pretty on the eye but this group of players, I’m running out of superlatives for them and just click into a winning machine.  What we have done in this run which is important is that we’ve had every scenario possible that can be thrown at a team.  They’ve had to come from behind a few times, 2-1 down at Enfield with less than ten minutes to go and scored last minute goals to win at Bowers, Enfield and Worthing. They had to play with ten men against Horsham and because we’ve got through that and they know if we go behind it is not the end of the world and back themselves to come back and get a result.  We can defend a lead if we have to, give the other team the ball and still win games.  Before that I felt if the other team had control of the game and the ball we weren’t going to win but now we don’t need to have the ball now.  The plan is to have more of the ball but we don’t need to now to win and the confidence running through the squad is extremely high.  However, saying all that we’ve been on a great run but we are still looking over our shoulder just to stay in the playoffs so that tells you everything about this league and how competitive it is and how much of a challenge it is going to be for the remaining games and to get carried away.

Defensively at East Thurrock United despite the conditions I thought we were excellent, Mitchell and Geofrey were winning headers and tackles and also Bradley Pritchard and Charlie Allen were superb too.

Yes, their centre-forward, Frankie Merrifield is one of the best in the league and a great striker and player who I’ve seen a few times.  Jay Leader had had a fitness test and wasn’t quite ready to return as the stitches only came out on Monday so was a little bit sore. Geofrey stepped up like he has done a few times for us and has never let anyone down and we are very fortunate to have a player of his quality waiting in the wings when we need him.  It was his sort of game to be fair and also Charlie’s too they’ll get down and dirty and they do what we want them to do. They will just work so hard, Charlie will put his body on the line and I know he has become something of a fans favourite.  There is stuff we would like more out of him in regards to his quality on the ball, but in terms of his effort he cannot be faulted and he is a big character in the changing room and a leader of men.

We’ve done a training session on Monday night and as we have a game Sunday and we did a lot of running and not one player moaned, they crashed it out, they are as fit as fleas.  We don’t usually do the fitness sessions we just threw it in there to test them and they are as fit a side as you’ll come up against.  Most managers will tell you when you put a fitness session on players tend to moan. This lot don’t they just crash it out and done it quicker than we expected them to do, ran out of things to do, in that case that’s your lot, off you go, have a good night!  They will turn up Wednesday and will deal with ball and pattern work. No-one mucks about, they might have a laugh and a joke but once they get down to work they are a serious group.

With Bradley Pritchard, at the end of the fitness session we did a measuring tool. We use a running track which they run round for 12 minutes, then have to stop and after that 12 minutes we measure how far they’ve gone and Bradley is always at the front.  He walked off the track after 12 minutes of running and started to have a conversation with me, he wasn’t even out of breath.  He can run and run but he has so much more about him than that. We’ve had so many injuries and had people out, if you’d taken Jay Leader and Tom Phipp out of our side last year it would have been a disaster.  Take them out this year and others step up to the plate.  I though Lee Lewis did really well when he came on in the second half. He just lost his way a little bit in the last month which you are going to get, he’s a young man still learning his trade.  He had been ill and taken a knock or two here and there and felt he came off it physically as well and looked tired.  However when we brought him on Saturday he looked terrific and did well and good to see him coming back into form.  Tom Phipp has a good chance of being available for Sunday which is good news so it is all positive.

It is a very interesting challenge from now during the next round of games.  We really built up the end of January – February matches and we rode them all out and said to them at the end of those games we are either going to be out of it, mid-table, seeing the season out and start planning for next year or we are going into the last ten games with all still to play for. We’ve got to the last ten games and it is all to play for.  The next five games are interesting as a different sort of pressure, there are a few teams there that are fighting for their lives down the other end of the table.  Me and Vinesy have been talking about what is the mindset of the players for these games. We built up the –January February games, Enfield Town away, Horsham home, Worthing away, Kingstonian home, a hard game, if you don’t play well you won’t go anything out of it and East Thurrock coming off a big win and battled through them.  Now we are playing teams where from the outside people are going to expect us to win and how we are going to deal with that and go about it.  The next five games are huge because if you have a bad five games you’ll be out of the playoffs. If they are a good five games and do stuff unbelievable you could be 3-4 points off the top going into the last five games.

A key moment of the game on Saturday was the sending off for East Thurrock after 30 minutes.  When that happens and a team are down to ten men what is the best way of combat that, keep the ball and make the opposition run about perhaps?

I think for us, we just work overloads and hard to say really as you don’t really know what the opposition are going to do.  If they leave the wide areas short, switch the ball and get them moving over and wear them down. Or if they leave two in midfield versus your three you tend to go and work it in the overloads but Saturday was weird because it was more about the wind.  They had the wind second half and although they had one player less they had a 50 mph gale to help them.  If you see the second half, we came out, played really well for the first 15-20 minutes, pinned them in, starting creating stuff around the box, scored a goal and then gave them nothing.  I think I remember the no 7 having a looping effort from about 30 yards which Lewis comfortably saved so apart from that didn’t create anything.  So it was a perfect away performance where it wasn’t really about the amount of men they had on the pitch, our focus was don’t let them score, give them nothing and we did that on a tricky pitch.  That is how far we’ve come as a group, managerial and players wise that maybe one or two years ago we would have come unstuck on those type of pitches. I remember going to Phoenix a couple of years ago and being done by the same sort of pitches, it was bobbly and we lost 2-1.  We are a different proposition now and that is encouraging as that shows we are still learning and moving forward as a club.  Every year we are getting better, every year we are getting tactically better, our recruitment is better, our equipment is better so the future is bright whatever this season brings but we are a better side than last year.

Also in such a tight game of few chances, a real moment of quality to win the match through Rhys Murrell-Willamson.

Yes, Rhys to be fair was very disappointed with his own performance on the day, and apologised after that he had had a bit of a ‘mare.  I said to the owners after, this is why I was so keen to bring him in as he has that touch of magic. All the while he is on the pitch he can do something and if you look at all the games he has played for us, he has scored three goals, has hit the wood-work three or four times, goalies have made saves.  Even when he doesn’t play well he will still score you goals. Junior Dadson was very similar to him in that in matches he didn’t always play well but will still get goals and Rhys is perhaps an upgrade on Junior.

They boys give me a bit of a banter as I go on about him too much.  He joined us because he fell out of love with football and ever since he walked through the door all I see is these big white teeth and is always smiling and loving it here, he told me that the other day he’s refound his love for the game with us and has a spring in his step.  It is good news all round and think he will be with us for a long time. He’s a young man and I still think there is a lot more to come from him.  It was a really classy free kick in a game which he didn’t play well and if you have a match winner of the pitch that is what happens and all the time you’ve got someone like him, Joel Rollinson and Joe Taylor and Denty they can score a goal out of nothing and that is why we have them out there.

It’s hard to criticise the players at the moment they are playing very well and it is always the way when you are winning games of football, it just seems easy this football lark, I pick the side they roll out there and get a result but for me the biggest test as a manager, you find out about your dressing room as every team will go through a spell during the season where it is not working for you.  You will lose games and we had that spell when we lost at Bognor Regis, Worthing and at home to Leatherhead. We sat and had a meeting with the players and had a nice open chat and they came out of that bad spell really quick and that is the difference when you have a really good dressing room. Everyone is going to have them runs it is how quickly you get out of them and we did that with limited damage.  We said to the players that winning games at this level is hard, don’t take it for granted, enjoy every single one of them but make sure you get that feeling again.  At the moment we are leaving grounds every single week with still a chance that we believe we can win the league. It is a longshot and you are relying on others to slip up but if every time you win, you keep that dream alive we carry that on to the next week. Three weeks ago we were 12 points behind the leaders, if we win the game in hand we go 6 behind Worthing. A long way off but that is the message we are giving the players and we are not giving up on that until mathematically we cannot win the league but that is our aim.

Let’s look ahead to the upcoming fixtures in March, they are all great sounding games but as you said earlier presents a different kind of challenge as some of our opponents are scrapping at the bottom.

There are no easy games and the difference is when you are playing the likes of Cheshunt and Brightlingsea, Merstham and Corinthian Casuals they are fighting for their lives and it is a different game. They will contest every challenge and throw their bodies at everything.  If you play a team near the bottom midway through a season, it is an easier game. If you play them near the end of a season and they are in or around the bottom then it is a different animal as they are fighting. The players will realise they are running out of games so every game is massive. It is a different pressure and mindset needed.  The Folkestone game will look after itself, we don’t need to get the players up for that. They are the easy ones to manage as a manager. When you play the top sides you don’t talk too much before the game because the guys know the league table.  Me and Vinesy will earn our crust when we are playing a team down the bottom and making sure we have the players mindset ready to be ruthless and to grind and outwork them and their workrate and win.  There is no point doing what we’ve done in the last two months and not backing up against the teams down the bottom.  With the group of players we’ve got and we don’t go up it won’t be for the want of trying or commitment or effort it will simply be we weren’t good enough.  At the moment we are the form side in the whole league and it looks like being an exciting end to the season.

Finally let’s look ahead to Merstham.  We beat them 2-1 there in October but they beat Horsham and Margate recently and drew at Hornchurch so Frank Wilson’s side will pose a challenge for us won’t they?

Yes, we’ve watched them two or three times so we know all about them. It is hard as they have had quite a large turnover of players, you watch them and go back again three weeks later and they have four new players on the pitch so it is hard to keep up with them with the players they go through. They have though hit a bit of form so whatever players they have now they seem to have found their feet and churning out results. I know they lost at home to Enfield on Saturday but before that beat Horsham and drew with Hornchurch. They are dangerous as they are fighting for their lives and for their manager. Frank had that scenario when he came up with Tooting & Mitcham United so he has experience of being down that end of the table and the pressure that comes with it.  It was hard at the start of the season as many of the players left the club to join Kingstonian so it has been difficult but are dangerous so will get the utmost respect from us and we will have to play well Sunday or we won’t get anything it is as simple as that.