With pre-season now very much a thing of the past, the Isthmian Premier League season begins today with Cray Wanderers looking to build on the momentum of a record 5th placed finish last season but now with the quality of the league this season will be an incredible achievement.  Here manager Neil Smith looks back on the last few weeks of pre-season, an update on the squad and thoughts of the season opener at Lewes.

Hello Neil and welcome back for the start of another roller-coaster of a season. With pre-season out of the way, what are your thoughts of the last six weeks and how preparations have gone.

I’ll be honest I don’t like pre-season, you can get what you need to get out of it which is players fitness and to be hopefully injury free which for us on both counts are ticks in the box and obviously gelling the new players with the ones kept from last season which touch wood has been going well.

In terms of results I don’t really care, performances yes, you are looking for certain things like little bits of combination play and also trying to give everybody a bit of game time.  We didn’t have many home games so we were often travelling away so we had to get the right level of opposition as well who all wanted to beat us which is what you want.  You don’t really want any easy games in pre-season as it gives a false account of where you are at. So in terms of pre-season, yes I am happy with it and also a very good training session on Tuesday night.

For those supporters who maybe haven’t attended the pre-season games you have assembled a strong squad with names you are familiar with working with.

I think from where we were this time last season I think I have a stronger set of boys and that is not to disrespect those I had last year.  After having a relegation battle the season before we assembled a squad that had to be better than a relegation team and had to evolve.  We assessed the strengths we had last season with the weaknesses and we tried to do our business early as we knew the players we had earmarked could be snapped up by other clubs. So bringing in the players we have is fantastic for us and myself but also we know we have gone out and bought other players who showed up against us last season.

I think it is going to be a very tough season with all the clubs investing heavily in their squads a lot more than they did at the start of last season.  We couldn’t stand still or that would have been like going backwards so getting the players we did keeps the momentum going from last season.

You mentioned the depth of quality in the league this season with teams that have come down from the National South like Cheshunt, Concord Rangers and Dulwich Hamlet but also ambitious clubs like Chatham Town and Hashtag United are going to make some noise this season.

That’s right and that is not including teams already there like Hornchurch who have a Championship calibre manager and invested heavily in their team.  Billericay Town we watched a couple of weeks ago and they had two teams, one in the first, one in the second which on their own could compete in this division.  There are the likes of Enfield Town, Canvey Island, Horsham, Lewes, what a league this is going to be this year!  Every game is going to be a challenge and 100% needed every week.  You could easily lose to a couple of these teams and not be where you want to be.  We had to improve on the squad we had last year who did so well because everyone else has.

Looking at us defensively we have full backs, Archy Taylor and Jamie Mascoll (both pictured) who I think have been excellent in pre-season and centre-halves, Jack Holland, Cameron Black and Tom Penfold so we have real steel at the back.

You have to remember we had a back four last season with three loan players so it was something we were going to have to do and bring in a brand new back four.  Jalen Jones left to join Aveley and fair play to him jumped up a league on the basis of what he achieved with us last season.  Jamie Mascoll I knew from Bromley being a local boy and also played against us for Hornchurch at the end of last season.  Also Cameron Black who did well in the few games we played against Bognor Regis Town last season and showed himself to be a good asset for them. It was a no-brainer if we could get him in on loan for the whole of the season.  Jack Holland I know is a leader and my captain at Bromley.  He comes in with that leadership quality and being from Bromley knows the area.  Archy Taylor, he was on a recommendation after he did well for Hartley Wintney last year and had a few people looking at him so to get him on board when there were so many teams interested was great for us.  With Shaun Rowley staying as well they are going to gel over time, it will not happen overnight.  It will take a bit of time and finding out their strengths and weaknesses.  At the moment they are getting on well with one another but still have work to go.  So really pleased with the back four and Tom Penfold as well. 

Moving on to the midfield this looks a very strong area for us with the likes of Anthony Cook with his versatility, David Ijaha, Nyren Clunis ended last season on fire, Sam Wood brings experience as does Frankie Raymond. We also have good young players in Mitch Chapman and Reggie Rye (pictured) up from the Academy and wide players Rio Campbell and Mason Saunders-Henry.

They all give you something different and that is something you are going to need over the course of a season.  You will get games where they just have to get their tin hats on and gum shields in and a war of attrition in terms of winning that second ball or one where you will need your ball players and passers.  Frankie Raymond who again played for me at Bromley his delivery is absolutely on the money and strong on the ball.  David Ijaha with his physical presence and Sam Wood who will give you everything in a game until he has nothing left and leadership qualities on the pitch. 

Also we are bringing through the Reggie Rye’s who did extremely well for the Academy and has come in during pre-season and excelled. Cameron Thompson and Mason Saunders-Henry who came in a bit towards the end of pre-season who looks like a good asset. Mitch has been given the all clear so is back jogging so he has to catch up with his training and pre-season if you like. As you say we have different assets there and can also have Cooky and Nyren in there.  I’m really pleased with the midfield as we can switch around and manipulate different formations and ways of playing. So we have brought in experience to help nurture the younger players.

Up front we have Yahya Bamba, George Porter, Tom Derry and Cameron Thompson although Louis Collins who played in pre-season will not be with the club there should be goals through the team.

Again, I don’t like to rely on just one player because if this player doesn’t do well and we are just relying on him and has an injury all of sudden you may have to bring someone in like we did last season you are not just relying on that player people are chipping in with goals.  Cameron has already got a couple in pre-season, as had George Porter and Nyren Clunis, Tom needs to get off the mark but capable of hitting the ground running so all the team should be getting their share of goals. There will be games where it will be a set play that gets you a win or the one chance in a game you have to take so we have options like Tom and George.

Louis Collins was a different kettle of fish, what I was getting from Louis and what he was expecting of himself wasn’t where we were.  So we had a chat and a mutual agreement that he join a club that plays to his formation and better that we would be looking. I thought we had a good player and I still think he is a very good player but maybe not comfortable in our formation. We have an evolving formation which we can change without difficulty and the other boys seem to fit in nicely with what we are trying to do.

Looking ahead to Saturday and the visit to Lewes.  Always a tough place for us to go and it was of course very nip and tuck between us in the race for the playoffs last season.

Yes, I watched them play Ramsgate recently and manager Tony Russell plays the game in a certain way that is never going to change. We have to make sure we can combat that and play to our strengths as well. We are not looking at anything other than a tough game.  Both games last season ended in draws which either could have won so it will be tight and they are going to be expected to be in and around the playoffs again.  We know our first five games are going to be very tough but will put us in good stead and we will know where we are as a squad and we can go there in confidence we can pull off a result but we will need to be at our very best to do so.

Finally on behalf of all the club we wish a healthy and enjoyable season for your management team and staff, to Tim, Alfie, Ally, Paddy and Robert.

Everyone is worth their weight in gold at this club and what we try to generate is not just a good team on the pitch but off it and a good management team as we are going to need everyone of them.  With the players and supporters like yourself who are always there and clap off the team even if we haven’t done ourselves justice we feel we want to give something back as well.  Also the owners have been amazing too.  Hopefully there is some good news about the stadium coming out which was the sole reason I have come here to not only build a team but more importantly a club. We are doing it off the pitch, we have the youth teams, the Academy, the girls teams, a Women’s team for the first time, we are getting an U23s team and the U18s in the FA Youth Cup so things are buzzing.  If we can get out that good news, the stadium being announced can only be good for the future of the club.