Charlie Bradford previews a very special day for Cray Wanderers…

Cray Wanderers FC. Formed in 1860, they are London’s oldest football club and the second oldest football club in the world. They’re older than the English FA and my local club are therefore a special and historic club by all accounts.

But despite all that rich history Cray have not had a ground to play their home fixtures since 1998 when they were forced to leave Oxford Road in Sidcup due to the Kent League insisting all clubs had floodlights.

Whilst Oxford Road continued to play host to the reserve team of Cray, and with Oxford Road still used to this day (by Welling Park most notably of the Kent County League and step 7), the first team however were forced to move out of Oxford Road to share the ground of Bromley FC.

Without a home ground Cray have been out of “their community” for a long time but this year sees that all change…

Speaking of change at the club, prior to this season, Cray Wanderers never had a women’s first team despite their long and elusive history. Something that all changed in 2023 thanks in no part to CEO Sam Wright…

“I was actively seeking for a women’s team for around 18 months and opportunities to create one for the club.

I was aware of Dean (Jarman – Cray Wanderers Women’s manager) through Charlton where Joe Francis, Cray’s former assistant manager and a bit of a Cray legend, also works, and Joe linked Dean and Cray Wanderers / myself together.

Dean was at Cray Valley Paper Mills at the time, as were most of the players, and they were having issues and that’s how it came around – we got Dean and his already assembled team over to Cray Wanderers!

We are also keen to create a pathway for the girls to come through to the first team and are putting foundations in place. Indeed we have required an U16 team for next season so we are certainly starting to fill the gaps in our women’s and girls section.

Indeed our girls youth teams are doing very well. For example, one of our sides are so good they are beating fellow girls teams 13 and 14-0 each week so they have been entered into a boys league and are still producing results!

As for how the women’s first team are doing, what more can I say?! The women’s team have gone from strength to strength and are currently top of the South East Counties Women’s Football League Division 1 West and unbeaten in the league – quite remarkable!”

One of the reasons why perhaps Cray’s Women are top of the league is thanks in no small part to the goal scoring exploits of Jessica Oldfield who had this to say to the NLC…

“Seeing how well Cray Wanderers were doing and knowing some of the girls attracted me to the team. I saw the promotion of the women’s team on social media and wanted to be a part of it. Not many clubs value their women’s team in the way that we are valued and respected at Cray Wanderers.

We are having a really strong season and we are so lucky to have such a ‘together’ group the whole way throughout the squad.

Although we are currently unbeaten in our league games, we are always striving for greatness and are critical of our performances as we seek to improve week in week out. Ultimately, we would like to just keep pushing through the leagues and see where it takes us.”

You may be wondering by now why I am referring to Cray’s Women’s team and Cray’s overall history?! Well, despite not having a place to call their own since 1998 and Cray not having a women’s team prior to this season, wouldn’t it just be perfect for Cray’s Women to play the first official game at Flamingo Park, the new home of Cray Wanderers?!

I have been a secret fan of women’s football for a long time. I remember as a kid watching Euro 2005 on TV, the Olympics of 2012, and the great past three World Cups. But prior to January 2022 I had never attended a women’s game through choice, feeling women’s football was a “real taboo subject” and I didn’t want to be mocked in all honesty.

Two years later and you can’t stop me watching women’s football! The women’s game has gone from strength to strength, the standard is getting better and better and women’s football now is in the mainstream as proved by Beth Mead and Mary Earps winning the past two SPOTY’s, thanks of course to the Lionesses’ remarkable tournament runs in reaching the last World Cup final and winning the 2022 Euros. I no longer feel ashamed to admit I love it!

Going back to Flamingo Park, it is actually the first ground in Cray’s history they have actually owned themselves, purchased by their directors, as the grounds they have played at previously as their “home ground” were actually owned by other people and businesses.

You may be asking by now when the Cray Women will take to the field and open up football at the new ground of Flamingo Park?! Well, the date is Sunday 4th February 2024 at 2 PM V Oakwood in the league and club chairman Gary Hillman says it would be great to see a big crowd for the occasion…

“It’s been a big struggle over the last 30 years (as Cray’s chairman) trying to get Cray Wanderers the home they needed to survive.

We have had a rollercoaster, firstly with Sandy Lane (a ground that was rejected by the London Borough of Bromley and cost two local Councillors their positions on the planning committee and which I have laid out plans of that very ground on my bedroom wall no less!)…

Then we struggled with Flamingo Park which was approved initially by the London Borough of Bromley and Boris Johnson but then Sadiq Khan became Mayor of London and it was his first planning application to make a decision on and refused it!

So, on the third attempt, we finally got it passed by the London Borough of Bromley and The Mayor so we’re nearly there and Sunday 4th February is the big day!

It feels very fitting. I feel in this modern era that the women’s team will be the first competitive game to be played before the men’s first team for next season.

It obviously means the world to me and everyone involved with the club and all the supporters to finally have our own ground and looking forward to seeing everyone on 4th February!”

I personally hope for a big crowd too – the club and women’s side in particular so deserve it (though of course I am biased)!

Jessica Oldfield had this to say about the game…

“Our first game on the new pitch at Flamingo Park is against Oakwood who were actually the team I played against in my first game for the Wands and managed to bag my first goal.

We’re looking forward to meeting them in the league again and hoping to get as much support as we can on the day.”

When asked why the women to open up the new ground, Sam Wright had the following to say…

“Why the women? Well we wanted the highest possible level of football to open up the new pitch at Flamingo Park. Unfortunately the ground is not ready yet for senior men’s football due to ground grading. However the ground is suitable for the women and so it was a natural choice.

Hopefully we can get a good turn out for the game, plenty of support and create a buzz for football in the area!”

For the groundhoppers amongst us there will be a printed programme on sale at the game (priced at £1), and the team line ups can be given upon request. The clubhouse will also be open selling hot and cold food and drinks as well as alcoholic beverages. But, most importantly of all, admission is FREE!

For Futbology users the game is officially recognised with an opening game badge so what’s not to love?!

So what are you waiting for?! Fancy coming and witnessing some football history?! Get yourself down to Flamingo Park on Sunday 4th February! Be there or be square!

Thank you Charlie and more information about the game to follow including player pen pics and an interview with Wands Women’s manager Dean Jarman and Club Chairman Gary Hillman.