Cray Wanderers returned to competitive action for the first time since Halloween last Tuesday with a hard fought victory at Uxbridge.  Here Tony Russell looks back on the 3-1 win , a look ahead to a very tough but exciting challenge at St Albans City on 15th December. Also Tony comments of the difficulties of being a manager in the current uncertain climate regarding the lack of games and keeping players fit.   


Hello Tony. Congratulations to you and the team for reaching the 2nd Round of the FA Trophy last Tuesday night at a chilly Uxbridge. As this was our first game since 31st October what are your thoughts on the match and the evening as a whole?

I hadn’t seen Uxbridge play but they had beaten Hayes & Yeading United who we played in pre-season and know their manager Paul Hughes very well and they are a good side so knew it was going to be a hard game.  I felt it looked like we hadn’t played for a bit and looked a little undercooked and rusty. I thought they started better than us , were on the front foot and we were fortunate not to be a goal down before they scored as Lewis Carey had to make a couple of saves. They then got the goal and that woke us up, and started to pass the ball around a lot better.  It was hard as they were sitting back and letting us have the ball and became a bit of a stalemate so to speak.

Then good play by Jason Banton out on the left, a good pass to Rhys Murrell-Williamson who volleyed the ball to Joe Taylor who did what JT does and now it is 1-1.  Then I felt we took over from there and it was us having the ball, creating chances and go 2-1 up with a good goal from Jason, patient build up from the back, ball into Rhys who has skipped past his man, centre half is cut out, squared to JT who then squares to Banton who swept home for a really good team goal. Then we hit the crossbar from the corner which the keeper pushed onto the bar and then had a goal disallowed which was a mystery as to why as Freddie Parker has had a shot and a defender on the line has handballed the ball into the goal but was given offside.

So 2-1 up at halftime and could have been three and looked a lot better but we came out second half a bit rusty but we are struggling a bit at the moment especially in the right back position which is usually a position that we are very strong.   Ben Mundele has Covid-19 so obviously cannot be around the club and isolating, Barney Williams has an ankle injury, Lee Lewis pulled out the morning of the game, Femi Abatan got sent home from sixth-form school so he has to isolate so all four right backs on our books couldn’t play. So Charlie Allen had to play right back who then himself gets injured. So we had to put Martin Onobaghbe, a centre half at right back. Jay Leader very nearly didn’t make the game as was struggling so it is hard when you don’t play for so long.

We were playing well and went 3-1 up, Jason has gone clean through and the keeper has saved it and we’ve had a couple of opportunities where balls have flashed wide and it looked like we could pick them off and score a couple more.   The last 10-15 minutes though after Charlie Allen went off, the game changed and we got sloppy and all of a sudden, their guy has got in and Martin has conceded a penalty which the boys are adamant wasn’t a foul but was given.  From a game being comfortable all of a sudden it looks like being a nervy ten minutes but Lewis does what Lewis does and makes a great save from the penalty and we win the game 3-1.

Overall, I thought we did enough to win the game however we looked really undercooked and it was a bit like that at the start of the season which we have spoken about before where we played well for periods of the game in the first and parts of the second, creating chances and picking them off at the break but the final part we looked a little loose so it wasn’t a complete performance. However, overall if you go away from home and score three, hit the crossbar and create chances we had done enough but knew it was a tough game and fair play to Uxbridge who kept on going to the end and delighted to get through.  More important was for the boys to get some minutes in their legs, Carlesy is struggling with a knee injury so it is really hard at the moment.

We find ourselves in a very unique situation with the league deeming it is not safe to play football or not possible to play football whereas the FA are saying we have to play football. Now we have a catch-22 situation where all we can do is play cup football so you have to get everyone ready for one off games so it is extremely hard to motivate as there is so much doom and gloom about when we can play league games again and get players in for training.

I thought before lockdown our last two performances against Merstham and Whitehawk were our best performances of the season and it looked like we were back to our usual selves, we started to get everyone back and took ten games to get there and then had to start all over again. We’ve got Jay Leader struggling with an ankle, Tom Carlse with a knee, Barney Williams, ankle so down to the bare bones at the moment and for Tuesday might just have to wait until the last minute to decide who plays.

Let’s look ahead to what should be a great test for us on Tuesday against the leaders of the National South, St Albans City on Tuesday night. The last National South club we travelled to was Braintree Town in November 2017. When we spoke last you mentioned during Lockdown 2 you had seen a fair bit of National South football. Are St Albans one of the teams you have watched?

Yes, I went to watch them play Tonbridge on Saturday which they won 3-1. They are unbeaten in the league after 11 games, top the league by two points with a game in hand. I was really impressed, I had seen them before but against Tonbridge they were outstanding. We had trained in the morning and I got there after getting stuck in traffic and missed the first five minutes and when I turned up, I heard a noise and Tonbridge had scored but from here it was all St Albans, it was like a defence vs attack drill. Tonbridge were clearing their lines very well but St Albans were very good, outstanding could have won by more and one of the few times I have come away from a ground and I’ve thought to myself we’re going to have play very well to get a result there. One of the best non-league teams I have seen in a long time, they cover all bases, big side, athletic, strong have goals in them and pass the ball.  I can see why they are top and why they will be there or thereabouts by the end of the season. If you look at the draw it was the hardest possible draw we could get where when the Step 2 clubs come in we get the top team.  Both teams play very good football it will be a good game. We are a little bit undercooked so not ideal and couldn’t have a pre-season game on Saturday as we didn’t have enough fit so we did an in-house training but will be an uphill task but if I’ve ever worked with any group of players who could defy the odds it is this lot.

It is a very good league the National South but in terms of teams a bit of a mixed bag as there are some very good teams in the top half, the bottom half, the top six in the Isthmian Premier could compete with them. It will be a good test and very impressed with St Albans but a free hit for us. I’m looking forward to it as we have a good side, we will give them our utmost respect and show what we can do and show where we are at as a club.    

When we last spoke you commented on how and when we would resume football again after lockdown and since then it was decided to postpone league games until at least January following a vote of clubs on 3rd December. What are your thoughts on the current state of play in the league?

Unfortunately, our level is a rudderless ship that is how I’d describe it. It has got no captain guiding a big ship at Step 3 and just floating about going wherever the wind is going to blow. I sat on the league meeting listening to what the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the league had to say. I was shocked and disappointed! The lack of leadership was evident, there was no talk of how we can get back to playing football or solutions, told we had to have a vote and all we got told about were the negatives as to why we shouldn’t play football and why we should wait until January. No leadership from the top saying here are the options, either you play football or you don’t. At the moment tier 3 teams cannot play with fans, there are two ways around that either Tier 3 teams play away from home for a period and then we assess it in a month’s time or no-one plays, no fans can come in or how the Kent clubs can work around that, there was none of that.  You have got to have two sides of an argument to have a vote and there must be two debates going on. There was never a debate about coming back to play, never any leadership telling players how they could do it. All they were saying was how they can’t do it and the Vice-Chairman said “how can you seriously think about football with Covid, it is killing thousands of people, we shouldn’t even be thinking about football, I can’t even believe we are talking about playing” which is fine. I understand that and also the Bedfont Sports guy saying that one of their committee members dying of it and was visibly upset and spoke passionately about it. I appreciate him and the Vice-Chairman of the league sharing his views and getting their points across. What disappointed me on the back of that, Aveley of whom the Vice-Chairman has just made a huge statement arranges a home friendly letting in fans and on Tuesday played Hastings United in the FA Trophy letting 400 fans in.  If you feel that passionately about it and why are you thinking about football, surely you would pull out of the Trophy like Margate did and the friendly game.  For the Chairman and Vice-Chairman my actions would be louder than my words, you don’t go and play.

There are two camps about not playing. One is we would love to play but financially we just cannot do it, we need the bar and gate money to survive. Fair enough, I can’t argue with that. For me as a manager I don’t work at boardroom level, I don’t have to balance the books. As much as I don’t like it, I get it. Then there is the camp that says there are people dying out there, it is dangerous, we shouldn’t really be in this, don’t even think about football. Again, I get it, I don’t agree with it but I understand it. If that is your stance you had better shut your football club down then. You shouldn’t be playing any friendlies or any cup games because if you do you look stupid. That is the Vice-Chairman of the league who was preaching to the whole of the 120 clubs in the Zoom call about how we shouldn’t be thinking about football and how dangerous it is to be playing and can’t believe you are even debating it. It is not only one home game but two home games in the space of a week. Why are you in the competition? why are you opening the doors? Are you charging to get in, of course you are. Getting prize money, of course you are. It is hypocritical.   Everything he was saying I get but can’t believe they were playing a home friendly on the Saturday and a cup tie on the Tuesday letting 400 people in, mingling and mixing.  He is the Vice-Chairman of the league and making decisions and in the hands of someone who thinks like that. Also we have a Chairman who for some reason cannot come up with a reason or idea of what it looks like to play football and how we can work round it.

I remember speaking to Vinesy, we came off the Zoom call on the Tuesday and I was flat as a pancake, there is no point us doing this, we might as well jack it in as it is a waste of time because you have had the whole of last year with eight games to go, the same lot of people who have made a stupid decision to write the whole league off. The same people who said that points per game wasn’t fair and for the leagues integrity and the season finishes. Then the same people send an email round to all clubs saying that this coming season we will be using points per game if the season doesn’t finish. The very people who voted against it have now voted for it and this is what you are dealing with.  We are in the hands of the same people. Anyone can run something, anyone can be a manager, director of any establishment that runs smoothly and runs itself. Cray Wanderers runs itself. Put any manager in a team that wins games of football, just get to sit on a cool box, put a dummy there that is fine, anyone can do that but you don’t understand about leadership, skill sets. A manager doesn’t earn his crust until things are not going well. You don’t actually find out about a good leader until you get a lot of injuries, what if you lose four games in a row and you’ve got the punters on your back, you’re the worst thing since sliced bread. That’s when you’ve got to lead. The problem is going to these league meetings for the last 10-15 years just popping along having free biscuits, a cup of tea and a social, you’re not making any decisions of any note, just turn up, yeh, yeh, pass a digestive, lovely, lovely. Now the problem you’ve got is that they’ve got to do something and got to make a decision and take a lead and show direction and all the clubs are looking at them. For two seasons now they are making poor decisions and directions. 

The Chairman of Carshalton Athletic asked the Chairman of the league how many votes it would take for the clubs who wanted to play to win, what is the majority? 51%? He said no it wasn’t 51% and when asked didn’t know the winning percentage. He asked us to vote on something that we don’t know how many votes it would take to win. He said I will make my decision on the day of the vote. His opening gambit was “I don’t think we should be playing, push it back to January 9th“and then we had two hours of people talking and it end up with him saying you are all going to vote, all clubs have to send their votes in by lunchtime the next day and then he’s going to look at all the votes and then decide on the majority on the back of everyone voting. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous in all your life? It’s not a democracy. So we are going to go 9th January whether you vote or not. I can’t commit to a vote in case you all start talking to each other and then can’t tell 120 people what the winning majority is. 

I just lost my head after the Zoom call, honestly I was sitting there thinking, they’re in charge of me and what I’m trying to do in football.  It scares me as all the managers I know, they put in so much hard work and the hours they work. Imagine how much clubs spent last year, the thousands of pounds on ground work, paying players etc. and thousands, possibly millions spent on Step 3 and 4 football for then to be told to go null and void.  Now we are in danger of doing the same again because unless the FA step in and come up with something we are not playing again this season.

All the time the Chairman was saying in regards to the Kent tier 3 teams not being able to play and other clubs not being able to open their clubhouses “it is not fair” if they have to play away games or all their home games later in the season.  I said to him was it fair that we played 80% of last season and then shut it all down. Was it fair but you were fine with it. I said football isn’t fair, life isn’t fair, from the balance of everything, is it fair that someone can live in a 30 million pound residence while someone else has to live on a street. It is not fair but let’s not go on about fair as you are never going to get fairness and that is the problem they will always come out with a problem as to why we cannot play.  For the FA have now said, tier 3 clubs now can allow 15% of their capacity as London is about to enter tier 3 as the numbers are outrageous. Get people back into football but they cannot open their food facilities or their bars. Well it’s not fair!  Some can open their bars and some can’t, it’s not fair so we are not going to play. That is what is going to happen.

Here’s what can happen, the FA could step in and tell the league leadership we can get back playing but the problem we’ve got is we don’t know as they continue to let these people make the decisions. From a manager’s perspective the hardest games to plan for are the lower league teams. I find them harder to play against than sides at our level or even one below. You play teams, two, three steps below because half the time these teams don’t what they are doing. They are so off the cuff, they make it up as they go along and you can’t plan. You go and watch them and it takes 15 minutes to work out the formation. The problem as a football club and a management group we’ve got to rely upon people who don’t really know what they are doing. We could be playing a league game next Saturday or maybe not another game until February or not at all.  I genuinely have no idea so how can I as a manager or Gary Hillman or Dave Francis plan a budget and get people match fit on the back of no information coming from the league and their history of making decisions, it’s ridiculous.

In regards to the Trident league joint decision (Northern Premier, Southern League & Isthmian League) to work together

They shouldn’t really have done the vote thing. What they should have done was release a statement, this is our decision and do it because that way I couldn’t really have moaned about anything. The problem we’ve got is that 120 of us sat and listened to the Chairman and Vice Chairman talking and that is the scary part as you listen to them and you go away thinking we are in trouble here.  The Chairman said in his opening gambit that he was impartial but you cannot be impartial when you just champion for one thing as you just talk about the negatives for half hour and that it is not fair. That is when I said that life isn’t fair, football isn’t fair, teams in our league can buy a forward for £400, I can’t, that is not fair but do I go on about it, I find a way. We’ve got to try and play football because, yes 60,000+ people have died of Covid-19, I get that. 20,000 people die on the road every year but still get in their cars, we just make sure we put our seat belts on and our cars are getting safer. You’ve got to put things in place to protect yourself, make sure your ground is Covid ready, follow policies. You cannot just hide indoors and say we cannot play for two years until this thing goes. World Wars haven’t stopped football, Covid cannot stop football. As a club we can agree a wage cap, cut the money but the players just want to play football. Listen, I want to get paid a lot of money, I’m sure all the players do but ultimately we just want to play the game. 

The guy from Bedfont Sports spoke so well and could hear the emotion in his voice, they do not want to play football, their argument is that is not safe and I cannot argue with that.  If your stance is you don’t want to play because of money that opens a separate argument and debate and all the managers and Chairmen can come up with something until it works, stream games, sponsorship whatever it may be just to get people playing football. You just cannot give up.  Some clubs have worked so hard to build up a fan base like the Hastings United’s and Worthing’s and now clubs in Step 2 and above can let fans in they are going to watch them instead just to watch football. There just needs to be a proper discussion. It need leadership and impartiality to sit there and before a meeting work out what it looks like without football with examples and what it looks like with football as more people are dying of suicide  than Covid at the moment. People need to get out and take their minds off things and go to football and express themselves. Whether that it is to be shouting at me for sitting on a coolbox as I get that a lot, good luck to them, they’ve paid their money they’ve made their choice. Shouting at a referee, centre-forward, centre-half or just cheering, clapping, dancing, jumping whatever they want to do, they just want to get out of their house and football is a release for them. Yes, we have a duty of care to have safety for people and things put in place. I went to watch St Albans play and at their ground they have painted yellow feet everywhere where you have to stand on the feet to social distance and it is really well done, they check your temperature, a certain amount of queuing for a cup of tea, crosses on the seats where you cannot sit. It was done brilliantly, I took Henderson with me and we felt safe and that was with a 700 crowd in there as they had measures in place and these people got out and watched football and expressed themselves.  Keeping locking people indoors and telling them they can’t go out is scaremongering and not the way forward.  For the real elderly and vulnerable I understand that and need the extra responsibility until the vaccines come in.  As long as clubs put the procedures in place there is no reason why this can’t be done responsibly and sensibly. That needs an impartial voice to say we can do this, we are happy to give our support, training, we will visit your club. That takes leadership. Not sitting there scaremongering about how can you even think about football and making people feel bad and then put on two home games straight after.

One of the think tanks coming out of the league is that perhaps everyone plays each other once. Problem is I keep hearing these words fair and integrity. Is the league’s integrity not being questioned when you are relegating teams playing once. Is it fair some teams will play certain teams away and some you will play at home.  It is a shambles, I’ve never known anything like it.  I was asked after the Zoom call by a Director, Tony, get us out of this league. To which I replied how can I  get us out of this league if we don’t play any games as we are in danger through the league leadership of going two seasons written off. Two seasons of a football career written off through lack of leadership.  Yet the teams above Steps, 1 & 2, Leagues 1 & 2, Championship and the Premier League that are all bigger and better than us, they all disagree with the league. They disagree with the leadership on both counts and they are going to promote and relegate and do points per game and continue to play on in a safe environment.  Yet the Bourbon biscuit dippers know better than National League and Football League clubs. There needs to be a shakeup and if there is no promotion or relegation for two seasons then the FA need to find out what is going on.