Cray Wanderers – Lockdown 3 – The thoughts of Tony Russell


Cray Wanderers have been without a game since the FA Trophy defeat at St Albans City on 15th December and like many clubs from Step 3 downwards have been impacted by the third national lockdown imposed on 4th January. Here Tony Russell gives his thoughts on the recent turbulence in non-league football at Step 2 and the difficulties for the game going forward. Tony also feeds back on his Cray Wanderers staff and players and the commitment to be ready when the game can restart.

Hello Tony. Thank you for taking the time for a catch up as it has been a couple of months since the FA Trophy game at St Albans City. I think it is fair to say a lot has happened the last couple of months in the non-league game and although not quite unravelling these have been difficult times for the game at this level.

A lot of the uncertainty has been going on for some time.  The problem you have had with Covid-19 in terms of football has stirred up a lot of stuff that had been swept under the carpet.  It has made those that run the leagues make decisions and to be organised and show leadership but from Isthmian League to now National South/North level have fallen short.  I’ve mentioned before I call them the Bourbon biscuit committee and most of the time it is a social gathering, have a biscuit and a chat.  Usually it is quite a straightforward meeting, two go up three come down, all self- explanatory with nothing else going on. Of course Covid-19 has come from nowhere and blown the whole thing wide open and made people make decisions and unfortunately there are not many who have covered themselves in glory. 

Also on the back of that as well probably shown up the society of today.  It’s all very much about yourself unfortunately and every club and division sorted themselves out and only pushed for themselves and the problem you’ve got now is that last year when this all started you had the Step 2 boys that wanted the Elite tag so they could get playoffs done and threatened legal action to get it. So they got their elite tag so they benefited from that and we didn’t get anything. Our season was declared null and void and all our and everyone’s hard work was undone. The National League crowned Wealdstone South champions on points per game and Weymouth went up via the playoffs when no-one else was playing. 

Now, the following season, the elite boys were not allowed fans in so they didn’t want the elite tag no more and were fighting with us because we were allowed some fans in and were arguing about it that we weren’t helping them. Things changed as they received funding, our season then got stopped while they continued playing. Now their funding has got cut and now they are upset and a big hoo-hah about the football community coming together and not accepting the decision to null and void and how wrong it is.  The problem is that last season our season at Step 3 and below was null and voided just like that. Where were they then when we needed them to push for us? Unfortunately now it is every club for themselves.

I think when I go back to when I started playing football there was a football community and if something affected one of them everyone else would pitch in because of that.  Ultimately these leagues and the FA which structure them, if all their member clubs stuck together they would have to change. The problem you have is you have little bits going off left right and centre, the National League doing their own thing leaving the Step 3 boys not playing and when they do play with fans and they are not  they do not like it. At the moment you have maybe eight or nine clubs complaining and leagues can fight that off.  If every non-league club stuck together and all members agreed with something that this is not alright and then the league would have to change it. Now it is a real mixture and a showing up of a lack of leadership at non-league football.   The selfish nature of football where it is every team for themselves, and we have to put ourselves in that category. We are not exempt from that. It is every man for themselves, every league for themselves and the threat of breakaway movements is not going to do anything.

 One of the things that attracted me to non-league football from the professional game was that sense of community. The thought that before or after a game I could chat or be around, management, players, committee, chairman, opposition committee and chairman, referee and match officials and fans and it seems so natural. It would be a massive shame if that community spirit and enjoyment as a fan would disappear.  Let’s take a look at the decision to null and void the National South. I know you have been watching quite of lot of that division the last few months. Were you surprised at the null and void decision? I thought as classed as elite you carry on like other elite sports.

They had the elite tag because they wanted it and up to the start of this season were not classed as elite. The season before it was for the likes of Dorking Wanderers and Dartford and the teams in the playoffs they approached the league and the FA. Dorking got some legal advice about it and were not classed as elite until the playoffs. In regards to the whole funding issue I don’t know the whole in’s and out’s but there was some confusion over what was said. Some said the funding lasted all year while the FA say it was only for the first three months. I think they thought before Christmas things would be eased and fans would be allowed in and generate enough money to get through that period.  Then, the second wave come and there wasn’t the money in the pot and I still think this is going to rumble on as some clubs are getting some legal action going so I don’t think this chapter has quite finished yet.   It is weird as there are teams at the bottom who obviously delighted that the season is ending. There are teams at the top gutted that is ending and I get that.  There are some lucky clubs and if you look at it Covid has helped them out in that sense. Even in our level the teams at the bottom would have gone down last year and down there again this season. The managers are keeping their jobs as clubs are not getting relegated. It is hard as there are winners and losers in every situation unfortunately. I’m surprised they are carrying on at Step 1 to be honest.

I go back to last season and how it ended and the decision to null and void the 2019-20 season from Step 3 quite prematurely and promptly. I think more and more that this looks like a major mistake and not yet heard a coherent argument for doing that rather than the PPG route which the National League eventually went with.

I think that decision looks worse and worse the more you look it. Look at it now, they haven’t null and voided our 2020-21 season because they are still waiting to see if there is any possibility we can finish the season. Now we are soon coming into March and the reason they don’t particularly want to null and void or why it has gone on for so long they have got to come to the realisation that they would have two seasons under their watch that the league has not been completed. No promotions or relegations and that is not a good look.

I think there will be some fallout from National League down to our level because the problem is the whole situation has thrown up problems and people have no idea how to manage their way through them. I hope that a sea change takes place, some people move on and fresh blood is brought in as the current situation is ridiculous.  I was made aware that the funding was being cut a couple of weeks before it happened and that same source informed me that the Isthmian League were looking to finish the season extended to the end of June. So I tweeted out that would be hard physically for the players but the Vice-Chairman of the league tweeted me saying the league were not looking to extend the league beyond 31st May, unless no fans are allowed they won’t be playing, unless the secondary spend is in they are not playing, so there is no realistic chance I would say of the league continuing. 

The Trident Leagues (Isthmian, Northern and Southern Leagues) are meeting tonight (23/2/21). My source said the Chairman of the league wanted the season to go on, the Vice-Chairman has quashed that, no discussion had been made and you have to take his word for that. They will have the meeting and most likely null and void the season. So it looks like that’s that and we go again in August for the 2021-22 season.    

I always thought when getting involved with non-league football it was the epitome of organisation, unruffled, and clean of some of the mess in say the FA and higher profile leagues. 

I remember I did a podcast with Joe Ford a couple of months ago.  As a player I hated non-league football, I didn’t enjoy it at all. Coming from a professional environment into non-league seeing how un-organised it was and how unprofessional it was in terms of warm-ups, training sessions, prep-games, physiotherapy was different, training sessions were fun but no shape or game plan. I never knew about who I was playing against, formation. I struggled and never took it seriously. So I fell out of love with the game and that was why I never really played much. Thankfully, football at this level since then has come on so much. The standard of organisation, training sessions, standard of management and coaching, physiotherapy, warm downs etc. What it has shown me is that above that at league level they are still just a bunch of volunteers who meet up for a social and dip biscuits. I mean that with the greatest respect and I’m sure they are lovely people and hope they enjoy their catch up but you are dealing with serious football clubs now.  Steps 1 & 2 are full of serious and ambitious football clubs and there are at Step 3 & 4 too. I’ve sat in on one of the League Committee meetings last December and it scared the life out of me. So I felt exactly the same as I did as a player how I felt deflated how things were and now I feel it again.  I’m sure Vinesy could tell you, it’s been worse this season as they have just written off two years and no qualms about it. You’ve played 80% of the 2019-20 season and been null and voided, then two months later they send a survey out to clubs saying we want to propose points per game next season if it gets cancelled and what percentage of games would need to be played before PPG is accepted. Two months ago you were dead against it and didn’t do it. This is the level you are dealing with, so reactive.  I just find it all so frustrating and the main thing that may stop me doing what I do as my tolerance level and the frustration makes me want to bang my head against a brick wall if I’m honest.

Let’s go back to our last game which seems an eternity ago now at St Albans City on 15th December. I have to say on a personal level I hated everything about that night. Not necessarily the result or game as I thought we played well. It was just the occasion was sanitised, I was stuck in one seat, couldn’t move about and crucially none of our fans were permitted to go which I never want to have to tell them they can’t go again and went home disenchanted with the occasion. As a performance though I thought we acquitted ourselves well.

The main thing about the St. Albans game was that where we hadn’t played or trained and we had a few injuries. Jay Leader, Ben Mundele, Barney Williams, we started alright but we were so tired and too slow. They were screaming at the referee every five minutes and he sent Lee Lewis off which was a stupid decision. I said to the players after that the main positives were the performance of Lewis Carey who was outstanding and our attitude was very good and never gave up.

As a yardstick to judge ourselves against National South teams this wasn’t really a fair barometer was it really due to the lack of games we had had, preparation time etc.

I think we would beat them if we were playing week in week out like they were, two games a week and were battle hardened. If we were match fit I would fancy us against them.  I saw the stats for the first 25 minutes we had 70% of the ball. We had 7 shots to their 1 in the first 30 minutes but then we just blew up and towards the end of the first half they started to come on to us and create but they couldn’t get the ball off us up to that point.  I watched their game with Tonbridge Angels on the Saturday and they dominated the whole ball. That told me if we went there match fit we would have gone on to win. 

Since the last lockdown I have watched lots and lots of games, paying to stream matches or if lucky enough to get a scout pass pop along to watch.  It is a funny league, the National South. It is like a league within a league. The top boys are very, very good and then there are 15-16th downwards a league of their own. Decent, workmanlike sides but we could go on and hold our own against them. I think we would need to add a few players if we had realistic ambitions to get into the playoffs or higher but definitely think we can compete with the level of players we have got. It is a shame they may not get the chance to do it next season and I know there is talk about possible restructuring and us going up but I’m not sure and something of a longshot. 

I can’t honestly speak for other clubs but looking at the playing side I don’t believe there are many at our level of football that are doing what we do in terms of preparation, attention to detail, training, video sessions, analysis, patterns of play, our scouting network not just of clubs but players so the infrastructure we have, coaches, players etc I don’t believe there are many teams that are doing that.  How I know that is that we have had players go out on loan to teams above us and saying our set up is better than theirs. We have signed players from higher clubs who have said they have seen nothing like this.  This is why I’m not too hell bent on being results driven. It is more about a level of performance and expectation of performance which will naturally breed promotions as you will continuously win football matches. It is a natural progression and not a win at all costs approach. I have a way of playing, a way of training, a way of preparing and to leave no stone unturned. This will get you promotions and I have been fortunate enough to get a few promotions by doing it this way so it does work. I have never managed at Step 2, so I’m not going to sit here and make a prediction about what I would do as you have to respect that level of football. From what I’ve seen I think we would be nice and competitive and that is as far as I would commit at this point.