THE FA VASE final in May will be between Chertsey Town and Cray Valley Paper Mills. There’s not a Northern League team in sight! Chertsey have flown a lot higher in the past, but Cray Valley PM are not a club that many non-league fans will have come across.
The name, for a start, harks back to the days of works teams and indeed, the club’s colours are a reminder of the livery of the paper mills that gave the club its name. Founded in 1919 – so a good time to run out at Wembley, exactly 100 years after their formation – the club is located at Greenwich Borough’s ground in Eltham and plays in the Southern Counties East Premier Division.
As usual with the FA Vase, Cray Valley PM and Chertsey Town are both chasing their respective league titles, the former are just behind the leaders in the Southern Counties East and Chertsey are top by a point in the Combined Counties although they have six games in hand over second-placed Sutton Common Rovers.
Cray Valley PM have had a long Vase campaign, beginning in the first qualifying round when they beat Sutton Athletic 2-1. After that, they disposed of Hailsham Town (2-0), St Panteleimon (3-1), Badshot Lea (7-0), league stable-mates Sheppey United (4-0) and Baffins Milton Rovers (3-1) to reach the last 16 of the competition.
Cray Valley PM faced Combined Counties League side Abbey Rangers at home, with 217 people turning up to see a Vase campaign that was now gathering momentum.
The quarter-final presented a tough task, a visit to Western League title-chasing Willand Rovers, a team that was unbeaten in 24 games, winning 22 of them in the process. But the Millers did it again and won 3-1 to set-up an all-Southern Counties East semi-final against Canterbury City.
A goal from Ryan Flack gave Cray Valley PM a 1-0 win in the first leg, a game that left the tie in the balance. Manager Kevin Watson felt that Canterbury deserved a draw and was concerned that his team had not done enough to win through. “We weren’t very good…we need to improve or we’ll be out of the competition,” he said.
The second leg saw Gavin Tomlin gave the Millers a 1-0 lead in the 72ndminute and it was not until the final seconds that Canterbury equalised. The two games had been very tight and the home side had been unlucky over both legs, but Cray Valley PM were at Wembley.
Watson commented: “It’s a once in a lifetime moment and people have got to embrace it. It is incredible that these players are going to get to play at Wembley. Of course we can win it!.”
Watson, a former Charlton youth player, has an old team-mate in his squad in the much-travelled Kevin Lisbie. The Jamaican international (10 caps), may be 40, but his experience has been invaluable to the club. He’s averaged almost a goal a game since joining Cray Valley PM.
Lisbie was about to retire when Kevin Watson persuaded him to join the cause in 2017-18. Lisbie told the local media: “I’ve played for a long time and I have enjoyed every minute. When the enjoyment stops, I will stop. At the moment, I’m absolutely loving it and if it continues, I’ll have a go next year as well. It will depend on what happens at the end of the season – if we’ve won the league or a cup.”
Cray Valley have five league games to go, including a top-of-the-table clash at Chatham Town on April 20. They’ve got home games with Glebe and bottom club Croydon and another two away at Punjab United and Canterbury.
It has been an exceptional season for the Millers and their success is all the more notable as they are one of the league’s poorest supported clubs – they average just 63 for their home games. The only club with a lower average crowd are league leaders Corinthian!
At Wembley on May 19, it’s a fair bet that they’ll have a few more urging them on against Chertsey at the national stadium. And hopefully, by the final whistle, people will have a far better idea about Cray Valley Paper Mills.