Club of the Month: Cray Valley Paper Mills

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.

An altogether civilised experience

YOU couldn’t really get two contrasting Wembley days: the FA Cup final, full of rabid supporters, followed by the low-key, low-octane event that is Non-League Finals Day.

The latter has more in keeping with cricket or rugby in terms of the audience, but after experiencing 88,000 people struggling in and out of Wembley, the relative calm of the non-league showpiece was very welcoming.

For the fans of clubs like Stockton and Thatcham, who kicked-off the day, playing at Wembley was almost surreal. Thatcham won the Hellenic League on goal difference after ending up level on points with Bracknell – 129-25 versus 129-27. They normally attracted 133 fans to their league games and even if everyone from the Berkshire town turned up at the final, it would amount to just 26,000 people. Their opponents, Stockton, finished sixth in the Northern League but beat eventual champions Marske in the semi-final. Their average gate in 2017-18 was 222.

Gareth (Gaz) Dean of Brackley Town celebrates scoring his sides first goal during The Buildbase FA Trophy Final match between Brackley Town and Bromley at Wembley, London, England on 20 May 2018. Photo: PA

The Northern League has dominated the FA Vase for the past decade, so many assumed Stockton would lift the trophy in 2017-18. However, they were up against a strong, fast and robust Thatcham team. Stockton could have opened the scoring early on, but the decisive goal came from the penalty spot after 23 minutes. The scorer was Thatcham’s Shane Cooper-Clark, who had scored an extraordinary 60 goals before the Vase final. He didn’t take his kick too well, though, and Stockton keeper Michael Arthur almost saved the effort.

Thatcham hit the woodwork in the second half, but Stockton rarely looked like they were going to save the day. The Hellenic League side deserved their victory, leaving Stockton’s fans with a very long journey home to reflect on what might have been.

As for the crowd, they had a couple of hours to kill before the next item on the agenda, the FA Trophy final between Brackley Town and Bromley. Wembley tried to make the wait bearable by putting on Real Ale bars and a spot of music, the Brass Funkeys, a London-based New Orleans-style band, certainly made the afternoon more pleasant.

By this time, Brackley and Bromley fans had started to arrive – interestingly, the non-league finals day has yet to capture the attention of the neutral, although there were fans from other clubs present. Three years into the arrangement, the event has not yet attained the status of FA Amateur Cup finals when the non-league community would back the occasion.

The crowd for the 2017-18 day was 31,403 – the lowest since the two finals were held on the same day. In 2015-16 it was 46,781 and 2016-17 38,224. Has the concept peaked already, one might ask? Not at all, the appeal of the finals depends on the potential audience that each club can bring to the stadium. In 2016, the combined average gates for the four finalists was 8,997 – the final gate was 46,781 which represented just over five times the combined averages. In 2016-17, the multiple was seven and this season, it was 14. The finalists’ combined average this season was 2,219 – considerably lower than past non-league finals days. So, Wembley need not worry.

The FA Trophy final was, understandably, a better quality game in terms of technique, but the first period was dull, with Bromley taking the lead through Omar Bugiel. Brackley, who looked half a yard slower, woke up dramatically in the second half. They pressured Bromley throughout and wasted a number of good chances. The neutral, at this stage, was cheering on Brackley and in added time, they scored a mess of a goal, the ball hitting the post and being turned home by a combination of a defender and Brackley’s Gareth Dean. And so, extra time featuring two tired teams and a penalty shoot-out that eventually swung Brackley’s way. Frankly, they earned it.

At just £ 25, Non-League Finals Day is one of those rare moments in football where you feel you’ve had value for money. A great afternoon out for the non-league fan and, generally, a good spirit (although the Brackley fan who berated two young girls, who then walked out very upset needs a good talking to). It’s time that more people discovered it, Wembley only has real atmosphere when it’s almost full.


The lure of North v South in the Vase

Happy fans from Marske

THE FA Vase has been dominated by Northern League clubs for the past few years. And there’s a good reason for this – regardless of whether these teams are just simply of a higher quality than the rest of the Vase’s entrants, there’s a feeling at this level of the game that the Northern League belongs to a higher step.

It’s a situation that the FA and the Northern League have created. The league refused to be part of the pyramid for a long time, unable to accept a role as a feeder league to the Conference. They joined the pyramid in 1991 by which time, they had lost their place at the table. Most people consider this was something of a misjudgement on the part of the league. Then, in 1995, the FA effectively “relegated” the Northern League by sending its clubs into the Vase rather than the Trophy.

The league, which has always had a bit of mystique about it, has some fine old names from the non-league game – Bishop Auckland, Crook Town et al – and there can be no doubting the passion of fans from the far north. Given the relatively low attendances, the clubs from this region certainly punch above their weighting.

In this year’s Vase, the Northern League is once more well represented in the latter stages, with both Marske United and Stockton Town making the last four. Invariably, fans from the rest of the country have to scour a map when they’re drawn against a club from the North-East and there will have been many Bracknell Town supporters who headed for Google Maps when they heard the draw for the quarter-finals: Bracknell Town v Marske United.

For the romantic, the opportunity to see an old fashioned South v North clash was too much to overlook – a team from the London commuter belt against a weather-beaten village some 280 miles away. This is what cup – or should we say, Vase – football should be all about: the unknown.

Bracknell became a “new town” after the second world war and now has around 80,000 people. While Bracknell has been called part of the UK’s  so-called “silicon valley”, Marske-by-the-Sea has six pubs, four churches, two railway stations and a population of around 8,000.

Invariably, when a team embarks on a FA Vase run, which can be rather lengthy, it comes at the expense of a bid for their league title. More often than not, teams in the latter stages are way behind on games, although they will nearly always be among the front-runners. Take Bracknell and Marske – Bracknell went into this tie six games in hand on leaders Highworth Town. They may have been 20 points behind, but their form in the Hellenic Premier (unbeaten at home, just four defeats away) suggests they will, should they come through their fixture pile-up without too many injuries and suspensions, have a say in the championship race.

Marske were 11 games in hand on Northern League leaders Morpeth and 24 points behind. Their big disadvantage will be the number of away fixtures they have to fulfil in the closing weeks of the season. It’s not easy being a team on a mission for FA Vase glory.

Bracknell is an hour out of London from Waterloo, but the Marske fans left home very early on Saturday morning. By the time they arrived in town, they were in alcohol-induced high spirits. “Bracknell’s a shit hole, I want to go home…soft southern bastards,” they sang as they perched along the touchline with their flags and drum. By contrast, the Bracknell crowd displayed typical southern reserve, although one or two were showing signs of resentment at the comments being made by Marske’s travelling support. It was all good natured stuff, though.

“Best football’s in the North-East, mate,” said one Marske fan to a group of locals, brandishing a can of lager as he squeezed past. “Oh, yeah, pal…Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough….best football’s in the North-East, we see that every week!.”

By the time kick-off came, there were 1,100 people in the Larges Lane ground with scarcely a vantage point to be had, notably behind the goals, which provided very narrow access. The Bracknell pitch was yet another artificial surface, which merely underlined the growing value of these investments.

Bracknell are the best supported team in the Hellenic Premier with just under 250 people watching them week-in, week-out. But it is a club that has seen better days in terms of status, although the neat, functional ground suggests they are well organised and have a plan. Like many non-league clubs, they have experienced their ups-and-downs, but in the mid-1980s they were playing in Isthmian Division One. Marske, who attract fewer than 200 to their Mount Pleasant home, have won the Northern League just once, in 2015.

Marske looked a more robust outfit than their hosts and early on, Bracknell keeper Chris Grace had to tip over a long-range effort by Glen Butterworth. Marske’s defence looked very solid, with impressive performances from Leon Carling and Adam Wheatley. “They look like proper men at the back,” said one Bracknell fan, watching another attack from his team break down thanks to the head of Wheatley.

Bracknell had a setback in the 10th minute when Jesse Wilson was injured and was replaced by Kensley Maloney (who had “a tireless work ethic” according to the programme), who made a difference from the moment he took the field. They might have taken the lead when TJ Bohane’s shot rolled across the goalmouth after he had carved out an opening. Bracknell also hit the woodwork when full back Dave Hancock’s cross sailed beyond his team-mates and scraped the crossbar. But on the stroke of half-time, Butterworth gave Marske the lead with a low drive.

Bracknell’s managerial duo of Jeff Lamb and Paul McGrotty probably told their team not to concede early on in the second half, but that’s exactly what Bracknell did, a quickly taken free kick finding Curtis Round who produced a nice finish. The Marske players joined their fans in celebration, who now started to realise they were a step closer to Wembley.

The home team was finished and in the final minutes, tired legs started to show as Marske added a third through the busy Danny Earl. Three-nil was a shade flattering, but Bracknell had either frozen or had simply come up against a more accomplished team. It was more the latter.

Marske move on to a two-legged semi-final against their local rivals, Stockton, which means the prospect of an all-Northern League final has gone. Bracknell, meanwhile, have sacked their managers, which shows what a cruel game football can be.