Local derby marks football’s return to Croydon Arena

The romance of football is very much on show in the lower levels of the English game that Croydon FC and AFC Croydon Athletic compete in.

Time for the new season to get underway at Croydon Arena

Rising from the ashes left by the involvement of the club’s owner, Mazhar Majeed, in the notorious Test cricket match-fixing scandal, it has been an heroic task just getting the new AFC up and running again.

Now they have reached the point of being ready for a new league season with a much anticipated local derby pre-season friendly between the Croydon clubs at the Arena tomorrow evening. And unlike the Olympics, there will be no problem in getting a ticket for this sports event.

AFC Croydon Athletic has come together following a proposal among its 70 loyal and active supporters for a new community-based club as recently as February, something the club chairman, Paul Smith, understates as “an achievement”.

There have been many obstacles in the way. Shut out of their old ground in Thornton Heath, AFC is now ground-sharing with Croydon FC, which was called Croydon Amateurs when it was established in 1953.

Even the ground-sharing almost did not happen.

Sara Bashford, the councillor in charge of sporting provision in the borough, attended a key meeting at the Arena, the council-owned ground which also serves as the home track for Croydon Harriers.

Within just 10 minutes of being shown around the ground, Bashford walked off, apparently taking offence at various concerns raised about the operation of the site. “I only came here to have a tour,” said the councillor, shrugging off any responsibility.

Fortunately, council staff, evidently embarrassed by their councillor’s behaviour, continued the discussions and ground-sharing was agreed.

Dickson Gill, Croydon FC’s chairman, says that “as a good neighbour”, he has been keen to help AFC in any way he can.

Croydon FC chairman Dickson Gill: happy to help neighbouring club

Athletic’s choice of “AFC” copies that of successful community club AFC Wimbledon, whose local supporters opted to start their own club after the Football Association conspired with the club’s foreign owners to take the “franchise” from its historic home in Merton and transplant it to Milton Keynes. After barely a decade, AFC Wimbledon has climbed all the way back to the Football League.

Smith says that having started from scratch, AFC Croydon Athletic has been developing well through its often difficult pre-season period, where until August 1, the club was unable to have any home games. “The pre-season has been pretty good and we’re pulling together a team that’s going to be competitive,” Smith said.

The light-blue Croydon FC “Trams” will play the maroon AFC “Rams” with a 7.30pm kick off and entry for spectators at just £3.

AFC then has a first League match at home against Westfield. The club has had to go outside the borough for sponsorship for the match, securing money from a newspaper based in Redhill.

Croydon FC’s first League game is a challenging trip to Guernsey, whose club president is Matthew Le Tissier. Gill, a former club manager, recognises the challenge ahead, “Everything’s going in their favour. They’ve got a huge budget and squad and draw players from all over the island on a rotation basis. They get a good crowd of 2,000 at a game.

“John Fowler, our manager, is gathering up quite a decent side. We’ll be positive.

“When you think you are cracking, it blows up in your face, so Croydon will give them what for.”

Gill hopes for a run in the FA Cup and FA Vase to bring in the cash his club needs. Croydon FC is away at Corinthian in Kent on August 11 on the first step on the very long road to Wembley.

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