BRIAN GRANVILLE, the doyen of non-league football writers, looks forward to a crunch clash at Mayfield Road, when both sets of fans will be chanting “Croydon”
There’s more than a hint that someone in what passes for a “boardroom” or the boot room at Croydon Arena drew a big sigh of relief on Saturday evening when the decision was taken to postpone Croydon FC’s Bank Holiday league fixture, due to be staged at the Mayfield Stadium against local non-league rivals AFC Croydon Athletic.It’s not exactly El Derbi madrileño or the Old Firm, it’s possibly not even as fiercely contested as Palace v Charlton. But the Croydon non-league derby was sure to be significant for the rest of the season for both clubs.
Pointless so far after four games in the league, Croydon have the compensation of still being in the FA Cup after overwhelming a fitness-short Sutton Common Rovers 5-1 and then coming from behind yesterday through an Ashley Henry-Brown 68th minute goal away at bigger club Tunbridge Wells in a 1-1 draw, to force a replay at the Arena on Wednesday evening.
But three games in five days is just too much to expect a squad of part-timers, and the world’s oldest cup competition has taken precedence – Croydon still face four matches in 11 days – so tomorrow’s derby game has been postponed until later in the season. Let’s hope they manage to re-arrange it for a date when they can maximise the number of fans who come through the turnstiles.
When they get the chance to play the derby, the game will mark another milestone on the phoenix-like recovery of AFC Croydon Athletic, from a tragic loss of football at the Thornton Heath ground in 2011, when they were known more simply as Croydon Athletic.
Under the guidance of chairman Paul Smith, a former leading Labour councillor, the club has secured a lease for the ground with Croydon Council, survived an arson attack, and have taken three seasons to escape the obscurity of division one of the Combined Counties League.
Promotion at the end of 2014-2015 now finds Athletic in the same division as the longer standing Croydon FC. Both Croydon clubs are required by the FA to compete in the Southern Counties East Football League to make up the numbers in a division which up until 2013 was, accurately, called the Kent League.
Croydon Arena-based Croydon FC played host to Athletic in a ground-sharing arrangement while the reformed club lacked a ground to play at. Despite the apparent stability of Croydon, its recent history is also one of heroic struggle against adversity. Former club chairman Dickson Gill helped the club recover from a previous management’s overspending and has overcome his own bout of ill-health last season.
Gill also had to reject a suggestion by the previous Conservative-run council and Chief Executive Jon Rouse to merge the clubs when AFC were not yet fully re-established and when the council had secret plans to redevelop the Croydon Arena for a school.
Croydon Arena now only has parts of the site being used for building the Arena Oasis academy being shoe-horned on to the Arena car park, nearby Metropolitan Open Land and the old Ryelands primary school site.Some Croydon fans have complained about the council failing to give directions to enter the ground through the building works at the start of the season.
Croydon Arena is a council-owned property like Mayfield Road, but lacks the intimacy of Athletic’s ground. The running track and its exposed outlook to the east can make the Arena a pretty soulless place on a windy winter’s evening, with just 50 spectators in the ground for a midweek match.
And while they might not admit it openly, Croydon fans worry that Athletic may overtake them as the senior local non-league team. After a poor start to their league campaign, that concern is well-placed.
By contrast, Athletic benefited from their unexpected elimination during the previous round of the FA Cup at Horsham YMCA: with no game yesterday, they also had last week’s midweek league match postponed by the bad weather.
Athletic even have some silverware, having won the London Senior Trophy last season. Their promotion means that they cannot defend that trophy, and this year have been included in the draw for the London Senior Cup for the first time in three years, since their well-documented travails really came to light.
The Rams have been given an attractive away draw at the historic Corinthian-Casuals, with the tempting prospect for the winners of a home tie against Dulwich Hamlet or Erith and Belvedere.
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