Our chief football correspondent, BRIAN GRANVILLE, reports on the busy pre-season for Croydon’s non-league clubs
It is just a few weeks since Crystal Palace played in front of 90,000 fans in the Wembley final, but Croydon’s non-league sides are already gearing up for their participation in the 2016-2017 FA Cup, with the extra preliminary qualifying round kicking off the season controversially early on August 6.
It means an extra early programme of pre-season friendlies for Croydon FC, “The Trams”, and AFC Croydon Athletics, “The Rams”, with Croydon having won a game at Orpington 3-0 on Sunday and tonight travelling to Redhill (with a slightly earlier than originally planned kick-off at 7.15pm).
The local teams are among 736 entrants who are up for the cup. The first round proper is a far-distant prospect, on the first Saturday in November. Beyond that, you never know, if Croydon or Athletic win eight rounds, then a tie against last year’s finalists Palace in early January is the remote possibility.
But first things first, and they have come uncomfortably early for our non-league sides.
The FA has brought forward the first stages of the world’s oldest cup competition by a fortnight from its usual third Saturday of August slot. Many non-league teams of part-timers may still have their better players on the beach, and will be less than match fit for what for many will be their first competitive match of the 2016-2017 season.
The prize money in the FA Cup is vital for the unfashionable clubs at Step 5 and 6 in the lower leagues, so an early date has drawn some criticism from lower divisions like the Surrey- and Hampshire-based Combined Counties League, which called the August 6 date “highly disappointing”.
Last year Croydon FC got £7,425 from their three consecutive FA Cup wins over Sutton Common Rovers, Tunbridge Wells and Molesey before going down 3-1 away at what was then Dean Holdsworth’s Brentwood Town.
That prize money that is a vital financial lifeline for a club mainly run by just one man, Dickson Gill, along with his relatives and a very few stalwarts. The club’s cup form was also a welcome distraction from their results in the league, where they finished just one place above the sole relegation slot.
To try to ensure that they are ready to replicate the cup financial windfall this year, Croydon, who are regarded as a “Step 5” club in the English footballing pyramid, have arranged a comprehensive programme of pre-season matches – all of which have to be played away from their home ground of Croydon Arena.
The football club does not have access to the Arena during the athletics season, when Croydon Harriers are training there and the track is staging largely low-key club meetings. Goodness knows how other mult-sport venues, such as Stade de France, London’s Olympic Stadium or Wembley manage it.
There is also a long history of friction between the club and the Arena’s owners, Croydon Council, which has been reluctant to find a way to stage pre-season friendlies at the Arena.
There is still under some degree of construction disruption with the yet to be finished Oasis Arena Academy next door, but there is an impressive new entrance to the stadium. The entrance is somewhat grander than the sports facilities it leads into.
It is also in the wrong colours for the sports clubs who call the Arena their home, being festooned in the lurid rhodamine red (it’s a purple really) associated with the giant school next door, rather than the light and dark blue shades of Croydon FC and Croydon Harriers. And someone has decided to add an extra, redundant word into the venue’s title – “Croydon Sports Arena”. Is there any other sort?
After travelling to Redhill tonight – a fixture which might just ensure some coverage by the non-local local paper, the Redhill Sadvertiser – Croydon FC play at Step 6 side Farleigh Rovers next Tuesday July 19 (7.30 pm kick off), then Step 5 Colliers Wood United on Thursday July 21 (7.45 pm), Oakwood on Saturday July 23 (3pm) and Raynes Park Vale on Tuesday July 26 (7.45 pm).
It is all aimed at being ready for a home cup tie at the Arena against AFC Uckfield Town on August 6. Uckfield play at the same level as Croydon FC but in a different league. Like Croydon, Uckfield were poor performers in their league, the Southern Combination Premier League, last season. The winner goes on to play away at higher league VCD Athletic on August 20.
AFC Croydon Athletic will hope to improve on their extra preliminary qualifying round exit away at Horsham YMCA last year. The cup draw sees them travel to Colliers Wood United, of the Combined Counties. A win would lead to another away trip to Deal Town or Banstead Athletic in the preliminary qualifying round.
AFC Croydon Athletic, now under new manager Kevin Rayner, are able to enjoy pre-season matches at home. These started with Mayfield Road welcoming South Park, who beat them 2-0.
Athletic travel to Worthing United on Saturday for what promises to be a demanding game against a Step 4 club, before playing Balham at Mayfield Road on July 19 (7pm kick-off). There are three other home friendlies: Epsom and Ewell on Saturday July 23, Orpington on Tuesday July 27 (7pm) and Farleigh Rovers on Saturday July 30.
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