Our venerable football correspondent, BRIAN GRANVILLE, reports on the latest set-back suffered by the borough’s oldest non-league club
Despite having had five managers in less than 12 months, Croydon FC have still only managed to collect eight league points all season, and on Saturday, after their latest defeat, a 4-3 thriller at Rusthall, with the hosts snatching a cruel 80th minute winner, their relegation to the Southern Counties East Football League Div 1 was confirmed.
That is Level 10 in the football pyramid, arguably the lowest ranking the team has ever endured since it was formed in 1953.
It will see The Trams playing clubs that typically get fewer spectators than some parks teams. Facing bills amounting to around £12,000 from Croydon Council for the hire of Croydon Arena for their matches next season, the football club’s volunteers, coaching staff and management face some tough decisions over Croydon FC’s future in the coming weeks.
“Gutted is an understatement,” Croydon’s latest manager, Liam Giles, tweeted on Saturday evening. “It was always going to be a tough ask staying up. The lads who came in today were unlucky and fine margins and inexperience cost us.”
Giles later responded to well-wishers with a hint of some of the problems that the club may face: “We will try our hardest to get back to where they should be, but as they say Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Croydon looked doomed to the drop from the moment that Harry Hudson, their successful manager last season, opted to join Whyteleafe last May, taking nine of Croydon’s better and more experienced players with him.
Hudson is part of the Kinetic Foundation sporting charity which offers youngsters places on their commercial training programmes, potentially with the chance to play for Croydon’s senior side. But this season that model has proved to be a disaster for the club, as more experienced players were only brought in to the side far too late, only after the appointment of Giles and his coaching team last month.
Older and wiser former players were, in any case, reluctant to join younger players who they felt had a discipline problem.
And meanwhile, with Hudson still operating from the Kinetic office at Croydon Arena, he’s been able to have the pick of the best from the charity’s academy to play at Church Road in leafy Surrey.
The relegation now leaves Croydon Athletic (who lost 2-0 at home to Erith United on Saturday) as the borough’s highest-placed non-league club.
It also highlights how poor a record Croydon, as a borough, has in the non-league game. Over at Gander Green Lane, Sutton United of the National League – the fifth tier of English football – play Leyton Orient this Saturday fighting to secure a play-off place in for a chance of promotion to the Football League for a second season in a row. Carshalton Athletic, too, are prospering in the Isthmian Premier League, having won promotion last season.
They are competing for a play-off place for promotion to the National League South (Level 6 of the pyramid), where Dulwich Hamlet have been playing this season, restored to their Champion Hill ground in Southwark, and regularly getting crowds of more than 3,000 fans through the turnstiles – the sort of turn-out of which the regulars at Croydon Arena can but dream.
Other neighbouring boroughs also have thriving non-league teams: Bromley are securely mid-table in the National League (Level 5).
Until 2017, Croydon FC’s chairman and manager was Dickson Gill. To some extent, the club’s sudden decline can be traced back to his abrupt departure two years ago. Gill and his family kept the team competitive based on Gill’s long-term football skills and his own modest financial pockets.
Gill might be available for a return having left Egham Town, where he was called in as their fourth manager of the season to try to rescue them from relegation. A very short statement was released by Egham, saying tartly: “For the best interests of the club, Dickson and ourselves have gone separate ways.”
But the fundamental equation which Croydon needs to resolve is the difference between its regular attendance income, of perhaps less than £400, and those £600 Arena hire fees normally payable to the council. It is the sort of arithmetic which even Mr Micawber would be able to work out.
A merger with Croydon Athletic to concentrate the borough’s non-league challenge in one club, based at the more sustainable and more football-friendly Mayfield Road ground – where spectators are closer to the action and not separated from the football by the Arena’s eight-lane athletics track – has been considered as an option in some quarters.
The double break-in, thefts and vandalism last month at Croydon’s rebuilt clubhouse did little to help their plight, although the non-league football community were extremely generous in chipping in to the repair and replacement costs, and a band of volunteers, including Kinetic, provided the elbow grease to have the club up and ready for matchday action within 48 hours.
Sympathy, curiosity and local solidarity saw the attendance for that next match almost doubled from the usual 50. Even the skinflints at Croydon Council entered into the spirit of generosity, agreeing to halve the rental charges for the Arena for last few games of the season to £300 per match.
The club recently staged its annual meeting where some planning for the future was discussed, and among matters agreed was the appointment of South Norwood-based author Emma Hope-Fitch as the club’s “writer in residence”, and the adoption of some of the ideas of those wacky anarcho-marketing geniuses, the South Norwood Tourist Board, such as recruiting half a dozen local youngsters to be ball boys and girls at home games, complete with free chips and a drink after the match.
Better connections with the South Norwood community, and perhaps some of the hipster anti-Premier League fashionability upon which the likes of Dulwich Hamlet thrive, could offer a way forward.
As one Croydon fan said, “It doesn’t matter to the 48 regulars which division they’re in or whether they’re top or bottom – there will still be 48 regulars.”
With a samba band turning up for one game recently, and plans to make the changing rooms available at a modest fee for runners exercising in the nearby country park, the supporters seem more encouraged by the plans to make full use of the club’s facilities.
The merchandise manager has been given money to order more beanies and shirts and the bar manager has been given the go-ahead to buy a new fridge to replace the one which was trashed in the break-in. The bar now stocks locally brewed Cronx ale, and Cockneys of Croydon have agreed to provide pie and mash in the clubhouse on match days.
Ian Bone, from the South Norwood Tourist Board, said, “This does not have the air of a club about to go belly up.
“I was at the supporters meeting last Tuesday along with chair Mark Hudson and captain James Fotheringham, and there was a very positive feeling. They are relegated but by no means facing closure. The SNTB is going to work with the club to increase awareness of its existence locally and promote it as a family club.”
Croydon FC’s last home game of the season, against Gravesend-based Real Madras on April 27, promises to be more lively than a wake, according to Bone.
“It will be a relegation party with food, music and lots going on off-field,” he said.
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