Last week, ANDREW SINCLAIR recalled Croydon FC’s best FA Cup run 40 years ago. This week, he examines the reasons that the club did not manage to build on that precious success
For many non-league football clubs, the experience, success and cash boost generated by giant-killing exploits in the FA Cup can help them forge a more secure future – even set a pathway towards the Football League itself: think of the Yeovils, Wycombes and, especially, the original Wimbledon.
Croydon FC have made it to the FA Cup first round only once in their history, and have never managed to repeat the success they enjoyed in that 1979-1980 season.
The club was in the Isthmian League Premier Division back then, a couple of divisions below the promised land of full-time football in the Football League. But by the end of last season, Croydon were relegated to the 10th tier of English football, after a miserable season on the pitch – and off it, for various reasons, not any fault of their own – they finished last in the SCEFL Premier Division.
So, why was the club unable to kick on from that famous day at Selhurst Park 40 years ago, when they took on, and might have beaten, Millwall?
The money involved in the FA Cup then was very different to the relative riches on offer to non-league part-timers now. The money that clubs benefit from today comes from sponsors and television – with significant pots of cash if a side gets chosen for a televised tie by BT Sport or the BBC, as Sutton United discovered a couple of seasons ago when the cameras were rolled out at Gander Green Lane.
If Croydon were to make it through all of the qualifying rounds and into the first round, they would earn just shy of £50,000 from prize money alone.
But that kind of money was not there during Croydon’s run to the second round. Then, the main way for clubs to profit from the competition was through gate money at home matches, and Croydon manager Ted Shepherd’s side were drawn away more often than not in their run.
They were able to generate a fair amount from their victories, particularly from the Millwall game, when the drawn “home” game at Selhurst attracted nearly 10,000 spectators.
Most of it was invested into the clubhouse at Croydon Arena, which was booming at the time.
But the clubhouse burned down soon after being renovated, and despite the efforts of Shepherd and his team in the clear-up and rebuilding processes, the club still lost a key source of income for an extended period of time, and ultimately the revenue from their cup run.
There were also other, more long-term factors that played a part in Croydon not being able to kick on in the four subsequent decades. One is the ownership of Croydon’s home ground.
As Croydon were founded after the Second World War, it was difficult for them to get a ground of their own in the borough. Croydon Arena has always been owned by the local authority, something which has inevitably put constraints on what the football club can do with it.
In the late 1980s, the decision was taken by the council to redevelop the arena, replacing the original cinder track with a larger, all-weather running track. This led to several of Croydon’s home fixtures being played away from the ground, causing some loss in revenue but also, more importantly, seeing some fans drift away.
The new track removed the pitch further away from the stand, impacting the atmosphere on match days.
It was also around this time that the running of the club moved away from Jack Milsted and the previous management committee, a transition that ended up being particularly problematic. Milsted and those around him had run a fairly tight ship, as the club remained competitive in the Isthmian League but they failed to prepare an adequate succession plan as they got older.
The club experienced a dramatic decline in the early-to-mid-1990s.
Croydon’s annus horribilis came in the 1993-1994 season when they came close to bankruptcy and finished the season with three wins, three draws and 36 defeats from their 42 league games, scoring 37 goals and conceding 198.
The club were able to rebuild under Ken Jarvie towards the end of the decade, and while there have been good moments in the 21st century, Croydon have ultimately seen themselves slide down the football pyramid.
This season Croydon exited the FA Cup in the extra preliminary round following a 2-1 defeat against Horsham. They made £750 – a significant income for a club that exists on gate money from crowds of less than 100.
Although that cup defeat was disappointing, Liam Giles, Croydon’s current manager, is very aware of what a good cup run in the future might mean for the club and their players. “Every non-league club hopes for a good FA Cup run,” he said. “Obviously the financial side of things really can make a huge difference to a club at this level, but it’s great also for the exposure and excitement that getting a Step 1 or 2 side or even potentially a league club can bring.”
That kind of excitement has been plain to see for Croydon in recent weeks, as their under-18s attracted attention for their run to the third round of the FA Youth Cup, where they ultimately lost 8-1 at Wigan Athletic this week.
While Giles knows that the senior side achieving something like that would represent a considerably greater achievement, he is still aiming high. “It’s very hard for a Step 5 or 6 team to do, but if we could reach the first round, the money for our club would be huge.”
Croydon’s clubhouse has been blighted again in the past year, this time by crime, with two break-ins, which have drained the club’s funds. A cup run to the first round “would secure the funds to play at the Arena long-term”, Giles said.
While matching the exploits of 1979 seems perhaps a little fanciful, the prize money and the pride would go a long way to helping a club that has had its fair share of ups and downs finally kick on and look to move up the football pyramid once again.
“For the players, a cup run offers the carrot of beating teams from divisions above and being able to mix it with players from higher leagues. Hopefully, we can win a few games in next year’s competition – after all, it’s the best knock-out competition in the world!”
• Special thanks go to Stephen Tyler, whose knowledge, information and records contributed significantly to this article. Anyone with old Croydon football programmes, photographs or local league handbooks is asked to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to try and close gaps in local football records
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