More than four months since their last competitive game in a covid-19 curtailed 2019-2020 season, and with a starting date in sight for a “new normal” term, Croydon FC manager Liam Giles says, “I can’t wait for the season to get going again.”
The FA last week confirmed that the 2020-2021 non-league season can begin in September, with training sessions now allowed to include 30 people, and with friendlies to begin in August.
For Croydon’s non-league clubs, Croydon FC and Croydon Athletic, who both play in the Southern Counties East Football League, the season will begin on Tuesday, September 1 in the Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup. League matches start the following Saturday, September 5. No information has yet been given on whether clubs will be allowed any crowd for their opening fixtures, though given the usual size of the turn-out for their matches, social distancing should not be too difficult.
Giles has put the time-out to good use, working on improving his own physical fitness.
“I think for most people involved in football, football was their release. For me, football has always been my release from work and everyday life, so when lockdown began, what I decided to do was a lot of running and keeping myself fit.
“It started partly because I’d gained a fair bit of weight where I’d stopped playing and I thought, ‘I’m struggling to get into a lot of clothes in my wardrobe!’
“At first I thought I’m going to do it for myself to lose my weight, and then I got a bit addicted, I saw other people on social media, and I just wanted to keep going. I started doing 5ks, 10ks, I did a half-marathon and I was just trying to beat my own times all the time, keeping it competitive in my head,” Giles said.
Giles has no real desire to take on a player-manager’s role in the forthcoming season, but he does think that by being fitter it will allow him to deputise if needed. He also hopes that the potential fear of being outpaced by their manager in a five-kilometre run will have inspired his players to further improve their own standards.
Croydon’s season came to a halt after their game with Lewisham Borough on March 15, a 3-0 win that was their second on the spin without conceding. The Trams – who had been relegated the previous season – were eighth in the SCEFL First Division table, some way off their target of promotion, but Giles felt they were well-placed to kick on in their remaining league games.
“We were quite excited, we’d just come off back-to-back wins, hadn’t conceded a goal, and we were in really good spirits. The lads were buzzing and we really felt we were going to chase that fourth spot. Even though we were outsiders and written off, we actually believed we wouldn’t get beaten again for the remainder of the season.”
With fixtures unable to be completed, the season was officially voided, so everyone in the SCEFL will be starting from scratch when things get back up and running in September.
Giles looks back in frustration at what might have been. “I think we put massive expectations on ourselves following the relegation. We built the squad from scratch. We were very happy with it, but I think that our downfall was the time it took for them to gel.
“The one positive was that we were in the semi-finals of the Hospitals Cup. The senior side haven’t had any silverware in over 10 years, so I was really looking forward to that semi-final we had with Stansfeld and having that opportunity to bring silverware to the club and loyal supporters that are there every week, giving them something to smile about because there hasn’t been much to smile about at Croydon for a long time.
“In terms of league position, I’d have expected us to be a lot closer to the top four in terms of points. I’m very critical and harsh on myself – I looked at it and was expecting us to win the league.
“We came up against a lot of things that we weren’t expecting, in terms of playing styles and being new to that league, but we’re in a much better place. We went through three squads due to trying to find the right balance, which we had done at the end.
“I’ve retained everyone from last year other than Hanif Berry, who has decided to move on, and we’ve added in some places that we thought were vital. I think we’ve learned a lot from last year and it’s only going to make us better for this season.”
The key things Giles says he learned were understanding the challenges posed by the other teams in the division and having a happy team environment. “At the start of last year, we had a lot of big egos, players who’d played at a higher level and weren’t prepared to do the hard stuff. We had too many luxury players.
“When it was going well, we were putting the ball in the back of the net but we were too often leaving ourselves wide open at the back.
“In terms of style of play, and I’m not trying to undermine the division, there weren’t many footballing sides, take away Rusthall. Take Kennington, they’re all 6ft 5in tall, it’s like you’re playing against rugby players! No disrespect to them, they were top of the table, good for them, but we didn’t adapt to the Route 1 style very well. Set-pieces were a massive downfall for us, so we’ve looked at improving that.
“I’m a big believer in playing what I think is the right way, getting the ball down, playing out from the back and playing attacking football. We do need to appreciate that we’re playing sides that are hardworking, often a group of mates, who are very physical. I think that’s something big we learned about the division.
“Getting a happy team was important too. For example, our group chat, from the beginning of lockdown to now, has been incredible. The banter the lads have been having, we’ve been looking in on it, it’s been great. That’s something we didn’t have up until Christmas last year, it was quite dull and a lot of people were only there for themselves.
“Now we’ve got a real team unit, which is good, and that team spirit is something I think will take us a long way.”
Key to maintaining and improving that team spirit was recruiting the right people. Unlike last year, when Giles had to run trials featuring more than 100 players, he’s been able to be a lot more targeted in his recruitment for the forthcoming campaign, focusing on a couple of key areas and long-term targets that he could add to the strong core of last season including Andy Somo, Josh Owen, Martin Smith, Richard White, Jack Sims and Zach Powell.
“With goalkeeper Lee Allen, I tried to get him in when I first got the Croydon job. He’s someone I’ve wanted for a long time. We actually played together, quite a while ago now, at Knaphill in Combined Counties at Step 6 and got promoted to the Premier. He was a good lad, went out to Australia and played there for a bit, came back, had a few spells at Ascot and some other places.
“From when I played with him, he’s developed massively. He was a good keeper then, but he’s a leader now. He’s having banter with the lads, talking things through with people and that’s something we missed last season. We went through a few keepers last season and ended up with young Henry Lester, a great shot-stopper on loan from Merstham, but he’s only 18 and we needed someone like Lee, a character, a presence, someone who is going to bark at the back four, move them around and claim everything in his area.
“Lee lives in Bracknell, so he’s travelling over an hour for training and for games. I didn’t think we’d get him, but he came down and liked what he saw.
“Kieran Rufus, again, was someone I tried to bring in when I first got the job but he couldn’t commit and was playing a level below. When we started getting back to training, he came down and had a couple of other options, so he then became a target.” Rufus was top scorer for Farleigh Rovers last season.
“The other lad, Kieran Dias, is potentially someone I’ve got up my sleeve because going back he’s had five seasons out of this level, looking after a young family. He’s a great player, and every club I’ve been at I’ve tried to get him in and for whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out. When I got the Croydon job, knowing he’s a Croydon lad and lives in South Norwood, I approached him but he still couldn’t commit.
“I said to him this time, ‘come to training, you’re 30 years of age’ and he did. If we can get him to 70 per cent of what he was five years ago, playing week in, week out, we’ll have a hell of a player on our hands.”
Adding those three players to their retained list from last season gives Croydon a current squad of 17. Giles says his focus now is working with what he’s got and although he has received enquiries about trials, he probably won’t be taking any more unless their CV is particularly impressive.
Training for the new season has already started for the team, but with the reduced group sizes and no start date on the horizon, they’re well behind on where they’d have wanted to be at this stage. Giles has had the group for one socially distanced session per week in a local park, whereas under pre-coronavirus conditions, they would have been doing three sessions per week from mid-June in a normal pre-season. That means the players will have a particularly intense August, with Giles hoping to arrange at least eight pre-season friendlies.
“Training has been really good, to be honest. The frustrating thing is, we’ve seen lots of people not sticking to the guidelines. We’ve been training in a local park because the training facilities we had our eye on pre-season are not allowing us to train there with the covid situation. We’ve been doing individual groups, and beside us, we’ve got a full-on 11-v-11 match going on with a group of mates, and the lads are frustrated, looking and going ‘we literally can’t do anything, we can’t even come in to contact’. It’s been hard, it’s been frustrating, but they’ve responded well to it.
“We’ve also got a lad in our ranks, Zach Powell, who is our vice-captain this year, who is a personal trainer and during lockdown he’s set up a class online for his clients. He actually put a session on for us last week in the first half-hour which the lads didn’t really like me for because it’s lots of high-intensity cardio and core, so they were absolutely blowing.
“It was good and different.”
Giles admits that having the FA Cup as the side’s first fixture back wouldn’t usually be his preferred arrangement, but he’s excited to get back, especially if they can have some fans involved.
“Having a date, we can now work towards that. We heard a few whispers that the Extra Preliminary round might not have been going ahead, depending on when the season started, but that tournament is massive for this level of football. Normally I’d rather have a league game first, to set us up, get our first game out of the way, and then play the FA Cup, but I think it’s adding a bit of extra excitement that our first game is in the FA Cup.
“I would love to have a decent FA Vase or Cup run, but the bread and butter is the league. Without applying too much pressure, I just want to take it game by game, go about our business. I want to win every game we play though.
“Promotion is obviously the minimum but I want to win that league. We had a trial run at it last year, but we’re more aware of it now and if I didn’t think we could do it, there’s no point me being in the job.
“We get a fairly decent following down at the Arena for our level. I think we averaged about 80 last year but with people missing the football, I do know a few people who were Palace season ticket-holders who said they’ll get a Croydon season ticket instead. We also had a little bunch of people who followed us away, 10 or 15, maybe more.
“I think we took 30 to Lydd Town, singing songs and chanting. It was a real good atmosphere and the players definitely enjoy having that support. For me, having the supporters there, alright it’s not many, but it’s nice.”
Across the borough in Thornton Heath, Croydon Athletic have also begun their preparations in earnest for the new season. Kevin Rayner’s Rams announced a couple of months ago that they would be ground-sharing at the Mayfield Stadium, with Balham FC moving from Colliers Wood in the new season. It was confirmed earlier this week the two clubs will be playing the division’s closest derby, as alongside Tower Hamlets, Balham are one of two new sides in the 21-team SCEFL Premier Division.
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