Rams’ boss Rayner ready with a few surprises for new season

Six months after the previous season was halted, unfinished, by the coronavirus lockdown, and football will soon be back at Mayfield Road

A seat in the boardroom and a new assistant means that the Croydon Athletic manager is working with more than the challenges presented by covid-19 ahead of the new season.
Exclusive interview by ANDREW SINCLAIR

From dug-out to boardroom: Croydon Athletic boss Kevin Rayner

Croydon Athletic are less than a month away from the start of the new non-league football season, six months after the previous season was brought to an abrupt halt by coronavirus, and manager Kevin Rayner is keen to get back to something like normal, working alongside a new assistant, Barry Boxall, and promising to surprise rivals in the Southern Counties East League’s newly expanded Premier Division.

Boxall arrived in Thornton Heath with an impressive CV and a UEFA A coaching badge, after having worked at Premier League academies at Arsenal and Southampton, as well as Fulham and, most recently, Charlton.

“Barry’s an experienced lad and he’s another voice to the team,” Rayner said when we spoke last week.

“I’ve been here nearly five years and some players get tired of the same voice, so he’s got a few new ideas and we’re going to try a few new things. He attracts a few of the younger lads that have been at the academies with him that haven’t quite made it, and we’ve got some exciting additions to the squad this year so we might surprise one or two.”

In certain respects, lockdown stopping last season came in the nick of time for Rayner, with Athletic perched precariously above the drop zone off the back of five defeats in a row. Rayer, though, says he was unconcerned by their position in the league.

He feels that there were positives to be taken from the cancelled campaign.

How the unfinished season… finished, with Croydon Athletic 17th

“I wasn’t bothered about finishing 17th, and no one at the club really was,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter if you finish 17th or sixth in all honesty, you get no extra points or anything else for it. It looks a little better, of course, a bit more respectable, but we weren’t that bothered about the position. No one was going down, we were out of most cup competitions in February and we were playing a lot of youngsters, so I wasn’t too concerned about the table or our position.

“Honestly, I was quite happy at the end of the season with a couple of competitive games and a few of the youngsters got a lot of time on the pitch, which was great.”

In the club’s official announcement about Boxall’s arrival, they also announced that Rayner will be joining the club’s board. The former Guildford City boss says it won’t make much difference to his day-to-day job, but will hopefully help the club continue to push in an upward direction.

“I’m still in the same role but it’s a little more insight and I can put our point across to the board and hopefully it can improve our relationship and we can get the items we need a bit quicker and things like that. We’re all working in the same direction and it’s just a nice bit of security, that your hard work is rewarded.”

The Rams have been back training together for the last five weeks, preparing for a league season which begins on September 5 in a division with 21 teams, following the additions of Tower Hamlets and Balham, the latter now sharing Athletic’s Mayfield Stadium.

A run of wins in the FA Cup or Vase could make a big difference to finances at the Mayfield Stadium

Coronavirus, and the demands for covid-safe working, have presented even experienced Rayner with many new challenges. “I’ve been in the game a long time, and it has been difficult, but we’ve been back about a month now and you’re soon back in the swing of things. We’ve been back at the ground, making sure everything is ticking over and covid-safe.

“Training has been very good, very well-attended. It was a bit difficult at first with the social distancing but as things have eased a bit, it’s been better. Barry’s been around a lot of the academies, knows what he’s doing, and he’s come in and taken a lot of the sessions and it’s going well.”

Rayner will be releasing Athletic’s squad list on August 22.

“The club has quite a good reputation and we’re inundated with emails from players wanting to come and play for the club. We’ve retained nine or 10 players from last year and we have a first-team squad of 18 or 19.”

Digging in: Rayner (centre) in the dug-out with former Croydon councillor Tony Pearson (left; the kit man) and physio Denis Lawton (right)

In the cash-strapped world of the ninth tier of English football, Rayner complains that other clubs have been offering significant amounts of cash to entice players to join them. “The amount of money they’re throwing about is ridiculous,” he says. “But you learn to live with it and compete.”

The Rams will find out the identity of their first opponents of the new season on August 18, when the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round draw is held. The matches are due to be played on September 1.

The new tenants Balham, who are bringing their first team and under-18s to the Mayfield, will be an important new revenue stream for Athletic, and with more than £1,000 in prize money for the winners of the FA Cup’s preliminary round matches, Rayner is hopeful that his side can make some headway in the competition to further bolster the coffers.

“Non-league clubs need every penny we can get. Hopefully we can get through a couple of rounds in the FA Cup and Vase, as it is extra income for the club.

“Within the league, as long as we’re competitive and competing, we’ll see where it takes us. We’ve usually topped the league before tailing away, though last year was slightly different. We had a really strong squad about October time, we brought some players in and I think we were the last team to beat Corinthians in the league.

“We had the squad but it just didn’t click. We played a lot of youngsters but this year I think we’ll be a lot more consistent and get back to where we were a couple of years ago. We might surprise one or two teams. That’s the aim, so you never know.”

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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