The borough’s oldest non-league football club has been forced out of Croydon, the latest casualty of the council’s cash crisis.
Croydon FC have been unable to play any home matches since the new season began because their ground, Croydon Arena, remains closed following the covid-19 lockdown.
Tired of waiting for an announcement over the fate of their home ground, Croydon revealed this week that they are to play home fixtures for the remainder of the 2020-2021 season at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre.
The Arena, next to South Norwood Country Park, is owned by Croydon Council, which is in the middle of a financial crisis as it tries to plug a £70million hole in its budget this year. And while the council’s leisure centre operators Greenwich Leisure Ltd – sometimes known as “Better” – have reopened some of the borough’s pools and leisure centres, there’s been no announcement about when Croydon Arena’s athletics track and football pitch will be available for use again.
Nor has there been any news from the council about why they have not managed to get GLL to fulfil the requirements of their contract and make Croydon Arena available for use.
Appeals and complaints to the councillors for Woodside ward, where Croydon Arena is located, have gone unheeded. Which is unsurprising, since Tony Newman, the council leader and his sidekick, Paul Scott, are two of them.
It should be hugely embarrassing for Newman, Scott and the rest of the council that Croydon FC are now having to play their home games in… Bromley.
That Crystal Palace NSC also happens to be operated by GLL strongly suggests that the continuing closure of Croydon Arena is more due to a lack of will from the local council, or cash, than anything to do with coronavirus.
Croydon will regard their new home ground as a bit of an upgrade, with its 16,000 capacity making it one of – if not the – biggest grounds in non-league football in the whole of England.
And after an unbeaten start to their season in Southern Counties East League Division One, even without home advantage (Croydon are sixth, after two wins and two draws), the club is keen to build on its results at a ground steeped in sporting history.
Speaking to Inside Croydon, Croydon FC’s commercial director Liam Blencowe said, “We are absolutely delighted to announce that we will be playing our home fixtures at the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace this season.
“Unfortunately, Croydon Arena has not been able to open. This left us with a period of uncertainty while we looked at different options. However, after working closely with the league and GLL, we have managed to secure this iconic venue.
“By the end of October, we would have played nearly half of our away league games already this season and we cannot wait finally to host our first home game at our new stadium in the coming weeks.
“We hope that our fans will enjoy the experience at the NSC. We also hope that we can attract some new fans from the surrounding areas. We have an exciting team on the pitch this season as our results have shown and now we have an exciting home venue to match.”
There is still work to be done on the NSC to get it match-ready, with equipment being moved across and the dugouts needing repairs, but it is expected that all will be ready for Croydon to play their first home games at the ground in November.
At this stage, Croydon are saying that this is not intended as a permanent move. And despite the relatively large capacity, covid-19 restrictions will see Croydon’s crowds limited to no more than 300 socially distanced fans.
Opened in 1964, the NSC was built on in Crystal Palace Park on a site that hosted 21 FA Cup finals between 1895 and 1914, drawing crowds of more than 100,000. It also staged England football and rugby union internationals. For nearly 50 years, it was the home of British athletics, staging national championships and major meetings, including the World Cup.
The stadium has also been used for music concerts and other events, from Bruce Springsteen, to the Sex Pistols, to the visit of Pope John Paul II.
Croydon FC manager Liam Giles is hoping that that sense of history, and the relief of finally having a home ground, will spur on his players.
“It’s a breath of fresh air to be honest, we have been on the road so far this season and the uncertainty of not having a home has been in the back of my mind, so I am absolutely delighted to be able to call the NSC home for now,” Giles said.
“It’s an unbelievable stadium with huge history and I am excited that we will be playing there. Obviously, the Croydon Arena is our home and hopefully we can get back there soon.”
The move has another bitter irony: for 20 years, politicians have been promising to take Croydon’s trams to Crystal Palace by building an extension of the network, but they have never delivered on their election pledges. Now, unwittingly, they have achieved that goal: Croydon FC are known to their fans as… the Trams.
Additional reporting: Andrew Sinclair
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