After 10 months without a home game, the borough’s oldest non-league club enjoyed a homecoming with a difference on Saturday, with the most rousing of comeback wins, as ANDREW SINCLAIR reports
For the first time in almost 10 months, thanks to coronavirus and the local council going bust, Croydon FC were at last able to play a “home” game on Saturday. And it was a game which proved remarkable and memorable for what happened on the pitch, too, as the hosts came back from 3-0 down to win 4-3 in breath-taking stoppage time.
It was the first game Croydon have played at their new, temporary home, Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, and they achieved the unlikely final result against Athletic Newham in the London Senior Trophy.
Croydon have been locked out of their usual home ground, the council-owned Croydon Arena in South Norwood, since the first coronavirus lockdown in March.
The 2019-2020 Southern Counties East Football League season was abandoned, unfinished, and when the 2020-2021 season kicked off in September, Croydon were consigned to playing their first seven fixtures as away matches, because their home ground had not re-opened due to the council’s financial collapse. With no Arena re-opening date in prospect, the Trams opted to relocate to Crystal Palace and they were looking forward to staging their first home game of the season in early November.
Their SCEFL Division One campaign had had a provisional resumption date of December 12, but owing to the majority of the SCEFL teams being based in Kent, an area currently facing the highest level of covid-19 restrictions and under a travel ban between the Tier 3 and Tier 2 areas, the league has decided to suspend all fixtures until at least Boxing Day.
The Trams have arranged several friendlies to keep them ticking over, including a Croydon derby against Croydon Athletic on December 12, but they were able to fit in their London Senior Trophy game with Newham, giving them the opportunity to finally bring in some revenue through ticket, programme and refreshment sales.
Being one of the few non-league fixtures taking place in south London on Saturday, and the historic significance of the venue, the match attracted the football groundhoppers in their droves, with a total attendance of 212 for Croydon’s “homecoming”.
Like all games at the venue at this time of year will need to do, the game kicked off at 1.45pm due to the NSC – a stadium which has in the past staged World Cup athletics events, the NFL’s European league matches and even a visit from the Pope – now lacks a set of fully functioning floodlights.
A glance around the sorry old stadium shows it’s a far cry from its past glories. From the boarded-up windows in the press box to the abandoned and unmaintained scoreboard, the venue is a testament to years of neglect by Bromley Council. But its potential remains.
For most of the fans arriving at the Jubilee Stand on Saturday afternoon, this was their first live football post-covid. Spectators had to sanitise their hands on their way into the ground, before providing their contact details for Track and Trace – either by scanning the QR code using the official NHS app or by giving a name and contact phone number to one of the club’s volunteers. Masks needed to be worn on entry but were not mandatory in the stands.
Once inside the ground, spectators had more or less free rein across the entire south side of the ground. Croydon’s dedicated volunteers also set up a refreshment tent at the end of the stand, offering wraps, snacks, beer and a selection of hot and cold drinks for those who’d made the journey.
Without manager Liam Giles in the dug-out, as he begins his four-game touchline ban, the Trams’ performance in the first-half mirrored their dilapidated surroundings, as they missed a penalty and found themselves three goals down at the break against a side two levels below them in the footballing pyramid.
They picked up significantly in the second half, the introduction of talented youngster Jahquan Springer and midfielder Josh Owen making a big difference. Two goals in the space in barely 60 seconds from JP Rylah and Springer reduced the deficit, with Springer scoring the equaliser on 86 minutes after a goalmouth scramble.
The comeback efforts appeared in vain when Newham scored in the 90th minute, only for the goal to be ruled out. From the restart, with only seconds of injury time remaining, Croydon went up the other end to grab the winner, Martin Smith atoning for his penalty miss by chipping the Newham keeper.
Ahh, the glamour of non-league life: the Trams now face a trip to Peckham Town in the second round.
It was a truly incredible start to life at the NSC for Croydon, but as the club chairman Tony Blencowe said, “It’s a shame that we haven’t got any other home games until the New Year so we can’t really build any momentum.”
Giles’ men do still have two competitive games in the diary before the end of 2020, a Surrey Senior Cup clash with Ashford Town (that’s the Middlesex Ashford) and an away league game to Kent Football United (who are in Dartford).
As they fall under the same SCEFL regulations, Croydon Athletic and their groundshare partners Balham find themselves in the same boat when it comes to competitive league games this side of Christmas. The pair are set to meet though on December 28.
Isthmian leaguers Whyteleafe played their last competitive game on October 31, letting a 2-0 lead slip to Chesham United in the FA Trophy before losing on penalties. They’re not scheduled to resume until December 19, against Sevenoaks Town, although that could change, depending on the government’s coronavirus guidelines, with further postponements likely if Kent remains in Tier 3.
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