Trams’ most peculiar season comes to fitting end in Peckham

Peckham manner: Croydon skipper Martin Smith rises for the header at The Menace ground

NON-LEAGUE NEWS: For Croydon clubs, their interrupted and curtailed covid season ended with a whimper rather than a bang at the weekend.
ANDREW SINCLAIR reports. Match photos: PAUL DAVIS

Croydon FC had the opportunity on Saturday to end a disjointed season, one that had begun without a home ground and without a spot in the FA Cup. But a disappointing season came to a disappointing end with the 3-0 defeat to Peckham Town in the pair’s rearranged London Senior Trophy fixture.

While a second successive league campaign had been ended early because of coronavirus, the London FA’s decision to play the Trophy to a conclusion offered the Trams potentially four competitive fixtures before the summer break and a rare chance of some rare silverware.

Hence the trip to the Menace Ground, which despite the Peckham title and intimidatory ground name, sits on Dulwich Common alongside tennis clubs and old boys’ rugby pitches, and is just a stone’s throw from Dulwich College – not that any of the public schoolboys would ever dream of chucking any stones.

Peckham are the holdersof the London Senior Trophy, having beaten AFC Cubo on penalties to win the 2019-2020. But they were underdogs against Croydon, who play at the level above them in the English football pyramid.

In the previous round, the last competitive game before the second national lockdown, Croydon produced a stirring performance, coming from 3-0 down to see off Athletic Newham in the last 20 minutes in their only “home” game played so far at the National Sports Centre.

But signal of the disrupted seasons and the difficulties in preparing teams at this level of football, that match was Croydon’s first home game in 10 months. And that was played back at the beginning of December – another five-month gap.

Against Peckham, the Trams managed to channel some of the spirit they had shown against Newham in the early minutes, Andy Somo and Jibril Adamson going close, but the game ultimately went the same way as their two friendlies following the most recent national lockdown; strong starts against Farleigh Rovers and Chessington and Hook United ended as 4-2 and 3-0 reverses.

When Peckham had one of their midfielders sent off, for a second yellow card, three minutes into the second half, Croydon might have taken advantage. But it was the 10 men of the home side who took the lead on 53 minutes, David Gabor turning his marker and firing low past Lee Allen in the visitors’ goal.

Just moments later again Peckham were down to nine men when winger Nicky Meta was sent to the sin bin for dissent. Croydon, however, proved unable even then to test the opposition keeper, good passages of play repeatedly undone by poor decision-making and inaccurate final balls. Indeed, a JJ Johnson volley over the bar was probably the closest they came throughout the entire second period.

Peckham added their second goal on 86 minutes, Marcus Black capitalising on a poor clearance. They wrapped it up in stoppage time, Brian Villalb scurrying through as Croydon waited for the linesman’s flag to go up. Ruled to be onside, the tricky No9, who’d been a threat all afternoon with his pace, rounded Allen to slot home.

Government restrictions meant there were no fans in attendance, a decision that seemed all the more peculiar given that test events involving 4,000 people at Wembley were conducted less than a week earlier, but the Croydon officials in attendance all echoed the same sentiment at the full-time whistle: the Trams might have been the higher-ranked team, but they were outworked by a side who wanted it more.

Croydon boss Liam Giles cut an animated, and often frustrated, figure. But he wasn’t in the away team dugout. Serving the third game of a four-game touchline ban for an incident at Lydd Town last October, Giles sat with the other Croydon officials on the opposite side, rendered an impotent spectator.

Missed chance: Smith takes aim during one of Croydon’s first-half attacks

“That’s not good enough,” Giles stated bluntly to the players sitting in a circle on the pitch, after the game.

Alongside his assistant, John Gladwin, Giles, said, “There were too many players hiding out there today. You have to work for each other and not just for yourselves. This isn’t the team that John and I built to start this season, it’s not. Maybe we’ve got to strip it out and start again. I don’t want to, but maybe that’s what we have to do.

“I want players who want to play for Croydon, not players who’ve played here and there before but don’t roll their sleeves up on a Saturday and dig in. I’m disappointed, I really am.”

Speaking to Inside Croydon, Giles said, “I’m deflated. I would say embarrassed, but that’s probably too strong a word. I felt if we’d won today, we’d have gone on to win the competition. We didn’t take our chances – within the first six minutes we could, should have been two-up. Andy Somo, I’d normally put money on him to score those first three chances. We just didn’t look hungry.

“We’ve got a mental block at the minute. This was déjà vu to last weekend when we had a friendly over at Chessington. Went it at half-time same as this week, had enough chances to be 3-0 to the good, but none came off and then we’ve come out second-half and just let it go. It’s like someone’s got a pin, taken it to a balloon and let it pop.

Croydon manager Liam Giles: has a recruitment job on his hands

“We were one of the fittest sides in our division this season, certainly before the lockdown, but we haven’t been the same side since we came back. The players haven’t done the bits I’ve asked them to do. Obviously, we couldn’t get them to the training ground or do anything with them because of the government guidelines, but we’ve tried since we’ve come back.

“I don’t like to criticise the players too much but I don’t know what else to do. I said to them, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

The absence of fans did seem particularly acute after a week in which the principles of greed, power and control at the heart of the elite game dominated the front- and back-page headlines.

Non-league is where you find the real heart of football. Local teams are mostly made up of local lads or lasses, run by people in the community and catering to everyone from youth players to the Saturday team and Sunday league. It’s where you can have a good afternoon for a little over a tenner and make real friends.

BBC London’s Chris Slegg was at the Peckham game, there to capture essence of non-league football, and a good news story for television after seven days when many have been turned off football and the Premier League clubs they’ve followed for years.

“Fans might have made a difference,” Giles said.

“We’ve got a great following and that does spur the lads on, and I think people would have been very keen to come today, especially with everything that’s happened. The reaction on Twitter when the game was announced was great. But it works for both sides. They’ve got a good setup here and they’d have got a lot of people in too.”

Croydon’s exit from the competitions means that Giles will have to serve the final game of his ban in the first competitive game of next season. Between now and then, he believes he’s got a real recruitment job on his hands.

“I think I need to rebuild, based on that. The Athletic Newham game, the heart and determination from this same group to come back from 3-0 to win 4-3. We didn’t have that today, so maybe we need new faces.”

One player they’ll almost certainly have to do without is prolific striker Somo, who’ll be training with National League South side Tonbridge Angels in pre-season.

But above all else, what Croydon FC and its fans want more than anything else, after two staccato campaigns, is the chance of an uninterrupted, “normal” football season, starting in August after a proper summer pre-season, and a chance to play some home games again. Giles, Gladwin and the players they recruited came in following the dreadful 2018-2019 season when Croydon were relegated from the SCEFL Premier Division. Since when, they have nothing to show for their efforts, not even a completed league table.

Another Croydon-based club, Balham,  experienced some generosity in the last week, with League One side AFC Wimbledon offering to reverse their London Senior Cup round one fixture and host it at their new Plough Lane ground.

In what was their first competitive game since early December, Balham took an early lead through a Wimbledon own goal and fought valiantly throughout, eventually going down 2-1 to an 85th-minute winner.

If they’re able to keep the core of last season’s side together, Balham – who groundshare at Croydon Athletic’s Mayfield Stadium – should be among the promotion contenders in the SCEFL Premier Division.

Read more: Non-league clubs left to count costs of season-that-never-was

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