NON-LEAGUE NEWS: With a new chairman and manager, a Surrey phoenix club is working with the fans with renewed belief.
By ANDREW SINCLAIR
A month is a very long time in football. In the case of the borough’s newest team, AFC Whyteleafe, it’s as long as they’ve existed.
Serious questions were raised about the future of Whyteleafe FC earlier this year, when club chairman Mark Coote sold their Church Road ground to the Ian Rush-backed, Singaporean-based Irama group, who then promptly ended The Leafe’s tenancy at the stadium.
With no ground, Whyteleafe were forced to withdraw from the Isthmian League and while youth sides have been playing under their FA affiliation this season, their website gives the impression of a club that’s ceased to exist in any meaningful way.
In their place, a “phoenix” club, AFC Whyteleafe (motto: “Belief”), has been formed and they kick-off their inaugural season this weekend.
Led by Kelly Waters, who is both manager and chairman, the new-look Leafe have agreed a four-year deal with Irama to play at Church Road.
Waters, the driving force behind what he calls “The Project”, wasn’t involved with the old club. Initially, he looked at using Church Road for former side, Balham B.
Speaking to Inside Croydon, Waters said: “It has been a whirlwind because at the beginning of August we didn’t exist.
“I’d been reading the story about Whyteleafe and the stadium problems. I was sad to read a story like that as I’ll be moving to the area soon. I decided to drive up and have a look at the stadium and when I got there, the people that run the stadium were there.
“In that moment, I thought: ‘This is too big a thing to let go to waste’. We managed to do a deal very quickly on the stadium for four years and that was the first step – making sure football could happen at Whyteleafe this season.
“I did the deal on the stadium before I had a team. Then it was a case of trying to get the supporters’ association on-board so that we could get people back at the ground, trying to get a league place, trying to get some players. Here we are, having played two friendlies and we’re ready to start in the league.”
AFC Whyteleafe has merged with Balham B, and take their spot in the Surrey South Eastern Combination Intermediate Div 1 – English football’s 12th tier. Waters had been manager at Balham B for the past two, covid-disrupted seasons.
While AFC Whyteleafe is a brand-new limited company, and there’s no link with the old club in terms of board or management, keeping Whyteleafe fans involved should provide some important continuity.
There was an open forum on Zoom on last week, in which 55 fans took part, asking questions about the club’s direction. “What I’ve been promising the fans is that there’ll be representation from the supporters’ group in the running of the club,” Waters said.
“They’ll have insight into what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Whatever the ownership structure, they’ll have a seat at the table.” This is not quite a promise of a seat on the board, though. “In modern-day terms, that’s a spot in the WhatsApp group, isn’t it?” Waters said.
“The inspiration is the AFC Wimbledon story. They restarted in a hurry – it was all desperately urgent, three guys in a pub and trials on Wimbledon Common. It’s admittedly 20 years later but they’re established in League One with a brand-new stadium. It does show you that if something’s well-funded, well-supported and well-organised, the impossible could happen.”
More than 50 players have taken part in trials at Church Road, but Waters admits it will take time to gel, especially with “boys still getting to know each other’s names”.
All AFC Whyteleafe home games will offer free entry this season, starting with their season-opener against Earlsfield on Saturday
“Our ambition this season is to win the league and go up,” Waters said. “Being realistic, I expect the early stages to be a bit more challenging but I hope as the season goes on that the squad will do really well and our intention then will be to apply to join the National League system next season at Step 6.”
Such a rapid rise will take a great deal of, well… belief. The new club’s motto was suggested by the supporters’ group. “It sums up what this project is all about,” Waters said.
“If you believe in something, amazing things can happen.”
Croydon FC have made an impressive start to what they hope will be their first season uninterrupted by covid since 2018-2019, with fans allowed back into their Croydon Arena home ground for the first time since March last year to see their side topping the Southern Counties East Football League Div 1 table after five wins from their first seven games.
While their 3-0 wins against Chessington & Hook and Tooting Bec rightly stand out, Croydon’s home defeat against Lydd Town and sub-par first-half in last Saturday’s draw with Kent Football United show the Trams are still looking for the consistency needed to remain on top come the business end of the season.
Manager Liam Giles said: “I would say it’s been a 7/10 so far. My expectations of this bunch are extremely high so it’s disappointing to have dropped five points from the first seven games. However, it’s our best start to a season since I’ve been in charge so that is pleasing.
“The biggest positive has to be that we haven’t been playing to our standards but we have been grinding out results.”
Former Burnley scholar Richard Pingling has been one of Croydon’s best performers so far, looking confident on the ball and causing defenders all sorts of problems when cutting in off the wing.
Groundshare partners Croydon Athletic and Balham played out an engaging 1-1 draw at Mayfield Road on Bank Holiday Monday, Tom Read cancelling out Rams striker Alfie Bloomfield’s opener with five minutes to go.
The two clubs entered the game having experienced varied starts to the campaign. Athletic had lost four league games on the spin in the Combined Counties Premier Division South after an encouraging opening day draw with Cobham. That run of results has seen the Rams score just four times while conceding 14.
The only real positives for the Thornton Heath outfit had come in the FA Cup, where they beat Crowborough Athletic 3-1 in atrocious conditions before forcing a quality Erith and Belvedere side to a replay in the Preliminary Round.
“The first couple of games were OK but we lost the core of the side to injury after the FA Cup win and it’s taken a while to get players back,” Kevin Rayner, the manager, said.
“We showed that we’ve got the ability against Erith, who are a good side and were lucky to get past us over the two games. I’ve no issues with where we are in the table and we will be climbing the table as we get people back.”
Since losing to Walton and Hersham on the opening day, Balham are unbeaten in the league with two draws and a resounding victory over Molesey.
Greg Cruttwell’s men have also made light work of the opening rounds of the FA Cup, dispatching both Canterbury City and K Sports 3-0 to set up a First Qualifying Round meeting with Merstham this Saturday.
Their run this far has already guaranteed the club £3,319 in prize money, but a win over their higher-ranked opponents would net them at least a further £2,625.
AFC Croydon Athletic
Sat 4th Sep: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Frimley Green (H)
Sat 11th Sep: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Walton and Hersham (A)
Sat 18th Sep: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Camberley T (H)
Sat 25th Sep: FA Vase 2nd Rd Qualifying v Holmesdale (A)
Sat 4th Sep: SCEFL Div 1 v Rochester Utd (H)
Sat 11th Sep: FA Vase 1st Rd Qualifying v Broadbridge Heath (A)
Wed 15th Sep: SCEFL Div 1 v Westside (A)
Sat 18th Sep: SCEFL Div 1 v Lewisham Borough (A)
Sat 4th Sep: FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round v Merstham (H)
Tues 7th Sep: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Horley Town (A)
Sat 11th Sep: FA Vase 1st Rd Qualifying v Tower Hamlets (H)
Tues 14th Sep: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Camberley T (A)
Sat 18th Sep: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Badshot Lea (A)
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Welcome to the fold AFC Whyteleafe look forward to your visit to “The Crem”for your FA Vase game against “The Rams”.