NON-LEAGUE NEWS: As the football season enters its vital last few weeks, ANDREW SINCLAIR catches up with the local sides’ managers
One win and just six points from 10 games from October and mid-January reads like the form of a relegation-threatened club rather than potential title contenders.
But after five straight wins in all competitions, Croydon FC have revived their promotion prospect.
But it is local rivals, Croydon Athletic, who go into their final few matches in a relegation dogfight.
Croydon’s resurgence kicked off at the end of January, when Richard Pingling’s 90th minute strike helped them to edge past AFC Cubo in the quarter-finals of the London Senior Trophy.
It might have been a tight victory over a side from the division below, but Trams boss Liam Giles sees it as the catalyst for a defining week in the club’s season.
“November and December were really tough but I always trusted the group to get back on track. We consistently had between six and 11 first-team players out injured. Without an under-23s or under-18s side to fall back on, we had to get players from where we could. I had to get my little black book out and just try to get players in.
“There was no time for the players to gel. We had a good side on paper but we couldn’t really get anything going or get that togetherness you need. I knew that once it clicked and we got a win, which we did against AFC Cubo, that that’d be the turning point for the whole season.”
A week later, back in league action in the Southern Counties East League first division, two goals from captain Nick Wilson helped Giles’ men come from behind to beat Larkfield and New Hythe 2-1. Croydon followed up with two more victories, and clean sheets, against promotion hopefuls Bridon Ropes and Snodland Town.
A fifth win on the bounce was secured last weekend, Josh Owen netting an 88th-minute winner against Lydd Town after Joey Wealthyland’s debut goal had levelled things. The Trams now sit sixth in the table, one point off the final play-off position.
“They say winning is a habit,” Giles said. “But so is losing.
“We just weren’t getting the rub of the green before. Now, we’ve got to a point where we know that we have to work harder than the opposition and that our quality will shine through when we win those battles. The whole group have taken that on and they’re working hard to fight for every ball from front to back.”
That change in approach is clear in Giles, too. He’s not talking promotion any more, nor is he getting too excited about the prospect of lifting silverware this season (Croydon are awaiting a date for their London Senior Trophy semi-final with Hilltop).
“We had injuries, players leaving and too much talk about promotion and winning the league for my liking,” he said. “Now we’re just taking it one game at a time, ticking off opponents and we’ll see where we are in 13 games’ time. All I want to talk about is Elmstead on Saturday. That’s our mindset.
“We’re back in a healthy position in the league, we’re in a good place mentally and we’re ready for the challenge ahead.”
One man not currently part of Croydon’s plans is goalkeeper Nic Taylor. The Montserrat international was a statement summer signing for the Trams and almost an ever-present but, following a conversation between Taylor and Giles after Christmas, both felt it was “the right time for a change”.
Croydon have brought in Matt Walton, “a massive character who has filled the whole side with confidence” from Farleigh Rovers. Taylor is still contracted to Croydon but last weekend made his return to former club Croydon Athletic to help them through an injury crisis.
The Rams have struggled for results all season in the Combined Counties Premier Division South and currently sit 18th. Their six league games in 2022 have seen them score just three goals (all last weekend against Walton and Hersham), concede 19 and register just one point.
Boss Kevin Rayner insists there are grounds for optimism. “We have played the top four since returning and not many teams would have got a result against them if we’re being honest,” he said.
Their year began with a slice of history as the club made their first trip down to the Channel Islands to take on the impressive Jersey Bulls. By all accounts, it was a great experience for the players, even if the Rams finished on the end of a 6-0 drubbing.
“Jersey was enjoyable but in many ways it was a pain. It was a lot of effort with the flying and the PCR tests and so on, and we were up against it having not actually had a game in the five weeks prior to going,” Rayner said.
Only the bottom two sides get relegated and Rayner’s men are currently four points clear of the drop zone, although 19th-placed Banstead have three games in hand on their Thornton Heath rivals.
Athletic play Banstead in mid-March but before then the Rams have a proper six-pointer next Saturday, when they welcome rock-bottom Molesey to the Mayfield Stadium.
“Next week is massive and the games in March are massive. They will, I’m certain, see us pick up some good results. Remember, we haven’t lost at home to anyone in the bottom half of the table. We are fit and have a full complement of players back now.
“I’m expecting a good game against Molesey on Saturday week and a good March. Although our position isn’t great, it will soon be addressed and I’m sure we will be OK.”
Athletic’s groundshare partners, Balham, have been making a better fist of things and have now pushed themselves up to 10th in the same division.
The most recent contributions to that rise have been comfortable 6-0 and 3-0 wins over Banstead and Farnham Town respectively. They’ve got games in hand over the sides immediately above them and if they maintain current performance levels, they might be an outside bet for a late play-off push.
Balham, whose former starlet Fabio Carvalho has been making waves for Fulham this season, also still have cup interests after knocking Tooting and Mitcham out of the Surrey Senior Cup. They are due to face Ashford Town or Sutton Common Rovers in the last eight.
AFC Croydon Athletic
Tue 22nd Feb: Combined Counties Prem Div S v Redhill (A)
Sat 26th Feb: Combined Counties Prem Div S v Molesey (H)
Sat 5th Mar: Combined Counties Prem Div S v Colliers Wood Utd (A)
Tue 8th Mar: Combined Counties Prem Div S v Jersey Bulls (H)
Sat 12th Mar: Combined Counties Prem Div S v Banstead Ath (A)
Sat 19th Feb: SCEFL Div 1 v Elmstead (A)
Sat 26th Feb: SCEFL Div 1 v Staplehurst Monarchs (A)
Sat 5th Mar: SCEFL Div 1 v Sutton Ath (H)
Tues 8th Mar: SCEFL Div 1 v Kent Football Utd (A)
Sat 12th Mar: SCEFL Div 1 v Lewisham Boro (H)
Sat 19th Feb: Combined Counties Prem Div S v Redhill (H)
Wed 23rd Feb: Combined Counties Prem Div S v Badshot Lea (H)
Sat 26th Feb: Cherry Red Records Premier Challenge Cup v Jersey Bulls (A)
Sat 5th Mar: Combined Counties Prem Div S v Frimley Green (H)
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