NON-LEAGUE NEWS: Can the Trams’ returning manager maintain the momentum into a crunch game tomorrow? ANDREW SINCLAIR previews derby day and what the December fixture list holds for Croydon Athletic
Football fans, perhaps fired up by tonight’s England World Cup game in Qatar, can get to watch some live action tomorrow afternoon at Church Road, where Whyteleafe take on Croydon in a much-anticipated non-league derby.
With Premier League and Championship club action suspended for the duration of the World Cup, the non-league clubs are keen to show what they are capable of to as many people as possible.
And for Croydon FC under returning manager Liam Giles, they want to maintain the momentum of two victories in his first games back in charge.
Having replaced Tyler Chambers earlier in the month, Giles’ first game back was a stunning 5-1 win away to promotion-chasing Lydd Town. Henry Swann scored a hat-trick and Ulrich Fischer got two more at Lindsey Field.
“I don’t think anyone saw the Lydd result coming but the lads have bought into how we want to do things already, so now it’s about good habits and building momentum,” Giles said.
That victory over Lydd marked Giles’ 100th game in charge of the club. His 101st was also successful, albeit less emphatic. The Trams beat Lewisham Borough on penalties to progress through to a London Senior Trophy quarter-final against either Cockfosters Reserves or Jolof Sports.
Back-to-back wins sets up Croydon well for the trip to noisy Whyteleafe, the clubs’ third meeting this season, with a fourth scheduled for December 14 in the Surrey Premier Cup.
Although Whyteleafe have been keen to hammer home the importance of local bragging rights in tomorrow’s game, Giles knows that victory will move the Trams, currently 14th in the SCEFL Division One, above The Leafe in the table.
“The league table doesn’t lie,” Giles said. “We are in a position I’ve never found myself or the club in since being in this division.
“I believe we have enough within our group to climb away from the relegation zone and be more competitive.”
When Chambers quit the Trams, a few players followed him out the door (he’s now assistant manager at Redhill), and Giles has moved to strengthen his squad. He’s added experience with midfielder Richard White, while goalkeeper Matt Walton and forwards Jubril Adamson and Eldi Baze, who had followed Giles to Epsom and Ewell in the summer, have also returned to the Arena.
The star addition is last season’s top scorer Richard Pingling, who has dropped down a division to leave Lordswood to link up with a coach he’s known for years.
“I’ve always felt it’s important to build relationships with players and take an interest in them not just as a football player but as a person as well,” Giles said. “I think by taking that approach I’ve got loyalty back from them in return.
“I’ve known RJ since he was 15 so I’m excited to get back working with him again, but all the lads I’ve brought back to the club know the standards we set and what we want to achieve.
“It was important for me to bring in a select few to strengthen the current group and I feel we have a good balance now.”
One of the club’s returning faces represents the story of a local boy done good.
Omarr Belhaj-Fahsi, who Giles first worked with at under-14 level at Bromley, is a student at Oxford University and won his Blue in this year’s University match win over Cambridge.
Belhaj-Fahsi first played for Croydon in the pandemic-affected 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons and has played in the Trams’ last two games.
“I phoned Omarr two days after I took the Croydon job for the second time and I asked him to come and do me a favour at Lydd, as I wanted to have some familiarity in the defensive positions and he’s a hard-working player who I knew would give 100per cent,” Giles said.
“He left Oxford at 9am on Saturday morning, got on the team coach at midday and then didn’t get back to Oxford at 11pm that night. It’s outstanding commitment from him and the following week he was probably Man of the Match against Lewisham. I’m so proud to have worked with him and to be continuing to work with him.”
Croydon’s December slate of league games features home ties against top-six sides Rochester United and Faversham and a trip to fellow strugglers Meridian. All three will be a test of how much improvement Giles’ has managed to deliver; seven points from the nine would have them looking up, and not downwards, as the calendar flips forward to 2023.
Apart from a 6-1 capitulation last weekend against high-flying Badshot Lea, AFC Croydon Athletic are looking to be in the strongest shape they’ve been in for several seasons.
Currently 12th in the Combined Counties Premier Division South, the Rams are six places and five points better off than they were this time last year with three fewer games played. Boss Kevin Rayner is unsurprisingly buoyant about his side’s first few months of the campaign.
“We’ve had a couple of poor moments but in the main we’ve shown we can compete with any side at this level,” Rayner said.
“We’ve got six players under the age of 22 playing regularly and, honestly, with the squad we’ve got and the quality of our better performances, a top-eight finish this year should be the minimum aim.”
After a league meeting on Saturday with Tadley Calleva, Rayner’s focus will switch to next Wednesday’s “very important” League Cup game with Spelthorne Sports.
The two sides were supposed to meet earlier in the month but the fixture was postponed after torrential rain left the Mayfield Stadium pitch waterlogged. When asked about the current state of the pitch, Rayner noted that it was “holding up well” considering the amount of football played on it and the volume of rainfall over the past few weeks.
The meeting with Spelthorne is important for the Rams because it represents the only cup competition that they’re still in this season.
In the league, the Rams have a further three home games before Christmas. Given that Camberley Town have lost seven from seven away fixtures so far this season, the Thornton Heath-based outfit will be hopeful of a win there before wrapping up their 2022 with a midweek tie against Jersey Bulls.
“The lads are looking forward to our upcoming schedule of games. We’re going to be competitive and there’s points there for us to add. I fancy us to go into the festive period on a good note by upsetting title-chasing Jersey Bulls in what’s effectively our Christmas fixture for this year.”
Athletic’s groundshare partners Balham currently sit one place further up the table in 11th. Balham were starting to look in real trouble after only recording two wins in their first 13 league games but a 1-0 triumph away to Sheerwater in late October kicked off a four-game winning run that has them firmly ensconced in mid-table.
Balham’s latest victory came earlier in the week as they beat Spelthorne Sports 3-2 to advance to the second round of the Surrey Senior Cup.
Sat Nov 26, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Tadley Calleva (H)
Wed Nov 30, League Cup v Spelthorne (H)
Sat Dec 3, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Farnham T (A)
Sat Dec 10, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Fleet T (H)
Sat Dec 17, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Camberley T (H)
Tue Dec 20, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Jersey Bulls (H)
Sat Nov 26, SCEFL Div 1 v Whyteleafe (A)
Sat Dec 3, SCEFL Div 1 v Rochester (H)
Sat Dec 10, SCEFL Div 1 v Meridian VP (A)
Wed Dec 14, Surrey Premier Cup v Whyteleafe (H)
Sat Dec 17, SCEFL Div 1 v Faversham Strike Force (H)
Sat Nov 26, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Cobham (A)
Sat Dec 3, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Banstead A (H)
Sat Dec 10, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Frimley Green (A)
Wed Dec 14, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Jersey Bulls (H)
Sat Dec 17, Combined Counties Prem Div S v Guildford C (A)
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