Wednesday 29 April 2015

Stalag Luft III - Cray Wanderers FC Vs Tilbury FC, Ryman League Division One North, Hayes Lane (19/04/15)

In lush Kent suburbia, 15 minutes from Victoria, down a tree lined lane, surrounded by paddocks & horses being fed by passers-by, lies the current home of London’s oldest association football team, the second oldest in the world, a club forged by migrant railway workers having a kick about in their spare time, Cray Wanderers FC.

The small brick wall at the top of the lane, opposite some grand detached houses, with pretty smart cars in the drive, has though, the badge of an altogether different team, this is in fact the permanent home of Bromley FC, Cray Wanderers FC (CW) are just lodgers. The lodgers have been playing at the Game Of Thrones sounding ground Fortress Stadium, Hayes Lane for a while now, in exile from their own patch since 1972, they have been living under the same roof as Bromley FC since the 1998/99 season. Their own issues with planning for a new ground, and the fact that the tenancy agreement came to an end in 2014, makes these uncertain times for the Wanderers.

The ground is as you would expect in the colours of the home team, black and white, only a small sign in the colours of CW, yellow displaying the ticket price, gives some hint of another team playing here, other than that this feels, as it should, very much Bromley FC’s home.

Once through the black and white turnstiles, and spending £1 on a golden goal ticket, the first thing to meet you is a single story wooden building, the outer cladding, making it look like a Swedish sauna, is the “Raven Club”. Once inside to get my programme and a pint, it is somewhat a juxtaposition from the traditional terraces and stands outside, to the leather seats, dark wood floors, and multiple TV’s like a city bar, and not like any club house I have been to before.

The ground as we have come to expect, admire and enjoy, is somewhat shabby, signs like “CAUTION BEWARE OF UNEVEN STEPS” and “PLEASE DON’T STAND ON THE BENCHES” suggest things are a little less than perfect, but that is just how we like it, full of character and the perfect venue for a Sunday afternoon watching a match.

The ground consists of one main covered all seater stand, flanked by the Raven club on one side, and on the other by a white tent, with a children’s birthday party in full swing, the John Fiorini stand, covered with large advertising boards for a local funeral directors. On the opposite side, and the full length of the pitch is an uncovered terrace. At each end are half covered terraces, one all standing, and the other has small black benches and some white fold down chairs.

Tom wanders as he does to take some pictures, and comes back with a less than positive report on CW’s shooting practice at the other end of the ground, he is almost decapitated a couple of times, doesn’t think he saw one goal and suggest its perhaps going to be a game “not promising for goals”.

A few fans of today’s opposition Tilbury FC (TFC) have taken up position at the all standing end of the ground, in front of two large impressive flags, one a large St Georges cross with the teams nickname “The Dockers” , and one with black and white stripes, the teams colours with “Tilbury FC” in red emblazoned across it.

A muffled voice comes over the PA, interrupting the Beatles, to announce space on the coach for the upcoming away game, and the last game of the season. I knew Cray were in a bit of a relegation dog fight at the bottom of the Ryman League North, but it was not until afterwards I knew just how significant today’s game was.

A yellow extendable tunnel appears from the middle of the main stand and “Liquidator” by The Harry J All Stars, familiar to anyone who has visited Stamford Bridge, and replaces the Beatles as the teams come on to the pitch. CW in yellow shirts, with black socks and shorts, TFC are in black and white stripes, red shorts and socks, and the golden arches of Ronald McDonald himself, on the front of the shirt.

The teams huddle and one after the other there are shouts of “COME ON CRAY”, “COME ON TILBURY”. The TFC keeper takes up position, with perhaps one of the best football beards you will ever see, in the goal in front of us, and in front of his fans, the first time I think the away fans have not stood behind the goal, their team is attacking.

There are only 4 of them but to give them credit the TFC fans are pretty nonstop, mocking CW’s “We got our own ground”, with “We’re not going to win the Ryman League, we’re not going to win the cup, but we still follow the Tilbury”.

It’s all CW from the first whistle, and it stays that way until the last.

CW line up with two big men up front, gobbling up every ball into them, both of them taking turns in knocking the ball down for each other, or for the two fast and tricky wingers 7 and 11, and Tilbury have no answer, and after 10 minutes are already 1–0 down. A floated in free kick, a TFC player drags the CW forward to the ground, it must be a penalty, but the resulting knock down is rifled in from outside the 6 yard box. The players celebrate in front of us, the TFC fans are unaffected by their teams quick conceding of a goal and sing their managers name “Gary Henty Black & White army”.

TFC almost get themselves back in the match instantly, but the goal mouth scramble at the other end of the pitch comes to nothing, and the ball is walloped clear.

The TFC fans are boisterous to say the least, and get into an exchange with the CW photographer, who by his own admission should not of got into a back and forth with them, but found himself being serenaded with “stick your camera up your arse” after disagreeing with them over a call for a free kick. This is quite the opposite to the family serenely sitting on the concrete terrace to our left with a full blown picnic, green thermos flask, enjoying the day out.

CW continue to make all the chances, the two upfront are dominating the play in the air, and in number 11, Tom Bolarinwa, they have a very skilful winger who is toying with the TFC defence and was getting past them with ease.

On 41 minutes CW further their lead, another great run by the number 7 on the right, his low cross into the box, takes a deflection off a TFC player, with the keeper on his haunches, leaning the opposite way, he and his wonderful beard, watch the ball roll in, own goal 2–0, and it’s the least that CW deserve.

Almost on half time, TFC’s first real attack results in a goal, a goal line block of the first shot, but the rebound is put away. After looking like they had nothing, all of a sudden TFC have a foothold in the game.

It’s been a niggly first half, a bit stop start with some tackles flying in, the referee has not really seemed to have a grip on it, and his only response to the players is a loud “No, NO” as he waves on play. The TFC keeper has not stopped dishing out all sorts of opinions, and one CW fan next to us, says to another “he’s got verbal diarrhoea”. The players leave the pitch, and we make our way to the bar, 2–1.

The Tilbury 4 are already in the bar, pints in hand and singing at the top of their voices, one CW fan says “Shhhhhhhhhhh” and as quick as a flash, one of the four says “someone’s got a puncture”.

The second half is a repeat of the first, it’s all CW going forward and TFC are offering very little resistance, they are close to being blown away. In the last 15 minutes the results and points were confirmed, Tom’s concern about CW shooting was put to bed, as CW scored another two goals, their number 11 continued to shine, and torture defenders and TFC have a man sent off.

 CW’s first goal, was a nice ball over the top, latched on to by number 9 the player who in the eyes of TFC was an offside, and he coolly side footed it past the Beard, 3– 1. One TFC player was booked for his fervorous remonstrating with the referee over his perceived missing of the offside player.

TFC have really been off the pace today, but their supporters have not, and once again from the other end of the pitch we hear “COME ON YOU DOCKERS!”

The game is all but over when a TFC player is given his marching orders for a 2nd yellow, and a 2nd half sub rounds the keeper after a lucky ricochet on the edge of the box, sees him one on one, and it’s a simple finish, and 3 points for CW.

I was aware as I said previously that the season had not been a great one, and CW had found themselves at the wrong end of the table, but from the delight on the fans and players faces alike, it was not until now I became aware of quite how significant the win today was. Hearing “we have done it” around us, I had to enquire what exactly had they “done”. It quickly unfolded that the win today was the 9th of an unbeaten run, winning every game, and today’s victory guaranteed they would stay in the division.

The remarkable work of former CW player and Tonbrige Angels Manager Tommy Warrilow, meant they had not lost a game since mid-March, lifting the team five points and four places clear of the dreaded drop zone, with a game to go. With a run like that, no wonder everyone was so happy!

As we walk past the end of the tunnel, the shouts from the home dressing room can be heard. Tom was kindly allowed on the pitch before kick-off, to take some pictures of the team coming out, we chance our arm and explain what we do, and ask if we can takes some pictures of the celebrations in the changing room.  He obliges, and leads us towards the noise.

We are met by people in various stages of undress, and celebration, and on seeing the camera this is multiplied 10 fold. For the 2nd time in two days, we are drenched with beer, champagne, water and God knows what else. The team bounce in front of us, with their arms around each other, one player struggles to get some music on, and another sits on the floor with a champagne bottle between his legs, spraying us.

We are offered a beer, and toast the team’s survival, or as one person said their “Great Escape”! The outpouring of joy, is mixed with relief, and the team in unison break in to “It couldn’t be done, they said it couldn’t be done!”

Two things are clear: One I will definitely have to get my jacket dry cleaned, but the second and more importantly the teams celebration are justified, after a quite remarkable turnaround, and to go 9 games unbeaten, and not dropping a single point, is no mean feat at any level, and the players and staff have every night to go nuts.

The only down side for CW, after talking to a fan in the car park after the game, the Manager is already on his way to another club, an end of season performance like that is impossible to keep under wraps. Some of the players, who I have heard described as Crays “Galacticos” who had a huge hand in the turnaround came with him, and as such there is a good chance they will be off with him again.  

CW’s Tom Bolarinwa was the stand out player and absolute joy to watch, and is hands down the best non-league player I have seen all season, I’m sure there must be countless teams chomping at the bit to get his signature.

I hope CW are able to build from this end of season magic next season and even if the manager and some players do leave, I hope they can hold on to some of that grit, belief and character, that kept them up. I hope it’s less, “Great Escape” next season and more “Field of Dreams”.

For more of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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  1. Three generations of my family celebrating the goal, thanks for a great pic and article.

    1. That's fantastic, I very happy we captured that on film, it's nice to know the three of you are able to enjoy the football together. Glad you enjoyed the article