Hayes Lane is a fabulous old Non-League ground. Built just before the start of the Second World War, it has a sweeping open terrace down the entirety of one touchline, another partially covered terrace behind one goal and a third with- sadly- some bolted-on plastic seats accompanied by wooden benches at the other end, undoubtedly installed to meet grading requirements. It also has a fabulous old Non League club playing in it- Cray Wanderers; the oldest club in London, the second oldest in the entire world. The place reeks of history. You can easily imagine the 1938 and 1949 Amateur Cups being paraded around it, perhaps along with the Kent Amateur Cup, the Athenian League Trophy, and indeed our very own Isthmian League Trophy on two occasions. It was even opened by Sir Stanley Rous, just after he’d rewritten the laws of the game.
The shame for Cray Wanderers is that the history it reeks of is generally somebody else’s.
The only mention of Wanderers anywhere outside the stadium
Wanderers have a rather apt name. They’ve played in a number of different locations- it may be six, it may be more, as some of the early records seem a little elusive- and have been sharing with Bromley FC, owners of Hayes Lane, since 1998- being forced to move from their previous Oxford Road ground because they weren’t allowed to install floodlights at it. As they approach twenty years of homelessness there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel off the pitch, with a second planning application for a new ground at Flamingo Park off the A20 Sidcup bypass recently submitted, but although there is much hope that this will be successful it is muted by realism. They already had one planning application jump every hurdle before- somewhat inexplicably- being vetoed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan. This latest application has had test events, a wide ranging public consultation, and the support of the local council- but so had the last one. Hopefully the Mayor, so vocal in his support for another South London Bostik League football club recently, might find his way to helping another on this occasion.
On the pitch, this season is promising much for followers of the Wands. As we entered this match against Faversham Town Tony Russell’s side were riding high in second place in the Bostik South Division, and on a seventeen game unbeaten run. To put that into perspective, only Manchester City and Billericay Town can boast better records in English football- although, of course, Cray’s exploits have garnered far less attention. Last time out, on Boxing Day, Shoreham visited Hayes Lane and went home after failing to show any of their Mussels, the Musselmen losing seven-nil. You may look at that as a freak result, but there were seven goals against East Grinstead Town last month, five against Ramsgate, four against Hythe Town; eight against Horsham in the FA Trophy. In only one home match this season had Cray failed to score, and that was almost four months ago. It would suggest that today’s match promised goals.
Followers of today’s visitors, Faversham Town, have been given far less to shout about this season. Two successive play-off campaigns were followed by a mid-table finish in the last campaign, but after a decent summer of recruitment far more was expected of Ray Turner’s team. So far, however, they have flattered to deceive. Current form typifies much of the season, with only one win in the last six matches- victory over Thamesmead Town and a credible draw with highly fancied Greenwich Borough followed by a draw with Shoreham and losses to Walton Casuals and Herne Bay.
On that note it wasn’t difficult to predict which side would be favourites to take all three points today- although that could perhaps be tempered by the knowledge that in the match between the teams at Salters Lane earlier this season the final score was 0-0. Town would be hoping that twelve goal Luke Griffiths would end a barren spell, Wanderers that Michael Power could add to his twenty two after surprisingly firing blanks over the Christmas period so far. The early arriving members of the Salters Lane army agreed with this assessment.
A Massive set of flags!
Aiden, the youngest of their number, was rather forthright in naming the Lilywhite’s main frailty. “We need someone who can regularly put the ball in the net,” he explained. “He’s right,” explained Simon, “but you could say that about most of the teams in this league. And generally if a side at this level gets a top striker then he ends up being poached by a team higher up.” Steve wasn’t about to argue. “We’ve been creating chances but not finishing them.”
That said, now joined by Benjamin- who described himself as a Dover supporter who had adopted Faversham as his son was playing for them on loan- this quartet weren’t particularly downhearted. “The team has a lack of experience,” he explained, “and that shows sometimes, but there is talent here.” Steve agreed. “We’ve been a little unlucky in some games, had some decisions go against us that other refs would have seen differently, but we tend to raise our game against the better teams so you never know.”
Each predicted a draw, all going for 1-1 except Aiden, who suggested 3-3. Perhaps we were going to get a classic?
The first home supporters who offered an opinion were rather reserved in their predictions. It was perhaps a club habit. Both Mark- who looks after the clubs press and communications- and vice-chair David weren’t getting carried away with the success so far, explaining that they felt nothing had yet been achieved. Mark went on to explain that manager Tony had a similar philosophy, and supporters Bill and Vincent echoed the party line. “I don’t really like to give predictions,” explained Vincent- although when pressed he went for a victory by the odd goal in three- but although both were delighted with progress they both took time to outline that there was a lot of the season yet to play. They were also delighted with the style of play, which Bill was certain was helped by the 3G pitch. “We like to pass the ball around and move with speed, and the surface really seems to aid that style of play. It certainly has so far.”
Bill went for a three-one victory, by the way.
The match kicked off with Wanderers playing into a strong wind which had suddenly arrived from nowhere, and the home side soon began to show the confidence that comes from winning; indeed had Brandon Scott and Power done better with chances they could have been two up within fifteen minutes. Faversham occasionally looked to break, but in truth it was generally a tide of amber and black and the biggest surprise was that it took so long for a breakthrough to come. Half an hour had elapsed before the opening goal, and when it came it was simple, Lea Dawson heading home unmarked from a corner. The second took five more minutes and again it was down to a defensive lapse, three Faversham players getting in each others way in the box and allowing the ball to run through to Aaron Rhule for a relatively easy finish.
Each of these goals was met by a crescendo of noise. Drums were banged, bells run, clappers- well, clapped- a hunting horn sounded, a siren wailed. The biggest surprise was that all of this noise came from only four people- and that two of them were only around four feet tall. Adrian, Trudy, James and Faith Jewell- the Wanderers massive!
With eight flags and enough instruments to equip a small orchestra, the four Jewell’s displayed enough enthusiasm to shout even a lesser side to victory. Positivity in abundance, perhaps helped by the fact that as a football supporter you have to have faith, and they’d cheated by bringing their own! In between bangs, rings, claps and toots Adrian explained that the best game they’d seen so far this season was when they’d come from 2-0 down to beat Sittingbourne with two goals in the last minute earlier this month, and looked forward to their trip to Guernsey in a fortnight. It was lovely to hear that some people look forward to going to Guernsey, given that all we’ve heard so far over the Christmas period has been the direct opposite. The Green Lions can roar all they like, they won’t block out the noise made by this expedition.
The Salters Lane travelling Army!
The second half kicked off with more of the same, and it took only two minutes for Wanderers to extend their lead. Michael Freiter receive d the ball at the corner of the Faversham box and looked to have much to do, but he managed to control it beautifully with his first touch before sending it flying across keeper Simon Overland into the bottom corner. On the hour it was four, Mitchell Nelson meeting a corner with his head and the ball dropping almost apologetically over the line, and you couldn’t help but feel for Overland, who had put in a man of the match performance and still conceded four goals. But the action wasn’t finished, and it was Faversham who looked to get back into the game- although the way they did it was almost farcical.
Ashley Miller got the ball twenty yards out and ran into the box. Marshalled by two Cray defenders he seemed to be heading wide, when suddenly he tripped- seemingly over his own feet, there was certainly daylight between him and the defence. He hit the floor and the ball trickled out of play, whilst the referee stretched out his arm to signify a goal kick.
Or did he? Only the protests from the home defenders told the story. It seemed that he was actually pointing to the penalty spot; a decision which perplexed even the away supporters who were looking at each other and shaking their heads- which isn’t quite what the home fans were doing by this point. Danny Walder didn’t spend any time contemplating the decision, however; he simply stepped up and walloped the spot kick home without further ado, to reduce the arrears. Six minutes later and it was 4-2, Harry Stannard bundling the ball home after his first effort had been saved by Nick Blue, before he and the keeper bundled into each other. Was the comeback on? Wanderers should have been home and dry and yet now looked a little rattled.
Normal service was soon resumed, however. First Overland saved from Freiter, then from substitute Karl Dent, before Freiter was again frustrated- a free kick that could only have been seen late being touched around the post. Zak Henry then tried to make the game secure, but Overland was again equal to the effort, diving to save at point blank range. It was simply a goalkeeping masterclass, and without it Faversham could have been this week’s Shoreham.
As the game came to an end all attention moved to the Dripping Pan, as had Lewes lost then Wanderers would have gone top of the table- but the celebrations were only slightly dampened by the news that the Rooks had been victorious on a dripping Dripping Pan, the match only getting the go-ahead due to the efforts of home supporters in clearing water off the pitch earlier this morning. In truth, however, it didn’t really matter. Eighteen games unbeaten- the Bostik South’s very own Manchester City.
Speaking to media man Mark and vice-chair David before the game it was obvious that their focus wasn’t really on events on the pitch, but off it. Football is marvellous, it brings people together, it enhances the community in which it is played- but the people of Cray have to play it in somebody else’s community. If you wander around Hayes Lane there is not one mention that they exist- not a sign apart from the temporary version they’d put up themselves outside the turnstile, not a poster, not a name board. It was as if to the people in the area around the ground there was only one club playing at the stadium, and its name wasn’t Cray Wanderers.
Identity is crucial to football clubs and supporters. To have that identity you really need a home of your own, and it’s difficult to understand what more Cray could do to make that happen. Here’s hoping that they have the same luck as Horsham finally had earlier this year, and that government- whether local, regional or national- finally rubber-stamps their planning application and allows them to finally construct a new stadium.
They certainly have a team- and a set of supporters- worthy of filling it.
Undoubtedly Wanderers most precious Jewells!