Pitch perfect: council-owned Croydon Arena looks ready for the new football season

Local non-league sides kick-off the new season on Saturday with a home-coming and hopes that, at the very least, they will be able to complete their fixtures this time round, as ANDREW SINCLAIR reports

Having been left to count the cost of two abandoned seasons, Croydon’s non-league clubs are looking to channel that frustration for the new campaign, in different leagues, against different opponents and, at last, back in their own home grounds and in front of their fans once more.

For Croydon FC, they’re hoping that it’ll be third time lucky for their “project” – getting out of Southern Counties East Football League Division One – and boss Liam Giles believes they’ve found “the right formula” to make those promotion dreams a reality.

“I felt last season we were good enough to compete for top four, but this season we’re a totally different side,” Giles said this week.

“We’re more the finished article. We’re stronger in all departments. We’ve signed some good youngsters but our core, our spine, are experienced players that have been there, done it, and got the T-shirt.”

Front man: Croydon’s new striker, Tim Beckford. Pic: Paul Davis

The Trams’ new striker Tim Beckford, 35, is a ready-made replacement for Andy Somo, who is now with Chipstead Town.

Croydon only lost twice in the league in the curtailed 2020-2021 season, yet they had the division’s second-worst defensive record, so in goal, Montserrat international Nic Taylor is an impressive addition.

Wide player Richard Pingling, a former Burnley scholar and pro with Wimbledon, returns to Croydon, with Giles saying “I’ve never seen him so fit.”

Giles, who’s known Pingling since he was 15, said: “When he got his release at Wimbledon, I think his attitude to football went. You do find that with a lot of lads that get released out of pro clubs. He’s gone away and worked with Horley Town. He seems to have matured a lot, he’s in the shape of his life and he looks a different player. No doubt I’ll have a lot of offers come in for him but I’m hoping that he’ll stick with the project – at least until Christmas! I’m confident we’ll see the best of him in a Croydon shirt this season.”

Croydon’s most prudent off-season addition may prove to be their new first-team coach, Sean Boothe. Giles credits the former Meridian VP assistant manager with helping the players win four of their five pre-season games.

“Bringing him in is massive for us,” Giles said. “Sean will develop the players. I’m no coach, I’m not going to develop us and change the style of play as well as he can. That’s his strong point. You can see the results already.”

Following the FA’s long-awaited restructuring of the non-league pyramid, announced in May, the SCEFL Div 1 now comprises 20 teams, including six fresh opponents for Croydon.

Unlike last year, when the top four sides were set to go up automatically, this season’s fight for promotion looks a little different. The league winners will go up automatically, while those finishing second to fifth will enter into playoffs.

Home sweet home: the Croydon boss is looking forward to a return to the Arena

Croydon begin their 2021-2022 campaign tomorrow with a return, at last, to their home ground at Croydon Arena (“The pitch is looking the best I’ve seen it in 20 years,” Giles tweeted this week) against one of the division’s new faces, Staplehurst.

It will be the Trams’ first game at the Arena in close to 18 months. Croydon Council’s failure to reopen the ground for the 2020-2021 season meant that Giles’ men had to play their seven league games away and played at “home” in a couple of cup games held at Chislehurst and Crystal Palace. Being back at the Arena could be vital to their promotion hopes.

“We get good numbers at home, probably one of the biggest in our league. There’s nothing like being able to turn up to your home ground and know how the pitch plays. We need to make the Arena a fortress this year. It can be a horrible place to go. It’s open, it’s a very big pitch and we need to play to our strengths.”

Across the borough in Thornton Heath, Croydon Athletic are preparing for life in a new division altogether, after the FA’s restructure shuffled them from the SCEFL Premier Division to the new Combined Counties Premier Division South. Boss Kevin Rayner believes the move will suit his side.

“In the SCEFL Premier, you’ve got two or three real big spenders. It’s difficult to do anything much unless you can compete with Chatham and Sheppey, which not many can,” Rayner told Inside Croydon.

“I think this dvision will be a little more open and competitive, although you’ve got Jersey, who’ll be very strong, and Beckenham. It’s a good, competitive league, and I think we’ve got more of a chance.”

Rayner’s Rams squad includes Nahum Green, who has made more than 200 appearances for the club. Their opening fixture is against Cobham at the Mayfield Stadium tomorrow.

Rams’ Rayner: Athletic’s boss is confident about prospects in a new league

Because of covid-19, the match will be Athletic’s first competitive game since a 4-2 defeat against Corinthian on October 24 2020.

The elephant in the room for both managers is whether this season, unlike the two previous, will actually be played to a conclusion. Outbreaks of covid variants, especially in parts of Kent – where many of the SCEFL clubs are based – devastated the league fixture list in 2020-2021.

“I fear that if covid strikes again, people won’t bother,” Giles said. “People put in a lot of effort and if it ends again with no firm conclusion, it’ll push a lot of people away and kill some clubs financially.

“Seeing that they’ve used points-per-game to determine league positions last season, all we can do is win as many games as we can early doors and put ourselves in a strong position so that if it does get halted, we’d be promoted.”

Rayner says that, “We’re definitely going to have some interruptions along the way”. With Channel Islanders Jersey in the division, travel restrictions could play a part.

“You’ve seen in pre-season, there’s a number of clubs that have had to cancel games because of covid and that’ll only continue,” Rayner said. “One difficulty I think Jersey will have is actually going back and forth from the island for games. They’ve had to cancel most of their pre-season for that reason.”

New challenge: JJ Johnson (left) is one of the players Croydon FC are hoping will help to secure promotion. Pic: Paul Davis

And the impact of the pandemic is also being reflected in Athletic’s ticketing policy for 2021-2022, when NHS staff will be offered free entry to all their home games played at the Mayfield Stadium, in appreciation of their efforts.

Athletic will once again share their home ground with Balham, who as a result of the arrangement were also shuffled across to the Combined Counties league. If Balham are able to replicate their form from last year they’ll be contenders, especially if Rayner’s new confidence in the Mayfield pitch is warranted.

“It played very well on Saturday and it’s looking 100 per cent better than it has the last two or three years,” he said.

It’s a different proposition altogether for Whyteleafe. In June, their Church Road ground was bought by Singaporean-based, Ian Rush-backed property group Irama, who refused to grant a new lease to The Leafe, and the club was forced to withdraw from the Isthmian League. They remain homeless and league-less.

Fixtures

AFC Croydon Athletic

Sat 31st July: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Cobham (H)
Sat 7th Aug: FA Cup Extra Prelim Rd v Crowborough (A)
Tue 10th Aug: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Horley T (A)
Sat 14th Aug: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Guildford C (H)
Tues 17th Aug: Combined Counties Prem Div South v Redhill T (H)

Croydon FC

Sat 31st July: SCEFL Div 1 v Staplehurst (H)
Sat 7th Aug: SCEFL Div 1 v Greenways (H)
Tue 10th Aug: SCEFL Div 1 v Chessington & Hook Utd (A)
Sat 14th Aug: SCEFL Div 1 v Lydd T (A)
Sat 21st Aug, SCEFL Div 1 v Elmstead (H)

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