Covid-19 and the non-league: Cray Wanderers expect challenging times

Cray CEO talks postponement of football, the team’s great form before this break, and George Taylor’s special day, as London’s oldest football club honoured its centenarian goalkeeper this month.

George Taylor, Cray Wanderers
Centenerian ex-Cray keeper George Taylor was honoured at Hayes Lane this month (photo: @PaulMat51794654)

Cray Wanderers CEO Sam Wright has joined a host of other non-league officials in expressing deep concern for the English football pyramid, if Coronavirus is to close turnstiles indefinitely.

The Isthmian League confirmed the postponement on Friday of weekend and midweek fixtures, with clubs expecting further news regarding this Saturday’s league programme.

Wright, whose side play in the league’s Premier Division, backs the measures, but at the same time fears the highly damaging affect that months without matches could have on the game at that level.

“You can’t be disappointed because ultimately it’s about safety. Most of our fans are older, so is it a risk for them guys going to watch the game, more so than the players who are young, fit and will probably recover OK if they get it [the virus].” Wright said.

“A lot of people who watch non-league football are in their sixties and above. So maybe they looked at it from that perspective.

“But it’s hard. I’m now trying to work out what we’re going to do if we don’t play again this season. It’s a big chunk of income we’re going to lose. What do we do about paying players? It’s a bit of a headache.”

The Isthmian League’s approach mirrored that of the Premier League and EFL, which both suspended fixtures until the beginning of April at the earliest. However, the National League, one step above Cray, went ahead with its schedule, which did surprise Wright.

“I presumed that the National League was also off, because I heard that all of the top end of the pyramid; National League, Isthmian, and all that, were meeting together to consider what we do as the top-end of the non-league pyramid. But we [the clubs] don’t get a say at all really.

“They’re buying themselves a bit of time I think. They’ll make a decision middle of next week, but I think it’s [Covid-19] probably only going to worse over the few weeks and months.

“The big question is going to be what do they do; Premier League, EFL, all of them, if it does get worse as they’re saying and there’s no football till June, mid-June, late-June? You can’t roll this season into the next.”

The inevitable break comes at a particularly inopportune time for The Wands, who sit second in their league following an unbeaten run stretching back to Boxing Day.

Cray, whose, next scheduled home game is not until 29th March charge adults £10 admission, and regularly draw crowds of around 200, with 621 against Enfield Town in October being the season-high.

Wright added: “One thing we were gutted about is that we’re on such a run, and have really got some momentum going: won nine and drawn three since Christmas; unbeaten in 2020. We were raring to go again.”

“If we don’t play this week and next week we’ll probably be alright. It’s if we don’t play the rest of the season that’s the worry, and how that would work out for the non-league pyramid, at our level.

“A lot of clubs work to a really really tight budget line. Will it put a few non-league clubs to the wall? If suddenly for the next few weeks there’s no football at all.”

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate across the UK and abroad, it has already been a March nobody is likely to forget. But at Cray, the month did begin with a special event, when ex-goalkeeper George Taylor, who turned 100 years old in January, was honoured at Hayes Lane.

Taylor’s football career was cut short by World War II, though he has clearly not been forgotten by Cray Wanderers, who he played his last match for in 1938. Wright reflects on the memorable occasion.

“George had the most amazing day. He’s an unbelievable guy, for 100 years old, everyone was going ‘I can’t believe it!’ He walked onto the pitch on his own, he booted the ball, he lives on his own, he shops still for himself, cooks for himself, and he’s 100 years old!”

“We got a lot of exposure that week which is good for club. We were on talkSPORT, BBC Radio, Sky Sports News. We got quite a few interviews out there.

“We had a little bit of interest from a TV company on the back of it as well, about a possible documentary around London’s oldest football club [Cray Wanderers], the new stadium and that kind of stuff.”

Mourinho Likely Revising Judgement on Spurs Squad

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Mourinho applauds Spurs fans after first game against West Ham in November

Now, with top four hopes fading fast and no FA Cup to compete for, next Tuesday’s second leg in Germany looks astronomically important, as Spurs seemingly have one game to extend their season by another two.

After a fourth straight defeat last night, beaten by Norwich to end Tottenham’s FA Cup hopes, Jose Mourinho is probably now realising that his Spurs squad is not as good as he thought it was.

When appointed head coach in November, following Mauricio Pochettino’s sacking, Mourinho was brimming with praise for the playing staff that he would be inheriting at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

But fast forward two-and-a-half months, and a combination of injuries and several disappointing results against immediate rivals, both domestically and in Europe, will surely have the Portuguese re-assessing what he has at his disposal.

“I would love to be on the first of July, but I am not”, Mourinho said last month after defeat to RB Leipzig in the Champions League last 16 first leg, the first loss of Spurs’ current slump. Stark contrast to his sentiments right at the beginning of his reign.

On 21st November 2019, Mourinho said: “Players… the best gift are the ones that are here. I don’t need players, I am happy with the players that I have. I just need time to understand them better to know everything about them.”

Of course he has lost Harry Kane. Son Heung-Min is also a huge miss, plus Moussa Sissoko, who Mourinho named as a particular loss within those post-Lepizig comments. But when appointing a so-called super coach like him, a club and its supporters do expect such problems to be navigated slightly better.

That is what he is paid so handsomely to do after all.

The truth is the slide at Tottenham started long before this season. Form has been no more than satisfactory for at least 12 months, as alluded to in The Year Ends in 1 (YE1) podcast prior to the Leipzig match (https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/ye1-on-location-spurs-vs-rb-leipzig/id1474531217?i=1000466284995).

The YE1 team all but agreed that the 3-0 win over Borussia Dortmund at Wembley, at the same stage of the Champions League last season, was in fact the last truly convincing Spurs display.

It is another discussion altogether whether or not Pochettino was afforded due backing for his achievements in N17, but what should not be levelled at Mourinho is any kind of suggestion that the poor results of late are a new phenomenon.

Pochettino lost 13 Premier League matches last season, and won just three games from the middle of February. Form which has translated into this campaign under both bosses.

However, that is not to say that Mourinho could or should not be doing better. Why has the defence not improved? Why can he not adapt and find a way of playing without a recognised striker? Especially when he said what he did in November about the quality of the squad.

No manager can ever afford to walk into a club and believe that he cannot do more than the previous guy. But Pochettino also had periods without both Kane and Son. Not so much the double blow, but did nonetheless have to negotiate key absences.

Dele Alli too from last August to October.

Without Kane, there is no guarantee of goals. Not even when Son is available. Lucas Moura, Erik Lamela, Son, Alli and now Steven Bergwijn; they are all extremely talented, yet highly inconsistent players who excite supporters when their names appear on a team sheet.

But by half-time, fans in the stands, their armchairs and on Twitter are calling for changes, and whomever has not started is suddenly the answer; forgetting that they had not delivered from the beginning the previous week.

The loyal Tottenham fan base will have hoped that Mourinho’s side, clearly in transition, could limp over the line into next season’s Champions League, perhaps scooping a trophy too.

But in reality, the current campaign is sadly looking more and more like a write-off, and that serious attacking reinforcements are required, while stalwartly defensive assets like Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier and Danny Rose (out on loan at Newcastle) in fact do not have the second wind in them that they might have had.

Also, forget not that Christian Eriksen has gone, whose stats throughout his six-and-a-half years at Spurs are not to be scoffed at…

On Eriksen, I do have my own theory as to why he wanted to leave England, which goes beyond football. Feel free to DM me @SimRJWright on Twitter to find out what that is.

Now, with top four hopes fading fast and no FA Cup to compete for, next Tuesday’s second leg in Germany looks astronomically important, as Spurs seemingly have one game to extend their season by another two.

AFC Bournemouth Face Pivotal Howe Decision

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Cherries fans visit new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for first time

The emotional aspect that Mr Mostyn will be forced to consider is something he simply does not need to get caught up in; this is not about Eddie Howe, this is about AFC Bournemouth and its identity.

For the first time since promotion to the Premier League, AFC Bournemouth have a decision to make over Eddie Howe’s future.

Having begun 2020 with three Premier League defeats, no goals, and with just one league victory since the beginning of November, The Cherries have slipped to 19th and are in serious relegation danger.

The club is relatively unique in modern terms as a top-flight side boasting a manager, Howe, whose tenure now stretches seven years, not to mention his previous 2008-2011 spell.

But even beside that, it has defied a club of its stature’s customary ceiling in maintaining Premier League status for half a decade, in spite of residing a stadium which would have the second smallest capacity (11,329) in the Championship, plus a modest and understated fanbase.

Notwithstanding all of this, Chairman Jeff Mostyn must make a call which is regular practice for Bournemouth’s largest Premier League compatriots: sack an underperforming manager, or back him to turn fortunes around?

Sentiment will of course be a major factor in this case; you do not need me to regurgitate the Dorset club’s story and Howe’s spearheading role in it, but the emotional aspect that Mr Mostyn will be forced to consider is something he simply does not need to get caught up in. Why?

Firstly, though it is a cliché that no individual is bigger than the club, that is just as much the case here as anywhere else.

Forget loyalty to Eddie Howe. He left them once before, he will get another job. This is not about Eddie Howe, this is about AFC Bournemouth, which will exist (provided it does not mismanage finances again) for generations after this unusually long managerial reign.

However, that is not to say that dismissing Howe is the answer. To reiterate that the club is top priority here, not the manager, it is the identity that Howe has instilled which allows it to operate as it does in the world’s foremost football league; something which sacking Howe could compromise.

Sceptics of the Bournemouth fairy-tale point sharply to Maxim Denim’s significant investment since becoming majority shareholder in 2011, claiming the rise from League Two to the Premier League as just another instance of ‘bought-success’ in English football.

But beyond that, Howe has kept a remarkable core of playing staff from the League One and Championship days, and coached the likes of Simon Francis, Steve Cook and Charlie Daniels to step-up through the pyramid and be competitive whichever division they contest within.

Assistant boss Jason Tindall, coach Steve Fletcher and technical director Richard Hughes the same. The trio are all former teammates of Howe’s there.

Moreover, by virtue of Howe’s positive philosophy, Bournemouth have consistently attracted talented young attackers who are either not making the grade in bigger sides or are plotting to further their development at a Premier League outfit.

In terms of the latter, injured Wales star David Brooks excelled in his first Vitality Stadium season, earning himself interest from the likes of Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.

But if the club was to dispense with its ethos and switch to a direct or pragmatic style in order to stay with the elite, would it still be that same appealing stepping-stone?

Even a defender like Nathan Aké, hardly propping up a watertight Cherries defence, is continuously scouted by Champions League clubs, as his quality on the ball and place alongside over-the-hill central colleagues or attack-first full-backs allow him to develop comfortably and unscrutinised.

AFC Bournemouth is therefore structured unlike any other Premier League club, so it is not an option for Mr Mostyn to hire a firefighter replacement for Howe to stay up this season.

If Howe has lost his drive to succeed, then that is the only justification to part ways. Not because the club owes him for his work, but because of the identity that the club has under him.

Though that is not to say that another head coach could not replicate this. Indeed, despite all probabilities being that Howe would remain at Bournemouth if the club were to be relegated, there are hungry coaches out there ready to permeate a new voice over the established structure.

For example, Swansea City’s appointments of, first, Graham Potter then Steve Cooper has the 2018-relegated Welsh outfit knocking at the door of the Premier League once again. Comparatively, Bournemouth, still backed by Denim, is a club on an even better footing to rebuild than the Swans.

The best decision AFC Bournemouth can make is to back Eddie Howe to ride out this injury-ravaged campaign, whatever the outcome may be.

Howe must right now pursue results by all means necessary. But long-term, the fairy-tale will be forgotten if Mr Mostyn changes gear at this stage. Indeed, Ian Holloway’s Blackpool side, and the captivating, narrowly-unsuccessful, football it played in 2010/11 is now but a blurry memory for English football fans.