Life in the non-league: Welcome to Cray

As the winter weather takes hold, numerous fixtures across the country are being postponed each week. And whilst England’s top leagues will remain unaffected by the heavy rainfall and frozen pitches, spare a thought for the lower league clubs in English football, who have neither the funds nor facilities to take such action.

People tend to forget that some of the lower league clubs created the building blocks for top flight English football. And there is no better example than Cray Wanderers. Formed in 1860, they are the oldest association football club in London and claim to be the “second oldest team in the world”.

They currently sit 23rd in the Ryman League Division One North table, the eighth level in the football pyramid. And as the league table suggests, the club have not had an easy journey. In fact, for the last 16 years, The Crays have not even had their own ground.

The side currently play their games at Bromley FC’s Hayes Lane, after being forced to move from their former Oxford Road ground in 1998 when the Kent League ruled that participating clubs needed floodlighting to continue playing at that level.

And as a result, Cray are second choice to their higher division, stadium companion. As Bromley own the ground, they call the shots and when the weather begins to deteriorate, it is Cray who suffer as a result. So far this season, 71 games have been played at the Fortress stadium. Compare that to London clubs in the top flight, and less than 15 games would have been played on the perfect turf of a Premier League pitch at this stage in a season.

Cray pitch
The Hayes Lane pitch that both Cray Wanderers and Bromley play on.

Cray Wanderers have already had two games postponed this campaign, leading to a loss in takings, whilst also leading to a fixture pile up later in the season. The Wands press officer, Mark Hunt, admits that the situation isn’t ideal: “We’re still playing at Bromley but we really want our own ground because it gives you that independence. We’re dependent on Bromley and as the landowners here, if they say the pitch isn’t up to scratch, you can’t really play on it.”

There are also heavy financial implications to not having your own ground. The club cannot generate its own revenue because it has to split its takings with Bromley. Pair that with dwindling attendance figures (the club attract an average of just under 100 people per game) and the future looks bleak.

Fortunately for the club, they have a set of chairmen who are focused on getting back in the right direction. In recent years, two new stadium proposals have been rejected by Bromley council, however a third attempt looks to be materialising. Vice-Chairman, David Francis, spoke exclusively to WNOL Sport about Cray’s future; “We have found a site which we have an option on and we want to build a brand new stadium. The aim is to be a self sustainable club, which at this level you need in order to get some income.”

Under the new stadium plan, the club has already signed a conditional contract to purchase a plot of land in the Sidcup area and chairman Gary Hillman plans for the side to kick off the 2017/18 season in the new stadium.

The planned 2,200 capacity ground will not only give London’s oldest club the opportunity to operate independently, but it will also create better community links, allow the club to hire out parts of the venue and with the installation of an all weather artificial grass pitch, will enable the majority of games to go ahead.

Unsurprisingly, Francis believes that the proposed new ground ticks all the boxes: “It will have a 3G pitch, it will have training facilities as well, so it will be very much community led. It will have a gymnasium, a restaurant with a function area and the opportunity for pitch hire, which is a key revenue stream for us.”

What’s most important is that the ground will be their own. It will give Cray Wanderers an identity that they currently seem to lack. And with an identity, it will drive up the fan base.

Hunt, who began following The Wands in 2010, believes that the club’s status as London’s oldest football club should increase interest in the side: “People always ask; ‘where about are the Cray’s?’ The more publicity we can get the better. We have had a Thailand TV company filming us this year, we’ve had enquiries from Italian and Greek TV all wanting to do a piece about Cray Wanderer’s because we are so old. It’s good to get publicity because we need it. As you can see, we’re not going to have a very big crowd here: we might beat 40 or 50, so people wanting to talk about Cray Wanderer’s is good.”

Cray supporters
Supporters in attendance at Cray’s Kent Senior Cup game vs Ramsgate

The immediate future of London’s oldest side remains at Bromley however, and whilst the facilities there rival most in the Conference, it still doesn’t feel like home. After every step you are greeted by a billboard or hoarding promoting Bromley. There are no signs of a Cray badge apart from the temporary notice hung above one of the very few open turnstiles.

There is no doubt that Cray’s recent failures in trying to secure planning permission has affected the club. Relegation from the Ryman Premier League last season after a five-year spell compounded the clubs recent misery. For now, the aim is to survive in the Ryman League as relegation into the Kent League would be a disaster.

But eventually a break will come, and that will lead to a turn in fortunes as a result of the increased revenue that will derive from individually owning facilities, which will help the club and community. It is predicted that the installation of a 3G pitch will allow teams and local sides to use the pitch for up to 60 hours a week as opposed to just five or six hours on a grass surface.

If you think life at the top is tough, you need to visit the non-league. Just ask London’s oldest football club. But the club is ambitious and the future is bright. As Gary Hillman said when questioned on the new stadium; “I am very excited. Football hasn’t been played here for over four years so it will be good to bring this sporting facility back to life.” And the initiative is sure to breathe some life back into Cray. The Wands have a realistic long term plan in place, and maybe that will get them to a level they deserve to be at.

With thanks to Cray Wanderers for allowing WNOL Sport access to their recent game against Ramsgate.

Want to know more about Cray? See our club profile of them here.

Picture Credits: Alice Mason and Joe Aldridge

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