With Charlton Athletic embroiled in an ongoing ownership struggle, Greenwich borough’s second club is readying itself for the new season. Cray Valley PM have already had a busy pre-season and with the recent announcement that fans will be allowed to attend fixtures, there is lots of preparation to be done.
Monday night saw their first game in front of fans in over five months, as a trip to Carshalton Athletic was played out in front of a reduced capacity crowd – clubs at their level can have an attendance of 15 per cent of their ground’s capacity. Tickets had to be booked online and there were signs around the ground reminding fans to social distance, along with numerous bottles of hand sanitiser.
For the players, it was a refreshing step towards normality. “Football’s a lot better with fans, even if it is limited. I don’t even know many were there…but it makes a difference”, says defender Kalvin Morath-Gibbs, who has been standing in as captain this summer for Cray. “Even in the bar you can speak to people again, which is a change. You can mingle with fans, old players, things like that, which is always nice.”
Cray are based in Eltham and play in the Isthmian League South East Division, seven tiers below the Premier League. Founded in 1919, they were initially called Cray Valley Paper Mills, after the paper-making industry in the Cray Valley which dated back to the 18th century. The team played at the sports ground at the mills at St Pauls Cray, until their closure in 1981. After that, the club abbreviated Paper Mills to ‘PM’ and found a new home at the Badgers Sports Ground in Middle Park Avenue.
The initial feeling when football was halted by the pandemic was one of bewilderment for most of the players. “It’s actually been more difficult than I thought, ‘cos normally when you get to the end of the season you need the break, you need your two months off or whatever, to be refreshed. But you have your team and you get that itch that you want to start training, and you can’t really do anything,” Morath-Gibbs says.
“With football, it’s hard to do stuff on your own. So even when they announce you can do exercise, you can do fitness work, you can do running, you can’t really play football. So you get the itch that you want to play, you want to start doing stuff and you weren’t really allowed. In that respect, it was a bit frustrating.”
Morath-Gibbs and his teammates felt that Cray had a good chance of getting promoted but their league was suspended and then cancelled altogether.
“We didn’t think that they would ‘null and void’ a whole season when we were, I think, over 75% done,” he continues.
“We’d done well, we had a good run towards the end of the season and got ourselves in a good position so we were hoping we’d get promoted. Obviously we were quite disappointed cos we felt like most of the season was completed and we’d done enough to go up.”
As soon as the new guidance allowed it, players returned to training in groups during July. The management team also put on a selection of optional training activities to help get the group reintegrated, including a bike ride around some of London’s football stadiums.
By the end of the month, Cray will have played six friendlies and with a home FA Cup tie against VCD Athletic scheduled for Saturday 12th September, the team is eager to begin.
“I think we’re almost ready to go,” says Morath-Gibbs. “And cos we’ve had the long pre-season, you’re ready to get the main stuff started.”
Unfortunately, the return of football has taken its toll on one of the Cray Valley cohort, as seasoned defender Nat Blanks picked up an achilles injury against Chislehurst-based side Glebe in a recent friendly.
A fundraiser page has been started to support Blanks and his family while he recovers. “He snapped his achilles, just an innocuous one,” says Morath-Gibbs. “It’ll be a good few months. He’s been operated on, which went well. To be fair, a lot of clubs are good with that, I feel.”
The club are now putting the finishing touches to welcome crowds back to the Badgers Sports Ground. It will host the London FA Senior Trophy Final tonight, between Peckham Town and AFC Cubo, and Cray will play another home friendly on Tuesday against Charlton Athletic U23s. Fans are welcome at both matches.
All this will help in the promotion for the local derby (of sorts) against Crayford-based VCD on September 12th.
David Carter, the club’s match secretary, said, “There is a lot of work being done behind the scenes to prepare for the return of spectators, with signage and sanitiser stations, amongst many other tasks. Our local area has a lot of Charlton and Millwall supporters who may not be able to get to see them play as much with their capacities being reduced.
“There is a feeling and hope that some of them keen to see some live football may come along and watch non-league football instead. Hopefully they will like what they see and get the bug.”
Cray Valley PM v Charlton Athletic U23s kicks-off at 7.45pm on Tuesday 1 September. Tickets available on the gate, card payments preferred.
HUGO GREENHALGH is a freelance journalist who also presents the Dulwich Hamlet podcast, Forward The Hamlet.