Looking for something to warm me up on a cold winter’s day, the 5th Round FA Vase tie between Cray Valley Paper Mills and Abbey Rangers caught my eye.
Many football teams around today started out as factory teams, providing social and welfare facilities for their manual workers. While the paper mills in the valley of the River Cray in North West Kent have long gone, their name lives on in their works football team, proudly in its Centenary Year. Cray Valley Paper Mills play in the clumsily named Southern Counties East League Premier Division, where they are in 4th place, and in tremendous form, with five wins out of five in January, scoring 15 goals and conceding only 2. Their own ground has long gone the way of the Mills, lost under concrete and tarmac, and they now play at the Badgers Sports Ground, near Eltham Palace in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Grand, eh?
While Cray Valley PM have solid roots in old-school vintage football, the away team Abbey Rangers have a much more recent heritage. They are mere youngsters, formed in 1976 as a youth club, to meet the modern social and health needs of community and family, near Chertsey Abbey in Surrey on the South West side of the M25. They play in the only slightly less clumsily named Combined Counties (Which counties? No idea!) League Premier Division where they are also 4th, and their January was equally impressive, with five wins out of six, scoring 11 and conceding 6.
This looked like a really well matched game between two form teams, but with the weather making the pitch likely to cut up as much as Aintree on the second lap of the Grand National, would it deliver on a pudding as well as it looked as if it should on paper? I set the sat nav for the Royal Borough to find out.
Transition from the Kent countryside to 1930’s suburbia was a drive up the A20 Sidcup bypass, which starts out wide and welcoming before settling into the familiar South London hop from one set of lights to the next. However, turning off this dreary dual carriageway, my route opened out to a wonderful wide green panorama, once the deer park in the grounds of Eltham Palace and home to the wealth of Kings, now the grounds of the Civil Service Sports Club and presumably home to a wealth of Brexit magic money trees. Well, they have to grow them somewhere suitable, don’t they?
Badgers Sports and Social Club nearby occupies a modest space, squashed in between a housing estate and the South Circular – more servants quarters than Royal Park, but is no less welcoming for that. It’s located a couple of miles south of Charlton’s ground at The Valley, if that helps you place it, and is also home to their Development Squad, and Greenwich Borough FC. The ground has one small seated stand on one side, and covered standing on the other, as well as creative use of left over scaffolding to cover one end behind a. goal, and a muddy but solid looking pitch.
First up the busy little bar, offering only standard Club eurofizz on tap, was slightly overwhelmed by the arrival of a full supporters coach from Abbey, including a cohort of fully kitted out flag waving hyperactive Abbey juniors, and this promised well for a bit of atmosphere at the match, In spite of the decibel level, it was preferable to being outside in the icy north wind until the game started, and when it did, it didn’t take long to get in to its stride.
Abbey pounded down the slope and on 5 minutes a throw in the on right was crossed back in, and Hartlebury unmarked at the back post nodded in. The noisy crowd from Abbey upped the volume early as their big side took the game to Cray, who took a while to settle. They did so on 15 minutes when a fluke lob from a half cleared cross looped over the Abbey keeper to make it 1-1. After this Abbey stretched the game well, while Cray focused on keeping their moves tight and short, with occasional long balls over the top of Abbey’s high line.
Abbey kept one time Premier League striker Kevin Lisbie quiet, and 15 seasons on from scoring a hat trick against Liverpool, he could only manage one shot into the fir trees in the first half. However, a lovely chipped finish by Tomlin, who had recently joined from Dulwich, put Cray 2-1 up just before half time, which looked ominous for the visitors. Both teams had played exactly the attacking game I had hoped for, but apart from picking the ball out of the net neither keeper had much to do as two competent defences coped well, as did the muddy but solid pitch.
Coping well was something which the tea bar comprehensively failed to do at half time, as the shambolic staff of four spent the entire break and more getting in each other’s way, managing to serve just 12 cups of tea in 20 minutes, so I’ve no idea how each side started the second half.
However, on 55 minutes Edgar took on a great through ball from Lisbie and, in the match-defining moment, Abbey’s last defender Kersley brought him down just outside the box and was rightly sent off. The resulting free kick sailed over bar, but Abbey were now restricted to playing just one up front when defending, or three at the back when attacking, crucially limiting their options. A tedious group of Abbey casuals who’d had two shandies on the bus, and whose vocabulary was limited to words beginning with the letters c and f, had applauded Kersley when he was sent off, but his gamble cost them the game. Abbey responded with great commitment and spirit, but never really looked like scoring, and Cray tightened their grip. Lisbie hit the bar on 65 minutes, and on 89 minutes Babalola did so again, but this time it was recycled and slotted home to make it 3-1. Lisbie had a couple more chances, as did Babilola, but that was it for the day.
Smith and Sains from Cray stood out for me, but their whole unit was well drilled and very composed, and deserved their win. Abbey also deserve full credit for making a match of it. Both teams played good quality, clean, high energy football, and this neutral was royally entertained. I hope the other 216 there on the day felt the same.
Another Saturday afternoon well spent. Cray Valley Paper Mills march on, and in this form have a league and cup double to dream of, while Abbey Rangers also have real promotion prospects. Good luck to them both.
Walk off music