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Non-league Incider: Cray Valley Paper Mills 4-4 Punjab United Gravesend

After ripping up my groundhopping calendar, mostly because I was determined to avoid overnight travel, and partly due to other commitments, there was a period of time where non-league football took a backseat.

But that period did not last long. Because of course it didn't.

Secretly, I'd loved travelling over ten hours back-and-forth to watch some 10th division football. And this was 9th division football in London.

When I had gone to East Dulwich exactly a week back, I had commented on how the amount of graffiti struck me as I watched from on board a southeastern train. I was going the exact same way, but much further this time - then I had stopped at Denmark Hill, now I would have to go six stations further. The graffiti I had thought was so emblematic of south London quickly disappeared, as did the tall buildings desperately cluttered together. We, and by we I mean me, were going to the suburbs. The stations became quieter and emptier, the surroundings of the train's journey became greener and sparser, the elevation of the houses became lower - if you blinked, you could lose sight of an entire community.

Just on the fringes of the South Circular, London's second ring road, lies Eltham. The walk from the station to the ground revealed nothing that I hadn't already seen - a quiet, residential suburb with large green open spaces. The narrow streets but without the nuisance of traffic, the electric wires visible and hanging low, the detached homes with plenty of space between them - this was London too. Not the London you see or hear about often, mind you.

Cray Valley Paper Mills, like the name suggests, has deep ties to the paper mill industry. The club originally played at the sports ground of the paper mills in St Paul's Cray. But when the mills closed in 1981, the club then played at numerous grounds until moving permanently to the Badgers Sports Ground in Eltham.

Those paper mills may never come back. And the club isn't going back to St Paul's Cray any time soon either - Cray Wanderers has become the local football team of the area. And Cray Valley has established itself in Eltham.

But you wouldn't know that if you went there. If you went there, you would see Greenwich Borough FC stamped all over the ground - including a poster for the league they play in. Cray Valley barely gets a mention on the front of the ground. Inside, the "keep out the goal" sign had the Greenwich badge. So did most of the advertisement boards. And the explanation for that, perhaps, is quite simple. Cray Valley play one tier lower on the English football ladder than Greenwich. Despite the fact that it was Greenwich who, in 2016, agreed a 30-year lease to share the ground.

Such are the oddities and realities of groundsharing in the non-league world.

Appearances are one thing, reality another. I was pleasantly surprised to see someone walk up to me after I had gotten my ticket and hand me a printed team sheet.

But then, as I sat in the stands, the first thing I noticed was that the "No standing in this area" sign in the stand area had the Greenwich logo on it. Another one? Are they trying to take this ground, I thought, thinking about all the horror stories of clubs being forced to leave their own homes.

Those thoughts, irrational as they might have been, kept me occupied before the game started. That, and the match day program from which I learnt that this was the 100th season for the club. Wow, they must have been here since the late 1800s, I thought, before realizing that the current year is 2018. It's just a privilege to see your mind at work, I told myself.

"Play, play, play!" he cried.

Punjab United's no. 5, Paul Lorraine, was keen to remind his teammates. They weren't going to play any way. They were going to play their way. With the ball at their feet.

They would play, play, no avail. The ridiculously high line meant that Cray Valley had space to run into. And up top, no. 9 Francis Babalola looked dangerous, not just in the air but along the ground too. He combined on the right with no. 7 Jake Rose in the 13th minute, with a shot wide off the post - Jake Rose already had forced the keeper to make a save earlier.

A goal was coming. And it came six minutes later, with Jake Rose crossing the ball to Cem Tumkaya to head home. More goals should have followed - no. 10 Kevin Lisbie missed a rebound which came off the post after a Babalola shot. On the left, no. 11 Anthony Edgar was making some interesting late runs into the box, and when he did find himself in space he managed to blast the shot over the top.

A second was coming. You could feel it. It should have happened. It was supposed to. And then, against every inkling of the run of play, after the calls for playing the ball had been scoffed at and had even started to faint, Punjab scored. William Johnson-Cole held up the ball, and let the frightening pace of their no. 7 do the rest. Simon Cuthbert's equalizing goal in the 36th minute prompted a second cheer from the crowd - there was more than one away fan at the ground that day.

The goalkeeper and captain of Cray Valley, Andy Walker, immediately got up and shouted. Cursed at the defense. Rallied the rest. Told them all to go again.

But there were some shocked faces in that defense. A minute later they would hang even lower - uncertainty in their ranks gave way for Cuthbert to run behind them, latching onto a ball he had no business getting to. 2-1. A third cheer followed. So did a second groan from some home fans. Followed by a second rallying cry from the captain.

Cray Valley were a tough team. A good team - with a run and gun style that was standard for most non league sides, and with the players to clearly make it work. But Punjab had a right side that any team would envy. At right back, donning the no. 2 shirt, Giannoulis Fakinos, short but quick, was an unlikely playmaker, making diagonal runs into central midfield with the ball. And on the right wing, Cuthbert was making deadly underlapping runs, trying to move centrally whenever he got the chance.

The inactivity on Punjab's left side was summed up by this picture I took, which summed up the evening nicely - Cray's right handed defender, unpressed, with the ball and no passing options, as Greenwich Borough and Cray Valley both have their banners on the wall:

Half time came soon enough for Cray Valley, a Punjab free-kick tipped wide with the faintest of touches two minutes prior. As I queued up for food, I noticed the person in front of me had a pink T-shirt on. Was he a Dulwich fan? I thought, not really sure.

"Yes," he responded. After I asked the question, that is.

Stuart was a Dulwich fan but "went around" to see other games in London. If there was a commonly used synonym for groundhopping, I had found one. I needed one, too - you can't go around saying you're a groundhopper after three games. Don't be daft.

He'd been there for the Dulwich vs East Thurrock game, and was planning to go around the country to watch the new inhabitants of the sixth tier's National League South. When I asked if he was looking forward to any future games, he said Truro City in November. Yep, the one in Cornwall.

The teams came out again, and our conversation ended. I felt something. I don't know what it was - but the Cray Valley players had this new sense of aura around them.

Somewhere in Eltham, a football ground was now a battlefield. Each team was trying to cancel out the other. Strengths and weaknesses of individual players were largely ignored by each other - this was a battle of men against men. A collective against another. Everyone was expected to show up.

And initially, only one team did. For the first time that game Punjab were forced to retreat. Two minutes in and Cray Valley had forced two corners. Five minutes in they woke a slumbering crowd into cheers, with Edgar passing the ball through for Babalola to slot home.

Punjab had nothing to say. They were weak in the air. The calls to play had died completely. The right side of Cray Valley slipped past Punjab time and time again, Jake Rose silently excellent on the night. In the 57th minute, it was Jake Rose's cross that created another goal, that of no. 10 Kevin Lisbie, whose powerful header 12 yards out gave Cray the lead once more. He would be the protagonist seven minutes later again, as midfielder Jack White's long throw needed just a flick to reach the net at the far post. It was Cray's four goal on the night.

They say a two goal lead is the worst lead. The commentators say it all the time. The words fly out like synonyms - complacency. A false sense of security.

You've read the title. You know what comes next.

"Three at the back!" the instruction was bellowed.

"Have we ever played three at the back?" asked the always vocal no. 5. The change in intonation on the "ever" was markedly pronounced, as if to relay the fact that this was a suicidal idea. He knew the answer.

The response came. It was serious, dead serious. "No."

We all laughed. Cray fans, Punjab fans, non-Eltham based groundhoppers - the slightest expectation of a calm, affirmative response quickly dismissed. It really was suicidal - kill or be killed. And Paul Lorraine's roll of the eyes said it before I could think it.

The extra man up front came in handy in the 82nd minute, a header by no. 4 Kieran Simms tightening the scores. Punjab were playing again. Cray were retreating, trying to hang on. The crowd started to grow nervous. Everyone had clenched themselves for a close finish.

In the second minute of extra time, the ball was played behind. Cray's no. 2, Josh James, passed it to the goalkeeper. I was diagonally opposite the run of play. I hadn't seen it at first. None of the Cray fans had either. But when a player donning a red shirt took a touch of the ball, we knew. We all knew.

In just a few milliseconds of madness, everything had changed. The back pass wasn't good enough. And Punjab's no. 8, Joe Loft, needed just one touch to beat the onrushing keeper at the near post.

Cray Valley went again, their captain would have been livid had they tried to sit back and take the point, but time was not on their side. The 4-4 scoreline was, in a harsh way, quite fair - defensive mistakes went punished, and that's life.


I didn't stick around for long - it was an hour to get back home. I had to take the 321 to Lewisham, catch a DLR to Bank and then take the Tube from there. I remember standing at the DLR station, waiting for a train with my match program in hand.

"Were you at the game?" asked a man, pointing to the booklet.

I recognized him. He had exited the bus with me.

"Yep. Were you?"

He nodded. Graham was a Greenwich resident, and "went around" too. He gave me the first tip of groundhopping I have ever received, extolling the virtues of Kentish Football, a site dedicated to serve the whims and fancies of all crazed footballing fans in the Kent area. And by the Kent area, I mean before 1889, when the County of London was created and took over responsibility for local administration of parts of north-west Kent. Which means towns like Deptford, Greenwich, Woolwich, Lee, Eltham, Charlton, Kidbrooke and Lewisham that used to be part of Kent are included on the site. Handy for me, I presume.

We discussed the game, but apart from that we didn't have much time to talk. But, his passion for the website he recommended meant that if I did decide to frequent south-east clubs in London it wouldn't be long before we met again.

The long journey home alone didn't bother me. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed these journeys, even if they were long. Especially if they were long. Maybe the football wasn't the thing drawing me to these games. Maybe it was going to places very few could claim to have been to.

Maybe it was simply sitting in trains, enjoying the journey, knowing another one was on the way very soon.

Cider Checklist

Football club bar in bold.

Badgers Sports Ground (Middle Park Avenue) - Strongbow - £3.50

Club Bulletin

Club: Cray Valley Paper Mills Football Club
Play in: Southern Counties East League Premier Division (9th Tier)
Stadium: Badgers Sports Ground, Eltham

Opponents: Punjab United Football Club Gravesend
Date: 15th August, 2018
Time: 19:45

How to get there:

From London Victoria: Take the Southeastern train, get off at Eltham. It's a 20 minute walk from there.
From London Bank: Take the DLR to Lewisham, then take the 321 bus towards Foots Cray (Sidcup) and get off at Eltham Hill Westhorne Avenue bus stop. It's a stone's throw from there.

Exchange your dinner for a:

Match-day ticket - £8*
Club badge - £3
Team sheets - £0**

Cheeseburger - £3.50

*No physical ticket is provided, but the match-day program is free with admission

**Look out for someone walking around the ground handing them out.

Other pictures:

Some more pictures outside the ground

Game gets underway...

Second half...

Full time, and disappointment on the faces of the Cray Valley players...

Club bar, with food available on the right (then closed)


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