BY MARK DOIG
Celebrating their 100th season, Cray Valley Paper Mills have enjoyed the best ever FA Cup run in their history.
They have also won the Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division and are now preparing for a date at Wembley as they contest the final of the FA Vase against Chertsey Town on Sunday (12.15pm).
As good as the cup runs have been, Cray Valley manager Kevin Watson confirmed that it was the league that was the most important to him.
“That was our objective at the beginning of the season.” he said. “I’m really pleased that we’ve accomplished that.
“It’s been a difficult season, in a sense of it has been a tight league throughout but we’ve always found ourselves chasing. We lost the first game away at AFC Croydon so it’s been difficult and it possibly makes it more pleasing as such.
“It went down to the last game of the season. We couldn’t have thought of a tougher opposition in terms of Canterbury considering the factor of revenge following the FA Vase.
“This club is in a position, both on and off the pitch, where we need to be in the league above. The Southern Counties is a tremendous league and we’ve really embraced and enjoyed our time there but it’s important that the club progresses. It’s one of the hardest leagues to get out of – only one gets promoted.
“That’s rare when you look through the non-league pyramid but we’re pleased to have done it.”
Due to cup successes on top of their league programme, the Vase final will be their 62nd game of the season.
Watson said: “Probably more than most teams will play at this level and it does take its toll. I think we’ve had a player play 56 games out of 61.
“We didn’t play the first-team in the first game, the charity game, but other than that we’ve gone into every game in every competition trying to go at full strength. It’s difficult because we’ve not had one spare week as such, and for the majority it’s been two games a week’”
Such has been their success in the last few weeks that their FA Cup run seems to be a distant memory when they were eventually knocked out by National League South club Oxford City.
“People’s memories are relatively short in terms of the successes when you think of the Vase and the league.” he said. “But that was the furthest that the club has ever progressed in the FA Cup and it was important to achieve something quite early on and that was an achievement in itself.
“Whether it’s as good as the FA Vase is down to people’s judgement. We’ve played a lot of games in the FA Vase but to get to where we got in the FA Cup we played against opposition from higher. We beat Merstham who progressed to the play-offs to get promoted from the Bostik Premier.”
Very few players have come in during the season, but one was Gavin Tomlin who played the first half of the season in the National League South for Dulwich Hamlet.
Explaining how Tomlin was persuaded to drop down a few leagues, Watson said: “It’s important to cast your net wide for players at the level below, at the same and levels above.
“[First-team coach] Kevin James was at Dulwich and knows him well. Kevin Lisbie knows him well, and I know of him. We were looking for somebody at the time for his position and we put three or four names down and we had a conversation.
“At that time his time at Dulwich was not where it needed to be and he made the decision to come to us. We had a conversation about it and it was right for him and right for the club. He wasn’t getting a great deal of game time down there and this is local to him so it was amicable for both parties. We needed someone and he fit the bill. It was convenient for him.”
Another impressive signing was the experience Lea Dawson who has played for most of the Bostik League clubs in the area.
Watson explained: “What happens at this level is that it needs to fit in with people’s lives as well.
“They sacrifice quite a lot with family and commitments at work and some of the boys knew Lea. He was at Ashford at the time and it was about bringing in the right character. “
We have a low turnover of players. If you look at the number of players that were actually truly used in this whole campaign, I would say it’s one of the lowest in the league. We may have brought in five players since the first game of the season. There may be one or two who have gone.
“It’s not a high turnover of players. We pride ourselves on that because it’s important that when we’re making decisions to bring people in it has to be the right players. Sometimes we’ve identified that we need a player and whilst we need him quite quickly, we’ve delayed it to get the right personality and somebody that’s got the ability on the pitch to fulfil the need.”
One of the downsides of the longer season than most is that some clubs have already started recruiting for next season.
Watson said: “I’ve not discussed next season with any of the players yet, and that’s one of the things that has hindered us a little bit in terms of progression in the FA Vase because our preparations for next season have been put back by three weeks whereas other managers are planning.
“We need to focus and prepare for the 19th but I will have those conversations with the players now that we know what league we are in. First and foremost, I’ll try and speak to our squad and check where their mindsets are ahead of next season.
“If the team is good enough to win that league, it’s important that we give them the opportunity to compete in the league above. Nobody ends up with exactly the same squad the following season. Yes, there’s some players that we’d like to bring in. Are they wholesale changes? Absolutely not. We will do the right things first in speaking to our players before we speak to any targets.”
Promotion means a little more travel but Watson isn’t too concerned.
“Guernsey is an exception.” he said “There is slightly more of a commitment in terms of travel but where we’re based, we’re in a good location to travel both sides. That’s something that we’ve got to embrace a little bit. The higher the leagues you move up, geographically it spreads a bit wider, but it’s not too extreme. Not until you get into the Conference South are you travelling. In the Ryman Premier, it’s not too bad.”
One thing that Watson is sure of is that the Millers are not going up just to make up the numbers.
“Our mentality here, this isn’t an arrogant statement, this is an aspirational statement. We go into every game trying to win the game. That will always be our philosophy regardless of the opposition we are playing.
“I think some teams go into a game thinking a draw would be a good result. Even if that is a reality, I think if you approach a game with that mentality, you maybe lose something. We have a style of playing and we’ll stick to it as well and see how far it takes us. If we don’t continue to achieve things maybe we’ll need to assess that. We’ll see.”
Former Charlton Athletic and Leyton Orient striker Lisbie missed a few games towards the end of the season, but Watson is not concerned about his availability.
“He’ll be fine.
“It was precautionary, the fact that he wasn’t playing. He’ll be ready.”
Inevitably, with his background, much attention is focused on Lisbie, but Watson doesn’t believe that it relieves others.
He explained: “I don’t think it takes the pressure off. They probably like the limelight. When we brought him in, we hadn’t just brought him in because he’s had a great career. He’s a role model to people. He brings a lot to the club on and off the pitch. The players like having him around and he still does a job on the pitch.
“He deserves the attention he’s got because he’s had a really good career but he’s worked really hard for his career. That’s why he can still do it at this level. He’s always had to work hard and he continues to work hard now.”
Due to the fact that the FA Vase final is three weeks after the league season finished, the players have had to remain in training knowing that some of them will not make the final 16.
Watson doesn’t relish telling those who have missed out.
“I don’t like it, but it’s part of my job.” He said.
“It’s not personal to anybody. I’ve got to pick a team to win a game of football, which I’ve done all season.
“I’m very conscious that some players will not get on the pitch and I don’t like that, and I do feel guilty about that, but it’s the reality of football. I think players respect that there’s no hidden agenda with decision making, and it is a tough decision because people have performed well.
“If you look at the team for the last 10 games it’s changed quite a bit. Players maybe for the following game, didn’t start the game and it wasn’t because they were dropped. It was because we were picking a team that was right for the occasion and the opposition and the conditions.”
When asked whether he had decided on the starting 11 for the final he responded “Not quite. Close to it. Me, Kevin James and Tommy Osborne [assistant manager], we quite rarely agree on a team.
“We quite often challenge each other and have different opinions and I think that’s healthy. I’m not naive enough that my opinion is always the right one.
“Possibly, I have to make that decision and live with that but as long as the motives are right I’ve got a clear conscience. But, no. We’re not quite there yet.”