BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Kevin James never got the chance to play at Wembley – but on Sunday he will be there in a coaching capacity as Cray Valley Paper Mills bid for FA Vase glory.
The Eltham-based side are marking their centenary year in style. The Millers secured top spot in the SCEFL Premier Division on the final day of the league campaign.
Chertsey Town stand in their way in north London this weekend as they look to lift one of non-league football’s most prized pieces of silverware.
There is Football League experience laced through the squad – most notably in their frontline. Former Charlton Athletic striker Kevin Lisbie is still going strong at the age of 40. Gavin Tomlin – once on the books of Crawley Town, Port Vale, Southend, Brentford and Yeovil – joined the club in January from Dulwich. He scored in the semi-final second leg at Canterbury City in late March as Kevin Watson’s side won 2-1 on aggregate.
James, 39, was brought on to Watson’s backroom team towards the end of last season.
Born in Southwark Hospital, he was raised in the New Cross and Lewisham area – living near to the Old Den.
James was the last player to get a YTS at Charlton, joining at the age of 15. He spent four years with the South London club, two of those as a pro.
“Curbs [Alan Curbishley] tried to show some faith in me,” said James, who played on the wing or up front. “Both he and Keith Peacock knew what I could do ability-wise. But I kept picking up injuries.
“I felt a lot of growing pains and I had an op on my right knee at 17. I did well after that to get another pro deal after my first year. They were umming and ahing.
“I had a loan at Farnborough with Graham Westley and that was a good experience. His demands were high. Straight away he was no-nonsense.
“I went back to Charlton and got released after that – I ended up going to Canvey Island with Jeff King. I started the pre-season in 2000 there and played really well in a friendly against Colchester. They enquired about me. Then I had a great game against Gillingham – which Jeff didn’t want me to play in! But he was away and I ended up playing. Andy Hessenthaler had just become player-manager and offered me a two-week trial.”
James had four years with the Kent outfit before signing for Nottingham Forest.
“Joe Kinnear took me there,” he said. “He tried to get me before my contract at Gillingham was up. I still ended up signing for them. Forest are a massive club – I couldn’t really turn that opportunity down.
“Joe resigned three months into me being there and I felt that was the start of the demise of the club. I had several managers in my time there.
“I ended up going on loan at Walsall with [Paul] Merson, Simon Osborne and Mark Kinsella. I knew Simon from my days at Gillingham. He was assistant and Mark was a coach there.
“It was a nice little spell. We ended up getting relegated, but some good players came through there – Scott Dann, Anthony Gerrard and Daniel Fox.
“I had another loan, at Yeovil, but dislocated my shoulder. In total I had four ops on my right knee and that kind of killed me.”
James arrived at Dulwich in 2010. He combined coaching with playing from the word go. James played more than 150 games for the club.
He said: “As soon as I came through the door Gavin [Rose, manager] wanted to use my experience. Him and Kads [Junior Kadi, assistant] wanted me to coach and it was something I always felt I could do.
“I took the youth team with Junior, at the time he was the manager and I was the coach. As time went on my responsibility started to grow year on year.
“I was named first-team player-coach a few years in.
“It was an absolutely amazing experience with Gav and Kads. They are two of the best coaches I have worked with – if not the best. It was an absolute pleasure.
“I’ve played under the likes of Gary Megson, Steve Evans, Mick Harford and Des Walker – managers who have won promotions and are names – but it is just the way Gav and Kads handled things in terms of development stages.
“That’s what they really loved – trying to bring players through. I learned how to coach from them, how to handle players – on and off the pitch.”
James left in November 2017.
“The financial stuff was starting to settle in – in terms of the pitch and the ground situation was coming on top a little bit. I made the decision to step away. I did have some family commitments I needed to fulfil, but I also felt it would be a lot easier if Gav and Kads took my wages away and just kept rolling on.
“We’ve always said that if we need to step away from each other at one stage then in the future we will hopefully find ourselves back together. I still speak to them nearly every day.
“It has also given my brother Junior an opportunity. He’s academy manager and now first-team coach. So it gave him a nice little pathway to step forward with Gav and Kads. I got my schooling from them, and I’m happy he is getting his schooling from them as well.”
James was in the year above Watson in the Charlton youth set-up.
Initially the Cray boss asked him to come in and play.
“Kev was in the same year as Scott Parker, Paul Konchesky, Kemi Izzet and Charlie MacDonald,” said James. “He gave me a call.
“I said: ‘To be honest, my legs have been going.’ My knee was playing up at the time.
“I said: ‘I’ll come over and coach. In terms of playing, I’ll stay fit and if needed – if really needed – I’ll step in and play’. I knew his assistant Tom Osborne through football and I settled in straight away.
“He already had Kevin Lisbie there, who was in the Charlton youth system at the same time as me, and I also knew Andy Walker, the goalkeeper.”
Cray Valley’s squad visited Wembley on Tuesday. It is a chance for players to get used to their surroundings before the big day.
“Kevin Lisbie and Gavin Tomlin have both played at Wembley,” said James. “I’ve played in big stadiums and have done what I can to settle players’ nerves.
“Our boys work, so they can’t go during the day. And Wembley can’t do a visit at the weekend. It’s good for the players to go there first and have a look around, instead of just turning up on the day. I think it will help.
“It’s my first year coaching at this level. I had promotions with Dulwich but have never really known about the Vase before [because he had not played or coached at the level eligible to compete in it].
“With us being promoted out of the [SCEFL] league we can’t play in it again next season.
“This is the club’s 100th year, so it is big thing for them.
“It would be nice to get our hands on the Vase. I’ve always set myself out to be a winner as a coach in my managerial career.”
“The run we had from the turn of the year was absolutely amazing – in terms of what the players produced.”
It calls for one more huge effort from Cray Valley PM - and they can write their name more prominently into non-league history.
CRAY VALLEY PM’S PLAYERS CAN’T AFFORD TO GIVE UP THE DAY JOBS….
Goalkeeper: Andy Walker (sales director/property portfolio manager), Deren Ibrahim (professional goalkeeper coach, pictured right)
Defenders: Brad Potter (regional systems manager), Danny Smith (investment manager), Liam Hickey (operations manager in financial services), Ashley Sains (plumber), Cem Tumkaya (ship operator), Tyler Myers (teaching assistant), Chris Edwards (school teacher)
Midfielders: Anthony Edgar (football coach), Paul Semakula (school- worker for acet charity, Ryan Flack (PE teacher), Josh James (lift engineer), Denzel Gayle (sales purchasing manager), Joe N’Guessan (personal trainer), Lea Dawson (electrical engineer)
Forwards: Gavin Tomlin (project manager, pictured left), Kevin Lisbie (football coach), Francis Babalola (personal trainer), Callum Willock (personal trainer).