Cray Wanderers 2-2 Whitehawk - Chairman Gary Hillman wants to be in the Isthmian League Premier when we move into the new stadium, so that's the goal this year, to stay up, says Cray Wanderers boss Neil Smith

Wednesday 29th November 2023
Cray Wanderers 2 – 2 Whitehawk
Location Hayes Lane, Bromley, Kent BR2 9EF
Kickoff 29/11/2023 19:45

Isthmian League Premier Division
Wednesday 29 November 2023
Stephen McCartney reports from Hayes Lane

FRUSTRATED Cray Wanderers manager Neil Smith says his players no longer want to be kicked in the stomach after throwing away vital points in their bid to stay clear of Isthmian League Premier Division relegation trouble.


Shaun Saunders’ side took an early lead through Charlie Lambert’s clinical finish for his eighth goal of the season, before Cray Wanderers scored twice in four minutes just before the break through Anthony Cook’s drilled free-kick and Gary Lockyer’s finish, which visiting goalkeeper Mitchell Walker should have done better with.

The Wands twice struck the woodwork during a dominant spell in the second half and were seemingly good value for a vital three points which would have taken them up a couple of places in the table.

The Brighton outfit were reduced to ten men a minute into stoppage time when left-back Stefan Wright was sent off after picking up two yellow cards from referee Callum Peter – but Whitehawk salvaged a last-gasp leveller through substitute Ben Pope’s free header, leaving Smith a frustrated figure during the post-match press conference.

Smith revealed that recent arrival, centre-half Tom Bonner, 35, was unavailable tonight through work commitments, having made his debut in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Dulwich Hamlet.

Smith also revealed that Lockyer and George Porter were withdrawn due to calf strains towards the end of tonight’s game.

“I thought we started off slow, started off poor, given them the goal,” said a frustrated Smith.

“We got back into it, looked strong, looked dominant in the second half.  We’ve hit the post, we’ve hit the crossbar, we’ve had a goal disallowed (in the first half) and feeling confident.

“They’ve had a player down and we lose possession five yards into our own half when we don’t need too.  All we have to do is turn them and they obviously get the equaliser, not good!

“Even at the end of the second half I thought they had a 20 minute spell, that was it.  We started off slow and then after that we got into the game, we scored the two goals.

“We’re just lacking, I’ll tell you what we’re lacking, know how. How to win a game.  Five minutes to go, we’re still trying to be clever with the ball when we don’t need to. We just need to see the game out and that’s frustrating because I’m saying it near enough every week.

“We’re getting the team’s goals. They’re not having to own them. They’re not having to earn the right to score.”

The Wands remain in seventeenth-place in the pecking order with 18 points (five wins, three draws and eight defeats) from their 16 outings, while Whitehawk climbed up a couple of spots into tenth-place with 22 points (five wins, seven draws and three defeats).

Whitehawk started the game on the front foot, going close to taking the lead after three minutes and 18 seconds.

Right-back Hamish Morrison hit a long diagonal, which was headed clear by right-back Cook and Yayaya Bamba’s poor touch allowed Dominic Johnson-Fisher to cut inside before holding midfielder Charlie Walker drilled his right-footed angled drive across the keeper and past the far post from 25-yards.

Whitehawk were gifted the lead just 67 seconds later.

Cray Wanderers centre-half Jack Holland was just outside his penalty area when he played the ball along the deck straight to Whitehawk winger Lambert, who clinically placed his first time right-footed drive around goalkeeper Shaun Rowley from 25-yards, leaving the keeper rooted to the spot.

“As I say, can’t take anything away how they started.  They passed it around and we were sitting off them too far.  They got their goal and that sort of woke us up a little bit and I thought after that, I thought for the rest of the first half we closed them high up. We got in their faces and they were making mistakes and we capitalised on that,” said Smith.

“They didn’t close us down (for the goal).  They didn’t do anything other than we were sloppy. We were sloppy in our start and it took us a good 20 minutes to get going.”

When mentioned that Holland had gifted Whitehawk the lead, Smith replied: “That’s what I’m saying, both goals, gifts.”

Whitehawk – who kept the ball on the frosty artificial pitch for most of the game – almost doubled their lead in the 15th minute following a direct free-kick.

Cook claimed he won the ball when appealing against the referee’s decision to award Johnson-Fisher a free-kick, which striker Ryan Worrall drilled just over Rowley’s crossbar from 26-yards, although the goalkeeper had it covered.

Whitehawk rotated their midfield and Jack Dixon was in a deep position by the time he gave the ball away to Cray Wanderers’ holding midfielder Frankie Raymond, who cut on to his left-foot before hitting a 35-yarder, which only just cleared the Whitehawk crossbar in the 20th minute.

There was a hint of controversy when an offside flag denied Cray Wanderers snatching a 29th minute lead.

Rowley launched a big left-footed kick upfield, targetman Lockyer knocked the ball on and Bamba was inside the Whitehawk penalty area before playing the ball back to Lockyer.

Lockyer drilled a right-footed drive towards the bottom far corner from 22-yards, which forced Mitchell Walker to dive to his right to parry and the flag went up before Porter pounced and found the bottom near corner from the rebound.

“I thought fair play to the linesman, if he can see it that quick and he flagged as he (Lockyer) was hitting the ball and George is telling me he went after the ball had been hit so we don’t have VAR (in the seventh-tier) to moan about but again that was a wake up call for us.

“That is what we need to do and they actually listened to what the instructions were and it’s shame George not getting on the scoresheet.”

A strong tackle from Whitehawk centre-half Joe Tennent gave Cray Wanderers the free-kick that they snatched an equaliser with 40 minutes and 35 seconds on the clock.

Lockyer felt the brunt of the bad challenge and Tennent picked up a yellow card.

Cook drilled his right-footed angled free-kick around the four-man wall into the bottom far corner from 25-yards, with goalkeeper Mitchell Walker slumping down to his left but was well beaten by a clinical strike from the versatile Cook, who scored his fifth goal of the season.

“We were standing right behind it. He had a bit of a dip and a bit of movement.  To be fair, give Mitch a little bit of credit. He wouldn’t have got that if he had no wall there. He hit it perfect Cookie and rightly deserved. It was a great strike,” said Smith.

The 32-year-old former Tonbridge Angels goalkeeper gave Cray Wanderers a helping hand with their second goal, which arrived two minutes and 26 seconds into stoppage time.

Bamba – who has pace to burn – picked up the ball just inside the Whitehawk half and burst straight down the middle of the pitch before playing a 10-yard pass along the frozen artificial turf to an unmarked Lockyer, who drilled a first-time drive with his right-foot towards the goal from 16-yards, which has too hot for the goalkeeper, who helped the ball over the line into the near corner to make it eight goals for the club this season.

Smith said: “Lock’s is on fire at the moment but that was a good run from Yahaya and to have his head up as well to put someone else in, rather than going himself.

“Everything Locks has hit is going in, so it was good that it landed to him.

“He’s doing well for us, he’s doing very well Locks and it’s not just the goalscoring, it’s the whole team play as well. He’s contributing really well for us.”

Smith wanted more of the same going into the second half.

“We’ve got to start how we finished, which we did.  The first 10 minutes, no point harping over what we didn’t do. It was what we did do at the end of the first half.  We knew we had to start lively again, which we did.

“We hit the post, we’ve hit the crossbar, the keeper’s had to pull off a couple of saves, without (our goalkeeper) Shaun Rowley having to do anything other than claim crosses.”

Cray Wanderers came out with all guns blazing and went close to increasing their lead just 229 seconds into the second half.

Left-back Jamie Mascoll knocked the ball down close to the half-way line and Bamba charged forward with the ball before drilling his right-footed angled drive just past the foot of the near post from 20-yards.

Whitehawk’s players started getting frustrated at this moment and winger Ellis Brown floated in a deep cross towards the back post but Bamba failed to steer his header into the far corner of the net.

Whitehawk went close in the 55th minute when Charlie Harris played the ball in from the right wing for Dixon to hit a first time left-footed angled drive, which sailed across Rowley and past the top of the far post.

Cray Wanderers kept plugging away and some great hard work from centre-half Cameron Black saw him lose the ball before winning it back right in front of Smith’s dug-out before playing the ball down the line to Porter, whose first time pass released Brown, who drilled a right-footed angled shot towards goal from 15-yards, which Mitchell Walker finger-tipped onto the far post.

“I don’t think it was tipped on (to the post).  I just think Ellis caught it, he probably caught it too sweet.  We were right behind it. We thought it had gone in. It just curled right at the end and as I say, that sort of summed it up,” admitted Smith.

The Wands were playing at a much higher tempo than the slow football that they played in a lacklustre first half and the crossbar saved Whitehawk in the 66th minute.

The outstanding David Ijaha (holding midfielder) played the ball along the deck to Lockyer, who played a short pass to attacking midfielder Porter, who swept a first time right-footed shot from within the D which caressed the crossbar with the goalkeeper well-beaten.

Smith said: “Then we get another chance. We go through and we hit the crossbar.  George just got over the top of the ball, hitting the crossbar and you’re thinking another one kills the game off, I think.

“It was good inter-play and he caught it sweet. George is just having that little bit of having no luck at the moment and it will come. He’s working hard. We just need to get on that goal and start relaxing a little bit.”

Whitehawk almost grabbed the equaliser on the counter-attack as a long ball along the deck released Worrall, who broke before cutting on to his left-foot on the edge of the penalty area and placing his shot towards the bottom right-hand corner, which was comfortably held by Rowley, smothering the ball low to his left.

Charlie Walker was penalised for handball close to the centre circle inside the Whitehawk half.  Raymond floated in a left-footed free-kick which was met by Lockyer’s downward header, which was comfortably gathered by Mitchell Walker down on his knees.

Both sides only had a couple of corners each and Ijah almost capped off a dominant performance with a goal inside the final 10 minutes.

Raymond’s corner from the left was cleared out to an unmarked Ijaha, who smacked his right-footed volley screaming just over the Whitehawk crossbar.

“David’s done well and Frankie Raymond.  They were both outstanding today and we just lack that little bit of quality in and around them at times but no I was really pleased with them,” added Smith.

Morrison put in a cross from the right towards the far post for Wright, who swept his half-volley towards the bottom corner from 10-yards, which was comfortably gathered by the Cray Wanderers goalkeeper.

When quizzed about losing Porter and Lockyer, Smith replied: “I didn’t want to make the substitutions but the substitutions were sort of forced on us.  Gary was feeling his calf. I didn’t want to lose him for Saturday. George has just come back from injury, so I didn’t want to lose him. He had a slight calf strain.

“I brought on Sahid Nallo, whose come (on loan from League One) Leyton Orient, just to go into midfield. He did well when he came on. Alfie Evans came on the wing because I had to put Yahaya up front because Gary and George going off.

“Sahid’s 18 and he’ll fit in. That was his first game for us. The goal ain’t come from him – he ain’t done anything wrong. It was more my experienced players.”

However, Wright, who was booked in the 17th minute for a foul on Cook, was shown his second yellow card for a poor challenge on the same player in the first minute of stoppage time and walked around the pitch perimeter for an early shower.

“It was a booking. It wasn’t a straight red. It was a booking. He went in late,” claimed Smith.

“He’s played here before so we sort of know what he’s about and sometimes his head rules his heart. 

“He dived in, it was another yellow, so he got what he deserved.”

However, Whitehawk showed great character with 10 men to snatch a point, grabbing an equaliser three minutes and 39 seconds into stoppage time. The referee ended the game with 97:06 on the clock.

Two substitutes had the final say on the contest – on a freezing cold Wednesday late November night in Bromley – as Lloyd Dawes hung over a quality delivery down the right towards the back post where the unmarked Pope buried his header past Rowley to find the bottom near corner.

“Listen, we knew about Pope. We were surprised he never started tonight. He’s scored some goals for them,” said Smith.

“We were in possession right by my bench and all we had to do was just kick it down the line or chase it into the corner and just see the game out – but we try to be clever. It gets cut out, it gets switched to the right, goes down the middle, out to the right and into the box and he’s on his own Pope and the last thing you need is the ball going to him on his own in the box.

“It’s a bad ending and a bad start really.  The first 10-15 minutes weren’t good enough and nor was the last 10.”

Smith takes his troops down to Folkestone Invicta on Saturday, now managed by former Whitstable Town and Margate boss Andy Drury.

Invicta are a couple of places above The Wands with 19 points (five wins, four draws, eight defeats) but Smith is keen to put daylight between his side and the relegation zone.

Cray Wanderers are only three points clear of the danger zone, which contains Potters Bar, Kingstonian, Haringey Borough and Concord Rangers.

The club are inviting fans to Flamingo Park on Friday night for the switching on of the floodlights and Smith is keen to bring Isthmian League Premier Division football to their new stadium at the start of next season.

“It’s brilliant! When I spoke to (chairman) Gary Hillman, he wanted me to come in and sort of build a club and everything else on the understanding they’ll move in to a new ground.

“A lot of people were telling me ‘it was never going to happen,’ but they were adamant it was going to happen and I’m pleased for them it is starting to take shape (with the artificial pitch laid and floodlights erected).

“I’ve known for two seasons it was going to be difficult because all of our finances go on paying for Bromley and the pitch.

“There’s a lot of money (in the Isthmian League Premier Division), obviously not with me. It’s a brilliant league. Every game you’re coming up against some good clubs, good players, good teams.  I don’t think people give Whitehawk enough credit coming up last season.

“There’s some good clubs who are actually going for it and the budgets are astronomical from my experience in this division, so you can’t compete with that, so you’ve got to compete with good people, working hard.

“I’ve got a budget but there’s bigger budgets in this division and I’ve just got to make sure that Gary wants to be in (this level of football) when we move into the new stadium, so that’s the goal this year, to stay up.”

Smith, meanwhile, had this message to the small band of diehards who braved the freezing temperatures to watch tonight’s encounter.

“We’ll done for coming out on a cold night. We wish we had given you more but the boys are working hard and we’ll keep on working hard all the way through the season and these little set-backs, you hope makes you stronger.

“Unfortunately, we’re learning the hard way. It’s a whole new team, apart from a couple of them from last season so they are learning but they’re getting kicked in the stomach enough now that I don’t think they want that no more, so we’ll be making up for it against Folkestone.”

A win at Cheriton Road will see Cray Wanderers leapfrog over their opponents on Saturday, while Folkestone Invicta’s chairman has targeted the play-offs come the end of his first season at the helm.

Smith said: “I think it’s so close at the moment, we win our game in hand, we go midtable. It’s one of them where anything could happen against Folkestone.

“I know they’ve just signed Tom Derry, so we’ll be playing against one of our old players who was here.

“They’re tough games, this is a strong league this year and I don’t think people have given it enough credit with some of the teams who are in there and some of the players as well.”

Cray Wanderers: Shaun Rowley, Anthony Cook, Jamie Mascoll, David Ijaha, Cameron Black, Jack Holland, Ellis Brown, Frankie Raymond, Gary Lockyer (Sahid Nallo 84), George Porter (Alfie Evans 90), Yahaya Bamba.
Subs: Joshua Tobin, Balai Antonio Dembele, Sam Wood

Goals: Anthony Cook 41, Gary Lockyer 45

Whitehawk: Mitchell Walker, Hamish Morrison, Stefan Wright, Charlie Walker, Joe Tennent, Luca Cocoracchio, Dominic Johnson-Fisher (Ben Pope 84), Charlie Harris (Lloyd Dawes 84), Ryan Worrall, Jack Dixon, Charlie Lambert (Imran Kayani 65).
Subs: Tommy Brewer, Stephen Harman

Goals: Charlie Lambert 5, Ben Pope 90

Booked: Stefan Wright 17, Joe Tennent 40

Sent Off:  Stefan Wright 90

Attendance: 189
Referee: Mr Callum Peter
Assistants: Mr Gary Baker & Mr Scott Crowhurst