One of the pleasures of non-league groundhopping is arriving early and having a wander round to take in the whole ground. You could easily fill an entire Instagram account with the unexpected junk so often seen lying around the seemingly never-visited corners of some. At Beckenham Town, I spotted a cheerily-decomposing fox corpse that had clearly been there for months, if not years. Here, they had a boat. An actual boat. You know you have pitch drainage issues when there’s the requirement for one of those on-site.
Of course, I should point out that this is a multi-use stadium, so the piled-up collection of sports-clutter starts to make a bit more sense. Croydon Sports Arena is a base for cycling, athletics and archery groups, as well as the reason for my trip: Southern Counties East League Division One side Croydon FC.
As is often the case when football clubs play in athletics stadiums, the pitch feels like it’s miles away from the fans, and the atmosphere suffers as a result. Here, the crowd of 100-or-so did their best to make it feel like a football ground, bringing some impressive flags in support of the home side, while the visiting fans of Lewisham Borough chipped in with the occasional yell of encouragement. But it wasn’t enough to prevent an eerie feel to the afternoon, as grey clouds gathered over the distant players and – save for the occasional fellow corner-explorer – three sides of the ground sat empty.
Croydon were relegated last season, and based upon this 3-1 defeat, they won’t be going back up in a hurry. The significantly more energetic Lewisham players greeted each of their three goals as if it were the winner in a World Cup final, and as those clouds delivered on their promise to empty their contents onto the sad-looking hosts, you could tell it was never going to be Croydon’s day. Maybe they’d need that boat after all.
As I watched the soggy second half from the shelter of the stand (strategically choosing a location behind one of the many missing seats so I could stretch out my legs), it was the nature lover in me who took over from the football fan. The ground lies at the southern tip of South Norwood Country Park, an impressive 125-acre nature reserve that has largely been left to grow wild. When a kestrel appeared just beyond the pitch and hovered in full view for a good few minutes, it captured my attention in a way that the match had failed to. Despite the less-than-thrilling events unfolding on the pitch, it’s hard not to be at least a bit affectionate towards any place where you can watch both football and a kestrel.
Croydon Sports Arena
Croydon 1 Lewisham Borough 3
Southern Counties East League Division One
Saturday 31 August 2019