These, as everyone keeps telling us, are unprecedented times. Amid the stranger knock-on effects of 2020’s ‘new normal’, we’ve had wild deer wandering the shopping streets of Glasgow, the Government buying everyone a cut-price Nando’s, and even some scattered cases of men washing their hands after visiting the loo. And here’s another one to add to the list: Croydon FC moving into a 16,000-seater stadium.
The site of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre has seen it all, from England internationals and FA Cup Finals to Coldplay and Bruce Springsteen concerts. Over the years it’s been used as a base by everyone from Crystal Palace FC to little-remembered non-league outfit AC London. Now, it can add Southern Counties East League Division One side Croydon to its list of tenants.
Last time I went to see The Trams, they were playing their home matches at the considerably more humble surroundings of the Croydon Arena. With Covid-19 rendering that venue unusable, the club made the ambitious move to this sprawling athletics stadium in the heart of leafy Crystal Palace Park, sparking an excited buzz among groundhoppers everywhere. Despite the ground’s grand history, more recent opportunities to experience a match here have been few and far between. And so it was that a healthy crowd of 213 fans, all desperate not just for football but for a chance to get out of the house, rocked up to witness Croydon taking to the NSC pitch for the first time.
From the overlooking walkway in the park, the curving stands, huge athletics track and gigantic disused scoreboard give the whole place the feel of something plucked straight out of 1980s eastern Europe. Once inside, the scale of the facility’s neglect comes sharply into focus. The stands are scrawled with graffiti, massive weeds sprout through cracks on the stairways, and the filthy seats look like they haven’t seen a soapy cloth since the ground’s 20th Century heyday. Still, there was something undeniably special about watching a game of football here, especially as the sun went down and the floodlights wheezed into action. It seems criminal that some football club somewhere hasn’t been able to make a serious go of sorting this place out and making it their permanent home.
As it turned out, it wasn’t just the surroundings that were memorable. The match itself – a London Senior Trophy first round tie – saw the hosts pull off possibly the most impressive comeback I’ve ever seen. Visitors Athletic Newham looked by far the better team in the first half and played some lovely attacking football that saw them comfortably 3-0 up by the interval. But, with just 20 minutes remaining, Croydon suddenly sprung to life and grabbed two quick-fire goals, followed by another two to miraculously seal a 4-3 win. It was all too much for one Trams fan, who decided to make proper use of the facilities and run a full circuit of the athletics track, scarf-above-head every step of the way. Embedded among months of pandemic misery, it was a welcome reminder of the moments of pure joy that non-league football is so good at providing.
Crystal Palace National Sports Centre
Croydon 4 Athletic Newham 3
London Senior Trophy First Round
Saturday 5 December 2020