By Matt Badcock
A Non-League club a corner kick off the A3 – the road that connects London to Portsmouth – doesn’t seem like a place of pilgrimage. But then Corinthian-Casuals aren’t your average Non-League club.
A bastion of amateur football in this country, their King George’s Field home has regular visitors from Brazil. They’re arguably better known by fans of Sao Paulo-based Corinthians than they are in their own borough.
Football lovers looking to see their spiritual ancestors in action or to buy a souvenir turn up unannounced. One supporter even flew in specially for last season’s play-off final at Dorking Wanderers and punters from all over the world follow their fortunes with Australia betting especially strong.
They were a penalty shoot-out away from reaching Step 3, something manager James Bracken reckons would have been a unique achievement. Why? They still don’t pay their players a penny.
“It has its pros, it has its cons,” Bracken tells The NLP. “In terms of pros I don’t have anybody playing for me who doesn’t want to. I know a lot of other players at other clubs who will openly say to me they don’t respect their manager or agree with what he says or like the way he manages them.
“But they pick up their money, it helps them with their mortgage, they’ve got kids to feed and it’s almost a job – lots of us have jobs we don’t particularly enjoy and you have to do certain things to pay your bills at the end of the month.
“For a lot of players, football becomes that. With us it’s never that. Boys are here because they want to be here; they want to play football here and they want to win.
“You can get a lot more out of people with that kind of environment than the other. So there are pros.
“But when we lose players it becomes very difficult to replace – especially short term. Players I deem good enough are often going to be tied to other clubs and playing regularly. So it’s a lot harder.
“I don’t lose a player on £100/week and have £100/week to bring someone else in. I have to weave some magic and try and do something. But we’re going well again this season so I can’t complain.”
What makes this club so special, why they are so well loved in South America and how they’re maintaining a Bostik South promotion push again is the subject of podcast series ‘Broadway to Brazil’. Put together by Dominic Bliss, Jarek Zaba, Brent Davies and Tony Banks, they’re telling the club’s remarkable story.
“Looking at the way any Non-League club is run in terms of the fan-base, the volunteers and the terrace culture you get at Non-League football is interesting anyway,” Bliss tells The NLP. “It would be interesting to look at any club that way and people are certainly more and more into that.
“You’ve got lots of news coverage of Dulwich Hamlet and the Salford City documentary on telly. I know there’s the Manchester United link, but there is a certain interest in that anyway.
“What Corinthian-Casuals have got is this unique identity and history where they’re intertwined with the development of the game, certainly the early development of the game.
“A lot of people probably aren’t so aware of just how central they were to it. So, as locals, we thought there’s a great story here. From a storytelling aspect you could be in Timbuktu and find it interesting, but we also hope people in the area will become more aware of the club.
“It’s quite hidden away off the bypass and people don’t know it’s there. If they did I think they’d come down in bigger numbers.”
Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler has been interviewed about his connections to the club, while England cricket greats Mickey Stewart and Alec Stewart gave insight into why they fell in love with the Casuals too.
“That seems to be a recurring theme,” Bliss, who highlighted help and support from John Forrest at the club and Robin Hutchinson, who is involved in many local community projects, says.
“Once people get involved with Casuals – this goes for fans, players, committee members – they stay there. There’s something magnetic that keeps people there. We’re trying to capture that.”
The first podcast episode lays the foundations for the series ahead before the second highlights how the club was formed.
Corinthians, who later merged with Casuals, came about because the FA wanted an England team to compete with Scotland and felt a side lifted in its entirety would pay off.
Then there’s the Brazil link. Corinthians fans voted on who they wanted to play to mark the opening of their new stadium. They picked their spiritual ancestors and the club travelled to South America in January 2015 for a special friendly.
Formed in 1910, the Sao Paulo outfit were inspired by Corinthian FC and fans often make the trip to see where it all began.
“Every time we go down there there’s a set of Corinthian fans from Brazil who have come to see the place where it all started in their eyes, even though the ground wasn’t in Tolworth at the time,” Bliss says.
“People get quite emotional. They have tears in their eyes when they explain why they’ve come. It’s the most important part of a holiday to London. Yet people around the corner don’t know it’s there, which is a shame.
“That’s why it’s called Broadway to Brazil because they’re not far off Tolworth Broadway, but are bigger in Brazil.
“We’re hoping people in the local area will start coming down and see what’s so special about it.”
Bracken’s challenge is to sell that to players at a time when even a small amount of wages can lure someone away. In the summer nine moved on – Shaun Okojie to Aldershot, others sideways. Tellingly some have returned.
“I say, ‘If you want to win, come and play’,” Bracken says on his recruitment. “I look a player in the eye and tell them if they play for us, they’ll win.
“I honestly believe it. And when they see the belief I have in winning, who doesn’t want to be a winner? Football is great, but if every Saturday you’re losing it very quickly becomes not so good. Whereas if you tell a player, ‘I can’t pay you but I can help you in this environment, improve you and together we can achieve something. Players up to this point buy into that.”
Bracken says players enjoy representing a special club, but also acknowledges the fact they’re in the hunt for silverware is vital.
Ahead of the weekend they were second in the table, had lost one in ten games and had just reached the final four of the Velocity Trophy by beating Step 3 Hendon.
“Our history is unrivalled,” he says. “But you can’t pull out a history book every Saturday and look back and see how great we are, how great we’ve been and what we’ve done for football. Listen, that’s there and what makes the club the club it is.
“But, in the immediate, players want to be successful for themselves and they want to make their own bit of history.
“That’s what I tell them – if they come and play for the Casuals and get promoted on no budget that’s a unique achievement. I’ve maintained from the moment I’ve walked in the door that it won’t be repeated. A team on no budget won’t get out of Step 4 again.
“We’ve had two opportunities, had two great seasons, and we’re having a great season now and put ourselves in the position to challenge again.
“Hopefully this time we can do it. If we do then it’s mission accomplished, we’ve achieved what we set out to do and then a lot of people and players deserve a lot of credit for that.”
To listen to the fascinating podcasts throughout the season, visit www.broadwaytobrazil.com or they are also available through iTunes and Android podcast apps
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday and Monday