WE’VE GOT A WILL TO WIN: Willand Rovers celebrate going through to the last eight of the FA Vase after beating Deeping Rangers 3-2, thanks to Dean Stamp’s strike. PICTURE: Pinnacle
By Matt Badcock
Willand Rovers boss Russell Jee and Cray Valley (PM) chief Kevin Watson are already in agreement on one thing – their FA Vase runs count for nothing if they exit now!
For both Western League leaders Willand and high-flying Southern Counties East League outfit Cray, reaching the quarter-finals of the prestigious competition is the best run in club history.
They face off in Devon on Saturday with a place in the final four at stake and they’re both determined it won’t be their final hurrah in this season’s Vase.
Watson said: “You’re hoping to do okay in the Vase but the focus was on a good league campaign. Then the further you get in the competition you think to yourself, ‘Hold on, we’re having a little bit of a run.
“People start saying if you get through the next round it’s the furthest the club’s got to and bits and pieces like that. Then the players start getting buoyantly excited by it.
“So it’s good, but the danger is we lose next week and you haven’t really achieved anything. I know it’s a bit of an achievement getting to the quarters but it’s not really one that’s going to be memorable like the semis or the final.
“Obviously you want to get through anyway but the two legs is why I’d like to get through. Anything can happen in a one-off cup game but over two legs, I generally think the best team will progress.
“It’s exciting you have one game and it’s not over. I like the idea of that challenge but we’ve got a really tough test. They’ve only lost one league game all season.”
Ahead of the weekend Willand were unbeaten in 24, a hot streak that includes 22 wins, so confidence is naturally high.
But Jee has been dumped out at this stage in the past and he doesn’t want it to happen again.
“When we went to Odd Down for our first game I said to the players, ‘I know it’s regionalised to start with but I honestly think we can go deep in the competition’,” Jee said. “And it’s proven that so far.
“We’ve got to the quarters but we want to go further. We don’t want to stop there. I’ve got a great bunch with me this season. They’re very level-headed and, at the minute, they are finding ways to win football games.
“We’re unbeaten in 24, we’ve won 22 of them, so confidence is high and when we’re not at it, our game-management means we’ve found ways of winning. That’s a great attribute to have.
“A couple of our lads have got to the quarters before so they’ve experienced it. I’ve lost in it myself with Bideford when we went to Billingham Synthonia so I know the feeling and will never forget it.
“I try and reiterate that to them and pass on experiences that there’s nothing better. For me, the quarter-finals are the hardest ones to win. In the semis, you’ve got two chances. In the quarters you’re so close but so far.
“Fortunately we’re at home. So, in front of a big following, hopefully we can produce on the day.”
Jee is expecting a good game against a Cray side who can lean on experienced players like former Charlton Athletic frontman Kevin Lisbie and ex-Crawley attacker Gavin Tomlin.
“I think it’s the best group of players that’s ever been at this football club,” Jee said. “We know what’s in the ranks, likewise Cray probably think the same.
“They score goals for fun – they’ve scored more than us so the chances of it being 0-0 are probably slim to none! I think it’s going to be a great game of football.
“We want to play on the front foot and, from what I can gather, so do Cray. So it will be two good footballing sides having a go at each other.”
Watson, who captained TeamBath in their famous run to the FA Cup first round proper in 2002, knows they will have to be on their game too.
“We’ve got no expectations other than it will be a really tough fixture,” he said. “We had plans to go and see them last week but their game was called off so it’s unlikely we’ll see them play, which I’m not entirely comfortable with.
“But you can only affect the opposition with your performance. Our players are what we invest in, we can control more what we do so that will be our focus.”
VERDICT: Two high-scoring teams go head-to-head in what should be a cracker. Willand Rovers are in the middle of a potent run of form but Cray Valley (PM) will be leaning on experienced heads like Kevin Lisbie. Expect goals.