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Non-League Day: 'We were mobbed - they ripped our clothes off!'

Features

Surrounding south London’s only Premier League club is a range of non-league sides. In advance of Non-League Day on Saturday, 26th March, we catch up with some of the people who sustain south London’s rich non-league scene.

“We’ve got an amazing history, and yet we’re of the past,” says Brian Vandervilt of Corinthian-Casuals.

It’s an astute summation of his role as Chairman, oddly balancing the custodianship of genuine footballing royalty, and the day-to-day running of a non-league football club.

“I see us as a completely separate entity to anybody else in non-league football,” Vandervilt explains. “We’re a strictly amateur club, the highest playing amateur club in the country. And we’re very proud of that.

“There’s more money in non-league than there has ever been, so we are certainly very disadvantaged and always have been.

"So it’s a tremendous achievement that we have been able to continue selling ourselves with people wishing to play for us.”

Something Corinthian-Casuals have on their side in pitching the club to players and staff is its incredible history spreading the game across the globe.

“We spread football in its infancy throughout Europe,” Vandervilt says with real pride. “We’re the only team to have supplied the whole England side on two occasions.

"I know it was in the beginning, but you’ve got to start somewhere, haven’t you?!”

It's at this point that we should perhaps introduce Corinthian-Casuals more fully.

Holders of Manchester United’s record defeat. Tottenham Hotspur’s most prestigious opponents. And, as Vandervilt has pointed out, the only club to supply the entire England XI. Twice.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this column about non-league has strayed into fantasy. But not when discussing Corinthian-Casuals.

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It’s a necessity for football lovers to come and visit us.

Brian Vandervilt

The amateur side, still competing in England’s seventh tier, can boast of a history that many higher up in the European game could only dream. For this club in Tolworth, south London, it’s very much a reality.

In one country in particular, however, the club is idolised more than ever: Brazil.

Which other non-league side, just days after losing 5-1 to Redhill in the Isthmian Division One South, would be playing in front of nearly 50,000 passionate Brazilians in Sao Paulo?

The touring Corinthians of the early 20th century were the inspiration for the founding of one of their most successful clubs, Corinthians Paulista.

“It’s a necessity for football lovers to come and visit us,” says Vandervilt.

Corinthian-Casuals matches always have an international flavour, as the pilgrimage of footballing purists from around the world come to tick the club off their bucket lists – not bad for the Isthmian Premier League.

“Today we’re closed, but we still had a Brazilian come down here to pay homage to us,” Vandervilt laughs, almost unbelievingly. “We get Brazilians in the ground every week to pay their respects. And this chap, as a lot of them are, was in genuine tears.

It was clear that Brazil had not forgotten the glamourous English gentlemen who sent a continent football mad.

Preparing for the opening of their new stadium in 2014, Corinthians asked fans who they would like to play in a special ceremonial friendly. There were four options: Barcelona and Real Madrid, Chelsea – who Corinthians had recently faced in the Club World Cup final – and Corinthian-Casuals from the English seventh tier.

Corinthian-Casuals won in a landslide. They had been on their way to tour Brazil in 1914 when the outbreak of the First World War caused them to cancel. A hundred years later, when better to reschedule?

“We were treated like Manchester United,” says Vandervilt, an odd experience for a squad recovering from a 5-1 defeat to Redhill just days earlier. “We were mobbed at the airport by the fans. We had an open day when we got there, and sold signed shirts – there were hundreds of people queuing up to come and buy a shirt and have it signed.

“We were lauded like pop stars. They were ripping our clothes off! Anything to do with Corinthian-Casuals they were crying out for. It was televised live throughout Brazil. It was amazing.”

There is a problem however: history doesn’t pay the bills. “You’re open-mouthed about the way we’re respected everywhere other than in this country,” Vandervilt says. “We’re more respected abroad than we are in our own country, which is strange.

“There is a big feeling that, whilst our history is so amazing, we have been left behind by remaining amateur. But so be it: that’s our intention and always will be.”

And so Corinthian-Casuals battle on, facing an uphill struggle to keep performing at such a high-level. “We’re punching enormously above our weight,” Vandervilt points out keenly. “We get players here who are of a very good standard.

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We're more respected abroad than we are in our own country, which is strange.

Brian Vandervilt

“But we encourage that if a player is of an ability, he should go somewhere and get paid for doing it. It does limit us. If we find a gem, we cannot receive any money for him because he’s not contracted to us – and we have done.

“Alan Pardew played for us. Andy Gray played for us. We’ve got quite a history of past players achieving great things having been with us – and good for them!”

Strangely, the amateur status of the club has been something of a blessing throughout the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re in a unique position that it made little difference to us [financially] whether we played or not, because we didn’t have the expenses of paying the players. We are alone in that respect.

“But running a club still has its financial obligations. We do need money to run, even without playing – and it’s more each year.”

The era of amateur sides competing at the highest level is long gone, and in some ways there is a sense of sadness for Vandervilt that Corinthian-Casuals continue to fight against the odds.

“We have no recognition here, particularly with the FA, whereby we are treated specially. And one might say: ‘Why should you be?’ And that is a fair comment. But the recognition abroad is considerable.”

While their greatest days may be behind them, Corinthian-Casuals continue to plug along in England’s seventh tier, drawing a worldwide audience for every home game. Clearly, they’re not entirely of the past just yet.

Corinthian-Casuals take on East Thurrock United on 26th March (15:00 GMT).

Photos courtesy of Stuart Tree.