Inspired by Cruyff and Coerver, Greg Cruttwell’s Balham FC is a fascinating, successful, nomadic club with a clear footballing philosophy. Alex Waite went to meet them.
Since forming in 2011 under the stewardship of chairman Greg Cruttwell, Balham FC has developed a clear footballing philosophy – to play possession-based football across all youth levels and the first team. Since starting as one team of Under 10s in 2001, the club has grown exponentially in the past two decades. From training in a small church hall to reaching the Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division, the Wandsworth outfit has become well-known for its expansive, eye-catching brand of football.
After five promotions in six seasons, winning the London Senior Cup in 2018 and lifting hundreds of trophies at youth level, Balham has achieved success from a unique playing style in grassroots English football. But there has been a huge amount of organisation, attention to detail and wholehearted commitment to getting this far.
Greg Cruttwell founded Balham Blazers in 2001 after his son wanted to play for a football team, and this group of youngsters achieved quick success. Soon, the club began to grow into more than just one team.
‘In 2001, I thought, “we have got a good little team”, so I put them in a local league and they did really well. We added one team at a time and we could have become an empire very quickly, but I didn’t want to start anything without a good infrastructure in place,’ Cruttwell notes.
Fast forward eight years and many players from the original Under 10s team were still playing for the Blazers at Under 18 levels. Eventually, the club had to move into senior football, and this is where Balham Blazers became Balham FC.
‘The players from that 2001 team started as Under 18s with Balham FC. They got into the semi-professional Southern Youth League and did very well. We had to start at a really low level in 2011 and got five promotions in six years and shot all the way to the Combined Counties Premier League,’ explains Cruttwell.
The club has evolved massively since 2011, and it has become a big part of the local community in Wandsworth. Balham FC has expanded and set up a women’s team, Balham Panthers, which emulates the style of the men’s team. The club also has a vets’ team, a B team and the Balham Football School.
Due to their impressive setup, Balham has won the London FA Charter Standard Community Club of the Year Award three times and the Wandsworth Sports Club of the Year Award on four occasions.
Fast-tracked success for Balham over the last decade stems from a high level of organisation and clear ambition.
But at the heart of the club is their football philosophy. ‘Bringing a bit of Barcelona to Balham’ is the tagline synonymous with the South London club. It’s a badge they have earned by playing controlled, possession football – an unlikely sight when watching lower-league professional football in England.
Cruttwell admired the Total Football style of the 1970s and 80s, inspired by Dutch legend Johan Cruyff. Influential Dutch coach Wiel Coerver also played a part in shaping Balham’s identity. The Coerver Method develops an individual player’s technical quality alongside the mastery of small-group play.
Cruttwell read Coerver’s books and implemented his methods into training. As a result, his team keep the ball and move it quickly and effectively. Coaching this style of play with Balham Blazers from 2001 was very much against the grain of footballing philosophy in England in the early 2000s, and Cruttwell was well aware of this. ‘When I started coaching in 2001, everyone wanted to get the biggest players on the ball and play Route One football. I wanted to see possession-based, expansive and attractive football.’
Weaving this ideology into individual players, let alone an entire club, has not been plain sailing. Balham first team defender and vice-captain, Jake Henry, has played for Balham since 2011, and he signifies what Balham is about. He is a player who enjoys the possession brand of football and is part of the club’s fabric, having risen through the Balham youth system.
But Henry acknowledges that it can be hard to commit to this style of play at the grassroots level. ‘Along the way, there have been doubts, as a defender. There have been times, especially at youth team level, where you just panic and think, “I don’t want to give the ball away here”. But ultimately, you find out that if you are under a lot of pressure and go long, it’s going to come back at you anyway.’
Now an established first team player, Henry accepts that the playing style is unusual, especially at the non-league level, but he also feels that the playing style is an homage to the club’s roots.
‘It’s the most unconventional way to play non-league football and it all stems from where the club first started training in a church hall, then to Chestnut Grove, a secondary school where there’s a seven-a-side pitch, and we were always forced to play in tight areas, using minimal touches, keeping the ball moving quickly. As an eleven-a side team having to train on a seven-a-side pitch made us play a lot differently to all the other teams, which has been quite beneficial for us.’
The challenge to find training space is a problem for many grassroots football teams, especially in large cities. Balham is no exception to this. Youth teams and the senior first team all share various facilities and training venues in South London.
But the club has used this to its advantage. First team Head Coach, Ebrahim Seedat, who has worked at the club with various youth teams since 2015, believes that the tight training areas breed technical football players who naturally learn to play the Balham way.
“Because we’re based in London, it’s very difficult for us to get training venues so the teams share these venues. When I was coaching the Under 13s and 16s, we made it to the London Cup final. There’s five or six of them around the first team now – we trained on half a netball court but they become really natural in their environment. Suddenly they find themselves on the pitch and they deal with the pressure.”
Implementing a universal brand of football at any level requires unwavering support from players, coaches, parents, backroom staff and volunteers. At Balham, this commitment is needed at their youngest level, Under 8s, right the way through to the senior first team. To maintain and grow the club’s footballing philosophy, Cruttwell has to be ruthless when recruiting players.
‘We say to all parents and players that this is a programme and you buy into that. It’s not about cutting corners. We’ve won over 500 trophies so we’ve got the balance right. All age groups play just below academy level and we hold trials for players to get in. We want our players to stay with the club and to eventually get into the first team. Everything at our club is about player progression. Eighty percent of the players will have come through the system. Our players bleed Balham blood.’
Balham is a unique club for the level at which they operate. Despite playing at a semi-professional level, they do not pay their players. Therefore, commitment to the Balham way of playing expansive and attractive football is vital. But there is a risk when recruiting new players as to whether or not they will suit the Balham style of play and embed themselves into the culture.
To avoid being used as a stepping stone, there is a simple rule for all players of all ages: if you leave the club, you cannot return. The only exception is for first team players making a step up in level. However, if they want to join a rival club of similar standing, they cannot return.
While it may seem harsh, the high standards are essential for the long-term progress at Balham. Henry explains how this culture has created a family feel within the club at all levels. ‘We’ve got a couple of the first team players coaching some of the younger groups and we have a club secretary who is the backroom hero, she’s the one who brings the oranges, the Jelly Babies, the Jaffa Cakes – all the good stuff you need at half-time! That threads itself through the whole club and we don’t get paid to play so everyone is there because they love it, because they enjoy it, because they love what the club is about and it’s different to what you would normally get at this standard.’
Being able to play possession-based football and fitting in at the club are two of the main facets at Balham. Seedat feels that this balance gets the best out of all the teams, explaining that ‘players need to be able to play our Balham brand of football, but they also need to embed themselves into the culture. The trial is not just about how good they are, it’s about whether they can get on with everybody, whether they like us and if we like them. We do get players from outside – we may have a top player come in who is really good and played at a top-level, but it just doesn’t work sometimes. We have this gameplay where we don’t have one star; they’re all knitted together.’
Balham is an ambitious club, and getting to Level Five of the English pyramid in ten years is a monumental achievement.
But getting here hasn’t been without its challenges. Balham FC encounters issues that many non-league clubs have to overcome: finding enough training venues for all teams, providing FA-standard facilities and having a suitable ground.
In 2015, Balham was denied promotion to the Combined Counties League after failing to meet FA standards for their ground at Wimbledon Extension. The club moved to the Wibbandune Stadium to ground share with Colliers Wood, and they moved again in 2020 to ground share with AFC Croydon Athletic at the Mayfield Stadium.
It is an issue Cruttwell acknowledges. He believes that Balham will attract good crowds in the future, but he is under no illusions that more challenges and more competitiveness will come as Balham rises up the pyramid.
And getting as far up the pyramid is the ultimate goal. In a comparison with South London underdogs, Dulwich Hamlet, Cruttwell aspires to mirror their growing fanbase.
‘If we had our own stadium, we could attract really good-sized crowds for our level. People are getting cheesed off with corporate football, and people want to see real football. You can drop down the levels in England and the standard remains really high.’
Balham FC is certainly a club with high standards. Who knows how far it can take them? But one thing is for sure, it’s a philosophy that has been incredibly successful so far.