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BTFC gear up for trip to Maidstone

On Friday 20th July, Billericay Town gear up for a trip to Kent to take on National League opponents, Maidstone United, in the Blues’ fourth friendly match of the current pre-season. BTFC’s preparation games have ranged from an impressive draw at National League, Ebbsfleet United, defeat away at level seven new-comers, Beaconsfield Town, and a resumption of normal service with a comfortable win away at Isthmian North side, Aveley FC.

Photo: Maidstone United

Maidstone’s pre-season fixtures have gone very well. Convincing 5-0 wins have been recorded away at Isthmian Premier side, Folkestone Invicta, and, at home versus Nottingham Forest U-23’s. On Tuesday, the Stones faced their toughest test to date in pre-season against a Brentford ‘B’ side that played passing football and offered sufficient competition to take a 2-0 lead. Stones, however, showed good character in front of their home fans to battle back to win the match 3-2.

Whilst results are less relevant than performances in early pre-season, matches played so far have been important for Stones’ players like ex-Charlton and Gillingham midfielder, Ollie Muldoon, and former Norwich City striker and Jamaican international, Jamar Loza. Both suffered lengthy absences from the first team last season due to injuries. Invited back for pre-season, a series of promising performances saw both retained for the 2018-19 campaign.

Early indications are that trialist Michee Efete has turned in impressive stints in the right-back position and, despite missing on out on Tuesday due to illness, new signing George McLennan looks to have brought in extra quality in the left-back position. Stones still look to be in the market for a reserve keeper to challenge Lee Worgan and looked at two trialists versus Brentford.

Any Stones supporter watching their pre-season games will likely be excited by the two new strikers brought in to bolster the attack. Recent signings Shamir Mullings and Joe Quigley appear to have hit the ground running with goals on debut and a series of good all-round performances.

Ex-Forest Green Rovers striker, Mullings, 24, offers a strong presence up front. At 6ft 5ins, he also constitutes a considerable aerial threat and looks a real crowd-pleaser. In addition, highly rated front-man Quigley, 21, an Irish U-21 international, joins after his release from Bournemouth.

With winger, Blair Turgott, signed permanently from Boreham Wood, and ex-Palace youngster, Andre Coker, both showing signs of their quality in pre-season, threat in the final third appears to have improved substantially. A return to form for Jamar Loza is an added bonus.

Getting the signature of sought after centre-back, Alex Finney, is a huge achievement with the ex-QPR youngster now in permanently. Alongside him, Will De Havilland, also signed after a successful loan spell, shows Maidstone can attract talented youngsters released from league clubs. In midfield, highly rated Crystal Palace U-23 skipper, Michael Phillips has joined permanently, and ex-Arsenal youth and Woking centre-back Jordan Wynter offers options at the back or in midfield. Experienced campaigner and skipper, Stuart Lewis, is retained and brings strong work-rate to central midfield.

Although pre-season is a time to test formations, Maidstone look like the standard starting set-up for the team is a 4-3-3. This is by no means the only way they play with the team very capable of shifting to 4-4-1-1. Should the latter set-up be utilised, this could involve the trickery and pace of Andre Coker tucked in behind either Quigley or Mullings. Although BTFC have played a lot of formations last year, the Blues have certainly deployed both of these systems regularly. It will be interesting to see how both coaches match up the teams on the day.

With BTFC boasting a highly experienced outfit, with attractive options across the pitch, this has all the hall-marks of a National League level match-up. With the Blues having identified defence as an area of focus, the arrival of ex-Torquay and Truro City centre-back, Ben Gerring, former Dagenham stopper, Scott Doe, and ex-Dulwich Hamlet defender, Ricky Hayles provides stiff competition for places. A hard afternoon looks in store for the BTFC defence with Maidstone’s new look strike force now fully firing.

That’s not to say that BTFC won’t pose their own problems to test the Stones’ rear-guard. In attacking areas, the injection of extra pace and trickery provided by new arrivals, Moses Emmanuel, and right winger, Connor Hunte, add a touch of attacking verve to the team. With 57-goal Jake Robinson, fleet-footed left winger, Ricky Modeste, and Adam Cunnington regularly weighing in with goals, BTFC appear well prepared to cause any team defensive problems.

How times have changed for Billericay Town supporters. For me, returning to the Gallagher Stadium has a special poignancy, having made the trip in October 2016 for the Blues’ FA Cup Fourth Round Qualifier. Despite a plucky performance, the match was lost 3-1 as the superior quality of the Stones side, exemplified by a quality double-strike from Alex Flisher, eased them through to the next round. Only Lee Worgan remains from either line-up that day.

The result, which matched the form book, was no great surprise. However, something completely different marked my visit as the trip to the Stones brought a mix of admiration and envy for the Kent club’s extensive infrastructure investment. Looking on at the (now) 4,200 capacity ground packed with families, impressive extended East stand, and modernised bar area, my immediate thought was to wish somewhat fancifully for the same at my own club.

I enjoyed the day at Maidstone and accepted that any transformation of BTFC’s facilities into something resembling the Stones’ model was only the stuff of dreams. We lived in different times back then. Money was tight, crowds at the New Lodge were nowhere near the 1,400+ seen at Maidstone that day, and the height of Blues ambition was to once more reach the National South League.

All that, of course, changed in December 2016, when new owner, Glenn Tamplin, took over ownership of the club. Substantial investment has flowed both into the playing side and, importantly, off-the-field too. Extensive renovation of the ground has taken place, a new main stand (“Harry Parker Stand”) has been built and construction of a separate bar area and VIP lounge has been completed.

All combined, any BTFC supporter will now be proud of the facilities on offer at the club and can be comfortable that lofty on pitch ambitions can be supported by investment in the club infrastructure. Ambitions of playing in the National South by 2018/19 have now been achieved. Looking forward, with the objective of promotion every two seasons until reaching the Football League, BTFC can now aspire to the same level of upward mobility as the Stones.

Maidstone prove that sustained success and fast-track promotions can be achieved. Back in summer 2011, a struggling Stones side were relegated to the Isthmian Division One South and National League football must have seemed a distant dream. Fortunes would improve, however, under the stewardship of player-manager, Jay Saunders, appointed in March 2011 and momentum gained from a move to a new purpose-built Gallagher stadium in July 2012.

Secure in their new home, Maidstone United would make incredible progress up the pyramid. In just five years, the Kent side would seal three promotions under Saunders. By summer 2016, the Stones had completed an astonishing rise to the top tier of Non-League football. Seven years after his appointment, Saunders remains in situ as the second longest serving manager in the top five tiers of football. With National League finishes of 14th and 17th last season, Maidstone have remained competitive at the higher level and have raised the budget for 2018-19 to target their objective of a Top 10 finish in the National league.

Back to the match and meeting Maidstone represents a big test for BTFC. Playing National league sides is all part of the preparation for where the club wants to be. Games such as this provide a vital barometer to gauge progress as the team prepare for life at the higher level. Similarly, for Maidstone, BTFC represent their most challenging opposition so far in pre-season and offers an early opportunity to evaluate the new signings and assess improvements made to the squad.

All that remains to be said is enjoy the game if you are going and have a safe trip.

Billericay Town FC Last Starting Line Up (V Aveley FC)
1 Josh Strizovic 2 Joe Kizzi 3 Hamilton Debunga 4 Ben Gerring 5 Dean Inman 6 Sam Deering 7 Ricky Modeste 8 Simon Walton 9 Jake Robinson 10 Danny Waldren 11 Jake Howells
SUBS: 12 Moses Emmanuel 14 Adam Cunnington 15 Rickie Hayles 16 Scott Doe 17 Jamie O’Hara 18 Jordy Mongoy 19 Connor Hunte 20 Tambeson Eyong

Maidstone Last Starting Line-Up (V Brentford ‘B’)
1 Matt Funnell 16 Seth Nana Twumasi 5 Will De Havilland 6 Alex Finney 25 Michee Efete 4 Jordan Wynter 8 Stuart Lewis 10 Jack Paxman 7 Andre Coker 23 Jack Richards 15 Shamir Mullings
SUBS: 9 Joe Quigley 14 Jamar Loza 21 Ollie Muldoon 22 Michael Phillips, Elliott Capel, Jeremy Arthur, David Ajiboye

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