Brentwood, 7.30pm: 21°C, mist

Match preview: Billericay Town v Gloucester City

Billericay Town host Gloucester City this Saturday in what will be new manager Dean Brennan’s first home League game in charge. Early results under his tenure have been very good. A resounding 9-1 FA Cup win at the week-end versus Isthmian Premier side, Whitehawk, showed the huge attacking potential now fully unleashed by Brennan. A professional 2-0 away win against 3rd placed, Hampton & Richmond, the previous Saturday now sees Billericay at the summit of the National South League.

Dean Brennan. Photo: Nicky Hayes

Barring an appointment late this week, Gloucester City will likely travel to Essex without a permanent manager in place, following the resignation of the former boss, Marc Richards. His last game in charge was the 2-2 home draw versus Eastbourne Borough. Although this left the Tigers in 17th position in the National South, the departure was due to an alternative offer.

Richards and assistant manager, Will Morford, have since taken up employment with National North League side, Hereford. Interestingly, the Bulls Director of Football is former Gloucester City manager, Tim Harris, who quit as boss in November 2017. Richards, formerly No.2 to Harris during his tenure at the club, had taken charge last December, leading the Tigers to a 14th placed finish in 2017/18.

Ironically, Gloucester City and Richards’ new club, Hereford FC, share use of training facilities at Gloucestershire’s Hartpury College. The institution provides elite level sports coaching and houses some of the best football related infrastructure in the country. Richards is the Assistant Director of Elite Sport at Hartpury in his day job. The quality of the facilities contrasts somewhat with Gloucester City’s current homeless status after floods in 2007 left its Meadow Park ground under 8ft of water. Resorting to ground sharing over the past 10 years, Gloucester schedule their home fixtures at Evesham in Worcestershire. Plans for a return to Gloucester have gathered momentum recently and there is strong Council support for a new stadium on the original site – possibly by 2019/20 season.

Moving back to who will manage the team, the club swiftly appointed Joint caretaker managers, Tom Webb and Mike Green pending the selection of a new manager. Webb, who retired from playing recently, is on the club coaching staff. Making his debut, aged 16, he made a record 731 club appearances over the past 17 years. Regarded as a club legend, plans have been made to name a stand (Tom Webb – T stand) in his honour at the new Meadow Park ground. His co-manager, Green, is the current club strength & conditioning coach and also fulfils a similar role at Hartpury College.

The first game for the interim management team was the 3-3 home draw in the FA Cup third qualifying round tie versus Dorking Wanderers. Tigers were unlucky to be held as a disputed penalty got the Isthmian League side back into the match after being 3-1 down. In recent matches, the team showed good character to snatch a point with a late goal against Eastbourne. Last time on the road, Gloucester performed well enough but got nothing from a trip to Chippenham (0-1). Blues fans will be well aware that that Hardenhuish can be a difficult place to go and get a positive result.

Gloucester City has been in Step Two since promotion in 2009/10. Placed originally in the National North, 2017/18 represented the first year that the Tigers had competed in the National South. Having survived the first year at Step Two in 2009/10, finishing 18th, the club has since come in 14th or 15th in five of eight following campaigns. Highest placing was 10th in 2016/17. Tigers form so far this campaign of four wins in eleven matches suggests a repeat of last year’s 14th is on the cards.

There have been some notable playing staff departures from the club in the close season. Club captain and right back, Keiran Thomas, and left back, Lewis Hall, have both moved on to Hereford FC. At the same time, commanding 6ft 4ins centre-back, Robbie Cundy, departed for local rivals, Bath City. Perhaps the biggest loss is double player of the Season, Ed Williams, who leaves to join Conference National side, Kidderminster Harriers. An attacking play-maker, he contributed 8 goals from midfield last season and had been widely scouted by League Two clubs including Exeter City.

An injury in pre-season to the regular goalkeeper, Andy Hannah, saw Richards use his ample contacts book to find a short notice replacement. Derby County youngster Matt Yates has slotted into the side well and performances have earned him widespread approval and an extension of his loan until January. Despite key defensive departures, the Tigers are reasonably sound at the back and have only had one real off day, losing 0-3 at home to Bath City. Overall, 13 goals conceded in 11 League games, including 4 clean sheets, is a reasonable start for the Tigers to build upon.

Options at centre-back are, however, healthy with experienced centre-backs, Sam Avery and Spencer Hamilton both entering their fifth seasons at the club. Ex-Hungerford Town central defender, Matt Williams, has also featured in the back-line prior to his recent injury. New arrival, ex-Cheltenham defender/midfielder, Jack Deaman, offers plentiful cover in central defence and subbed in for Williams after the latter was injured during the pre-match warm-up v Chippenham Town.

With both full-backs departing, it has been all change on the flanks. So far this season, the Tigers have used three different players at right-back including ex Cardiff City youngster, Isaac Kelly. Latterly, centre-back, Hamilton, has been fielded there. Left back has been nailed down by impressive youngster, Noah Smerdon, who has seized his chance in the first team with a string of impressive performances. Aged just 17, he is comfortable in his defensive duties, brings an attacking threat with overlaps, and is prepared to shoot on sight. With two goals already this season and Man of the Match performances against Dulwich and Torquay United, he looks an exciting prospect.

A retained list numbering a dozen players has seen stability at Jubilee Park. We like the look of Joe Hanks in midfield – Gloucester City stalwart, fan favourite, and regular goal/assist provider. First joining City on loan in March 2014, he signed permanently in January 2016. An ever present in central midfield this season, he made his League debut back in October 2012 for Cheltenham Town as a substitute for Blues midfield general, Sam Deering. Another to note is left sided midfielder/winger, Joe Parker. With a burst of pace, and ability to run past opponents, he has a dangerous left foot and likes to cause problems by switching flanks with his opposite wide-man.

Summer recruitment has taken place nonetheless with a focus on adding more in forward areas. Attacking midfielder/striker, Jake Mawford, joins the squad after shining in pre-season matches. Versatile striker, Jake Jackson, recently departed from Chippenham Town, is added to the forward line. Young forward, Ben Seymour, joins on a 3 month loan from Exeter City. Ex-Cheltenham Town winger, Adam Page, also comes in after a very brief stay last season. He offers good delivery from wide areas. Midfielder Matt Liddiard returns for a third spell after netting 22 goals last year at Evesham Unite in Step four football. He has started well with two goals so far this season.

None of the strikers signed in the summer appear to have hit the goal trail meaningfully to date, with Mawford, Jackson, and Seymour only mustering one League goal apiece. To be fair to Jackson, who has been prolific at lower levels, a problematic hip injury has curtailed his involvement to just three starts in August. With just eight strikes registered in the League, and a teenage left-back as current joint leading scorer on two goals, the club moved in September to acquire additional options.

Two new arrivals include a familiar name to Tigers fans in ex-Cheltenham Town striker Harry Williams, who also joins for his third stint. Previously, he has netted 10 times in 25 appearances for Gloucester and has spent time playing in the United States. Gallic guile is provided by proven frontman, Fabian Robert, who transfers on loan from Forest Green Rovers. Boasting higher League pedigree, the Frenchman scored on his debut in the FA Cup after 17 seconds. His three appearances for the club have seen him awarded Match of the Match twice. With an eye for goal, he could well pose a significant threat to the Blues defence and is dangerous both inside and outside the box.

Based on my brief experience of Dean Brennan’s line-up’s, we can probably expect the Blues side to align in an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Although the 9-1 thrashing of Whitehawk is fresh in the mind, the Tigers present a different test and the Billericay set-up that did so well at Hampton & Richmond looks more relevant. This would mean a Blues defence including centre-backs, Scott Doe and Ricky Hayles, supplemented by Joe Kizzi and Callum Kennedy on the flanks.

We expect Ademola Shokunbi who debuted impressively in the FA Cup to retain the defensive role in the midfield three. Alongside the Reading U-23 loanee, Jamie O’Hara and Jake Howells should keep their places. Up front, we believe Sam Deering will play tucked in behind strikers Jake Robinson and Moses Emmanuel. We assume that Ricky Modeste is not back to full fitness and, if available, only makes the bench.

It will be difficult to pre-empt the Gloucester City tactical approach given the recent change in management. So far this campaign, the Tigers have tended to play only one up front for away games. With two defensive midfielders in what may be a 4-2-3-1 formation, the team are compact and difficult to break down. They can, however, break quickly especially from wide areas and will pose a threat on the counter-attack.

A tough side, Blues will need to be at their best on Saturday. On paper, it should be a home victory for “Brennan’s Boys” but football can be full of surprises.

Enjoy the game!

Form Last Six League Matches

Billericay Town: W, W, D, W, L, W
Leading Scorer: Jake Robinson, 12 goals.

Gloucester City: D, L, L, W, D, W
Leading Scorers: Noah Smerdon and Matt Liddiard, both 2 goals

No Previous Meetings

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