All photos: Nicky Hayes
Billericay Town continued their perfect start in the league under Harry Wheeler with a 2-0 home win over a depleted Eastbourne Borough side. Headed goals in each half from Adam Coombes and Jamar Loza secured Wheeler’s fourth League win in what was a workmanlike performance from a Blues side that lacked its usual fluency. After the match, Eastbourne, sitting 15th in the table, and on a poor run of 8 points from a possible 36, announced that manager, Jamie Howell, had left the club.
Harry Wheeler directs from the touchline.
On a very mild February afternoon, the AGP arena was graced with the presence of ITV cameras. In position to commence a documentary about club owner, Glenn Tamplin, and the recent rise of Billericay Town to prominence, the national TV station did not distract the team from its steely focus on climbing the League. Profiting from promotion rivals Bath City falling to their second defeat in a row away at Concord, Billericay’s victory leaves them well-placed in fourth position on 54 points.
Billericay’s team selection showed consistency with only one change from the previous League fixture versus Truro. In came the experience of centre-back, Lloyd Doyley, to play alongside Charlie Wassmer at the heart of the Billericay defence. With a 100% League record since his return, Wheeler kept his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. In acknowledgement of the strength of the Eastbourne right hand side offensively, left-back Michee Efete was given licence to play slightly advanced to the back line.
With up to eight squad members unavailable through injury, five changes were made to the Eastbourne line-up that had drawn at Oxford City. Shorn of experience up front, striker Charlie Walker, winger Ryan Hall, and attacking midfielder, Dean Cox, all missed the game. In came, 20 year old Bromley loanee, Reece Myles-Meekums, who played in an attacking role on the right, ex-Worthing striker, Lloyd Dawes, and back from loan at Tonbridge Angels, midfielder, Michael West.
The Sports also dug deep into their renowned academy, giving a full debut to 16 year old central midfielder, Daniel Blackmore, in place of the injured youngster, Andrew Briggs. Into the defence came the height and experience of regular centre-back, Tom Gardiner, who replaced the Bournemouth U-23 loanee, Corey Jordan, also unfit to play. Club captain, and most experienced player, Sergio Torres, injured for the past six weeks, remained unavailable.
With an unfamiliar line-up, and a youthful bench boasting just 3 minutes of first team League experience, Eastbourne approached this tough away fixture with some trepidation. As Billericay began to probe, the team found itself up against a cautious Sports side, which unsurprisingly started with a defensive looking shape. Although set up in 4-3-3, this quickly reverted to an effective 4-5-1. With midfield crowded, and 6ft 2 inch visiting striker, Stefan Ljubicic, initially deployed in a lone role up front, the Blues would find the visitors hard to break down.
On 4 minutes, a neat turn and through ball by Sam Deering provided striker Moses Emmanuel with the opportunity for the first shot at goal. Danger passed as the strike found only the midriff of Eastbourne goalkeeper, Sam Howes. Making his 7th League start, after arriving in East Sussex on loan from Watford to replace Billericay bound, Mark Smith, Howes would make a number of notable saves during the match. His first came in the 13th minute as a Jake Howells corner was met powerfully by Wassmer who directed a header towards goal only to see the former England U-19 international pull off a fine diving stop at full stretch to his left hand side.
Eastbourne struck back on 19 minutes as a searching ball out of defence from left back, Kristian Campbell, found the head of Ljubicic. Able to direct the ball into the path of Dawes, the front man struck a low, fierce 25 yard shot narrowly wide of Billericay goalkeeper Alan Julian’s right hand post. With midfield players beginning to push forward, and Campbell an impressive presence down his flank, the Sports started to settle into the game and put together some good passing combinations.
Adam Coombes heads home the opening goal.
Not yet as fluent as the visitors, but more direct and enjoying the better opportunities on goal, Billericay took the lead in the 22nd minute through Coombes. The break-through would come courtesy of a set piece on the left hand side. Awarded for a foul on Loza, the Jamaican winger stretched the visiting defence with his ball carrying skills all afternoon. Deering, the instigator of the majority of the Blues creative flashes, stepped up to curve the free kick towards the waiting Coombes. Rising in front of his marker, Gardiner, the Billericay striker angled his header perfectly beyond the helpless Howes to register his thirteenth League goal of the season.
Adam Coombes celebrates his 13th League goal of the season.
With Wassmer always a significant aerial presence in the opposition penalty area, the Sports had some difficulty in dealing with Howells’ well-directed corner delivery. But for a miskick at the vital moment, Billericay right-back Joe Kizzi came close on the half hour to slotting home the loose ball from his captain’s precise centre. At the other end, Myles-Meekums, on the counter attack advanced on the left hand side to swing in a 34th minute cross that was parried by Julian and cleared from danger by Doyley. An impressive presence at the back on his return to the team, the man who accumulated over 440 appearances for Watford FC was composed throughout.
The remainder of the first half saw a chance apiece as another Eastbourne incursion from the left hand side in the 38th minute saw a cross spilled by Billericay keeper, Julian. With the ball rebounding to Blackmore, the youngster’s well-struck shot through a mass of bodies was repelled for a corner by a diving save. The home side replied through Coombes whose shot was pushed away by Howes after good approach from Emmanuel had played his strike partner in on goal.
The Blues started the second period menacingly. Deering beat his man on the left hand side and crossed towards Emmanuel in space at the far post. Unable to adjust to a ball arriving slightly faster than anticipated, the 17 goal striker could only head the ball harmlessly up in the air. Another Howells corner on 52 minutes sparked panic in the Eastbourne back-line rolling wide despite the best efforts of Emmanuel to try and reach the ball as it sped across the six yard box.
In response, Eastbourne made their first change in the 53rd minute bringing on 16 year old attacking midfielder, Brad Santos in place of Lloyd Dawes. Soon tangling with Efete, Santos was not over-awed at making his competitive debut and looks a fine young prospect, catching the eye with his enthusiasm, nice touch on the ball, and attacking threat. To his credit, the other academy product, Blackmore, playing in a defensive midfield role, acquitted himself well, and never shirked a battle in a tough fixture for a full debut. Eastbourne may have a long injury list but with impressive young players in the academy pipeline, there are selection options at the club.
Always a creative influence, Deering showed good dribbling skills on the left hand side to beat his man and deliver another cross in the 62nd minute. Drifting inside his man, Coombes hit a rocket of a left foot shot destined for the far corner of the goal. Pulling off the save of the match, Howes dived to his right to divert wide. Billericay’s defence coped well whenever put under pressure and both Doyley and Wassmer inspired confidence at the back in central areas. Working as a unit to sniff out danger, this was most evident on 65 minutes when Santos advanced on goal only to see two shots in succession charged down by a watchful home defence.
Alfie Potter on a run down the wing.
After 67 minutes, Alfie Potter came on as substitute to replace Emmanuel. Offering dynamism down the right hand side, in tandem with Kizzi, the winger has made a number of important cameo appearances under Wheeler and appears to be the favoured option later in matches to either capitalise on tiring defences or force back teams attacking on the flanks. After a timely intervention by Wassmer in the 73rd minute to clear a dangerous cross after Julian had been lured out of his goal to stem an attacking threat, the second goal for Billericay would come as some relief.
The right wing would be the source. Running down theflank, Kizzi, released by Potter, reached the by-line and pulled back a ball to Coombes in the centre. The Blues hit-man swivelled and shot on goal only to see the ball blocked by Eastbourne defender, Harry Ransom, and spiral up into the air. Dropping in front of the goal, Loza jumped to head the ball home under pressure from Eastbourne right-back, Marvin Hamilton, and goalkeeper, Howes. Whether the final touch in the 77th minute was via the defender or not, Loza appears to have made the vital goal-bound connection and can justifiably claim his first strike in a Billericay shirt.
Loza celebrates his first goal for Billericay.
There was still time for Eastbourne to come close to pulling back a consolation goal. That it would come from the lively Santos was no surprise as the attacker once again shot on goal only for his effort to be deflected up by a Billericay body and onto the crossbar. With three minutes of added time failing to see any further threat to the score-sheet, Billericay held on to victory.
Eastbourne provided sterner opposition than had perhaps been thought to be the case after an embarrassing defeat in the Sussex Senior Cup on Tuesday night against lowly Burgess Hill Town. With an injury list to test any club, the team from East Sussex kept the game tight and made the Blues work hard for victory. Lacking striking options, the visitors were not especially menacing in front of goal and once the Blues were ahead, confidence in achieving the win was high.
An efficient performance from the home side included the bonus of the ninth clean sheet of the season in the League. With defensive stability restored after a period when numerous goals were conceded, Billericay look well-placed to mount a determined campaign to seek a top three position. The team is still heavily reliant on Deering for creative impetus and, at times, lacked fluency. However, it is still early days under Wheeler and vast improvement has been achieved in a short period.
Coach Danny Hazle signals a perfect four win start.
1. Alan Julian 2. Joe Kizzi 3. Michee Efete 4. Charlie Wassmer 5. Lloyd Doyley 6. Sam Deering (9. Ross Lafyette, ’78) 7. Moses Emmanuel (14. Alfie Potter, ’67) 8. Danny Waldren 10. Adam Coombes (17. Connor Smith, ’83) 12. Jake Howells 19. Jamar Loza
Subs Not Used: 15. Paul Rooney 16. Jamie O’Hara
Goals: ’22 Coombes, ’77 Loza.
1.Samuel Howes 2. Marvin Hamilton 3. Kristian Campbell 4.Kane Wills 5. Harry Ransom 6. Tom Gardiner 7. Daniel Blackmore 8. Michael West 9. Stefen Ljubicic 10. Reece Myles-Meekums 11. Lloyd Dawes (12. Brad Santos, ’53)
Subs Not Used 14. Nico Cotton 15. Ayman Gharbaoui 17. Gregor Shaw, GK.