All photos courtesy of @nickyhayesphoto Nicky Hayes.
Billericay Town last week published its retained list for the 2019/20 campaign. The existing management team of Harry Wheeler and assistant, Jamie O’Hara, remain in place. The main surprise is that a higher level of continuity was achieved than might have been expected. 14 of the existing playing staff have agreed to sign on for next season. Treble winner, Josh Urquhart-McLeod, returns as a new signing. Six players leave, including Paul Rooney’s loan return.
With club news thin on the ground during the off-season, announcements regarding future squad composition are always keenly anticipated by fans. Post comments made by Wheeler after the final game of the last campaign that only a handful of the squad would stay, wholesale changes had been envisaged by most.
It is positive that Billericay Town have recognised the advantage of not going back to base level and setting about a completely new re-building task. Players within the squad are certainly not lacking talent and did not fall far short of objectives in 2018/19. That said, the poor run during the last month of the season did raise concerns and evidence for some level of change is compelling.
Not for the first time, the Blues have confounded expectation with the length of the retained list. Results will ultimately provide a swift answer to any lingering questions over strategy. However, given the obvious concerns that surfaced last season, it must be pondered whether the list is, in fact, too long. Contractual situations may, however, be at play preventing a more brutal stance being taken.
Looking at the playing resources available to the club, goalkeeper, Alan Julian featured first on the retained list. Largely ever-present, and faultless, during the season, his place had come under threat from ex-Eastbourne Borough stopper, Mark Smith. With Smith acquitting himself well in matches, there had been debate about whether the younger man would prevail with an eye to the future. Smith remains “in talks” with the club but would be a luxury as an understudy.
With constant change in central defence areas, and the loss of three incumbents of talent as part of the “full-time” saga, one notable success in this position has been the arrival of centre-back, Charlie Wassmer. Displaying strong aerial ability, and defensive know-how, he provided what little leadership was present in a team that, at times, looked hesitant. An important part of the Town recruitment over pre-season will be a strong partner to go alongside the ex-Woking man.
Full-back cover looks a “work-in-progress” with our best option in that position, Joe Kizzi, still considering a new contract offer made by the club. Highly rated after an outstanding campaign, keeping Kizzi would be a major coup. Of those signed up, Michee Efete, who started brightly but faded a little later in the season, offers a flexible attacking option and can cover both flanks if required. Left-back, Callum Kennedy divides opinion with undoubted technical ability interspersed by questions about the level of defensive surety provided. Urquhart-McLeod can also provide cover in the left back role if required.
Defensive midfield looks well served with Blues stalwart, Danny Waldren staying for another campaign. With signings regularly made seemingly to replace Waldren, who joined in May 2017, the ex-Welling midfielder has shown immense character to have the talent to fight them off – remember, Simon Walton, anybody? A welcome return was announced for Billy Clifford – hitherto banished on loan to Slough Town where he performed creditably. An effective defensive midfielder with the ability to notch vital goals, he represents a good addition.
With Sam Deering and Jack Paxman on the list, midfield looks to have an exciting amount of creativity. With Deering much missed since his injury problems surfaced around Christmas, Paxman breathed much needed life into the middle third of the field. With both playing in the final games, it was clear that the two can function together and provide much needed attacking momentum in an area of the field that has looked prosaic in their absence.
Adding to midfield options, Alfie Potter has agreed to stay after talks and has been a lively presence from the bench. Able to play wide or centrally, he is a useful squad member but seems to struggle to get starts. Just the one goal against lower league opposition last season is surprising given his attacking flair and ability. Adding goals to his game would complete the picture here. Tambeson Eyong remains to provide defensive cover but has historically seen limited starts.
Midfield is the position that should be described as the “in talks” zone. Club captain Jake Howells, Connor Smith, Jamar Loza, and Kieron Cadogan are all discussing their future at present. Ever present, Howells, is the main surprise on the list while the case of Smith, who only featured in five League fixtures before disappearing, looking more clear-cut. A much heralded signing, Loza always looked like he had more to offer but may not get the chance. Cadogan, on loan at Woking and promoted with Woking, would probably prefer the National League.
It was mixed fortunes on the striking front with the good news that leading scorer, and Player of the Season, Moses Emmanuel was staying. Starting out last season as a substitute, he forced his way into the team with vital goals and kept scoring. More surprising, and received with some disappointment, was the departure of Adam Coombes, who showed very good form after Christmas with a long run of strikes in consecutive fixtures. Ross Lafayette has agreed to stay and young prospect, Nathan Minhas, is also retained as a back-up striker.
Better news followed several days later with the announcement that Adam Cunnington had agreed to a contract offer. The experienced frontman increases options with a strong aerial presence. Also effective on the ground, his presence should not be a precursor to a constant long ball game. Fan favourite, Jake Robinson, remains “in talks” and, it is hoped, soon to agree a deal. With a season disrupted by a mini-break in Maidstone, Robinson was not at his most effective on his return to the Blues but remains a reliable goal-getter and class player.
Confirmed departures include central defender, Lloyd Doyley, midfielder, Connor Hunte, winger, Sam Kelly, and centre-back, Cole Kpekawa. After 17 League appearances, centre-back Rooney returns to Colchester United U-23’s. Given lack of game-time, and Kpekawa’s short-term need for a club, none of the exits are surprising. Rooney performed well but fell out of favour towards the end of the season and the emphasis will be on finding an experienced player at the back.
Having reviewed the list, which equates to a squad of 15, there looks to be room for up to four more outfield additions. The picture is complicated by on-going player negotiations and a number of those spaces could well be taken by any combination of Joe Kizzi, Jake Robinson, Jake Howells, and Jamar Loza. Should the new squad look very similar to that of the end of last season, it will be an interesting task for the management team to secure improved performances.
Some level of player refresh is required – perhaps up to four players that can challenge for the first team. At first sight, the Blues need defensive cover with a centre-back a minimum requirement. Other positions will depend on the final retained list. In the absence of Kizzi, a sound, defensive minded full-back is likely to be on the agenda. A young, attacking wide-man would also be welcomed in the event that Loza fails to agree a deal. Finally, extra support for Emmanuel is required in the event that Robinson does not stay on.
For now, it is not yet clear what the objectives are for the 2019/20 campaign although it is widely anticipated that the playing budget will be reduced. The effort for achieving sustainability at the football club is a laudable one that the fans appreciate. Expecting promotion on a tighter budget may be challenging to achieve and it is hoped that expectations of all at the club are set at reasonable levels. A return to hasty turnover of management and players for falling short of elevated ambitions only ends in set-back as we have learnt from in the past.