In the second instalment of our series on Billericay Town’s 2019/20 season, we take a look at the first ten matches before the axe was wielded a second time in manager Harry Wheeler’s direction. We take in the unbeaten home record, a series of unconvincing performances on the road, and the integration of the new players into the team. A lofty 4th position in the League supported in no small way by Jake Robinson’s three consecutive late home winners.
It’s all there: the highs of a convincing home win against lowly Hungerford, the enthralling five goal thriller to best St.Albans, and a gutsy point when down to ten men against local rivals, Chelmsford City, at the Melbourne Stadium. The low’s of the defeat on our travels once more at Chippenham, the substitution mistakes and late defeat at Hemel, and that game at home to Bath City that must rank as one of the dullest seen at New Lodge in the National South era.
With the fixture list, and new constituents of the National South, all fully confirmed by 8th July, Billericay’s first date with destiny would be on home territory versus unfancied Eastbourne Borough. The busy first four weeks of the season, numbering a total of eight matches is unforgiving. A challenge for all clubs emerging from pre-season, the program threw up some tough away trips but avoided any confrontation with likely title contenders. Visits to Chippenham Town and, after a summer of investment, Hemel Hempstead looked to be potential banana skins for the now 5 to 1 title shot Blues.
Pre-season played its usual role in rewarding impressive trialists and the inevitable release of surplus players. The trialist with most promise, right-sided option, Louis Ramsay, was retained and has since featured regularly in the first team, both as a starter and squad member. Returning treble winners, centre-forward, Adam Cunnington, and defensive utility player, Josh Urquhart-McLeod, took the decision that first team football would be in limited supply and moved on. The late arrival of Matt Rhead just one week before had proved to be the end for Cunnington who joined Dartford.
The opening match on August 3rd was far from a classic as the Blues laboured to a 1-0 victory. Jake Robinson pounced in added time to finish from close range and break the visitor’s resistance. Wheeler sprang a surprise with a 4-3-3 formation after spending pre-season favouring 3-5-2. Ronnie Henry took the skipper’s armband in central defence, alongside Charlie Wassmer, with new signing, Ben Nunn, at right-back. The midfield trio included Alfie Potter, Jordan Parkes, and, in from the cold, the relatively unfavoured, Danny Waldren. With Rhead an obligatory starter, and regular target for high balls, Robinson and Moses Emmanuel were slotted in on either side of the ex-Lincoln City striker.
For all the new recruits in the starting line-up, it was the substitute right-back, Tambeson Eyong, and Wheeler’s belated switch to a back three, that brought momentum to a fixture in danger of fizzling out before a determined and well-organised Eastbourne rear guard. Eyong’s energetic runs down the flank made clear chances for Robinson and Emmanuel that hit the bar or were blocked. A Rhead header beat goalkeeper Tom Hadler but was disallowed for offside. Billericay rode their luck but would not be denied as Emmanuel and Robinson combined to make the vital breakthrough.
The short trip three days later to Cressing Road brought a more entertaining match as Wheeler’s team edged a five-goal thriller against a Braintree side with an entirely new squad after relegation from the national League. Eyong kept his place in the only change to the opening line-up. Falling behind, the Blues hauled themselves level courtesy of a weak penalty from Rhead that crept past the goalkeeper. Second half strikes from Emmanuel and, after being pegged back, a headed winner from Wassmer, direct from an out-swinging Parkes corner, ensured Billericay maintained a perfect, if not fully convincing, start to the campaign. On the opposing side, striker, Femi Akinwande, and midfielder, Ade Cole, had strong matches, which would lead to them joining the Blues later in the season.
With Chippenham Town offering excellent mobile network reception, but less welcoming in football terms, this was the toughest game so far for the Essex side. A 284 miles round trip, pitch that plays like a concrete surface, and a stubborn team to overcome, all the ingredients for a bad afternoon were there and so it proved in a 2-0 defeat.
The Blues fell behind to a fifth minute Luke Hopper penalty. Just past the half hour Eyong reverted to type, earning a red card with a high challenge. Ramsay, on as a substitute, hit the bar late on and, within 60 seconds, the home side broke for Nat Jarvis to score the second, deciding goal. A penalty on 93 minutes missed by Rhead added insult to injury.
With the tenth day of the season heralding fixture four, Doug Loft and Louis Ramsay were introduced as starters to make their full competitive debuts. Missing out were Eyong, suspended, and Robinson, dropped to the bench to accommodate Rhead in a change to a 3-5-2. Billericay bounced back to record a 2-1 win, which represented a combination of the tried and the tested.
Parkes, assisted by Ramsay, rifled home a fine strike to put his new club in front. After the Wings equalised through Gavin McCullum, it was Robinson, back on penalty duties in front of a packed crowd demanding he take the kick, that hammered home a nervelessly from the spot in added time to save the day.
By far, the best performance of the season, the win was somewhat fortunate with the penalty arguably conceded by Rob Swaine outside the area. However, the defensive display appeared solid and midfield functioned well, led by Parkes and Alfie Potter. On the debit side, strikers still looked ill-suited to each other and partnerships were slow to come to fruition. Robinson being shunted to the left side, or relegated to the bench, also looked questionable. Centre-back Wassmer’s red card marred his strong start and would ultimately see him lose his place to Gavin Gunning and depart the club in September.
A trip to Hampton & Richmond was next on the agenda. Sitting bottom of the table, having lost all four league matches, the Beavers were not expected to change that trend for the visit of 6th placed Billericay. In the absence of Wassmer, Gunning made his competitive debut in Billericay colours after serving an historic ban dating back to his time at Forest Green Rovers. Despite his late goal in the previous match, Robinson remained on the bench as Emmanuel and Rhead started. A battling performance from the south-west London side earnt a deserved point against the odds. A delicate second half chip from Emmanuel cancelled out a first half Cole Brown penalty after a Parkes foul.
If Billericay had disappointed outside of Essex, they were a different proposition at New Lodge. August Bank Holiday weekend perfectly illustrated this conundrum with two contrasting results in the space of three days.
Hopes were high for a productive holiday period, buoyed by a first full week of training since the start of the season, the return of long-time injury victim, Sam Deering, to take a place on the bench, and the visit of a St. Albans team struggling for form after a poor start. Whilst able to produce creative, attacking football on home territory, poor defending was still causing significant problems. Against well-organised opponents, the Blues still gave away chances.
The blend of offensive prowess, partly undermined by defensive hesitation, was there for all to see against the Saints. In an enthralling five goal thriller, the Blues once again had reason to be grateful to another Robinson late-show as his 86th minute dinked strike settled the match. Bagging a brace in the game, the frontman also opened the scoring before his third consecutive late home winner. A crazy six minute first half spell saw three further goals as the visitors twice penetrated a porous backline either side of conceding an own goal. With the match delicately poised at 2-2, Deering entered at half-time for the ineffective Rhead, Billericay took control of the game. In searing heat, substitutions included a first competitive appearance for owner’s son, 16 years old, Archie Tamplin.
The trip to high-flying Hemel would prove to be an afternoon of frustration. A goalless 81 minutes was transformed into a 3-0 defeat for the Blues as late changes upset the balance of the team. Wheeler’s admission post-match that: “We paid for the changes that were made” acknowledged this. With players visibly tiring during a match punctuated with enforced drinks breaks, the replacement of the ageing Rhead, by a young, butinexperienced, midfielder backfired.
With the burly striker genuinely troubling the home defence, Blues lost both their main platform of attack, and, by cedingcontrol in central areas, handed the initiative to the opposition. Breaking quickly on a now exposed leaky defence, Hemel replacement, Ricardo German, struck twice late on to wrap up victory for the Tudors. Blues went to battle but ended up being sunk by a German sub.
With Wheeler adroitly demonstrating his use of synonyms by admitting that the Hemel set-back had brought about an “in-depth discussion” after the match in the away changing room, it was clear that all was not well. A home match against basement side, Hungerford, on the final Saturday of August offered the chance for speedy atonement. With a trip to Chelmsford in store just two days later, alongside any recriminations from Hertfordshire, four changes were made with Ramsay, Loft, Deering, and Emmanuel preferred in place of Nunn, Waldren, Paxman, and Robinson.
A poor side, the Crusaders were decidedly unambitious, defending in numbers and concentrating on setting a low block to frustrate. For 45 minutes, it worked perfectly, with only Deering’s creative quality in his first start of the season providing any encouragement of better times ahead. With assistant manager, Jamie O’Hara let off the leash at half-time for what was presumed to be another “in-depth discussion”, Blues were transformed. Within 60 seconds of the re-start a Deering drive was diverted to Emmanuel who rammed home at the back post to give the home side a deserved lead.
Whilst it never quite worked for Rhead at New Lodge, his finest 45 minutes in a Billericay shirt came in that second half against the Berkshire side. Full of bustle, menace, and goal threat, he won a penalty that Jordan Parkes converted. Next, after striking the bar, he delivered his first goal in open play for the Essex side. An emphatic header past the goalkeeper,via the underside of the bar, crowned a performance that earned him the appreciation of the home crowd. Seen as the symbol of what was viewed as Wheeler’s favoured long-ball strategy, Rhead still faced a battle to convince.
And so on to the Gulag for a traditional Chelmsford welcome. Segregation for the fans and, for the players, a tightly contested battle given the local rivalry and workman-like philosophies of both managers. In a match low on quality, Blues delivered a performance of character against the odds to snatch a point in a 1-1 draw. A goal down just before the hour-mark to an Anthony Church finish at the far post, Billericay were reduced to ten men on 67 minutes as Ramsay got his marching orders. With the Blues doubly motivated by what looked a harsh second yellow for the full-back, Emmanuel proved to be the saviour with an equaliser from a fine individual strike into the bottom far corner.
With Billericay sitting 4th in the table, courtesy of a sequence of four consecutive home wins, visitors Bath City, surprisingly down in 9th, offered the biggest test so far at New Lodge. Four changes were made, including Robinson back in the starting line-up, albeit lined up on the left side of a front three. Wheeler changed formation from his then favoured 4-2-3-1 to match up with the Romans’ 4-3-3. With news breaking of yet another long-term injury to the gifted but fragile Callum Kennedy, ex-Maidstone left-back George McClennan joined the club as cover literally on the day of the game.
The Blues started confidently with an Emmanuel effort disallowed for offside after he converted a pinpoint cross delivered from a Parkes free kick. Billericay would not be denied and took the lead that they deserved through a Deering 25-yard drive arrowed low in the bottom corner. Bath responded with right winger, Owura Edwards, regularly tormenting the debutant, McLennan. Just before half-time, the inevitable happened as the left-back felled Edwards in the penalty area and Ryan Brunt smashed home the penalty past Julian. After the break, the match petered out as both sides cancelled the other out. A clear case of the point being more impressive than the match.
The draw with Bath had kept Billericay in 4th position in the League. Despite some deficiencies, a first-class home record, and the ability to dig out a number of battling draws on the road, made it clear that the Blues were very firmly in the play-off mix. The balance of the team was not perfect, attacking partnerships were slow to develop, creativity was patchy, an ageing defence lacked pace, and the use of the long ball was perhaps too readily employed. That said, the team had a lot of character and experience, did not get beaten easily, and had players that would grace any side in the League. In Wheeler, they had a tactically aware manager that knew how to set up a team. He left with his head held high, having installed the Essex club at the upper end of the League.
Bath City at home had so nearly marked the end for Wheeler as manager as the Blues fell short of the play-off places in the final game of the previous season. The stay of execution would be a short one and, ironically, it was the West Country outfit once again that landed the final blow.
With Wheeler never to be seen again as manager of Billericay Town, it would his assistant, O’Hara, that was assigned the caretaker role to take charge of the team for the next match at Oxford City. Little could the fans have known that this was merely the opening act in a chain of events that, within the space of one month, would shake the club to its foundations and threaten its existence.
TO BE CONTINUED