In this, the third part of the series on Billericay Town’s 2019-20 “Story of the season”, we look at Jamie O’Hara’s first steps as a manager, Glenn Tamplin’s sudden exit, and the drama at Sutton Utd as Alan Julian comes to the rescue late on.
We look again at the Blues best performance of the season in qualifying for FA Cup 1st round on a night that the new ownership consortium was announced. Back to the fixtures, we feature all the League and Cup matches from O’Hara’s first match in charge against Oxford City until the end of October:
Next stop for Billericay was Oxford City’s Marsh Lane. In the lead-up to the match, The Essex Echo’s local football writer, Danny Rust, had run an interview in which manager, Harry Wheeler, had declared that the team needed to improve its approach play in the final third and take their chances. All standard copy for what seemed just another regulation away fixture against undemanding opposition. The Hoops in 18th position could only count a solitary home victory in the campaign.
An unremarkable appointment in the Billericay calendar was transformed into something of long- term resonance as Wheeler did not report present for duties. Instead, assistant manager, Jamie O’Hara, was placed in charge of team affairs for an interim period that would be later made permanent. With nothing communicated by the club on the manager’s future, the fans were left to ponder whether Karl Marx’s view that ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce’, could be prophetic. It would indeed be the case with Wheeler only learning of his sacking later in the month.
O’Hara put his immediate stamp on the team, making four changes as he shuffled his pack to find the right formula. In a switch to a 4-4-2, his biggest decision was to bench striker, Matt Rhead. This left Jake Robinson and Moses Emmanuel to lead the line and brought Alfie Potter into midfield. In a like-for-like switch, in came, attacking midfielder Jack Paxman in place of Jordan Parkes. Doug Loft, injured, was replaced by Gavin Gunning, advanced from the centre of defence. Charlie Wassmer returned as the second centre-back. Defender Craig Robson came in to cover the left-back role.
The match ended in a disappointing draw as Billericay got off to a flyer under new management, taking a quickfire two goal lead on 17 minutes through Robinson strikes. Shortly afterwards, Oxford City’s best player, Zac MacEachran reduced the deficit with a stunning volley.
Perhaps reflecting the new manager’s greater emphasis on attacking play, the game became more open. A second half strike from Jack Self levelled the scores. It could have been worse if not for Blues goalkeeper, Alan Julian, who made two vital saves. A promising performance had given way to a puzzling display as the initiative appeared to be passed to the opponents. It would not be the last time that occurred.
What followed was one of the most momentous weeks in the club’s history. On Monday September 16th, the open secret that Wheeler had been relieved of his duties was confirmed by a club statement explaining that: “Differences of opinion have led to the decision and the owner feels changes needed to be made. Jamie O’Hara will take control of first team duties…”
By Wednesday, the situation became infinitely more serious as an official announcement about owner, Glenn Tamplin, proclaimed that he would end his involvement with the club: “After long and lengthy discussions with close friends and family, I have decided now is the time for me to step aside from my role as both owner and Director of Billericay Town Football Club.”
As the main funder of the football activities of questionable sustainability, installing as recently as a month previously a player such as Rhead on a contract worthy of a lower League professional, the club was in trouble.
With some existing bills not always up to date, an exodus of players was expected to ease the strain on a bloated budget. News of departures rapidly surfaced. Within days, Wassmer was shipped off on loan to Hampton & Richmond, never to return. Midfielder Danny Waldren headed to Welling.
By month end, Gunning and Robson had joined Solihull Moors and Havant & Waterlooville, respectively. Rhead never featured for Billericay again and, five months later, was announced at National league, Boreham Wood.
With all the background noise, the club still could not lose sight that football engagements had to be fulfilled. With cash flow at the forefront of priorities, an FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round tie at the weekend against local rivals, Isthmian North side, Basildon United, offered a potential route to an increasing pot of valuable prize money.
Despite a difference of two divisions, the Bees were not deterred as manager, John Sussex, referred to the fixture as “probably one of the biggest in the club’s history.” The Gardiners Close based side were not coming to make up numbers.
Riven by departures, O’Hara had to fill gaps in the team. Former Spurs U-23, Jamie Reynolds, was drafted in to fill the vacant left-back berth and ex-trialist midfielder, Acea Laurent, agreed to return. Key players such as Robinson, Deering, Henry, and Julian remained although Robson was to make his final appearance.
In a tight match, the Blues had to rely on summer signing Parkes who curled an exceptional free kick into the top corner for a 1-0 victory. After a week of disruption, Billericay were grateful for safe passage to meet Bath City in the next round and, importantly, £6,750 prize money.
Out watching academy matches, spending his 33rd birthday poring over footage of next opponents, Dorking Wanderers, O’Hara’s introduction to life as manager was instant. ‘Audaces fortuna iuvat’, or ’Fortune favours the Bold’, prophesised Roman poet, Virgil, as O’Hara hoped to manufacture his own luck in a 4-2-3-1 set-up.
Three new signings, winger Ody Alfa, midfielder, Darren Oldaker, and left-back, Arjanit Krasniqi, were quickly recruited by the new boss. Handed first team starts at short notice, QPR-loanee Alfa stood out as a clear find providing a direct, attacking threat from wide.
Blues once again sped into a two-goal lead in the space of five minutes. Emmanuel fired home just past the hour mark and Robinson soon applied a predatory finish. Dorking roared back even missing a Jason Prior penalty. With five minutes to go, the visitors levelled through David Ray and a looping Prior header. Despite the unwelcome sting in the tail, the mood was positive. O’Hara’s efforts to find a team were valued, had been largely successful, and the football played was attractive on the eye.
With departures, and injury-prone midfielder Loft pushed back to defence, O’Hara recognised the main short-coming, commenting: “Players have left and I was looking at the bench in the last five minutes of the Dorking game for a 6’4” centre-half to come and head the ball away, but I haven’t got that”. The search for that vital component at the back would become more pressing over time.
Off the field, mounting uncertainty prompted a short club update: “… we are continuing in discussions with a local consortium with regards to taking over the ownership of the club. Due diligence is currently taking place and, once that is completed, we are confident that you will be pleased with the outcome…” At the same time, management and playing staff readied themselves for another crucial FA Cup match against demanding opponents, Bath City, returning to New Lodge.
In a fine performance, O’Hara’s new look side swept the Romans aside to secure a 4-2 win. Having fallen behind to a deflected effort, the Blues roared back through an own goal and strikes from Robinson and Parkes. After Brunt had given Bath hope, Robinson registered again late to make it safe.
The handbrake appeared to have been released and the Blue engine purred that afternoon. With Alfa a revelation, leading swift counters, and having an effort hacked off the line, O’Hara’s judgement on players looked sound. A creaking defence held together by Henry still appeared vulnerable though.
O’Hara’s unbeaten start ended with a convincing 3-1 loss at form side Slough Town. Dominating from the outset, the Berkshire side led through Matt Lench and Sam Togwell at half-time. After the break, a well-taken third from Dan Roberts put the game out of reach. Alfa salvaged a modicum of pride with a fine individual strike late on to net a consolation goal. A new centre-back, QPR U-23, Themis Kefalas, was included on the bench for the first time.
Superior in every aspect, the Rebels attacked readily down the flanks and stifled the Blues in a way not previously seen. Visibly shocked at a sloppy display, the Billericay manager could only acknowledge superior opponents who delivered a harsh lesson in standards at the summit of the National South.
In a break from League action, a trip to National League, Sutton United, offered a chance of cup glory and a place in the FA Cup first round. With the higher ranked side only outside the relegation places on goal difference, Billericay travelled to Gander Green Lane with optimism. Although present in training for several weeks, ex-Watford midfielder Gifton Noel-Williams was formally announced as assistant manager on the morning of the match. Kefalas also made his full debut in central defence. O’Hara fielded an attacking line-up utilising a front three comprising Alfa, Emmanuel and Robinson.
What unfolded that afternoon certainly ranks for the majority of Blues fans as the moment of the season. For goalkeeper, Julian, it will certainly be remembered as one of the highlights of his career.
With the Essex side conceding early, as Omar Bugiel put Sutton ahead, and Parkes striking the bar with a second half free kick, a third successive appearance in the first round appeared a forlorn hope. Enter Julian, who equalised with a powerful header in injury time to spark wild celebrations.
Having turned pro 17 years previously for Brentford, at the age of 19, Julian had never before scored a goal, and had not even intended to, remarking: “Jake Robinson told me to block someone off to give him some more space so that’s what I tried to do.” The feat earnt him an appearance on the BBC show broadcasting the first-round draw as well as several radio interviews.
Often an unsung hero, he had a short period in the limelight – even named by the FA as “Player of the Round” – but a lifelong memory of an amazing achievement. Almost as an afterthought, Billericay or Sutton, were handed a difficult away tie in Gloucestershire at League Two pace setters, Forest Green Rovers.
For the replay, Billericay put on a five star show to sweep aside Sutton in their best performance of the season. A hat-trick from Robinson, his first since the birth of his daughter over the summer, and goals from Sam Deering and Alfa put the shine on a 5-2 home win. The fine display was all the more noteworthy as news had filtered through prior to kick-off that new owners were present at the match. After weeks of negotiations amid mounting financial uncertainty, several rumoured changes of mind on deal structure from the exiting Tamplin, the breakthrough had at last been found.
A brief announcement that ownership had been agreed with “a consortium of local businessman” marked the end of the Tamplin era. More detail came several days later as we learnt the identities of the four businessmen involved. Names included David McCartney, owner of leading fit-out contractor, DMC Contracts, a sponsor of the men’s team. Blues fan and DMC Managing Director, Alex Morrissey, would come on board in a Finance role. Greg Lake, owner of IT Consultancy, iCore Ltd, was principal financial backer of the Ladies First Team activities. Finally, Nick Hutt, a CEO of the U.K subsidiary of a foreign bank, and, more importantly, a coach at Colt level, made up the quartet. All demonstrated a clear track record taking in every level of the Blues activities. It augured well.
With Billericay slipping to 9th in the table, a trip to 10th placed Maidstone United was next on the agenda. For Robinson, having spent three largely unproductive months last season at the Gallagher, it was a chance to return for the first time. Shipped out by the Blues in December 2018, during one of the numerous episodes of financial meltdown at the end of the Dean Brennan era, the striker had returned to Essex at the first opportunity.
It was not a happy visit, finishing in a 2-1 defeat. An early strike from Loft saw Billericay lead. Thereafter, two goals in four minutes saw the Stones ahead on 27 minutes. A late Robinson effort striking the bar was the closest the Blues got to an equaliser.
October had been an eventful month with the third-round tie back at New Lodge against Southend United in the Essex Senior Cup the last match on its agenda. The Seasiders, which brought Craig Fagan’s U-23 side, have had little success in the competition. That run continued as the non-league side edged to a 3-2 victory. With Southend a goal to the good at the break, Robinson was sent on and had an immediate impact. Notching yet another hat-trick, his third in the competition, his was the key contribution.
Starting well, the visitors had led by a single goal at the break, going ahead once more in the second period. With O’Hara entering play on 67 minutes to direct the fight-back, the Blues drew level soon afterwards courtesy of a penalty before the prolific striker’s late winner.
With new owners installed confirming that a reasonable and competitive budget would be adhered to, all branches of the club’s playing side from Colts to first team would be better integrated, and an ambitious, young manager committed to the cause appointed and playing attractive football, the club looked to be on a sound footing.
If you include a forthcoming fans forum at which plans for a new 4G playing surface, and accompanying training facility, would be discussed, future prospects could not be better. Nonetheless, early morning on Saturday November 1st, the club would be the victim of a shocking act that would disgust and appal not only the fans but the football world.
TO BE CONTINUED.