In the fourth episode of the Billericay Story of the Season 2019-20 series, we take up events from November through to the end of the year. It was a memorable period during which the pitch was vandalised, the FA Cup run ended in disappointment at Forest Green Rovers, a vital away win was earnt at Dulwich, and we saw the first of the ins and outs after the consortium take-over.
The club lost favourite players, in Sam Deering and Moses Emmanuel, but found new heroes in Ody Alfa and Femi Akinwande. Slipping from 11th to 15th place in the standings, Billericay would pay the price for home fixture postponements and defensive frailties. Away matches provided entertainment but unfortunately few points. The defeat after leading by two goals at Tonbridge Angels and the comprehensive Boxing day loss at Concord stood out as particularly bitter memories.
Devastating news hit on the morning of the Weymouth home match as the Essex club were forced to postpone the League clash on November 2nd after the pitch was vandalised. Forcing entry early on Saturday morning, two vehicles were driven onto the playing surface, resulting in extensive damage. Where so often in the past, Billericay had attracted little sympathy from the wider world, this deed changed everything as the football community condemned the attack on the grass roots of the game.
The club released a statement in response stating that, “The pitch damage will be swiftly rectified. The BTFC family is bigger than incidents of this nature.” The perpetrators of the act, which would cause the club near-term damage from cancellation of home fixtures, was never discovered. To this day, it remains a mystery to all as to which individuals could possibly have been involved.
If the destruction of the pitch was meant to break the Billericay spirit, it had the opposite effect. Manager, Jamie O’Hara, impressive in his short period in charge of the team, steeled himself as he made his thoughts known, “We will keep going strong like we have been, every time I’m at the stadium, I feel the community coming more and more together.” The ex-Spurs man was immediately on the scene, mingling with fans at the clubhouse, and leading an open training session at a nearby school. Whatever his tenure as manager brings, the leadership shown at a time of adversity will always see him held in high esteem by the fans.
With Billericay Town Supporters Society (BTSS) on hand to organise food and drink, and sale of coach tickets to Gloucestershire for the forthcoming FA Cup 1st round fixture, numerous fans congregated at the club to show support. Statements from the Billericay faithful made across the internet that “this will only make us stronger” emphasised a sense of togetherness. The attack against the whole community, which had been conceived to undermine, had backfired. Instead, it served as a catalyst for support, enlisting a legion of steadfast supporters for the new consortium in just two weeks.
Back to footballing matters and attention turned to the unenviable task of a trip to Nailsworth to take on League Two pace setters, Forest Green Rovers. The Blues squad departed the day before and held a full training camp using the plush facilities at nearby Barnwood. With the New Lawn stadium greener by the hour after a morning of heavy rain, supplanted by afternoon drizzle, it all nearly ended before it had begun. Thankfully, after a nervous lunch of soy protein and vegetable salad, at this vegan only stadium, washed down by the locally permitted beers, it was “game on” and no wasted journey for Billericay’s travelling support.
Manager, O’Hara, known to sip the occasional post-match Budweiser, which is incidentally a fully vegan-compliant brew, went for a 4-2-3-1 line-up to match Forest Green’s formation. It was to no avail and, falling to a 0-4 defeat, the match was all over in seven minutes before the break as first Matt Stevens nodded home in the 38thminute. Home defender Joseph Mills and Celtic loanee, Jack Aitchison, also netted in swift time. Blues supporters sang throughout despite going further behind just past the hour and would have had a Robinson goal to cheer if not ruled out for offside. A cruel draw had seen the cup come to a logical conclusion.
With a water-logged pitch resulting in the postponement of the re-scheduled Wealdstone home match, the vandalism was starting to have an effect on the League program. It would not be the first time. After a series of home cancellations, by Christmas, the Blues would be regularly running with up to three games in hand on many other clubs. The match against the Stones would be called off again, only taking place in early January. It would be worth waiting for though; but that’s for the final instalment.
Off the field, the week heralded player arrivals and departures as the club sought self-sufficiency. O’Hara acknowledged that he had to, “make some tough decisions and lose Sam Deering and Moses Emmanuel.” However, with the necessary changes made, he felt that, “We’re in great shape because we’ve got a group of players who are all on contracts now.”
Creative midfielder, Deering, leaving after 93 starts, 18 substitute appearances, and 23 goals, was one of the best players in his position in the division. Deserving a chance higher up, he departed for full-time football at National League Dagenham & Redbridge. Also exiting, Emmanuel, scorer of 25 goals the previous campaign, switched to National South rivals, Welling Utd, before moving on to join his former boss, Dean Brennan, at high-flying, table-toppers, Wealdstone.
Replacing established National South performers at short notice is a challenging task and so it proved. Incoming striker Deon Moore, the U-23 arrival from Bristol Rovers, had ability and looked to be the answer to provide more physicality up front. Not finding the score-sheet, he could only make a limited impression during his month-long loan. He returned to the West Country and was soon released the following month by the League club.
Midfielder Andrew Osei-Bonsu, a former academy scholar at Milton Keynes, came in to add to numbers and was never likely to trouble the starting line-up. He had few opportunities to feature and even spent his 21st birthday travelling to Bath City on the club coach without making the team-sheet. Utility player, Josh Urquhart-McLeod returned once more from Braintree to provide extra defensive cover and featured regularly. However, by January, he had once again departed to Enfield Town.
If the mid-week additions did not make much of a mark, O’Hara sprang a couple of welcome surprises on the morning of trip to Dulwich Hamlet, with two more significant new arrivals. Defensive midfielder, Jacob Cook, surplus to requirements at Wealdstone, came in to offer support to Doug Loft. Alongside him, attacking midfielder, Faysal Bettache, quick and skilful, joined from QPR U-23’s. Both debuted as starters alongside Moore and yet another return for McLeod-Urquhart.
With Dulwich having become fierce rivals in recent years, fuelled mainly via social media by armchair supporters, a meeting between two struggling sides attracted a record 3,213 fans to the match-up. Blues, on a run of seven straight away losses, were able to set the record straight with an unconvincing, but vital, narrow 1-0 win. Surviving two Lewis White efforts hitting the post, a piece of Ody Alfa wing wizardry to fashion the chance for Robinson was enough to make the difference. A late second yellow for Greek defender, Kefalas, for two clumsy challenges was the only blemish.
Weymouth made the long trip to Essex for a re-scheduled Tuesday night match. With the pitch playable, but still bearing the legacy of its night as a racetrack, the going was heavy. Both sides exchanged chances with a rare Robinson penalty miss to reflect on at the break. On the hour, the visitors led courtesy of a sumptuous curled effort from winger, Adbulai Baggie, a form player that would be voted player of the month for the division. Blues would not be denied with Robinson equalising from open play to atone for his earlier error. Moments later, left-back, Callum Kennedy returned to action as a sub after ten weeks out injured.
After several weeks of negotiations, O’Hara finally got his man as Akinwande, made the short journey from National South neighbours, Braintree, to add further options to the strike-force. The manager, delighted with the acquisition, commented: “He has set the league alight with his dynamic play and by scoring great goals. He is going to be a special player for Billericay…. Femi’s arrival takes us to the next level.” If Akinwande would spend most of the season trying to keep a stuttering side at the current level, his performances at his new club did not disappoint and warranted the glowing introduction.
For the FA Trophy 3rd Round Qualifier, Billericay drew Hampton & Richmond at home. The match was postponed to Tuesday 26th November after pitch issues three days previously. It would be the last fixture hosted by O’Hara’s side at New Lodge until Chelmsford City arrived on December 28th. An away tie at Tonbridge beckoned but a late winner from the visitors sealed a 2-1 win after Robinson had equalised Dean Inman’s strike on his return. Four days later, Blues would have better luck, edging an eminently forgettable Essex Senior Cup tie by a single goal at Isthmian North outfit, Basildon United. Only Robinson, scoring his 100th Billericay goal, will have cause to remember the game fondly.
Poor away form had seen the Blues slip down the League rankings to 11th place. With the next three matches bringing visits to sides in 15th, 16th, and 20th position, there was hope that the positive result at Dulwich, and an impressive display against Weymouth, could be translated into sufficient form to close the five-point gap to the last play-off position. Having witnessed a “Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More” under the free-spending ownership of Glenn Tamplin, the trip to Tonbridge Angels brought the end of the trilogy with a clear case of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.
Billericay showed their best and worst sides in a frustrating 3-2 defeat in Kent. A commanding attacking performance, punctuated with glaring defensive lapses, saw strikes on debut from the club’s new resident gunslinger, Akinwande, and trusty side-kick, Alfa, who put the Essex side in control. After the break, the creaking Blues defence fell apart as Khale Da Costa helped himself to two goals, either side of ex-Blue Tom Derry’s effort. Blues injury-prone left-back, Kennedy, was carried off during the game, effectively ending his campaign. He would depart the club on returning to fitness and sign for Dorking Wanderers.
With reliance on one experienced centre-back, Ronnie Henry, and vulnerabilities down the flanks in defensive areas, there were clear problems at the back. Recent personnel changes had played a role with a number of new faces introduced at the Essex club. Having to cast around for players in mid-season on a budget is not easy and, unsurprisingly, the results of Billericay’s business had been mixed. There were successes by November, which included the QPR U-23 loanees, Alfa and Kefalas. Faysal Bettache, also of QPR, showed promise too. The best O’Hara signing was Akinwande who contributed goals and performances on arrival.
Another trip to Kent brought no better luck, ending in a 3-2 defeat, as O’Hara lamented: “The defeat to Dartford was a difficult one to take because we worked all week defensively on keeping the ball out of our net. But they scored with the first two balls that went into our box.”. Akinwande, and a Robinson spot-kick, both added second half strikes either side of a further Dart’s effort. O’Hara knew where the problems were, summing up the current dilemma, reflecting: “The front three are great but we’re having to score three or four goals to get a result and that’s not good enough.”
With the home match versus Oxford City postponed due to poor weather, the Blues had now descended to 14th position. After 12 days of inactivity, the next opportunity to earn points was at Concord Rangers on Boxing Day. Similar Christmas fixtures had served up some horror shows over the years with the 5-1 defeat at Chelmsford City in 2018 the most unpleasant recent memory. This was not to be the meek showing seen at the Melbourne Stadium but would be another entry in the terrible performance file.
With a number of injuries hitting resources available, non-contract player, Oran Jackson, made his League debut in defence and released trialist, Acer Laurent, was recalled to midfield. Only three substitutes, including an unfit O’Hara were named. The short trip to Canvey brought the worst display so far under O’Hara’s stewardship as the team slumped to a 4-1 defeat. Having hauled themselves level through Akinwande, after an early own goal from Kefalas, Billericay imploded in a poorly organised, lifeless showing throughout a catastrophic second half at the Aspect Arena.
Just 48 hours later, the team had a chance to atone back at New Lodge in the second festive fixture against fierce rivals, Chelmsford City. Only one change was made to the starting line-up with Cook, playing through the pain barrier with a broken jaw, replacing Acea Laurent. An early Kefalas strike put the Blues in front, only for City’s Nana Kyei to equalise on the stroke of half-time. Finishing 1-1, a modicum of pride had been salvaged. In the standings, the Blues were now down to 15th. Five points clear of the relegation slots, the Essex side maintained two to three games in hand on all the sides below them in the rankings.
After an encouraging start, distinguished by some excellent FA Cup performances, form had tailed off badly. With one win in nine League games, and just six points accrued during that period, the club found themselves leaking goals and unable to perform away from home. With selection hampered by injury and departures, a relegation battle appeared to be looming.
Perhaps the only salvation at that time was the outstanding undefeated home record. If the Blues could get a consistent run of home matches played, games in hand could provide that vital lifeline to pull clear. With a tough run of fixtures lined up for January, it could easily get worse before it got better.
In a faraway Chinese metropolis, 5,600 miles distant, first reports were coming through of a new “flu-like” virus affecting the industrial city of Wuhan. An interesting news story but nothing relevant to daily life. Little did we know, the world would change for everybody in a matter of months, affecting not just the whole of football, but grinding life as we know it to a resounding halt……..
TO BE CONTINUED.