By Leigh BAILEY
There was a new face at Billericay Town’s pre-season training that commenced last week as signing, Marvel Ekpiteta, 25, took his place in the squad. The centre-back, latterly of National League, Dover Athletic, provides added experience to the Blues back-line.
Even if Billericay represents a fresh challenge, it is more a case of friends reunited than new beginnings as Ekpiteta will now be playing for manager, Kevin Watson, at his fourth club. Spanning Bishops Stortford, Hungerford Town, Ebbsfleet, and now Billericay, the adaptable centre-back has plied his trade across steps one to three under Watson’s management.
Current assistant manager, Mark Hughes, is also an old acquaintance, having played alongside Ekpiteta at Bishops Stortford and been assistant manager there alongside Watson. Recent Blues recruit, Darren Foxley, is a former team-mate at Stortford and Hungerford while ex-Ebbsfleet stars, Lawrie Wilson and Frankie Sutherland are both familiar faces.
In football terms, it all started for the ambitious defender, when Watson, newly installed in his Stortford managerial role, came calling. After a start in non-league at North Greenford United, and spells on the periphery of the first team at Chelmsford City and East Thurrock, Ekpiteta was a promising player that needed regular first team action to develop.
He explains, “I met Kevin first at Bishops Stortford when they were in the Southern Premier division. I really enjoyed playing under him and he gave me a lot of responsibility, which I thrived on.”
Joining the Hertfordshire club for the 2017-18 season proved to be the making of a young footballer that had needed the trust and guidance of a supportive management team. Navigating budget restrictions, Watson trusted his judgement to blood a number of youngsters into a team that could still rely on goals from an evergreen Jamie Cureton.
Given an opportunity at step three, Ekpiteta would subsequently flourish in a defensive position that would ultimately lead him to a League Two contract at Newport County. It might never have happened if Watson had not done what no previous coach had done before.
Ekpiteta takes up the story, “Growing up, I was actually a full-back. It was Kevin that moved me to centre-half at Stortford. Since there I’ve always wanted to play that position. I prefer playing centre-back as that’s where I get the best out of myself.”
Having delivered “my best season to date”, this rising talent was playing one division higher National League South for the 2018/19 season. It was no surprise that the Watson connection remained as he had bedded into a new assistant manager role in Berkshire.
Ekpiteta adds, “I ended up staying with him at Hungerford Town the following season when he took me over there. I then had an even better season. I really enjoyed it with Ian (Herring), the Hungerford manager at the time. That’s how I managed to get my move to Newport County.”
It was what proved to be a breakthrough campaign delivered by a 23 years’ old defender. Making 45 appearances for Hungerford, he swept the board during the end of season awards ceremony. Manager, Player, and Supporter Player of the Season trophies all ended up on the Ekpiteta mantelpiece. It was predictable that the local newspaper would headline on “Marvel’s ‘Marvel-lous’ Season”.
With his maturity on the pitch, and exemplary performances, earning him the skipper’s armband there, it was perhaps inevitable that he would follow twin brother, Marvin, currently at League One, Blackpool, into the professional ranks of the game.
If Ekpiteta’s career was accustomed to an upwards trajectory, joining the Welsh club in June 2019 re-introduced him to the harsh realities in football. Recruited as one of two defenders to compete for the place expected to be vacated by an expected departure that never happened, the move to Wales did not work out.
The player renewed his contract after all and left Ekpiteta with little opportunity to make his case. By October 2019, two leasing Cup appearances later, a loan exit was organised.
“Obviously, I had a tough time at Newport and Kevin took me on loan at Ebbsfleet United’, Ekpiteta recalls. ‘It was a big thing for me because I managed to get regular games in the National League.”
Staying until the end of the season, Ekpiteta made 25 League appearances for a Kent side inherited by Watson that were in deep relegation trouble. During a campaign, marked by a notable uptick in form and playing style under the new manager, the Fleet were controversially relegated by a fraction of a point after the season was curtailed by COVID.
Ekpiteta had once again impressed during his loan spell and was soon linked with another League Two club, the now defunct Macclesfield Town. Having signed a professional contract in late summer 2020, he readied himself for a second chance at the level. He was soon to discover online that the Moss Rose based side had folded.
For now, the League dream was over. Luckily, Dover offered him a contract last October before COVID ended the Kent side’s season in early January 2021.
As Ekpiteta readily admits, after recent uncertainties that saw him sign for one club and end up playing for another 256 miles away, the stability offered by Billericay is a key draw.
“It’s very important as the past two seasons have been up and down. It’s been quite hard and I need a home where I can get my games and stay steady”, he advises.
Add to that his familiarity and comfort with the methods used by the manager. He freely admits in conversation that Watson was a “big pull” in him coming to Billericay. It is clear that this proven centre-back, whose signature was much in demand, is a perfect fit.
With Watson having employed a back three for almost every Blues match last season, there is no one more qualified than Ekpiteta to operate within this set-up if it is selected in future.
He explains, “I played on the right of a three at the back with Kevin at Ebbsfleet. I’ve played in the middle of a back three at with him before at Bishops Stortford. I’ve played across the three and even been left side for Kevin.”
Having not played a match since the turn of the year, Ekpiteta has been working with his own fitness instructor to ensure that he remains in good condition. He is nonetheless looking forward to pre-season even though he admits that, in the past, he has not usually been as enthusiastic about this very necessary part of a footballer’s working life.
It will not be his first pre-season under Watson so he offers this insight into what can be expected, “He still makes you run of course but there is more work with the ball as well. His pre-season is always tough but it’s not your usual just running around.”
If the physical preparation involved over the coming six weeks is tough, Ekpiteta cannot wait for the matches to begin and, importantly for the fans to come back. A passionate, wholehearted player, he relishes the atmosphere created by the backing of a crowd.
“You need fans to get you up for games sometimes’, he emphasizes. ‘It’s not the same when it’s quiet. I am looking forward to the fans coming back. It gives you that bit of extra energy”.
Lamenting the near silence at grounds under COVID, he has to reach back into his memory for the last time he played in front of supporters. An away win last year for Ebbsfleet at Halifax on 14th March. At his previous club, Dover, all league matches were behind closed doors.
The defender says with certainty that his family will be down to New Lodge to watch him play. Cousin, Calvin Ekpiteta, having just signed for National League South, Concord Rangers, will get the chance to watch him from the pitch. Given the scheduling of games between the two Essex clubs, he’d be well advised to make sure the Christmas presents are wrapped.
A swift update is likely to be required after this interview. “He doesn’t know yet!’, he laughs. ‘I was actually going to tell him on the way here but I totally forgot! I’ll give him a call when I get back in the car. I’ve played against him a couple of times when I was at Hungerford and he was at East Thurrock. It’ll be nice to play against him again.”
Ekpiteta has high hopes for the season and has a clear ambition for the club to make progress. “We should be able to get in and around the play-off’s”, he reasons.
From a personal perspective, his focus is firmly on getting games and enjoying football again after a difficult spell under COVID. He seems to have found the perfect home for that to happen.
As his career to date has proven, keep doing well and you never know where that can take you. Billericay can place trust in this proven performer and adopt the same positive outlook.