By Leigh Bailey
It is early evening at New Lodge, sunlight filters through sparse clouds, bouncing rays off the wall of glass housing the football club’s media centre. Within lies ample space to observe the pitch below and monitor inward bound visitors. Now is not the time to look outside.
Inside the building, behind a partition, a microphone is adjusted, a camera readied for action, the thoughts of the man of the moment are to be probed. Just 24 hours earlier, fists were bumped, a contract was signed, and congratulations were warmly accorded.
Henry Lukombo, is a happy man. Bursting with pride, looking every bit an athlete in his club tracksuit, the last two days are the high point of a whirlwind seven months. An invitation to play a trial game, impressive reserve appearance, sparkling U-23 campaign, eye-catching senior debut. Lukombo’s upward mobility could only have one natural outcome.
Lukombo swells with pride at the recognition that a first team contract at Billericay Town bestows and it is clear to see that the award means everything to this young centre-back.
“It’s definitely a dream moment”, he says. ‘It just proves that hard work and determination really does pull you through. I thank the club for this opportunity, the gaffer for believing in me, and the U-23 coaches. It is a dream come true for an 18 year old boy.”
Confident in his ability, Lukombo will admit to surprising himself at his development path. “I didn’t think it would happen so quick. I thought it would be about a year before I got to train with the first team. In football, sometimes everything happens with the click of a finger.”
The transition was speedily hastened by the advent of COVID, the furloughing of the first team squad, and Lukombo’s express route into the first team. National South League matches followed against Saint Albans and Eastbourne. Even if he shone, it was a big step at 17 years old.
“Stepping into the first game, you always have doubts because of the pressure. I feel like I dealt with it well and I just believed in myself and I looked on it as another U-23’s match. I trusted in my ability, trusted in the team, and I think that is what brought me through.”
To see Lukombo on the pitch, he has never hesitated to take on a challenge. It has not been easy for him in his fledgeling football career, it’s never been easy. Schooled in Sunday league and semi-pro, his is not a story of talent honed at a professional club academy.
From six, he started out at Tottenham-based Sunday league club, Chettle Court Rangers, where he played for five years. Spells in five-a-side teams followed. Even if he remained on the sidelines, the dream of a career in the game never died. He explains, “I was at a couple of showcase teams to get in at professional level. That didn’t happen.”
A raw talent, previously in the youth side at step four side Uxbridge FC, it appears that Billericay could well have been the right club at the right time. A catalyst in his development, the contract in his pocket proves the untapped potential he possessed.
Acknowledging that his move to New Lodge provided him with the coaching and instruction needed to make the next step, he singles out U-23 manager Danny Brown for special praise.
“I believe that the first two months playing centre-half were really challenging because I didn’t really have experience. But, Danny Brown, one of our coaches, he’s really helped me a lot and he’s giving me more coaching to build me into the centre-half that I am today.”
A centre-half good enough to make the Team of the Week (ToTW) after his first outing in first team colours. He admits to being very proud but somewhat confused by the award.
He explains, “At first, it threw me because I’d just made my debut and I contributed to the draw. To wake up a day after and everyone is texting me saying I’ve made it into the ToTW. It was like a dream, it didn’t really feel real.”
The evidence is incontrovertible both through his performance on the day and, thanks to the club’s full coverage of the match on the official stream, for ever on-line. Without the opportunity for family and friends to witness his special day in the flesh, he is nevertheless proud to say that sight of his achievements has not been missed by those closest to him.
He adds, “My family were proud and a lot of my friends were definitely proud, especially making an appearance at 17. A few of my friend’s family also watched the game over and I’ve also got a full link to the game so I sent it to a few people to watch.”
It is no surprise that Lukombo can’t wait to be involved in matches as soon as spectators are re-admitted to stadiums. First team friendlies in the latter part of May are definitely on his radar. An early taste of a small crowd in to view U-23 games has whetted the appetite.
He adds, “I’m very excited. I got a small glimpse of fans at the U-23’s games against Hashtag United. I’m so buzzing to finally play with a crowd because it’s a dream come true. Every young man wants to play in a stadium full of hundreds and hundreds of fans. I can’t wait.”
To meet Lukombo is to be bowled over by his enthusiasm, his honest endeavour to be the best player he can be, and to justify the faith shown in him. If hard work lies ahead, it holds no concerns for this ambitious footballer who is ready to embrace a tough pre-season. Having strived hard for all he’s achieved in the game, Lukombo is not ready to stop now.