It is a mild Thursday evening. Billericay Town have scheduled training. Kevin Watson is on the asphalt to the right of the changing room entrance. Beside him stands his Number two Mark Hughes. Both are stood in friendly discussion as they note the arrivals and run through plans for the evening.
Traffic is heavy that night as the Dartford tunnel wreaks its usual havoc on travel plans. Closures at the crossing have congestion running at eight miles. Delays at a minimum of one hour are expected for those seeking to enter Essex. Several players miss the start of proceedings but arrive regardless.
There is a nervous wait for one footballer to appear. It is contract signing night and his agreement is important for team plans. A recent joiner, a revelation even. An emblem of the past but also an important statement for the future. A car speeds down Blunts Wall Road, he arrives, the deal is done, the commitment is made, Rowan Liburd, smiles for the camera. He’s back for next season.
If all these events represent a long-desired return to normality, it’s a welcome change for Town’s manger, Kevin Watson. Joining in early January, it’s been an eventful, and challenging, first three months at the helm subject to restrictions imposed under the pandemic. He freely admits: “It’s been tough, yes, because it’s been stop-start, not knowing when we’re going to play, so it’s been difficult’.
He adds, “We had the scenario where the contracted boys were furloughed, which was the right decision. No club can pay out money that they don’t have when they’ve got no income.”
In situ for barely one month, Watson found himself tasked in early February with putting together a side of non-contracted players to take on title aspirants, St. Albans and play-off chasing Eastbourne Borough. What could have been a chastening experience proved to be precisely the opposite.
Including six debut-makers from the U-23 squad, and elevating Liburd to skipper, he would secure a point. Sending on substitute teenage striker, Gabriel Ipanga Mbambo, to notch the late equalising strike completed the feel-good factor.
Watson’s admiration shines through as he notes, “Wonderful attitude playing a team in St Albans that could have gone top of the league that day. Absolutely one of the proudest, if not the proudest moment, in my short management career so far.” To underline the achievement, he adds, “I don’t think any one of them (the U-23’s) is older than 20 years old so you might as well call them U-20’s.”
Whilst the performance does reflect well on Watson, he is typically generous, and fully justified, in acknowledging the role of Reserve manager, Dan Brown, in preparing well-trained personnel. He states, “I thought it was going to be very difficult for them but testament to Browny who has done a fantastic job with them.’ “They were very organised”, he notes.
The Billericay boss is in the enviable position of having accumulated detailed knowledge of all the players at his disposal. Yet, at present, we still live during strange times. The current campaign is still to technically complete before pre-season begins once again in time for the big kick-off in August.
Some players from last season have departed while others continue to train and await a decision for next year. Watson makes the valid point that there would still be around seven weeks to go if the current season had run according to its usual timetable. He has in mind a nucleus of players that he wishes to retain but he refuses to be hurried. Contracts are there to be earnt or lost.
Watson cautions, “I’m going to bide my time in telling these players. I want them to earn the right to be at this club next season.’ “It’s down to them. I have in my mind who I’d like to retain.” Performances in training will be closely monitored and Watson has underlined to the squad what he sees as the requirements for any player seeking to integrate into his first team squad next year.
Liburd, as the first confirmed signing for the 21-22 season, clearly meets the Watson brief. He adds, “That’s the sort of player that will benefit any team. I’m delighted he’s choosing to stay with us. That’s a testament to him to what he’s done and why we’re getting it done so early.”
If the squad is understandably still to be determined, the playing system is more established. With the 3-5-2 formation implemented successfully at Billericay, he is likely to persevere in this set-up.
He rationalises, “It’s the system that I like and I’ve said it many times it gives you three personnel in the centre of the pitch and most teams will play three midfielders there.’ “It also gives you an opportunity to play two up front as well.”
Any nightmares of Jake Robinson being left to plough a lonely furrow as an isolated striker can be cast aside. Watson admits, “If you’ve got Jake Robinson in your team, he needs a foil, he needs the right sort of player to be there with him.” Liburd and Robinson look a compelling combination.
With a strategy in mind, Watson is laser focused on what will be key areas of future recruitment. He advises, “you need to nail down a couple of very key positions when you play that, which are wing-back areas and outside centre-halves.’ “They become extremely important. Outside centre-halves have to be comfortable defending in wide areas when your wing backs are pushed forward.”
Wisely, Watson underlines that whilst coaching, management, and tactics are important, ultimately, he feels: “It’s all about the personnel and recruitment to play in those key positions”.
This all suggests that Billericay will spend a busy early summer period seeking new recruits. Having perhaps pursued a less stringent transfer policy in the past, it is clear that this time round, the manager knows exactly where he needs to concentrate his budget and will cast the net thoughtfully.
The way forward is being mapped out via a recent zoom meeting between management staff and the Board of owners. Training will resume on Tuesdays and Thursday as if it were a normal season. If possible, friendlies will be arranged on Saturdays. Once crowds are permitted, from May 17th, the team intend to play for an additional two or three weeks so fans can attend some matches again.
Thereafter, there will be a month break for the players before a scheduled return in early July. At that stage, pre-season training will begin in earnest. There should be no illusions on where a lot of work is required. Fitness had been identified immediately as an issue by the incoming boss.
Watson acknowledges that during the later stages of matches, “You could see a lot of people flagging and you have to go for 90+ minutes in any football match and especially in a league as competitive as ours.” You get the sense that this won’t be a problem come the next campaign.
It’s some way away, and there is a lot of work to be done in the meantime, but Watson is already looking forward to the return of the fans and eventually competitive action.
He even generates some positivity from the testing events that the club has been through, “Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, it’s given me a long time now where we can get it right for the very first game. The boys can be in as good a condition as we can get them.”
With that, he’s off into the evening to join his management team on the pitch and start to put together the first building blocks on which the foundation of a new season will be built.