“What is non-league football about?” – The Billericay Town Story

Billericay is a small Essex town which has never been known as a hotbed of footballing excellence. It’s not actually known for anything much aside from being the birthplaces of both Alison Moyet, the singer, and David Gandy, the model, and being the setting for the Ian Drury and the Blockheads song ‘Billericay Dickie’. As claims to fame go, it’s a paltry list. But Billericay is slowly beginning to grab the attention of the footballing world.

The nearest professional football clubs are Southend United, fifteen miles to the east, and West Ham, twenty to the west. The local non-league team, Billericay Town, won the FA Vase three times in the 1970s and have reached the first round of the FA Cup four times since 1997 – including this season. In 2012 they were promoted to the Conference South but were relegated the year after and now find themselves in the Bostik Isthmian League.

But not for much longer if new owner and multi-millionaire steel magnate Glenn Tamplin has his way. In less than a year, he has transformed the club. Jamie O’Hara, Paul Konchesky and Jermaine Pennant, all former Premier League players, have been recruited as have a whole host of non-league stars. The New Lodge ground has been transformed with new stands on all four sides and a pitch that would be the envy of many professional clubs. Attendances have risen from an average of 250 to more than 2,000 at times this season.  

This has all come at a personal cost to Tamplin of around £2 million. The money, the high-profile signings, and an exuberant owner who isn’t shy of saying what he thinks, has brought increased exposure – not all of it good – and a new band of followers to the club. But how do those who live in the town and who supported Billericay before Tamplin took over feel about the events of the past 12 months?  

David Williams has supported the club since he was nine years old. He went to his first match in 1989 when Town played Potton United in the FA Vase in front of a crowd of over 1,000 and has been a loyal follower ever since. The other week, he appeared on Soccer AM with a group of friends, representing the team he has grown up with. It was indicative of Billericay Town’s new found status.

“We have had years of progression but in the few years prior to the takeover, the club had either stood still or gone backwards,” says Williams. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s tough for any club to survive at this level, but the ground was in disrepair and the football being played was woeful. The pitch was barely playable in the winter months which was probably one of the reasons for us being relegated from the Conference South.  

“Obviously the ground investment has been nothing short of spectacular and this must be the best Billericay side I’ve ever seen play. I think if you can overlook some of the social media nonsense at the start there’s not been a lot of bad stuff. Although that social media nonsense gave us a lot of publicity and increased interest which of course means higher attendances.”

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Williams is alluding to Tamplin’s trigger happy approach to responding to criticism on Twitter in the early days of his takeover. In his confrontational style, he told his critics to come down to the ground to spell out their opinions, and suggested those who criticised him should get help from mental health groups. He subsequently apologised but, whether the criticism was unfair or abusive itself, some of Tamplin’s responses were unbecoming and undignified.

“Glenn by no means covers himself in glory by his comments on social media and I think that has caused a lot of the animosity towards the club,” says Alex Warren, a supporter since the mid 2000s. “This is frustrating and I have raised my eyebrows at a couple of Glenn’s comments. In fairness to him he has apologised and for the last month has been a lot more silent on Twitter. This is the way it has to be.”

Tamplin, who is now the club’s manager as well as owner, admits he has deliberately tried to attract the media’s attention. He posted a video of the squad in the changing room before a game singing ‘The World’s Greatest’ by R Kelly, which went viral on social media. Some thought it brilliant, others cringed.

Tamplin has had his Ferrari covered in prints of Billericay’s home and away kits. There is a mural outside the New Lodge ground that includes a depiction of Tamplin and his wife sleeping in bed with the hands of God above them as if he is sending them a message.  

Yet there are other things Tamplin has done which aren’t as headline worthy but which should still be recognised. The club now has a dedicated group of pastors who attend each home match – Tamplin is a practising Christian – and who supporters can contact if they have troubles or issues they want to talk through. The club has employed a number of local homeless people and given them accommodation, while Tamplin has helped fund the treatment of Harry Parker, a young boy who has a rare form of cerebral palsy, and named a stand after him.  

Behind the bravado and bluster, there is plenty of good happening at Billericay Town. The supporters are being looked after, too. “What I have liked most since Glenn has become involved is how they listen to the supporters,” says Warren. “Certain things such as ticket prices, programme prices and the cost of food and drink have all been changed to accommodate what the supporters were saying. This just doesn’t happen with most clubs. Someone suggested an online ticket purchase system which was recently installed.”

Still, there is criticism. The popular refrain from those who criticise Tamplin and the club is that it is a short-term play thing for the new owner. He will get bored after a season or two, say the doom-mongers, leave the club with a huge wage bill they can’t afford – it’s currently understood to be £25,000 per week – and without him, it could be the end of club. It’s happened before in non-league circles.

“It’s interesting that a lot of the criticism we’ve had, and continue to have, comes from people who have never been to the club and aren’t aware of where we were both on and off the pitch 12 months ago,” says Paul Jennings who has been supporting the club for 45 years. “The place was crumbling this time last year. Two weeks before Glenn took over we were handing out leaflets outside the ground trying to raise some money for an upgrade of the floodlights.

“Glenn is certainly doing things differently and we’ve heard the quip ‘that’s not what non-league football is about’ many times. But what is non-league football all about? I still haven’t heard a proper answer to that question. Why shouldn’t the ground, changing rooms, the way of doing things be a bit different to what we usually see in non-league?”

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Tamplin maintains that his purchase of the club is a long-term ambition. He has spoken of his desire to keep Billericay Town in the family and pass on the running of the club to his children. He also aims to make the business side of the club sustainable, which means they will not be solely reliant on his personal wealth. Do the supporters worry that Tamplin might lose interest? Do they care if he does?  

“Not really,” says Jennings. “Things had got so bad before Glenn came in that anything was better than what we had, even if it only lasted a year. Glenn has done everything he said he was going to do and that has gained the trust and respect of the fans. He’s said that he’s here to stay and I’ve got no reason to disbelieve him.”

Irrespective of all the off-field stuff, Tamplin is – understandably given the money at his disposal – putting together a seriously good team. Top of the table and in the hat for the second round of the FA Cup (ahead of a first round replay at home to Leatherhead) it has been a fine season so far. Both Williams and Jennings think this is the best Billericay team either of them have ever seen.

The focus is obviously on the ex-Premier League stars but even they have struggled to win everyone over. “I would much prefer Jamie O’Hara not to be at the club as he spends too much time living the life of a celebrity rather than attending matches when injured – which he has been the whole of the season so far,” says Warren. “Paul Konchesky has been the ultimate pro and he thoroughly deserves the armband. He has no time for showboating or acting like a big fish on social media. Jermaine has impressed me with his effort and work rate too, although he is regularly picking up injuries.”

There are others in the squad who have experience in the Football League including goalkeeper Alan Julian who was at Stevenage, Jake Robinson who played at Barnet and cost Billericay £26,000, and Adam Cunnington, formerly of Cambridge and Bristol Rovers. Tamplin has assembled a squad that should be able to compete at a higher level than the Isthmian Premier and has signed a number of players on multi-year contracts. He is clearly thinking of the future.

“Previous managers on the most part did the best with the budgets they had,” says Jennings. “Look at Craig Edwards. Whatever you thought of the way his teams played he always got the best from what he had at his disposal. But now, the quality we are seeing on the pitch is brilliant. We’ve seen some pretty poor teams over the years so this is amazing to see and just shows the quality you get if you can pay the money.”

There has also been a marked impact on the town itself. After home games, the cosy pubs down the High Street are full of locals, sharing a pint, discussing the match. Local shops are advertising the games – The Billericay Bakery are well known supporters – and earlier in the season, the club laid on a number of coaches to transport supporters from the town to their preliminary FA Cup tie against Brackley.

“He has certainly galvanised the club,” says Jennings. “That was main thing we were lacking. The youth section, ladies teams and main club are all now going in the same direction which is brilliant. The stuff he is doing in the community for the local charities and organisations is admirable and it is turning the club back into a focal point for the whole town for the first time in years.

“To now see people walking down the high street in Billericay shirts is brilliant. This time last year I was one of 218 people that watched us play Wingate & Finchley at home. We’re now getting 2,000 people coming to our games. I think that just shows that the town likes what he is doing and the progress he has made.”

“It’s still the same people behind the goal singing and in the bar before and after, although there are more people now,” says Williams. “I love seeing all the old players coming along to games now, too. The character of the place will never leave. I’d say it’s more special now if I’m honest. Everyone’s heard of us and every game I’m looking forward to. It wasn’t always like that.”

“What is non-league football about?” – The Billericay Town Story
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