THEY strode, both young and old, along Tye Common Road, heading for Billericay Town’s Blunts Wall Road ground. Queues were building outside the turnstiles, parking was restricted and the bar, which bears the club slogan of “#together we sail as one” on its exterior was packed. There was a real buzz about the place, almost a carnival atmosphere. And, of course, there was the Billericay Town mural, a bold, brassy depiction of what the club is now all about.
Billericay Town is not a “Johnny-come-lately club”. They’ve been around since 1880, they’ve won three FA Vases (I was at Wembley in 1979 to see them win their third) and since then, the club has experienced its ups and downs and a number of false dawns.
Then, in 2016, one Glenn Tamplin took over the club and since then, there’s been something of a whirlwind blowing through this Essex commuter town of 28,000 people. Tamplin told the BBC earlier this season that “I will get League Two in five years. I’ll have a bet with any man in the world”.
It is easy to be cynical about non-league football clubs expressing a desire to rise to Football League level. Equally, history tells us that if something appears too good to be true, it generally is just that. Football is littered with clubs that have had wings of wax, that have flown too close to the sun, or simply become over-reliant on the generosity of one person. I will be honest, I went to Billericay wanting to be sceptical, but I left very impressed and almost wishing I had a club like that on my doorstep.
Tamplin, who was absent when I visited Billericay, is a self-made man with all the trappings of wealth. He’s likes body art, cars and is a born-again Christian. In an interview with Essex Life, he referred to his team as “brothers” and his association with charities and charitable behaviour really sets him apart. You won’t find anyone who has a bad word to say about him. Admittedly, he looks like the sort of bloke you wouldn’t want to upset, but his energy, purpose and motivational skills make him very popular.
He certainly seems to have tapped into something unique at Billericay. The average gate this season is 1,300 which is 138% up on 2016-17. In fact, it is more than four times the average of 2015-16. It is doubtful the club has ever enjoyed such attendances before, aside from big FA Cup games.
The wage bill at Billericay is reputed to be £ 20,000 a week – that’s probably five to six times the average in the Isthmian Premier, so expectation has to be high. The club has rarely been out of the headlines this past year, thanks to Tamplin’s bold and confident ambition and the arrival of big names like Paul Konchesky, Jermaine Pennant, Kevin Foley and Jamie O’Hara.
It has generated a lot of interest in Billericay. One look at the amount of advertising around the ground is enough to tell you that sponsors see an opportunity. Most importantly, people clearly want to be associated with success, although the programme is still in its nascent stages, which makes you wonder how many people Billericay will eventually attract. Tamplin, who is the team manager as well as the owner, is urging the fans to drive the average attendance up to 2,500.
To do that and capture the floating support that has turned-up out of curiosity, Billericay will need to provide a quality of football that matches their ambition. Isthmian League Premier, step three, has its limitations in that respect, but with their sizeable budget, they should win promotion this season and people love a winning team. Enfield Town, their opponents when GOTP visited the club, didn’t make it easy for them. Harry Wheeler, Billericay’s assistant manager, admitted after the game that they were facing similar problems to Ebbsfleet and other clubs that suddenly become high profile in that other teams raise their game against them. It was clearly the case with Enfield Town.
The visitors took the lead with a far post header from Taylor McKenzie. They could have scored earlier when they were awarded a penalty, but Billericay keeper Alan Julian saved Simon Thomas’ kick.
By all accounts, the home team received a half-time rocket from Wheeler: “Our application at the beginning was lacking and the players had not taken on board the responsibilities they were given in the first half, but they reacted to some harsh criticism and showed they are men. They were superb in the second half.”
Certainly, they were better after the interval and the arrival of local favourite Billy Bricknell for Adam Cunnington seemed to change the game. He netted from the penalty spot with 18 minutes to go and livened-up the Billericay attack. “Adam was carrying a hamstring injury and Billy livened things up, but the win was a collective thing,” said Wheeler.
Billericay’s persistence paid-off with four minutes to go, when a nice move ended with Sam Deering steering the ball past Enfield keeper Joe Wright. Another win and the big crowd went home happy. “It’s a good sign when you come through a sticky game with a win,” said Wheeler.
The bar was packed after the game, always a good barometer for the health of a club, and half an hour after the whistle, people were still milling around having photos taken with players and back-slapping their heroes.
As it stands, the real test will be in two years. With their resources, Billericay should be able to vault two steps, although they are already a target. Enfield fans didn’t hesitate to chant, “what a waste of money” when they went 1-0 ahead. That’s football!
But success breeds success and Billericay are good copy at the moment for journalists. Their FA Cup first round tie with fellow Isthmian Leaguers Leatherhead is already commanding attention and will be screened by the BBC on Sunday November 5. Win that and they’re one game away from the third round, and who knows? The timing would be absolutely perfect for this controversial, intriguing and potentially exciting Billericay project.