By Alex Narey
Away from football, Kevin Wilkin likes to escape the game’s stresses by taking care of his horses – “clearing out their crap,” he says, is a good way to forget about the perils of a Saturday afternoon.
The Brackley Town boss – whose side sits just outside the National North play-offs in eighth place – admits his affinity with horses is a “bit random” when most of his contemporaries in management would be more inclined to hit the golf course.
But Wilkin doesn’t strike you as a man who settles for the conventional – just look at the job he has done at Brackley, taking the unfashionable Saints from the depths of National North three years ago to being one of the division’s most consistent and respected performers. After finishing seventh and third in their last two campaigns, Wilkin’s men are pushing again towards the top of the table in a season where the boss believes the performances haven’t quite matched the results.
“It’s that final line we need to cross,” says Wilkin. “We need to turn more draws into victories.
“I think about being 2-0 up against Chorley, and then conceding in the 95th minute against Chester, even Stockport last week (1-1). These are games we have done better in and that’s six points right there. We are in and around the play-offs, but it could have been much better.
“When we took over I think teams maybe looked at us and thought it would be a given they would win; they saw us as three points but now they see us in a slightly different light.
“It’s now great to be a part of this league as it’s so competitive. There is a lot of respect there, but I’d like to think we have earned that respect for a reason.”
For Wilkin, the task of building on last year – where the Saints fought valiantly to upset the top-two tussle between Harrogate Town and Salford City but ultimately finished third and missed out in the play-off final – has been made even tougher with a depleted squad that is down to just 15 players. Indeed, the cupboard is so bare that Wilkin’s assistant, Mark Noon, is a regular on the bench and after losing a number of players in the summer the manager is remaining “realistic” about his side’s fortunes.
“It has taken us a little while to get going,” he says. “As well as losing a few players in the off-season, we changed the formation and the way we had played last season, and we have had to try and evolve as a team.
“Am I confident for the rest of the campaign? With such a small squad there is obvious concern, but at the same time I look at the performances and the teams we have played, and we must be heading in the right direction.”
Then there is the added fillip of some extra silverware, with 194 days having passed since Wilkin led his troops up the famous Wembley steps to lift last season’s FA Trophy; their 5-4 victory on penalties against Bromley – despite trailing the Raven’s 1-0 heading into injury-time – highlighting the never-say-die attitude he drums into his players.
On Saturday they successfully got their defence underway with a 3-0 win at home to Nuneaton Boro; a Lee Ndlovu hat-trick firing a warning shot to the rest.
And the Trophy win at Wembley remains a success Wilkin is keen his squad feeds off, recognising such achievements must be celebrated, while insisting another cup run will only ignite his players’ desire to keep punching away in the league.
“We’ve had a few celebrations,” says Wilkin. “A few weeks ago we all got together but now we are looking forward to giving it another go.
“Some people will say the reason we didn’t get promoted was because of all the games we had in the FA Trophy last season. But I would have to disagree. You look at where Harrogate are now and where Salford are, and yes both those teams have strengthened, but it was an incredibly strong league and we ended up just short.
“We did as much as we could to bridge that gap of Salford and Harrogate and our players coped very well with the league and cup run, games week in, week out.
“Players want to play games; they would rather play games than train, and players want big games and they want to put in the performances.
“People will say we looked tired in the play-off final against Harrogate but they were just too good for us and they were at home and controlled the game on their 3G surface.
“I may be a little harsh, but when you play in those games a good cup run is no excuse.
“With the Trophy, we know from experience what we need to do to be successful in this competition.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday for £1.50 in all good newsagents and supermarkets