By Neil Jensen
I MUST admit, I went to Billericay Town with no small amount of doubt in my back pocket. I’ve always been against inflated investment in football clubs, even though I am a Chelsea fan of some 50 years, but I’ve been present at every FA Cup final they’ve won and I still shout for joy when they score a goal from their very expensive boots.
During my time on the executive committee at Hitchin Town, I was always against the “sugar daddy” approach and have always believed that Non-League clubs should be self-sufficient. Equally, I also know that self-sufficiency in Non-League football is hard to achieve.
I’m more than aware that Non-League football is littered with stories of clubs that have reached out beyond their means and fallen in flames like the Graf Zeppelin.
Non-League, like the pro game, is full of resentment, envy and petty jealousy. Just watch when a club’s local rivals get a new ground and wait for the list of “what’s wrong with United’s new stadium” complaints, or defiant comments like “wouldn’t swap it for our pile of damp wood and rusty corrugated metal”.
So, hardly surprising then, the recent elevation of Billericay and the very open tactics of Glenn Tamplin have attracted cynics, critics and some downright nasty comments on social media. Some have come from people who have experienced boom and bust at other Essex teams. It’s easy to be sceptical, though, because we have seen it before. Somehow, I think this is different – just listen to what the locals think of Tamplin’s project.
I’ve been quite astounded at what’s going on at Billericay. It’s a town I know a little about as I almost moved there at the start of the 1980s. I am from Thurrock and Billericay was the sort of place you aspired to. I saw them play at Wembley in the FA Vase final and I’ve been to their ground a few times down the years.
On the day I visited, people were striding purposely along Tye Common Road, heading for the Blunts Wall Road ground – dozens of them. 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.
Tamplin certainly seems to have tapped into something at Billericay. The average gate this season is 1,300 which is 138 per cent 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 regular attendances before.
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’s questionable whether Billericay really need the likes of Konchesky and Co. with the budget they have, they could easily assemble the Non-League All Stars with money like that, but it’s publicity and that’s what’s attracted a lot of people to the club.
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 is urging the fans to drive the average attendance up to 2,500.
The game wasn’t much to write home about, but Billericay’s 2-1 win against Enfield Town was enough to keep the bandwagon rolling. And rolling it is, for how long nobody knows, but the owner is very vocal about his involvement and what it means to him and his family. Was I convinced? Let’s just say I will watch this one with interest.
Billericay’s fans know all about Non-League football, so they understand the pitfalls and they only need to speak to people from other Essex clubs about the pros and cons of sudden investment. But football is a game that can still deliver a tale of the unexpected as we saw with Leicester City, Forest Green Rovers and Lincoln City. Life will continue to be very interesting in this little corner of Essex.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday.