By Matt Badcock
Steve Watt took his first manager’s job a little over 12 months ago pretty much knowing the first entry onto his CV would be relegation.
Margate were a club recovering from financial turmoil, nine points off safety and without a win in 16 National League games.
But, at 31, it was too good an opportunity for the former Chelsea, Swansea, Grimsby and Maidstone United defender to turn down.
A year on, the squad has been rebuilt and they are second in the Bostik Premier after a run of seven consecutive wins was brought to an end by Needham Market last weekend.
Watt admits it has probably happened sooner than they thought, but he couldn’t be happier with the strides they’ve made.
“When you take everything into consideration it’s going really well,” Watt tells The NLP. “This is obviously my first management job, so it’s not like when players have managers who’ve been doing it for years, they know the way they play and can adjust their game before they go there.
“Joining us and myself, relatively unknown how I wanted to do things, how I want to work and have the team set-up, there was going to be teething problems.
“That’s why we set a realistic target this season of a top-ten finish, but we thought we’d have an outside shot of the play-offs if we put a good run together.
“Getting in the play-offs wasn’t the be all and end all. It was about building something for next year or the year after. This club has never really had any longevity to it. Normally when you go to a Non-League club you’ve got at least one player who has been there for 100-200 games.
“I brought in Matt Bodkin who has got the most appearances in the squad and he hasn’t played here for four years. It really shows the turnover of players Margate has had. To be successful you need stability and familiarity with players, fans and clubs – players that are the backbone of the football club.
“I always use Maidstone as a prime example. We’re fortunate to have those players now, Alex Flisher and Tom Mills who played 300-400 games for Maidstone and they are only in their mid-20s. They were a massive part of Maidstone’s success – they had these players who had been there for years.
“That’s something I want to create, that togetherness and longevity. If you speak to the fans I think there’s been a great atmosphere around the club. It hadn’t been a particularly great time with players and fans mixing, but now there’s always players in the bar after. That’s important at clubs. You need to make it feel a family place. We’re in this together.”
It hasn’t been straightforward. Flisher, arguably the signing of the summer, injured his ACL in the final seconds of their final pre-season game, immediately ruling him out for the season.
Then striker Mike Thalassitis found the bright lights of reality TV stardom more appealing. But Watt always felt the job started for real in the summer after negotiating a tricky end to last season.
“A lot of the work was instant work,” Watt says. “We hadn’t scored a goal in about ten games before
I came. So I just wanted us to score a goal. We’d set these little targets. We’d lost 16 on the bounce before I came in, so it was, ‘Right, we need to get a point’. I think that took us a week when we drew with Concord and we won soon after that.
“You were setting these little goals with no long-term plan. I was able to add the likes of James Rogers, Jack Evans, Ben Swift – players we’ve still got now – ‘Thala’ before he went all showbiz on me.
“But it was frustrating working with a squad you knew wasn’t going to be here the next year. It was probably a squad that knew they were going to get relegated, so it was trying to do things for self-pride.
“It felt like my hands were tied until the summer and then I could really get into work and put things in place for this season.”
Watt heaps praise on those around him. Striker Jordan Chiedozie is on his way to 40 goals this season, Frannie Collin – who has a reputation for guaranteed goals – has adapted to a deeper role, Bodkin filling in at right-back and in assistant Steve Brown, Watt says he’s got the best coach in the business working alongside him for guidance.
He feels they’re delivering a team Gate fans can be proud of and, with 11 games to go, is looking forward to the final stages of the promotion race.
“It’s in our hands now, that’s the best thing,” Watt says. “If last season you’d asked anyone associated with Margate, ‘Come next March you’ll be second in the table with the fate of being in the play-offs in your own hands, would you take it?’ I certainly would have. It’s a great position we’re in and we’ll take it a game as it comes. It’s very much a next-game mentality at this club.
“We’ve got the hardest run-in out of anyone going, so it’s going to be tough. But we will certainly give our all to be in the play-offs come the end the April. I think the club and fans deserve it – and particularly the players for the effort they’ve put in.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday