By Matt Badcock
After a 70-game season, being the lowest ranked team in the FA Cup first round proper, a brilliant FA Trophy run and narrowly missing out on promotion from Step 4, it’s little wonder Heybridge Swifts boss Jody Brown was getting some last minute R&R in the Majorca sun when The NLP called last week.
But yesterday it was back on the grass with their first session of pre-season as the Bostik North club look to build on a remarkable campaign that won Swifts plenty of admirers and headlines.
Brown feels the good times are returning to Scraley Road but knows the new season will bring plenty of challenges – and they’ll confront them head on.
“When we got knocked out of the national competitions, there was a bit of a comedown which was reflected in our results and ultimately cost us promotion,” Brown, whose side won Cup Run of the Year at The National Game Awards, says.
“So we have to make sure we create that good atmosphere quickly. We can’t allow ourselves to start the season flat and be reaching for the national coverage and televised games because you don’t get that often in Step 4. We need to put all that to one side and start building for the new challenges that lie ahead.”
Brown returned to Heybridge in 2016 with the club locked in a relegation battle. They managed to stay up on the final day of the season before last year’s dream season. So how does it all come together?
“First of all recruitment,” Brown says. “I’ve been coaching a long time now and I probably undervalued the importance of personalities early on in my career. I would see a technically good player and think, ‘Oh yeah, get him in’. I didn’t even think about what he was like as a person. But as you mature you start to realise as a coach that it’s like putting together a jigsaw.
“So when we’re recruiting and looking to retain players it’s personalities and how they mix with the group.
“And how do they respond to set-backs? Everyone is positive when you’re winning – it’s the easiest job in football when you win every week. Whatever team you pick wins, the substitutions work. But inevitably there are set-backs and you find out about players then during those times. Even last season, despite all the success, in January we lost four games and drew one on the spin. I learned lessons from that.”
Brown says work on the training ground is also a big factor but highlights how the atmosphere around the whole club has to blend together.
“The chairman (Gary White) is a good communicator, he’s always around and shaking the players’ hands or patting them on the back when they do well and never negative when things don’t go right,” Brown says.
“Because we had an unusual level of exposure last year, the kids in the local area see our players almost as celebrities. They come to training, they turn up before the game for autographs.
“All these things add to a really good atmosphere around the club.
“That is so important. You’re always learning as a coach but fundamentally I’m the same coach as I was the year before last. That year we only stayed up on the last day of the season.
“Suddenly the next year we’re got 87 points, gone further in the FA Cup than any Step 4 team in the country, further in the FA Trophy – that’s not because the manager has suddenly become better or the players have become phenomenally better than previously.
“It was largely because of the atmosphere around the club. That’s created by the chairman, the supporters, the youth set-up, not just us. We try to play a good brand of football and crowds have gone through the roof. That environment makes my job easier because it motivates players.”
A big success of last season was 30-goal winger Joan Luque. It looks likely the talented Spaniard, who was selected for Jamie Vardy’s V9 Academy, will be in the Football League next season with an unnamed League Two club taking him on a pre-season tour this summer.
The 26-year-old came to England this time last year after Brown and right-back Guillem Ramon arranged for international players to try out in pre-season.
Staying in a B&B while Brown, right, put on coaching clinics twice a day, Luque’s technical ability stood out instantly. Despite not speaking a word of English at first, the wideman soon combined his class on the ball with the traits needed to survive in English football to electrifying effect.
Brown, who has worked with young internationals at Premier League academies, rates him as one of the best he has ever seen in Non-League football.
“He didn’t speak any English and you just didn’t know how he’d cope with the various obstacles Non-League football throws at you,” Brown says. “But he’d do two or three things in a training session that were unbelievable – he’d nutmeg someone and bend the ball into the top corner with his weaker foot. You don’t often see that.
“We took the chance and he developed really quickly. He had the technique but, as he grasped the language every session, he got better, had more understanding and he hit the ground running.
“His performances at Maidstone and Exeter in the FA Trophy and FA Cup made it apparent he wasn’t just technically gifted in Step 4. He can Cruyff turn out of trouble, hit dipping shots from 25 yards to leave the keeper flat-footed. He’s just got elements of technique you don’t often see in England. I’m sure he will do exceptionally well.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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