(WE’VE DONE IT! Brackley celebrate winning the FA Trophy final after beating Bromley in a penalty shoot-out. PICTURE: Action Images)
By Matt Badcock
It’s been seven weeks since Kevin Wilkin walked into the Wembley press room and put a Brackley Town scarf on the table in front of him.
His shirt still wet from the champagne celebrations, the well-respected Saints boss had pride written all over his face.
Of how his side bounced back from National League North promotion final defeat to Harrogate Town the week before, how they took on Step 1 Bromley, kept their belief right to the very last seconds of normal time to grab an equaliser through inspirational captain Gareth Dean before keeping their nerve to win the penalty shoot-out and lift the FA Trophy.
It was the finest day in Brackley Town’s history, but also a tale of personal redemption for Wilkin who, three years earlier, had sat in the same seat fending off questions about why his Wrexham side had lost to North Ferriby United – a defeat that saw him lose his job.
The day after celebrating Brackley’s triumph, Wilkin flew to Turkey for a well-deserved holiday after a relentless, and long, season.
But that was then and this is now. Pre-season has begun, the players are back on the grass and there are aspirations, namely promotion, to fill.
“To be at that stage of the season, to have played so many games and still keep going,” Wilkin says of their Trophy victory. “I thought the way we applied ourselves throughout the game was really good. I watched it when I got back from holiday and I didn’t think there was a lot in the game.
“People on the day told us we deserved to win the game. Sometimes you don’t feel like that when you’re in the heat of the battle and, on reflection, the game was fairly even. Danny Lewis had to make some saves and in the second-half, when you look back, it’s a really strong performance. The subs came on and had a good effect – for that to all come together with a small squad, I’m just so pleased.
“You need that bit of fortune, don’t you? And that’s probably what we got right at the very end. It was fantastic and a privilege to be a part of it.
“It was great to go back there having experienced the wrong side of it. It whets the appetite to do it even more.
“It’s just the whole thing. The way we prepared, getting together, working with the lads effectively for three weeks after the regular season finished and the whole journey was great fun. I’d love to do it all again if I could.
“But the ultimate aim is to get promoted. That’s what we want to do and be focused on first and foremost.”
Wilkin hopes it can be a platform to push the club to the next level with interest stoked in the town of what their club can achieve. “I don’t live in Brackley but listening to people still talk about it back at the club – I think there’s still loads of people I haven’t spoken to about it, then there were people we didn’t even know were there I’ve spoken to since,” Wilkin says.
“They are the things; the memories you take from it, people enjoying the day so much. The players make that history for themselves, which is fantastic.
“That’s the challenge now. In the build-up to the season where people will talk about it and rightly so. But it’s being able to dust yourself down now and saying, ‘Right, we’ve done that – let’s do it again if possible’.
“We want to be as competitive as last season and try to build on it league-wise. We know it’s not going to get any easier. Teams have strengthened and developed. It’s always a great test and that’s what you look forward to.”
The man who struck the winning penalty back in May, Andy Brown, has moved on. A stalwart of Wilkin’s Nuneaton Town side, his demanding job as a deputy head teacher means it’s time for change.
Striker Aaron Williams has moved onto their play-off conquerors Harrogate, while Alex Gudger is also moving to Step 1 with Solihull Moors. A disappointed Brackley had thought the highly-rated defender was staying put.
But largely the squad from last season that finished third and had the best defensive record in the division is still together.
Striker Greg Smith has arrived from Boston United while Wilkin has looked further down the Pyramid to bring in Connor Hall from Biggleswade and Luke Fairlamb, fresh from promotion with AFC Rushden & Diamonds.
Wilkin still wants to strengthen, but will stay patient into the new season if needs must.
“We want players to buy into what that changing room is,” Wilkin says. “That’s not to say every player does. People are different and we have to understand and respect that.
“Ideally, the boys you take fit in and the more seamless that is the better chance you have to hit the ground running.
“It takes a bit of work, speaking to the players to make sure they fit with our ideas.
“For me, profiling players is a big part of it and trying to get in the right characters as well as players.
“It’s part of the challenge – that players are able to deal with the expectancy. Not every player can do it but you have to be able to cope with that, no two-ways about it.
“That’s part of the challenge from a management perspective of trying to identify those players and making sure they are mentally able to deal with it.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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