By Scott Lanza
What a difference a year makes. This time last year Hullbridge Sports were down at the foot of the Essex Senior League table amongst the relegation fodder, with the new Step 6 division suddenly looking an option for the Lower Road outfit. Darren Manning, meanwhile, was working with Jamie Stuart as assistant manager at Grays Athletic in the Bostik North. Having previously worked as reserve manager, he certainly knew a bit about the club. With his desire to take over as his own manager somewhere, when the Hullbridge job became available he took it with both hands.
And what a job Manning had on his hands when he took over. The previous managers Rob Hodgson and Aaron Hunwicks had both done a sterling job in their two-and-a-half years in charge. But the 2017/18 season proved to be a difficult one for them. No one was expecting Hullbridge to be battling at the lower end of the table, and they resigned with the team second from bottom. Manning stepped right into that and turned things around enough to see the team paddle away from the relegation waters to finally finish 15th.
Fast forward to this season and Hullbridge Sports have set their stall at the top end of the table, having had the leadership until it was recently wrestled off them by Stansted, another team that have had a complete turnaround after last season’s relegation battle. Goal difference separates the two teams at the moment, with the leadership at stake this time around.
“We have made a good start, lost twice in fourteen, it gives us something to build on,” Manning told me.
And the momentum has seen his team make the early running, and with a third of the season gone, the club are looking up and not down at the moment. A few players have been added along the way, but most of the squad were with the club last season.
I ask Darren what the magic formula was, and he explained: “I give them belief in their ability, give them freedom to express themselves and take the handcuffs off.”
It sounds a fun philosophy but Darren also told me that he works with the players on their weaknesses, assesses the opposition and sets up a game plan on how to win football matches.
I saw Hullbridge win their encounter with Stansted in with a good attacking performance. I also witnessed them gut out a slender 1-0 win at Redbridge. It means that Hullbridge have resilience about them this term – something that is needed if a team is to make it over the long haul.
Hullbridge host Ilford on Saturday before then turning their attention to the FA Vase. It is a competition that Hullbridge have always fared quite well in, with the fourth round reached in consecutive seasons from 2013-14 until 2015-16. They did so last season as well, with Manning taking over midway through the run with the club in the second round, leading the team through an all-ESL third round affair with Enfield 1893. The run ended with a whimper though as Tring Athletic handed them a 5-1 defeat.
This time around, Hullbridge Sports start off in the second round with a home tie with Irchester Town from Division One of the United Counties League. The Hullbridge manager admits that he doesn’t know too much about them beyond them being a step below them in the pyramid. However Manning is adamant that his team has what it takes to go on a Vase run.
“We will prepare and be ready to go. The club have a good record in the Vase so the aim is to reach at least the last 32 (fourth round) and then kick on from there.”
Manning has ambitions to manage as high up as he can.
“Hopefully I can with Hullbridge. I want to try and have success here.”
With Hullbridge also working behind the scenes to get their facilities up to Bostik standard, it means Manning’s ambitions are also being matched off the pitch. The Essex Senior League lists Dan Cowley as a previous ESL-winning manager with Concord Rangers: both have since gone to bigger and better things.
Who’s to say that Darren Manning and Hullbridge Sports may not also be higher up the football pyramid in a few years’ time?
Interview/article by @lanzasport