James French has left an indelible mark on Longlevens Association Football Club, but after a decade of progress he has decided to step down at the end of this season.
During his reign, the club have risen from the Northern Senior League to the Premier Division of the Uhlsport Hellenic League, writes Jon Palmer in the Gloucestershire Echo.
They have also taken part in the FA Cup and FA Vase for the first time and improved on their league position during every campaign since French took over. He initially joined as a player before succeeding Keith Hardcastle as manager at the age of 27.
Mark Moore hellenic league longlevensLonglevens were soon promoted to the Gloucestershire County League for the first time, finishing ninth in 2011/12. They then won three successive titles, earning two promotions and a place in step five of the non-league pyramid for the 2015/16 season. They won their first ever FA Cup tie earlier this term, defeating Bedfont and Feltham 4-2 at Sawmills to earn a trip to Jamie Cureton’s Farnborough in the preliminary round. French had been with Cureton at Bristol Rovers as a youngster.
Several players have been with French throughout their rise, including the man who will replace him as manager: Mark Moore (pictured right). Striker Moore collapsed during a league cup match at Southmead in August 2012, suffering a cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated by a group of paramedics, who happened to be playing on a nearby pitch. French said the incident, along with Moore’s recovery, inspired the club to go on to win the County League title that season.
“I think that season stands out for me in terms of the club’s achievements because we were second bottom of the table and had lost four out of eight games before the Mark Moore incident,” he said. “After it happened, all the lads pulled together and we went something like 30 or 40 games unbeaten, coming from nowhere to win the league ahead of local rivals Tuffley Rovers.”
Longlevens stormed to the title again the following season, along with the Les James Cup, this time stepping up to Hellenic League Division One West, which they won at the first time of asking. They have three games remaining this season, starting at Bracknell Town on Saturday, which will be French’s final away game as boss.
“I have decided to step down due to things becoming more hectic and work, but mainly due to my family,” he said. “I have two young daughters and there is a lot of travelling in the Hellenic Premier, which means I don’t get to spend much time with them. I have known in the back of my mind for a while that this would be my final season and we are promoting within from Mark, so the club will be in good hands. He is in good health now and is a very close friend, who I know will keep the core of players we have, but also bring in some fresh faces to help out too.”
Along with French and Moore, skipper Craig Martin, Ryan Dunn, Dave Merrick and Ed Smylie are among those to have remained at the club throughout the past decade. “We have also brought through Brad Martin, who made his debut as a left-back in the Northern Senior League at the age of 16,” French said. “He started playing up front and the rest is history, he has earned the right to play in the Southern League with Slimbridge and gone from strength to strength. Because we have been steadily improving, many of the lads have stayed loyal, which is pleasing considering we don’t pay any wages. We are up against clubs that have a weekly wage bill of £1,500 and we have shown we can still compete.”
So what does the future hold for Longlevens after French? He says the club remain ambitious to progress as far as they can and he will still be involved in some capacity. “I might sign on and have a game for the thirds or fourths,” he said. “But I will remain in close contact with Mark and the chairman (Chris Bishop). The club has limited facilities and needs a sponsor or backer so we will be looking at potential grants because we need a clubhouse. I won’t back away completely as I have a lot of friends at the club and I will do bits as and when I can to help out.”