Billericay Town

It was back in November that Jake Robinson moved into second place in Billericay Town’s all-time scoring chart, and the former Brighton & Hove Albion man has been nothing less than a sensation since his initial arrival at the club four years ago. The disappointment of the past two seasons effectively counting for nothing is hard to sweep aside for him and so many others, but the recent return to training and non-competitive action brings hope and solace that cannot be underestimated.

The player who made Brighton history as the club’s youngest ever scorer in October 2003 has a hatful of insight to share in this conversation here, including of course, when he played, and scored (twice…) against the club he was on loan from…

 

You’ve been with Billericay through some changing times, obviously had the brief spell at Maidstone in between, but why has this ended up being something to really last for you?

Yeah, it feels like I’m the only one of the original lot to have remained. There’s just certain things that have remained constant throughout; supporters, the backroom staff and volunteers, and I’d like to think I’ve integrated myself into part of that family really. I’ve taken on a role at the club where it’s not just a playing one, I like to get involved in everything extracurricular, if you like, and I really want to be part of something that the board have been building for a long time now. That kind of started maybe a couple of years into it, because people move around in non-league and you don’t really expect to be anywhere long-term, but the more I got to know people and the more I was enjoying my football, scoring goals, the more I felt I was part of something special. I’m pleased I’ve been able to keep that long-term.

Over the past year, there’s been times where you’ve still had football, parts where it’s been taken away, and uncertainty throughout. How has all that, and just general life, been for you overall?

Yeah, there’s been tough times. At the start, we had the initial lockdown and everything was just a bit crazy and nobody knew what was going on, so we were kind of just adjusting on the fly. Then coming back to football was like a relief really, it was a break from everything else that was going on in the world, it was my normal. Getting back for pre-season and training knowing that there were some league games, that was mentally really helpful for everyone, I think. That got people through for a little while, and then to have the season ended again, that was a real tough period, When we had to furlough first-team players and were playing youth players and non-contract players, I was having to watch from the sidelines, so that was probably the toughest part I had in the year, because I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do. It was like being suspended without actually having done anything wrong. Personally, it’s been an interesting year. I had a young daughter, so it’s been great spending as much time as I possibly can with her. I think I’ll look back on that in a few years’ time and think it was a real positive experience.

This is something I really strongly remember, and it seemed to coincide with Twitter starting to become a much bigger thing, with you on there talking about it at the time. Playing for Torquay against Shrewsbury while you were on loan from them, and scoring the two goals as well (in a 5-0 win in 2011). Firstly, was that mentioned when you were signing on loan, or did you not actually realise there was no clause stopping you playing until later on?

No, I didn’t realise at all until later on. Even when I was actually told, I think it was (Torquay manager) Paul Buckle who told me, and I thought he was joking, because nowadays in football, it almost seems part of the law that you’re not allowed to play. It was something I didn’t even think about at the time, because it was such a last-minute, Deadline Day, rushed thing that I didn’t even have chance to check the fixtures, or Torquay’s form etc. I got the call and I was driving down to Torquay from Shrewsbury that night, and playing the next day. When that fixture came around, to find out that I was going to be able to play was a really surreal experience. Playing against the players that I’d done a whole pre-season with – we’d been on a training camp together, made some really good friends there – then to play against them in the play-offs as well. Looking back, I think everyone can understand the position I was put in, but I don’t think I was particularly popular with the Shrewsbury fans at the time.

Did it give you an extra buzz for the game or was it more uncomfortable to go through?

I was a bit nervous going into the league game, because I’d had such a good start at Shrewsbury, and then to be sent out on loan, I almost felt I had a point to prove, so I went into that game full of fire, really motivated. I got smashed in the corner by one of their players – he actually got sent off for it – and even that gave me some more motivation, thinking ‘what’s this guy’s problem?!’ It’s just another game, though, really. I don’t think there was any added bonus to knowing the players you’re up against, it was just one of those things.

Back to Brighton, and going into that first-team squad so young, with all those senior pros, did it take time to feel relatively at ease? Were you getting tested in that ‘old-school’ way, or was it more taking you under their wing and recognising the potential you had?

I think it was a bit of both. That was probably one of the last ‘old-school’-style squads that I can remember; being in football for 18/19 years now, a lot has changed in that time. I got a lot of stick, but I think in their own way, that was them taking me under their wing and trying to get me acclimatised to the first-team squad. Looking back now, I was 16 but I looked probably 14/15, I wasn’t physically developed. I had raw pace and I’d scored hundreds of goals for the youth team, but the professional level was a huge step. I actually really enjoyed it, the first year was great. Obviously Brighton got promoted, I made my debut, scored my first goal. I was in and out of the squad, which was a really good learning experience for me, I’d say. I wouldn’t change it for the world looking back, I learned so much, being around the squad. We then had two years in the Championship where we were fighting well above our weight. We just weren’t good enough and I think that had a detrimental effect on my career almost. I wasn’t playing regularly, we were losing often. I had a couple of loan spells where I did really well but I’ve noticed it throughout the last ten years: when the squad’s doing well, everyone feels good, and when the team’s not winning, it’s hard to go in with a positive mindset. I think at 18/19, it just stunted my development a little bit, and it took me a while to get back from.

So when you’re going into that environment for the first time properly, there’s the likes of Charlie Oatway, Leon Knight, different kinds of personalities. Who helped you or was even a bit intimidating?

Yeah, first name that comes up would always be Charlie Oatway. He was just the same for everyone, day in, day out: loud, made his presence felt, but a real great guy as well. He was really helpful. I remember sitting in the stands quite a few times, obviously being 16/17 and left out of the squad sometimes, and he was injured, so just sitting watching the game with him and learning a lot. Richard Carpenter, Danny Cullip, Guy Butters as well; that’s the old-school core of that team. It was straight into the fire, coming from the youth team and everyone being really friendly, playing with my mates, to going into this. It’s not youth-team football any more, people are playing for their bonuses and to pay their mortgages, and they won’t take any slack. That was some experience, and the other one, like you said already, Leon Knight; probably still one of the best players I’ve played with. In training every day, his finishing, left foot, right foot, heading, I learned so much from watching him. Just the squad as a whole, the competitiveness of training; young v old on Friday afternoons, 5-a-side games, were insanely competitive. It really meant a lot to people. I think we were then able to take a lot of that into the games on a Saturday.

With the kind of forward player you are, are there any teammates across your career who you’ve felt that extra understanding with on the pitch?

Definitely, and I think a lot of them are your traditional ‘big man/small man’ combinations. The first one I think of straight away from a professional standpoint was Matt Harrold when I was at Shrewsbury. He came in during the summer and we hit it off straight away; I scored a hat-trick on the first day of the season playing up front with him. More recently, very similar, Danny Mills at Whitehawk; I think we scored 150-odd goals together in three or four seasons and we just became really good friends off the pitch, which I think is a big help. We kind of knew each other’s game inside out. To be honest with you, after two or three games and a few training sessions, I’m feeling like me and Rowan Liburd at Billericay have got something special going there as well. Just little things I’ve noticed straight away, like in our first league game together, someone’s fired a ball into me and I’ve kind of left it, hoping he was gonna be there behind me, and he was there, in the perfect position. We’ve had a couple of little one-twos; just little things already that’s getting me quite motivated for the season, because I think we can work something together. He’s a big man who also scores goals, so to have someone else who’s going to chip in will be very helpful, I think.

What about individual opponents you’ve faced who stick in your mind, either for just giving you a new kind of challenge, or maybe for having a lot to say for themselves!

There’s a few actually, I don’t know why I always remember this game, but I played against Preston and they had a couple of guys at centre-half; I think one was Youl Mawéné. Just the most physical of games, and I wasn’t the biggest guy anyway, so that’s one game that’s always stood out where I thought ‘wow, that’s why the players at the top level do it week in and week out, because they’ve got that physicality, plus all the other attributes’.

Non-league, I always remember being up against Rickie Hayles, because he always used to just grab me, he never let me more than a yard away from him. He actually came to play for Billericay, so it was a nice relief for a year or two! Another one, I don’t wanna keep mentioning ex-teammates, but Dean Inman; he was fantastic, really hard to play against, dangerous in both boxes. Another one where I was actually quite relieved when he came to Billericay that I wouldn’t have to face him.

In terms of managers, what do you think has been the kind of approach from them that you respond best to?

I think I’m an ‘arm around the shoulder’. Whichever manager comes in is going to have their own style, so you don’t really have a choice, but I’ve definitely found I work best when they have that understanding of how I play, and that they’re probably not gonna change that at this stage of my career. Glenn Tamplin, as a manager not an owner, discovered that quite early, to his credit, and whilst he was a bit of a shouter, I think he worked out early to just let me get on with it and I’ll respond better.

Before Billericay, is there a spell in your career that stands out as the time you felt at your best on the pitch, and most content in general?

It was probably the time at Brighton when we had a team full of youth products, Dean Wilkins was the manager, who’d been the youth-team manager, so the dressing room was fantastic. Everyone liked each other, we were all similar age, we’d grown up together, and I just went through a spell where I kept scoring goals. I never really had enough of those spells as a professional, unfortunately, but I scored a hat-trick at Huddersfield (October 2006), scored a hat-trick in the FA Cup a couple of weeks later (against Northwich) and I was top scorer for a long while that season. Everything clicked and I thought ‘this is going really well, what’s the next step?’ I never really went and kicked on from there, was in and out, but for the first few months of that season, I really felt at the top of my game.

Has there been a most difficult time? Has the enjoyment ever been lost a little bit?

Yeah, there were a couple of times; it generally coincided with living away from my family and my friends. My first year at Shrewsbury and my first year at Northampton, I wasn’t in the team, I picked up a couple of injuries, we were struggling for form. I generally find when I’m not enjoying myself, I’m coming back to Brighton a lot, so I was driving home every weekend, and that’s when I started to notice, and I think my family noticed that I wasn’t enjoying it so much. It’s all part and parcel of the job, unfortunately, there’s always going to be moments like that, but I signed for Shrewsbury with big expectations, dropping down a league from Brighton, and I hardly scored in the first year. Luckily, I came back the next season in really good form, so I did bounce back from it, but that was a real tough year for me.

You did go to Maidstone briefly, but with how well you’ve done at Billericay, and the Football League experience you have, have there been a lot of approaches in the past few years to go to higher-division clubs?

There’s been a few, not necessarily at higher leagues; I think there’s a stigma now around turning 30 years old, where you’re not an asset. The clubs don’t wanna buy you because they know they’re probably not going to make money on you in the future. I think the Maidstone thing came around because Billericay were in some financial troubles at the time and were looking to offset some costs, and Maidstone had decided they just needed some goals, needed a goalscorer. That whole spell, although I did love it there and it’s a fantastic club, it’s just one of those things. We went on an FA Trophy run, despite how bad we were doing in the league, so every other week I was cup-tied, so I couldn’t get any rhythm going. I had an injury literally scoring my first goal, got wiped out by the goalie, so that took me a little while to recover. A real strange experience that one, but it’s normally just Conference South clubs I hear from, ‘are you staying at Billericay for another year?’ because it’s just the league where I’ve made my name now.

We mentioned ones at Brighton earlier, but any other standout characters from your whole time in the game, just as examples? Anyone where you think ‘he’s just a different breed altogether’?!

There’s a few of them ones! A few ‘different breed’ characters around non-league especially! The one I clicked with really well, a very different player to me but insanely talented, and never seemed to take it seriously but was the best player on the pitch come match day, was Sam Deering. I played with him at Whitehawk and Billericay, and he’s now at Dagenham, doing his full-time thing, which he wanted to do. Another one who I didn’t meet until late in my career was Sergio Torres; just genuinely one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in my life. We actually ended up working together at the offices of the Whitehawk owner, as part of our deal, so to spend five days a week with him and play with him on a Saturday, we became close and still to this day one of the best characters I’ve met in football.

The answer to this is surely yes by now, but have you ever had to sing when you joined a team, and if so, which song(s) have you gone for?

Oh, I’ve done a few. I did one on a training camp for Shrewsbury and I think I did (Oasis) ‘Wonderwall’. There was a huge group of new signings and I think I was one of the first two to sing, so I thought ‘I’ll get it out the way before someone else nicks it’. I did The Fray ‘How to Save a Life’ somewhere once, and I did Craig David ‘Fill Me In’ for Billericay on the coach on the way back from somewhere as well. Dean Brennan was huge on getting people singing, he loved it for the team spirit, team bonding.

Away from football – obviously family and becoming a parent as well – what else do you enjoy, in terms of interests or even ambitions?

It’s a good question, because I guess I’m still trying to find that passion that’s gonna take me through retiring from football. I haven’t quite discovered what I’m going to do the rest of my life. I still like going to the gym. I used to love playing computer games but I haven’t done that since…well, basically since having a child! Love holidays, reading; it all sounds kind of boring but I think parenthood has changed my life. I’m looking forward to taking my daughter away on holiday, because she’s only really been alive throughout the pandemic, so it’s been a strange start to her life. I’ve just started looking more into trading, stocks and things like that, where I can maybe one day make a career out of that, start trading some cryptocurrencies. I even did a personal training qualification but I haven’t used that once yet.

Finally, at this point in your football, what’s most important to you now, looking ahead?

The last few years of my career have probably been some of the most enjoyable I’ve had, so trying to get that feeling back. I’m determined to come back for the first full season in a while the fittest I’ve ever been, I’m gonna make a real conscious effort to look after my body, and just try and play as long as I can at a high level. I’ve shown ability-wise I can still do it at this level, I just have to make sure I’m looking after myself so my body holds up. I’m only ever really enjoying my football when I’m scoring goals and we’re winning games, so as long as I can keep doing that to a decent standard, I’m gonna be happy. Looking into specifics of my time at Billericay, I’m the second-highest scorer now and pretty much second in every scoring department. Unfortunately, the guy who is top (Fred Clayden) is top by a long way! If I can eek out another few years then I can maybe start thinking about that a bit more.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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