“Did he used to be a footballer?” The little boy in the car park of Leatherhead Leisure Centre looked around ten years old, so could be forgiven for having no recollection of the stellar playing career of The Tanners new manager, one Jimmy Bullard.
“I thought he was from TOWIE.”
Given that since Bullard was forced to hang up his boots he has been the ringmaster of the celebrity circus, lurching from commentary to quiz shows to reality TV via a spell selling paint for Dulux (as part of a promotion, he wasn’t wearing orange overalls), it was perhaps something of a surprise to all football fans, not just those who still watch Dangermouse, when he turned up as a manager.
That he had taken a managerial job at Ryman Premier League Leatherhead was even more astounding. Even avid Non-League aficionados hadn’t seen that coming.
Apart from during a famous FA Cup run in the 1970s, Leatherhead aren’t used to being in the spotlight. It might have been expected that the appointment of Bullard would change all that, and undoubtedly it has sparked media interest, but it doesn’t seem to have particularly excited the locals.
Only 225 hardy souls turned up for the evening’s entertainment, a match against league leaders Leiston; the second lowest home gate of the season, and almost a third fewer than attended the last home match against Staines Town, and the previous one, against Needham Market.
On the evidence of this game, the people of the Mole Valley are missing out.
Whilst the pre-match attention was on Bullard, it should perhaps have been on the visitors. Even in the warm up there was a confident glow about the Leiston team, and it was a glow born of success, not of their usual proximity to the Sizewell B Nuclear Power Station.
For the second season in a row The Blues were forcing the early pace in the Ryman Premier; ten matches played, eight wins, two draws, and nineteen goals to the good. They remained top of the pile until mid-October last year, before eventually slipping to eighth, and this season had already beaten highly fancied Dulwich Hamlet and Havant and Waterlooville.
Leatherhead, who had taken only five points from the last eighteen, were hardly likely to have them quaking in their green, pink and white boots.
The pattern for the match was set in the first five minutes. Leatherhead would attack, make an error, and then Leiston would hit them at speed on the break. This initially worked so well for the away side that they were two goals up within twenty minutes.
In the fourth minute Tanners pressure led to a corner, which was crossed back to Jerry Nnamani just inside the box. He met it on the volley, but it cleared both the bar and the terrace behind the goal. Within a minute The Blues- confusingly playing in red- had forced their own corner at the other end, but this one was met by Joe Jefford, who outjumped the home defence and powered a header into the back of the net.
Leatherhead, at Bullard’s insistence, played neat pass after neat pass but almost every move broke down due to an error, and it was unsurprising when Leiston went further ahead- although the quality of the goal had to be seen to be appreciated.
Joe Francis received the ball just outside his own box. He controlled it, and then showed a turn of pace reminiscent of Billy Whizz, leaving almost the entire Leatherhead team trailing in his wake before reaching the edge of their box, from where he fired the ball across home keeper Joe Taylor into the corner of the net. Even a number of the home fans applauded, and deservedly so.
Bullard didn’t panic. Prowling the touchline, and occasionally the pitch- indeed, it seemed that technical areas were only for other managers- he instructed and encouraged his side, prompting them to play their way out of trouble and not to waste possession by hoofing the ball forward.
They responded, and whilst Leiston held firm for the rest of the half it was impossible not to admire Leatherhead’s play. His side weren’t afraid of the ball, either, with the midfielders dropping back to receive it from the defence and the strikers playing both wide and central; indeed on occasions they seemed to look for one pass too many.
This was exemplified when Calum Davies, a threat the entire evening, drove forward to the edge of the Leiston box, worked himself space to shoot, and then tried to play in Tomi Adeloye only to see the ball cleared for another away attack with his manager quietly strangling his frustrations before voicing his encouragement.
That the half ended without further Leiston goals, however, was undoubtedly down to keeper Taylor, who made a number of excellent saves. Leatherhead were well ahead on possession, and some of it was rather pretty, but Jacob Marsden in the away goal wasn’t
Bullard was last out of the changing room for the second half; the referee was looking to restart the game with the Leatherhead manager only halfway across the pitch. He threw down a notebook onto his seat in the dugout without a word to the rest of the coaching team, before resuming his position on the touchline, where he ploughed a lone furrow for much of the rest of the match.
There was a marked contrast between the behaviour of both sets of officials; the Leiston manager Glenn Driver and his coach Tony Kinsella stood together from the off, discussed every incident and seemed very much a team.
The Leatherhead bench, conversely, remained on the bench for almost the entire game; indeed the only communication between Bullard and his staff came when a ball was kicked from the ground and the manager had to retrieve a replacement from the dugout with its occupants looking on, whilst he demanded, “Do I have to do everything?” Indeed, it seemed that he did.
It’s difficult to talk accurately about relationships without any knowledge of what happens in the changing room, but there was no evidence of Bullard having a great deal of coaching support, at this match at least. Not that he seemed to need it, which perhaps may be the point.
Leatherhead started the second half much as they had the first, a corner being met on the volley once more by Nnamani and flying over the bar. But their pressure began to pay off, and their errors reduce.
“Let them make their own mistakes, stay solid,” yelled Driver to his team, but whilst that had worked in the first half there was a new confidence about the Tanners. First Adeloye fired over from twenty yards, then Nnamani sent a header over the bar, before the breakthrough came.
Marsden punched a corner clear, but the ball fell to Richard Seixas on the edge of the box. He fired a first time shot through a crowd of bodies into the net, and Leatherhead were back in the match.
The match became stretched, with chances at either end. Taylor acrobatically touched over a piledriver from Oliver Brown, before a mazy run from Evander Lopes was ended by him falling in the box, under pressure.
At this point the entire Tanners bench finally became animated, yelling for a penalty, but it was telling that those on the pitch were far less convinced and the referee had little difficulty waving away the protests. Then, on 67 minutes, and against the run of play, Leiston went further ahead. A corner was cleared, but only found Jack Ainsley at the edge of the box. Ainsley steadied himself and then fired home, to the delight of the away supporters.
Bullard looked anything but crestfallen. He simply got back on with the job of encouraging his team, and made two quick attacking changes, one of whom, the diminutive Rash Kamara, made an immediate impact, running tirelessly at the away defence. But it was another substitute, Kiernan Hughes-Mason, who changed the game, after being thrust into the fray with only six minutes remaining.
First a run by Davies found Hughes-Mason, whose shot was well struck but came back off the post with Marsden beaten. The ball found its way back to Davies, who ran into the box before being brought down. Guiseppe Sole, a Woking legend now playing for Leatherhead on duel registration terms with Hampton & Richmond Borough, stepped up and expertly fired home the penalty, reducing the arrears with one minute to go.
Leatherhead threw everything at the Leiston goal, and four minutes into added time got the reward their play undoubtedly deserved. The ball broke to Hughes-Mason, who kept his cool, jinked clear and fired into an empty net to spark raptures amongst the home faithful. “I suppose they deserved that,” said a Leiston fan behind the goal, and he was both magnanimous and correct. The final whistle blew, and a thrilling game had ended 3-3.
Bullard’s managerial record now reads won one, drawn three, lost one.
It’s difficult to make a prediction on his future success based on results so far, but it was even more difficult not to be impressed with the way he conducted himself during this match.
He kicked every ball with his team, wasn’t discouraged by errors, and was obviously quite clear about how he wanted his side to play, with only one long ball- wasted, to his disgust- during the entire ninety minutes. He exuded positivity throughout, and it was rather refreshing in a climate where all too often mistakes are met with opprobrium from those on the touchline.
He may be a celebrity, but there was no reason to believe that he wanted to get out of there. And if his team continues to play like that, then the Tanners faithful won’t want him to go anywhere soon, either. The ten year olds of Leatherhead may shortly have every reason to recognise him for his football prowess.
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Article: Ian Townsend (@TownsendAround)