After a long day spending time getting to and from Hallam FC for their FA Vase match against Morpeth Town I stood on a Metro platform waiting for the last train home writes NLD Editor Mark Carruthers.




As I stood alongside the usual Saturday night “revellers” in Newcastle City Centre my phone went off and it was a text message from Hungerford Town manager Bobby Wilkinson.

We had scheduled an interview for a Non-League Daily piece for Monday morning and I fully expected to read about a possible rescheduling of our chat.

However, by mistake, Bobby had sent me a text meant for his players in the aftermath of their heavy defeat at St Albans City.

The contents of the text will remain private, as they should remain as confidential as any team talk a manager gives in the confinement of the dressing room.

What I can say is that the tone of the text message showed a passionate manager, that cares for his players like they are one of their own.

I decided not to reply but made the text my priority in this piece.

Its contents intrigued me, they offered a fascinating insight into the bond he has with his Hungerford Town players and his passion for the role he has with the club.

A one off I suggest? Far from it, he replies.

“I like to send out powerful messages to the boys because I want them to know what it is all about and that is how it has been for seven years now” said Wilkinson.

“They have had thousands of those texts and it has worked.  What you need after a result like we had on Saturday is a reaction and I don’t normally speak after results like that because emotions are high. 

“Since I have been there we have never been beaten by that sort of score but they are finding out, at this level, that if you make a mistake you get punished.

“We are learning, we are learning to cope with the class players we are facing.  There is more power, more organisation and that is why I get us working so hard on being organised, being fitter.

“Basically doing what I can to give us an edge. There is a difference and we are recognising that more and more but we are learning to hungerford towncope with it.

“St Albans are a great club, with a great management team and they said we were one of the best they had faced this season until the sending off.

“We were in the game, doing what we do, but results don’t lie.

“We take it on the chin and look for a reaction”

The reaction he looked for was delivered on Monday evening, as the Crusaders bounced back from that defeat with a home win over struggling Welling United.

On the face of it, the 1-0 win looks a narrow, hard-fought one, and according to Wilkinson it was.

But looking beyond the win it is easy to see its significance.

Just three years ago the gap between the two clubs spanned three divisions.

As Welling plied their trade just a step away from the Football League, the Crusaders were battling their way out of the Evo-Stik Southern Premier League Division One South and West.

They achieved another promotion last season, despite being tipped as relegation candidates and are now just one promotion away from non-league’s top tier.

That success, Wilkinson says, is down to two things; loyalty and keeping his players happy.

“It was something really special.  To do what we did, if I am being very open and honest, I don’t think people realise what we achieved last season” he admitted.

“We are such a small club and really we shouldn’t be anywhere near where we are.

“We are achieving because we are a great family and it is all about that togetherness with us.

“I have never changed as a manager.  If you have a happy player, you have a confident player, if you have confident players you get results.

“I stay loyal to these lads and there are fourteen of the seventeen man squad that have been with me for seven years now.

“They have played lower for the majority of their careers and they deserve this chance.

“We have fall-outs, but who doesn’t?  You fall out with a player, it’s sorted an hour later, you fall out with your wife, it’s sorted an hour later.  I look at them as a family and that’s how it will always be”

The Hungerford family currently sit in tenth position in the Vanarama National League South table, nine points behind a Hampton and RODGERS MCRichmond Borough side that occupy the final play-off position.

When I put it to Wilkinson that a third promotion could be on the cards, his reply was as determined as it was emphatic.

“From the first day I took over my ambition was to get Conference (National League) football and people laughed at me.

“I got us two promotions in three years and each time we have been one of the teams tipped for relegation.

“If people laugh at me and say it can’t be done, I do something different.  When they knock my club, I work harder to prove them wrong.

“You judge a man on his reaction when he is down and the chips have been down for Hungerford Town, because of who we are and what we are.

“Let’s be honest, we are punching above our weight but I want to keep us in this division and build from there”

If Wilkinson is to “build from there” then he will do so with the advice of some notable names.

The former Reading and Fulham player saw his career ended early by an injury but he moved into coaching with the Royals.

Working under the likes of current Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers and Brian McDermott, Wilkinson was given a coaching education many would envy.

And he revealed some of the inspirational moments that he witnessed during his formative years as a coach.

“I have spoken to Brendan Rodgers thousands of times over the years and Brian McDermott is very special to me.  He put me on his coaching staff when Reading went to Wembley and got promoted so I saw first-hand how you should manage through big situations.

“People don’t realise that at Reading we had a meeting midway through the season when we were twelfth in the league.  Brian gave a great chat, he motivated us all and we built from that moment to get promoted.

“Even at Wembley in the year before, when they were three down at half time against Swansea, he gave one of the greatest half time team talks I have witnessed.

“He inspired them and they got back to 3-2 and then hit the post, had it gone in I think we would have went up but it was Brendan and Swansea that got up eventually that day”

More advice has been taken in, this time from an international manager and a Champions League winner now leading Reading in the ONEILLSkyBet Championship.

“I met Martin O’Neill in the summer and took some great advice from him.  That was a great privilege to speak to someone like Martin.

“I have spoken to Jaap Stam quite a bit because I am still in and out of Reading, that has been a powerful tool because of all he has achieved in the game. 

“To be around these people, will all that they have done, I am privileged and that is why I look to make the most of it”

A personification of enthusiasm and passion, Wilkinson’s reputation is growing within non-league circles.

Interest in acquiring his talents has come from clubs higher up the pyramid, with some Football League clubs trying to tempt him into reserve team management.

That role is not one that interests Wilkinson, as he sets his sights on becoming a Football League manager in his own right at some point in the future.

“I want to manage higher up the leagues and that has been my ambition since I started my career with Hungerford” he admitted.

“I work twenty four hours a day to study, to learn the game, around some great people.

“Hopefully I will get that opportunity to be part of a Football League management team at some point.

“I am a young manager, I am thirty nine now and I am biding my time, learning my trade and trying to get more promotions, more achievements on my CV so that when people look at it they think ‘he’s a winner'”

“I have had a few opportunities to go higher, to move up the leagues, to maybe take a reserve side in the Football League.

“But I want to be a Football League manager, I want to progress, but I love Hungerford and what we do.

“I am in no rush”

With that our chat was over, but one more text was sent by Wilkinson in the aftermath of their 1-0 win over Welling United on Monday night.

It was a thank you from the Crusaders manager, and a note to say his players were “outstanding”.

That message was received loud and clear.

Interview: Mark Carruthers (@marknldaily)
Images: Hungerford Town FC / Peter Else / www.actionimages.com


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