At the end of February this year you’d have recognised a Tonbridge Angels supporter by their large grin and optimistic demeanour. Firmly fixed in the play-off places, fresh from thumping victories over Grays Athletic, Enfield Town and Kingstonian, the sun was shining over Longmead. Fast forward six weeks or so and three victories from ten matches, a host of injuries and just about everything that could go wrong having gone wrong, and you’d have found a rather different set of Kentish folk as their side slumped to finish one point distant of the end of season lottery.
We caught up with manager Steve McKimm as he approached his fourth season in charge, to find out how his preparations were going, whether he was happy with his squad and whether he’d run over an entire litter of black cats as winter turned to spring.
Back in 2014 you talked about ‘getting the club back to where it belongs in National League South.’ Is this your year?
It’s going to be very, very difficult; I don’t think the league has ever had better teams. It’s not just about Billericay, either- we’ve all heard about their signings, their finances and their aims but there are a lot of other teams who have made decent signings too and will cause a surprise. Dulwich will be there or thereabouts and Gavin Rose knows his stuff, Sammy Moore has put a good squad together at Leatherhead, Gary McCann at Hendon has made some astute signings and they might be a force like they were a few years ago when they took Margate all the way. Harlow will also be a difficult place to go, they’ve a big strong side. If I’ve missed anyone out I apologise- there’ll undoubtedly be others too- but I think that everyone can beat everyone in this league. We want to do well, but it’s going to be tough.
Going back to last season then- do you think the tales about the Manager of the Month Award being cursed are true?
Yes, I wish I’d never won it! We did really, really well in February, and then in March it all went wrong. We had a lot of injuries last year, and people might think I’m a broken record, but when you lose one of your centre halves for half a season with a dislocated finger that almost had to be amputated, another centre half out for twelve weeks with a dislocated shoulder, your captain missing the last eight weeks of the season with a broken ankle, a creative midfielder out for the best part of five months with different niggles and injuries, your twenty goal a season striker breaks his leg in the first game and is out for seven and a half months…at our level that all adds up, as unless you’ve got a squad of twenty five you can’t possibly accommodate that. It might look like the wheels fell off in March, but there were games earlier in the season that we struggled in, too- and I think that if we’d had anywhere near a full squad we’d have picked up more points long before the run-in. But it wasn’t to be; you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and we did our best with it and were around the top five for the majority of the season. But when push came to shove we just didn’t have enough in the tank.
Yet you did an awful lot right- only two sides conceded fewer goals and they both got promoted.
We’ve had a great defensive record over the past two years. My first season here we had to sign twenty new players and start from scratch, our aim was just to survive, but we’ve conceded very few goals in the two seasons hence. Our problem last season was that we just didn’t score enough- having Andre McCollin missing for most of the year was a major factor in that. I did manage to bring Alex Akrofi in around December and he went on to score twelve goals in half a season and I’m sure he’d have scored more if I’d been able to sign him earlier, but we needed more goals from all other areas and we didn’t get them. Perhaps that was the reason, apart from the injuries I’ve mentioned, that we didn’t make the play-off places.
Given your exceptional defence it was a surprise to see you release your keeper, Anthony di Bernado, only five days before the start of the new season? What was the thinking behind that decision?
Tony has had two good years with us and I like him a lot, but- and this might just come back and bite me later- I felt we needed a change in that department. There were a few reasons behind that- I’ll keep them to myself as it wouldn’t be fair for me to start talking about them- but the opportunity came along so sign a new keeper (Jonny Henly) and I made a decision that I have faith in. I had Jonny here on loan from Hemel Hempstead at the end of last season; he’s a good young keeper, he has different attributes to Tony, and I’m delighted to have him back. We’ll see whether I was right as the season progresses.
You’ve also brought in Craig Stone from Eastbourne Borough and Joe Turner from Kingstonian. Is your squad building now complete?
I work within a tight budget. The club are very helpful- if I do get injuries then they might let me get a loan player in- but I don’t like to make wholesale changes. If someone becomes available that we can afford, and he will fit into the way we play and embrace our club philosophy, then never say never. But I’m not actively working to add to the squad at the moment. Joe got in contact with me last week after he left Kingstonian, and I thought he’d fit in so he joined us. We’ve a centre-midfielder who is on trial with us at the moment and there might be a short-term deal for him if he agrees, but we’ve got a settled squad, a couple of youngsters at U21 level who are good enough and might get a shot, and I’m happy with where we are.
Talking of youngsters, then- you’ve promoted Liam Smith from the youth squad, and you’ve signed Tashi-Jay Kwayie- who impressed on loan to East Grinstead last season- to a new deal. Do you expect to see them playing a full part this season?
I believe Liam will play a certain number of first team games this season, but he’s only seventeen and still learning. Tashi has just turned nineteen, and had a good three-quarters of a season with East Grinstead last season and scored some goals, but he’s still learning. For finishing he’s probably one of the best at the club, but he needs to improve his hold-up play and we’d like him to learn that playing competitive games. We’ve loaned him to Thamesmead Town where I believe he’ll get games and goals, but he’s only gone on a short-term loan so that I can call him back if I need him. I’ve four senior strikers ahead of him, but he’s got a lot of potential and he wants to stay here and fulfil that. The good thing about Tashi is that he understands there are areas he needs to improve and wants to work with us to achieve that; he could have gone to a number of Bostik South clubs but wanted to stay, and we wanted to keep him.
On a different subject, Angels won the Isthmian Community Club of the Year Award last season. How important is that to the club?
Massively important. We’ve a lot of volunteers and we’re a community owned club. Everybody here puts in such fantastic work and it’s an enormous honour for them, they deserve to be recognised. I know that every club has volunteers but we seem to have more than at any other location; people muck in and they do so much, they have the club and the community in their hearts. This is a fabulous place to work, surrounded by positive people- even when things aren’t going as well as we’d like they see the bigger picture and lift us all. What they need from me, and the players, is that they wear that shirt with honour- and we don’t want to let them down.
Looking forward to the big kick off, you beat Hendon home and away last season. Do those results influence the way you set your team up for Saturday?
No, because both teams will be different, we’ve both lost players and brought new players in. The first game of the season is a bit of a conundrum; everyone wants to get off to a good start and get points on the board, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t win. Our focus this week will be to work on set pieces, patterns of play, and to make sure the boys understand their roles and responsibilities. After that they cross that white line and I have to rely on them to get it right!
Which matches are you particularly looking forward to this season?
I like the Hendon games, funnily enough, because I’m very good friends with Gary. We used to play together at Hendon and the club is close to my heart; I started out there when I was seventeen and still know some of their supporters. Dulwich is also somewhere I like to go; Gavin and Junior Kadi are friends of mine and it’s a good team to pit your wits against. And I’m looking forward to seeing what Billericay have done to the ground- they’re expecting to have a couple of thousand every week, and it won’t be the dull place it used to be; it’ll be upbeat and positive.
We’re respectful to all of our opponents as they behave the same way towards us, they’re all welcoming, but it’s always good to get one over on your mates and then have a laugh and a beer about it afterwards!
So what about your personal ambitions? Where would you like your career to take you?
Steve in action!
As a player I always strove to be the best I could and play at the highest level I could. As a coach I have the same philosophy. I was lucky enough to work with Paul Doswell at Sutton for a number of years and he educated me well, particularly towards the end when he encouraged me to move into management because he believed that I was ready. I think me and my team have been quite successful here, but we’d like a promotion under our belts. I want to take Tonbridge to the next level and be the best I can. I’m not going to sit back and accept that Bostik Premier is the best that I can be; I can do better, and the club can do better. I’ll work night and day to make that happen.
Steve has twice won the Premier Division, first as a player with Gravesend & Northfleet, and then as a coach with Sutton United. Will this year be the season he gets that hat-trick? As he says, it will be difficult, but with a fully-fit squad and a bit of luck Angels fans will be hoping to be there or thereabouts come April.
Images courtesy of Tonbridge Angels FC