When Frank Wilson was announced as the new manager of Tooting and Mitcham United in April 2015, the response from the club’s supporters wasn’t universally positive. ‘I’m not convinced that Frank is the one to take us forward,’ wrote one fan on the unofficial forum, ‘we need someone who has experience managing in the Isthmian League.’ ‘I find it hard to see how this is a way forward,’ wrote another.
Just over two years later and Frank is about to start his first campaign in the Bostik Premier Division, the Terrors returning to Step Three after five years away, and it’s fair to say that these days the comments on his abilities are universally positive.Two trophies in two years have demonstrated quite clearly that any concerns were unjustified, and made him perhaps the most popular man in Mitcham. We caught up with him as he prepared for a pre-season friendly with Crystal Palace and looked forward to the big kick off on August 12th.
The London Senior Cup in your first season, South Division Champions in your second. What silverware do you plan to collect this season?
How about the FA Cup! We’ve had an incredible two years. We do sit down as a club and plan our objectives; last season we hoped for a play-off place, the season before we were just consolidating after an overhaul of the squad so we actually targeted a good run in the Senior Cup. That’s a competition that, out of all of the knock-out competitions we play in, the club holds closest to its heart. We’d won it six times, lost in the final the season before, and it was fantastic for us to win it again.
Frank Wilson, Chace O'Neill, Paul Dale- Tooting & Mitcham Utd
This year we’d like to do as well as we can in the league, that has to take priority, but realistically we’d like to try and win the London Senior Cup again. An FA Cup run would also be massive for us; we haven’t done well in the competition for quite a while, and the exploits of the seventies team (4th Round Proper, 1975/76) are still talked about. It would be fabulous to be able to emulate that in the modern era. Teams at our level can still do it, Merstham and Oxford City last year for example, and we’d love to have a go. If we get a bit of luck with the draw, you never know.
So what are your aims for your first Premier Division campaign?
First and foremost we’re really excited, but both the coaching staff and the supporters are ambitious for further success. We can’t set out hoping for mediocrity. There are some massive clubs in this league and we can’t underestimate the challenge ahead. But at the same time we’ve had success against sides from this league in cup competitions over the last couple of years- we’ve beaten Dulwich, for example- so we’re confident that we can compete. We just have to perform like that consistently. We’re going to aim for the play-offs; not because we think we’re somehow world beaters but because if you pitch yourselves as a mid-table team and then end up nine or ten points off the play-off positions you always think, ‘what if we’d pushed that bit harder.’ We’ll re-evaluate our aims quarterly but we need to have a go and then see what happens.
Let’s look back at last season. To get to one hundred and five points yet still only win the title on goal difference on the final day- how did you cope with all of that pressure?
I have a very supportive wife! Looking back, up until Christmas we were on cloud nine, scoring freely, leading the goals scored chart-eventually Hastings caught us up- but it all got so much more pressurised towards the end. We were neck and neck with Dorking Wanderers, then they had a bit of a dip in form and we managed fourteen straight victories, and then it was just down to us to remain consistent. We can laugh about it now, because it felt like we almost fell over the line; we kept winning games but we weren’t playing anywhere near as well towards the end as we had in the first two-thirds of the campaign. It was tense at times, and we were still feeling the pressure in the final game when if Dorking had managed to give us a hiding they could have gone up instead, but it all ended well- for Dorking, too. Looking at the elation around the club and amongst the supporters after that last game…it was just incredible.
Was there one moment where you thought, ‘Do you know, we might just do this?’
A couple of moments, actually. We travelled to Guernsey at the end of November and beat them six-nil, and stayed overnight. Over dinner that night I said to my Assistant Paul Dale and the coaching staff that I thought we might be able to do it; that we were good enough to actually win the league outright. And then we went to Lewes in February- they were a form side, a great club- and we won comprehensively (5-1) and played so well, and we thought afterwards, ‘ok, what’s stopping us?’ I think Lewes will go up this season, by the way.
When you took over as manager, back in April 2015, many of the supporters seemed unsure about your appointment. Did that put you under additional pressure?
Not really. It was my first managerial job in senior football. I’d been involved with the reserves, I already knew the club, I felt confident in my ability and knew that the chairman and the staff had given me their full backing. I was excited; it was my first season in charge and I was going to judge myself at the end. There were some high points- winning the London Senior Cup- and some low points- Chatham at home. There were moments of real disappointment and moments of enormous joy. I was just trying to gain experience and to do as well as possible whilst I was doing that; and to be honest I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I knew that the squad would eventually find balance and build momentum, and in the second half of the season we took a real leap forward and, of course, won the Senior Cup. We weren’t surprised to win the cup; we’d been playing really well beforehand.
What are your personal ambitions then, after two full seasons in the role? You had success with the reserve side, you had success as a University football manager, and now you have two trophies on your cv. What’s next?
Managing in Non-League is a part time job. I have a full-time job running an estate agents in London, but I’d like to be able to work full time in football, it’s what I love. I’m learning my trade as a coach and manager, and I couldn’t ask for a better club to do that with. Hopefully we’ll eventually be successful enough at Tooting and Mitcham for me to work full time here. The stadium is first class, although financially we’ve some way to go and we’re not ignorant of that. Were ambitious but we’ve got to build slowly to attain success.
All of that said, there’s no way that I can take all of the credit for the success of the last two seasons. I have some first-class people around me, and Paul Dale, my Assistant, has been superb. Relationships are one of the key drivers for success, and we have an excellent working relationship. We’re a team, and we’ve succeeded together.
Are you happy with your squad? Pre-season results have been a little mixed.
This is the most important pre-season we’ve had, but we’ve structured it with an aim in mind. The first couple of matches we chopped and changed the team a lot and the results reflected that, and perhaps at Hartley Wintney we didn’t play as well as we’d have liked, but the most recent matches we’ve looked much better. We’re happy we’ll be ready for the kick off; although we perhaps need one or two more signings and we’re working on those. The match at East Grinstead Town (final pre-season friendly) will be the template for the opening day- we’re going to approach it as if it’s a league game, pick a strong side with good balance and see how we do.
Finally, then- which matches are you really looking forward to?
I’m not sure how we feel about playing Brightlingsea in the first game, and I expect they’ll have looked at the fixtures and thought the same. When you’re newly promoted you want to quickly test yourselves against the firmly established sides as that gives you a gauge of where you actually are, but instead you’ve two new teams playing each other, both desperate to make a good impression. But we’re looking forward to that, nonetheless!
However I probably share the same opinion as the supporters when I say I’m looking forward to being at home to Dulwich on Boxing Day. We’ve had some fantastic matches against them; beating them in the semi-final of the Senior Cup is in my top three matches since I’ve been here. But there won’t be a dull game all season, the opposition will be good in every match. We’ll love that; our side has an air of confidence about it and we believe we can step up. It’s time for us to show what we’re about.
The last time that Tooting and Mitcham United came to national prominence, Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, Concorde had just started regular transatlantic passenger trips, the UK and Iceland were battling over cod and Queen were number one with Bohemian Rhapsody. Whether Frank Wilson’s Terrors are going to be able to recreate those glory days remains to be seen; but they are certainly going to try, and- although you wouldn’t expect it to be the FA Cup- there seems little reason why they shouldn’t challenge for more silverware this campaign.
And if they can manage to beat Dulwich Hamlet in the process, there’ll be many happy faces around Imperial Fields!