A little over four months ago Heybridge Swifts were staring into the abyss- or at step five, which can perhaps be thought of as the same thing. They had one match left to save their season- the visit of Phoenix Sports- and absolutely had to win whilst hoping that Ware, away to VCD Athletic, lost. The match didn’t start according to plan, and at half time Sports were two goals to the good, but a remarkable comeback saw a three-two victory which, coupled with a 2-0 win for VCD, saw Swifts remain in the North Division by one solitary goal, both they and Ware being tied on 51 points.
If you’ve taken a look at the Bostik North League table recently you’ll understand why it’s worth recounting that history. Swifts are one of only three sides- the others being AFC Hornchurch and Dereham Town- to have won every game, and are in second place on the basis only of alphabetical order, both they and Hornchurch having identical records. They’ve also stormed through to the Second Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, first beating Haverhill Rovers 6-1 in a replay before, on Saturday, travelling to Arlesey and hammering seven goals without reply. Manager Jody Brown has just begun his second full season in charge, and we caught up with him to find out how so much could have changed in four months.
The new season seems to be going remarkably well. You must be delighted?
I am- especially given how we finished last season. Struggling for survival made the club take a long hard look at itself- sometimes you have to hit the bottom before you can get the momentum to swim back up. We came very close to leaving the Bostik League altogether and that galvanised everyone for the summer, which has everything to do with why we’ve made such a good start. It’s a bit of a cliché but the whole club has come together with one focus.
So what have you changed? This time last season you’d won one game- against Royston Town in the FA Cup. It took you until mid November to reach twelve points. The turnaround has been rather dramatic.
From around Christmas last season we made a concerted effort to improve the playing staff, to do things more professionally, to focus on improving the crowds and perhaps changing the culture of the club. We’ve kept that going, and what that meant was that when we came in for pre-season everything had been properly organised as if there had been no summer break; we had nearly all of our squad together, the staff were in place, the whole club was functioning really well. I was able to focus on coaching and developing our players and on building an infrastructure whilst being confident that everything I needed to get that right was in place.
You’ve made quite dramatic changes to the playing squad. On Saturday against Arlesey you started with eight players who weren’t even at the club last season. Was that a risk?
We lost some players that we didn’t want to lose. Our top goalscorer- Reece Grant- got a very good move to Braintree Town, our captain George Cole went on trial with Barnsley and is actively looking for a higher-level club. It’s a big thing to me that we develop our players, and I want them to go on to bigger and better things, but we needed to make changes anyway. There was a reason we finished fourth bottom last season- the squad wasn’t good enough and needed to be improved. We put together a recruitment philosophy, and that was to try and bring players in who I’d worked with before or who had played at the club before, we wanted some continuity. My playing philosophy has been the same for five or six seasons, so I knew that if I brought in people who’d worked for me previously they’d integrate pretty quickly, and that, if they had a history with the club, the same would occur. We brought back Luke Callander, who had played 150 games here in a previous spell, Sam Bantick who had also been here before, and they fitted in from the off. We had to get recruitment right, and having that philosophy allowed us to get our recruitment done early and hit the ground running.
Bank Holiday Monday (a 5-0 victory which deservedly won Swifts the betting.net Performance of the Month Award) must have sent a message to the entire Division, but perhaps more importantly to your supporters it sent a message to the noisy neighbours of Maldon & Tiptree. Have the people of Heybridge offered you the keys to the town after that one?!
I’ve worked for both clubs and have good memories of Maldon. I’ve been involved in a lot of these derbies and they probably don’t get the coverage they should; it’s one of the bigger derbies in the Bostik League, in all of the divisions. There’s a rich rivalry between the supporters, so the fixture is critical to them regardless of where we are in the league. For example, last Boxing Day, we were bottom and they were top and we beat them 1-0; it gave the whole place a boost. It’s a really important fixture for us, but for me it’s really more important that we got three points than who we beat to get them.
So what are your ambitions for this season? One of your players, Harry Morgan, said recently that he believes you can win the league. Can you?
I think everyone has got to be realistic. I was at the club in 2014 when we got to the play-offs, and since then we’ve finished twelfth, twentieth and twenty-first. Harry is twenty years old, and I’m delighted that he thinks we can win the league, I want the players to have that level of confidence, but although we’ve started brilliantly we’re four games in. You don’t go from finishing twenty first to finishing first overnight unless it’s with the introduction of someone like Glenn Tamplin. It would be a miracle, similar to what Leicester did in the Premier League. We haven’t any huge investment- our board work really hard and although the money available has slightly improved it certainly hasn’t improved that much!
My point of view- and I’m sorry for bandying about football clichés- is that the sooner we get to 50 points the happier I’ll be. I want no more last day soap-operas. We can reassess once we’re at fifty points- if we get there early, anything is possible, but it’s far too early to make predictions of success. Nobody expected us to start as well as we have- I thought we’d start well, and I knew we were in a good place, but to score twenty seven goals and only concede four is phenomenal. Ask me again once we’ve got to 50 points! I’m ambitious, but I’m not predicting success. Leave that to Harry!
Heybridge Swifts FC
In your programme notes for the Maldon game you talked of ‘a growing Spanish supporters contingent.’ What did you mean?
In the summer our full back, Guillem Ramon, suggested a week’s training course for a number of Spanish players. I agreed, and twenty two players came over and received coaching from myself and Glenn Little. I ended up signing two of them, Joan Luque and Elias Siligato, so with Guillem we now have a trio of Spanish players in our team and their friends and families all come to watch. We’re also getting interest from Catalonia- all of them are from that region and people from over there are making contact via social media. I’m trying to learn a bit of the language- well, the football language so that I can shout “man on,” “close down,” and “in behind!” A number of the others are now training with other clubs in Essex so we might soon have a large Essex-Spanish enclave. We’re delighted with how it’s worked out; Joan Luque now has seven goals in seven games.
Taking you back to May 2013 then, you were part of the coaching set up for the Youth Team at Norwich City that won the FA Youth Cup, beating a much-vaunted Chelsea side- who had won the competition the previous year and every year since- both home and away. How did you go about plotting their downfall?
I’m not going to take credit for that! Neil Adams was the manager, and ended up as manager of the first team. I was involved in both games, and we allowed Chelsea, who included the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathan Ake, lots of possession but hit them quickly on the counter-attack. We had Josh and Jacob Murphy (They were in the first team together by December 2016, and Jacob joined Newcastle United from the Canaries for 12.5 million pounds in the summer) and using their pace and a powerful front three we were able to beat them. Twice!
You’ve worked with a number of players who have gone on to the professional game. Who were the best- and who do you think might follow in their footsteps from your current crop?
From my time in Non League, Freddie Ladapo who is now in the Crystal Palace squad. I worked with him at Grays Athletic. He was a centre forward and had been rejected by almost everyone, we moved him into a right forward position in a 4-3-3, worked on him facing defenders rather than playing with his back to goal, taught him to run in behind more than he had previously, and he got twenty goals before Christmas in the Isthmian Premier Division. He got a move to Margate who were in National League South at the time, and six months later he was at Crystal Palace. I’d also single out Joe Zerafa, who played left back for Malta versus England last weekend- he was also with me at Grays and went with me to Welling too- and who performed so well up against Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Actually his lack of success over here makes a mockery of our game in this country; he’s such a hard working lad, very professional, great attitude and nobody would give him a chance. I could see the potential he had and tried to get him a professional trial, but nobody would take a look and in the end he got frustrated and went back to Malta. Mind you, that hasn’t worked out badly for him, he’s played against West Ham United and beaten them, is an international footballer, has played against Italy in Florence- but it’s a shame that he can play at that level and yet couldn’t get a look in even at League Two over here.
I’d also mention Elliot Justham from my days at Redbridge. He was a young, overweight goalkeeper, worked really hard at his game and ended up at Luton Town, and is now first choice keeper at Dagenham and Redbridge.
From my current team, I don’t really want to single people out. Joan Luque is catching the eye but I need to know whether he can adapt to the English winter. At the moment the pitches are good and the weather is decent, but it will be a test for him to play at this level in December and January- if he can overcome that then he is definitely one to watch. And I really hope that George Cole, who was in that FA Youth Cup side for Chelsea when I was at Norwich and somehow ended up at Heybridge, can find a suitable professional club. He’s currently without a club; he would come back to me but I’m not convinced it’s the right thing for him. Much as I want to win football matches it’s not right for his development, he can do better. He needs to explore his options.
Back to Heybridge, then. What are your hopes for the club going forward?
I’ve had a lot of experience, and I’ve moved clubs many times. When I’ve had the chance to climb the ladder I’ve taken it, and that’s meant I’ve never been anywhere long enough to actually build a sustainable model. That’s what I want to do now; to stay here, take my time and build right through from the Under 8’s to the First Team- to build a culture that encourages families through the door to come and watch us play, promotes the development of young players, and so on. It doesn’t happen overnight but I’ve mentally committed myself to stay here and do it, and I think that if we get it right we’ll have sustained success built on solid foundations.
How far do you think the club can go?
Not too long ago Heybridge were extremely well financed and were one point away from going into the Conference, losing on penalties to Hampton and Richmond Borough. That was a one-off; we don’t have that level of resource anymore, but what we do know from that period is that there is a fan base. The club was attracting four hundred people to a home match, so if we can produce something that people want to watch there is the potential for 350-400 people to be coming here regularly. If we get that, then perhaps we can make National League South. Braintree isn’t that far away and they managed it, and they aren’t a huge club, so if we build Swifts correctly we have to believe we can match that. I also spent four or five months at Concord Rangers and they are also a small club who have done exceptionally well. But it will only happen if everyone buys into our vision, if everyone pulls together. We’ve a long way to go, but if we build sustainably then who knows?
It seems strange to be speaking about National League South aspirations with the manager of a club which only avoided relegation to step five on the last day of last season, but there is a determination and vision about Jody Brown that allows the idea to seem like more than a pipe dream. He’s undoubtedly right not to be carried away with Swifts start to the season, but it’s also true that his side have impressed in every match this season and are winning new fans far and wide.
Perhaps the next Heybridge end of season soap opera may be acted out at the right end of the table? It certainly isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility.
Mick Gibson Family Stand- Heybridge Swifts FC
Images courtesy of Heybridge Swifts FC