FIRST OF ALL can I take this opportunity to thank everyone who has taken the time to support Concord Rangers in 2014 and wish you a very happy New Year.
I think we can look back on last year with fondness. It got off to a relatively slow start with lots of postponements but certainly picked up pace as the year unfolded!
The latter part of the 2013/14 season saw us involved in massive fixture congestion which meant we played 21 games in the last two months of the season.
So to flirt with the play-offs during that time and beat the eventual champions Eastleigh in the last minute was great.
It meant that we finished ninth in our first season in the Conference South.
For us to finish the season with back-to-back league games in the final week and six games in a 10-day period was a huge challenge for everyone involved at the club.
For the players to come through that period and finish the season by beating Braintree Town to win the Essex Senior Cup for the first time in our history was a fitting end to a really tough journey.
The players showed unbelievable fitness and a real desire and resilience to come through that period and consistently play at the levels that they did.
What it did teach us is that if we can come through that period successfully then anything is possible for us at this football club.
From a personal point of view, my toughest two months of the season are always May and June – the supposed ‘off season’!
It was really motivating to see all of the hard work going on behind the scenes to improve the changing facilities and build the stand at the ‘Patio End’.
The improvement in the changing facilities and medical area has allowed us to further improve the environment for the players.
At the end of May I took a short break with my family and went to La Manga in Spain with our chairman, Antony Smith.
I tend to use this down time to make short and medium term plans in order to keep working towards our long term objectives for the club. It was during this trip that the challenge for us as club competing at this level was again reemphasised.
One afternoon while in the hotel I bumped into a familiar face in Mark Goldberg, the Bromley manager.
He was in a very relaxed mood having negotiated his business early and making a number of high-profile signings to add to what was already an excellent squad.
He had 18 experienced players signed and was very pleased with the group he had brought together.
To compare this with our predicament, highlights the extent of our challenge.
At that stage it looked increasingly likely that we were going to lose Sam Collins, Jamie Butler and James White to clubs at a higher level in the non league pyramid.
They had all been an integral part of our success last season and were – an are – pretty much irreplaceable to us as a club.
At this stage we had renewed deals with about six or seven players and were playing the waiting game with other potential signings.
If the comparison between our two clubs wasn’t dispiriting enough this was compounded when Mark informed me that he was staying in the resort for the next month in comparison to the five days that I was there!
While Mark and I are both football managers I think that is where the similarities end – we are certainly living through very different footballing experiences!
We have a clear process for identifying potential players but this is very much the easy part.
We understand the type of characters that are compatible with our team ethos and know the type of technical, physical and tactical attributes needed to fit within our playing philosophy. The difficulty always comes in the recruiting of these players.
While we are making continued progress off the pitch we are a million miles away from the infrastructure, fan base and consequently resources of some of these big non league clubs that we have to compete against.
This results in as often having to be patient, a trait that isn’t a virtue of mine!
But as always we try to turn negatives into positives and the overriding benefit of our situation means that there is a natural sorting process which helps our player recruitment.
Players only sign for Concord Rangers for the right reasons… footballing reasons.
Even more significant is that once players join they invariably feel a real allegiance to the club.
There is a unique spirit which comes from being a small club, fighting against the odds and we have a real togetherness between the management, players, committee members and supporters.
This gives the players a sense of belonging and I know that the club holds a special place in all of our hearts.
It also means that it is a difficult place to leave behind as Sam, Jamie and Whitey all found when turning down ‘lucrative’ offers to sign elsewhere for the 2014/15 season.
I think as a club we should be proud that we were able to retain 14 members of the squad.
You cannot underestimate the importance of continuity at a football club.
Some of the players have been with us for eight seasons now. They understand our philosophy and expectations and we know their personalities and how to get them performing to their best.
And most importantly they know the intricacies in each other both as players and people.
Team spirit and togetherness formulates from human relationships. These relationships only grow and become strong over time.
Due to the maturity of our group it is also much easier to integrate new players and the likes of Jeremy Walker and Alex Woodyard have fitted in seamlessly and made a substantial contribution to the quality of our team.
At the halfway stage of the 2014/15 season I think we can be very proud of our achievements so far.
We have continued to be competitive game in and game out in the league.
We have had some great performances in beating our near neighbours Chelmsford CIty away, Farnborough 7-0 at home and, most recently, top-of-the-table Bromley.
Our biggests successes this season have probably come in the cup competitions, reaching the FA Cup’s first round proper and taking a league club in Mansfield all the way to a replay will live long in the memory.
Equally beating Boreham Wood and Barnet back-to-back in the FA Trophy, and a strong Colchester squad in the Essex Senior Cup, have given us some great moments.
When you consider the hurdles that we have had to overcome already this season with Nicky Cowley retiring due to injury, losing goalkeeper Jamie Butler to a ruptured cruciate, assistant manager Glen Alzapedi leaving to take the Cheshunt managerial position, and top scorer Jordan Chiedozie signing for Cambridge United – it makes our progress even more pleasing.
Losing Nicky as a player was always going to be tough. His work ethic, determination and will to win epitomised us as a club.
He always led by example and had the highest expectations for himself and the people around him.
He played a pivotal role in all three of our promotions and I don’t think we would have achieved those successes without his contribution.
The fact that he has been able to transfer those qualities into his coaching has meant that we haven’t lost these key ingredients from the group.
His coaching has already had a positive impact on the team and I have no doubt that he will go on to enjoy the same successes in management as he did as a player.
So we can look forward to 2015 with both anticipation and excitement.
We are in the last 32 of the FA Trophy and quarter finals of the Essex Senior Cup.
This year will also see us move to a full time Academy which will be a massive step for the club and hopefully allow us to attract the best young players in the area.
This will be imperative for our longevity at this level and fantastic for the local community.
This, accompanied with the great work already taking place through our ‘Beachboys in the Community’ scheme, has meant that we have really been able to raise the profile of the club while providing some great opportunities and experiences for the young people in the south east of Essex.
But for me – and I think everyone at the club – our main focus must be to retain our status in this wonderful division.
Competing against some of the non league heavyweights represents a fantastic challenge on a weekly basis for our small football club.
And everyone here – from the management, players, committee members and our loyal supporters – should be proud of our achievements in 2014.
But the toughest part of being successful is not achieving the success but maintaining it. That is our challenge in 2015 – consistency and sustainability.
Hope you all have a great 2015.
First team manager at Concord Rangers.