Written By Scott W [Twitter: @ScottMHC14] – Non-League Writer
Hello and welcome to a new mini-series of ‘ Club In-Focus’ blogs where figures in the Grassroots & Non-League game fill us in on their season so far and also recite some chosen moments from recent seasons too. I felt “Lockdown II” was a good time to bring the blog series back after doing a few of these articles after the end of the 2019-20 curtailed campaign.
I’m pleased to begin this new series by welcoming Buckhurst Hill manager Mark Williams [MW]. Mark has been the managerial anchor to the club’s consistent success in recent years and many consider the side to the best team outside of the senior Non-League game and have done for at least the last two seasons.
Thanks also to Pete Dudley (@ped1980) for the match photo.
SW: Hello Mark, firstly thank you for your time. We’ll start with developments off-the-pitch, Buckhurst Hill have been campaigning to improve the facilities at Roding Lane, including floodlights and a small seated stand – to increase the chances of being accepted into higher divisions. How far along have you gotten with that?
MW: “We have been trying to go up for the last couple of years as you know Scott but have always run into trouble in one way or another. Buckhurst Hill’s Roding Lane ground is situated on a flood plain and on green belt land so the local parish has always been reluctant for us to develop the site . We have worked very closely though in the last couple of years with the local Parish Council and Epping Forest Council who they report to, to compromise on what we needed to do to be compliant with the ground blending in with its natural surroundings.
We want Buckhurst Hill FC to be an integral part of the local community and open up the club to everyone not just the members. Some of the councillors came down to our opening last September 2019 to see the work we had done on switching the pitch round and the new barriers and fencing and were very impressed .We applied to go up to Step Six and senior football for the first time in the club’s history. The club also applied for a Football Foundation grant towards the cost of the flood lights and stands which was approved so we were all set.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 came about and we went into lockdown, itting 3rdin the league and with 9 games in hand over top of the table we felt confident of achieving our goal. But all football rightly so with the terrible virus that was afflicted on us was declared null and void . We then went to the council for planning permission in July and it was voted unanimously to award us permission with a few stipulations on the stand colours blending in with the natural colours”.
SW: Let’s roll back to September now and the start of the season, after circumstances in the last two seasons had prevented you from getting promoted to Step 6, what was your feeling this term – is promotion & the Essex Olympian League Premier title a must?
MW: “September 2020 the season started and we also started work on the new fencing and car park and also to lay foundations for new stands . Even though we won the first few games having lost four players to higher divisions and a season-long injury to Sam Sollosi in a pre-season game we struggled to find our form and had to work hard to get the victories. Our normal flowing football wasn’t there. But convincing wins over Catholic United 5 – 0 and Springfield 8 – 3 put us back on track until we lost away at Canning Town. We got back to winning ways with a less than convincing win away at Harold Wood on a dog of a pitch. But that’s the way we have to treat this campaign. Work hard and adapt to every surface we play on and accept as current champions you’re there to be shot at.”
SW: From what I’ve seen in my research, you’ve kept the majority of the squad from last season and it appears the team has stayed together for a while. What do you feel are the main reasons for the why the team has stayed together as long as it has?
MW: “The boys off-the-pitch are a very close group and that helps with the way we play as they all work hard for each other. The ones that went higher were actually reactant to leave as they loved the group and the way we played . Some of the players have also played for Buckhurst Hill at youth and senior level. They have gone off and come back which shows you that they love the club and want to be part of the future.”
SW: As it stands at the season break, it’s you and Basildon Town locked together on 21 points at the summit. Which sides have stood out for you in EOFL Premier in the first two months of this campaign?
MW: “Even though we haven’t played Basildon Town yet I’ve been very impressed with the start they have had .Marcus Bowers has built a very good squad with a lot of players who have played at a higher level and they have shown they are the ones to beat having played 7 and won 7. We haven’t had one easy game so far.
Kelvedon Hatch are a brand new team and I know Steve and Mark from their time at Brentwood U23’s and even though they have struggled to start I was really pleased they picked up their 1st win last week. Leigh ramblers away at Belfairs Park has been our toughest away fixture …it’s a really hard place to get a result and they played really well against us especially in the 1st half , so it was great to get a win there. Rayleigh have improved from last year and we are finding teams this year much harder to break down.
We then got two decent home wins putting five past Catholic who were in the game for an hour but tired and we took advantage , then Springfield we beat 8-3 when it was the Suley [Zuhdu] show as he scored five very well-taken goals. Again, Springfield played some good stuff but we were clinical on the day . We then went to Canning Town and I felt we took them for granted . They are a very young honest team and worked very hard. We missed a lot of chances and it was poor management by myself as at 1-1 with ten to go I pushed us up too far and it left gaps and they scored a great goal to win it .
We learnt a bit about ourselves that day and it will help us cut out the complacency going forward . Having not played some other teams yet I would say out of who we had played Leigh Ramblers should be up there at the end of the season . For me Sungate are always a strong team and Basildon Town’s results speak for themselves.”
SW: For those that aren’t that familiar with your squad, forward Suleyman Zuhdu netted ten league goals last term, and has already surpassed that total this term. Who are the players that really make the team drive on?
MW: “I always believe the spine of a side makes the real difference when it comes to the makings of a good side . For example, My goalkeeper Dan Blockley, I always admired in youth football but despite me driving his Dad mad to join me at Buckhurst Hill for over 10 years I had to wait till four years ago when I took over the First team for him to sign for me. He’s a top top keeper and were lucky to have him. When it looked like I’d lost 90% of our team to Newbury Forest at the beginning of last season he was only 1 of 5 players to commit to stay .
Loyalty means a lot to me and even though I’d never stop a player going higher to better himself he was prepared to stand by me as he believed we would rebuild and the club could deliver on the promises made of developing the ground and moving into senior football. Henry Day, Alfie Harris, Max Nicholson and Liam Foster are all very versatile and can play anywhere across the back line. Jonah Gregory has played up in League 2 for Hereford but he’s been blighted by injuries but is a born leader and when he plays at centre-back we are a different side. He’s out again now injured and I’m hoping the extended break will give him time to come back to full fitness.
Josh Banfield and Louis Wynter are our “midfield engine room” backed up by the very experienced Ben Cooper who is also my assistant [manager]. Even though I’ve lost the very skilful Sonny Shilling to Bowers and Pitsea we have some really exciting youngsters coming through.
Zach Davidson [ex-Springfield and Sungate] is only 18, Jack Griggs has also come in from Writtle and with Brandon Hubbard who has stepped up from the reserves, they are ones to look out for the future . Tyler Dolan who was an ex-Southend Utd Academy player who also player for Buckhurst Hill at youth level has really come on this season. He was always a very skilful player but has added strength and goals to his repertoire.
Nathan and Sam Sollosi are the two attacking midfielders that no one wants to play against. Both travel so well with the ball and both footed defenders often can’t work out which side the will attack on . Sam ruptured his hamstring badly in a preseason game so has been out so far but is ahead of schedule on his rehab and hopefully back in January where it had looked like he would be out for the season . Reece Tranter is a proven goal scorer at any level and has played many games at Step Four.
And lastly, Suley Zuhdu is an enigma – he can win a game on his own and is the team Captain. A very loyal player who was one of the five that stood by myself and the club and believed the dream our Chairman Simon Cornwell put across to him about the future development of the club.”
SW: Away from Football, what are your sporting interests?
MW: “Away from football is a tough one Scott as it’s 24/7 for me. I also referee mostly on Sunday’s for the Eastern Junior Alliance. The standard is very high and it’s a pleasure to officiate in it. I’m a keen golfer when I get the time, well more of a hacker! I also like Horse Racing and go to the big meetings when they don’t coincide with football.”
SW: And finally, you are a big supporter of Intermediate or Grassroots Football. How do you think the quality of the Essex Olympian League has progressed in the last two to three years? And do you think it is under-rated by some observers?
MW: “Yes I am a big supporter of grassroots football and as much as it’s a competition I believe in helping out other clubs when needed. We are all this together and sometimes need to work together to make the league stronger.
The EOFL I feel was at its strongest about five or six years ago with the likes of Frenford, Harold Wood, Kelvedon Hatch, White Ensign and Hannakins Farm (now defunct) all being top-class teams who were more than capable at the time of playing in the Essex Senior or the like (Frenford & White Ensign are now in Eastern Senior League South at Step 6 – Ed).
I think it was diluted somewhat when they left but they all had older squads so if they had stayed they faced big competition from the likes of Catholic United and ourselves.
The year we won it (EOFL Premier) for the first time in Season 2018/19, we had a very strong squad who only lost two matches the whole league campaign . and one of those was when we had already secured the title . I’m not saying the competition wasn’t as good but we were very good on our day and our young naïve squad the season before had learnt how to handle anything thrown at them .
The following season (Season 2019/20), I felt the competition got much stronger. Sungate emerged as a top team and also the emergence of Leigh Ramblers and of course Catholic united were still in the mix. This season again I think its got stronger again with Basildon Town setting the early pace and what I like about this season is the number of clubs that have taken on young managers and given them a chance. Matt Singh at Hutton, Alex Goldstone at Harold Wood , Connor Lane at Old Southendian have all come in and done well. And other clubs who have gone for experience also.
Marcus Bowers at Basildon, Billy Cove at Bishop’s Stortford Swifts. Both were top players in their day and Marcus still plays. Stuart Marshall has come in at Catholic and tried to blend Catholic’s vastly experienced older players in with some talented youngsters. The EOFL Committee work tirelessly to improve the league and make it in my opinion the best NLS Feeder league in Essex and arguably the surrounding counties.
The EOFL have won the Essex Premier Cup in the last few years and also through Catholic United’s success the ART Trophy that pits the best of Essex , Middlesex and Hertfordshire together in Intermediate Football.
Kevin Lorkins (League Secretary) is always in contact asking how as a member club, how we can take the league forward . If we manage to go up this season I will have to say a massive thanks you to him and the EOFL Committee for all their help and advice.”
All that is left to say is a big thank you from me to Mark for his thoughts here and also for being one of many people at this level who consistency support likes of myself and many other colleagues in Non-League as we try to ‘do our bit’ in telling the story, it is always appreciated. It may be a different scope from the National League (Step 1) but the stories are no less enthralling at times.
If your club (at Essex Senior or Essex Olympian level) would be interested in contributing to this blog series then please DM me on Twitter. Thank you. Hope you enjoyed the article.