Eastbourne Borough: Foundations for future firmly laid during Tommy's tenure
By Ken Mcewan
IF a week is a long time in politics, then a day can be pretty eventful in the local football world.
Just a week ago, Tommy Widdrington was talking enthusiastically about next season. “I think that with a little bit of strengthening this group of players can really do something special for the club,” he was quoted as saying in Herald Sport.
A day later came the bombshell news of his resignation as manager and his subsequent appointment as Head of Recruitment at Coventry City.
Widdrington succeeded Garry Wilson in the hot seat at Priory Lane in February, 2012 with an excellent pedigree both as a player and manager. As a tough, no-nonsense midfielder he completed 372 appearances in the Football League over a 15-year period before moving into non-league football.
He spent the first six years of his career at Southampton before helping Grimsby to the Football League Trophy and promotion out of the second division in 1998.
After captaining Port Vale to the Football League Trophy in 2001, he went on to help Hartlepool United to win promotion out of League Two, ending his Football League career back at Port Vale.
As a player he enjoyed promotion four times with three different clubs and lifted the Football League Trophy twice.
Prior to joining Borough he was player-manager at Salisbury City, assistant manager at Southend and manager at Hemel Hempstead Town
The only blip on a superb career as a player was a somewhat over-celebration of a goal he scored for Port Vale against Brentford in October 2000. Too many bottles of Budweiser contributed to Tommy crashing his BMW into a set of traffic lights in Hanley and ending up with a year’s driving ban and a £500 fine.
Widdrington arrived at Borough five years ago with the remit of keeping the club in Conference South. After great success under Pete Cherry and a triumphant decade under Wilson and his assistant Nick Greenwood which saw Langney Sports (later to become Eastbourne Borough) glide from County League to the highest point in non-league football, it seemed the Borough bubble had finally burst.
Relegation into the Conference’s regional section was hard enough to swallow, but the possibility of a further drop was too much to bear for the many fans brought up on a rich diet of success,
Widdrington’s initial aim was to stop the rot and he did so brilliantly. Borough ended the 2011-2012 season two places and two points above the drop zone and went on to finish a stable 12th the following season.
And things promised to get even better as Borough started the 2013-14 season in the grandest style. With four wins and two draws they stormed to the top of the table with Tommy named as Conference South manager of the month for the second successive season.
But having stabilised the club, the fans grew hungry for more success. They wanted a serious challenge to return to the big-time which simply hasn’t happened and during the last two seasons the sheer inconsistency of the team has produced strong criticism from those who had seen him as a saviour in his early years.
A brilliant result against a top team has been followed by a disappointing one against a struggler. Widdrington’s own frustrations could be seen from the dug-out and sometimes even from the stand after referees and their assistants could tolerate no more of his less than polite disputing of their decisions.
Sometimes, of course, Widdrington would be right to challenge a wrong decision which had cost the club crucial points. But on other occasions even home fans watching the game on a parallel to the half-way line would put themselves out to tell him that it was the ref who had got the offside decision right and he was wrong.
What could not be questioned, however, was Tommy’s commitment to the cause. He did not suffer fools. He simply wanted to win and he put his heart and soul into achieving that aim. His combative, no-nonsense manner inevitably saw him fall out with a few people behind the scenes and as he admitted in his farewell piece, “Like in any business some relationships have not always run smoothly.”
But whatever goes on behind the scenes, football is a results business and if the results do not come it is the manager who carries the can. Just ask Arsene Wenger!
This was the season of great expectations, particularly after the winning of the Sussex Senior Cup last summer. With an improved budget, there were confident predictions from the club and Tommy himself that a serious challenge for the play-offs would be launched.
But by mid-February, although mathematically still possible, it was obvious Borough were not going to be in the running for that top-five place. The punters were growing restless and, not for the first time, there were calls for a taxi for Tommy.
Most frustrating was the knowledge that the team had proved, on its, day, it could compete with the best and nothing was better than that magnificent FA Cup triumph at National League Aldershot.
And those five goals against Wealdstone a couple of weeks ago saw Borough at their best in a high standard league in which there are few easy games.
Today’s Borough team is probably only a couple of players short of a promotion-winning side and Widdrington will be as disappointed as any avid Eastbourne supporter at his failure to deliver a promotion challenge at the end of the season.
Now the club committee face their own challenge to find the right man who will be only the club’s fifth manager in 34 years.
It is fair to say that the foundations for future success have been firmly laid by one Tommy Widdrington.