By Derren Howard
The life of a non-league manager can be a thankless task.
Eastbourne Borough are at that tricky level where, for all the talented players across Sussex, many are just not up to - or not yet ready for the National League South.
It’s the sixth highest level of football in the country and it requires a certain level of talent, a fair level of fitness but above all, commitment to compete across a full season.
Unfortunately for manager Jamie Howell, those players, within an hour or so drive from their base at Priory Lane, are proving hard to find.
Ideally Borough would be a team made up of the best players from the town, similar to what they had a decade ago under Garry Wilson and Nick Greenwood.
The familiar names of Ben Austin, Darren Baker, Matt Crabb, Matt Smart (he felt like an Eastbournian) and Andy Atkin all progressed up the ranks together. They were all committed to the club and wanted to improve but it was a gradual process.
If you had taken them straight from County League football and into the South or National, they would have struggled. The improvement came over time and those players went on to form the core of Borough’s most successful period of their history. The entire club worked together from the chairman, to the manager, to the players and to the fans. That’s not easy to achieve.
Here’s where Borough face their biggest challenge. They are in the National South already but you can’t just pluck the best players from the County League or the Ryman and hope they swim with the big spenders of the National South.
“We are closer to Luton Town than Eastbourne Town,” the previous manager Tommy Widdrington once said. So what do the club do. What is their identity? Do they become a club that pay players a grand a week to travel down the M23 and across A27 in the hope they get lucky and sneak a play-off spot?
Perhaps they could try it for a season or two but the trouble is, many other clubs are already doing that in this division - clubs that are much closer and easier for players to access than Priory Lane.
If two clubs are offering similar money, say, for arguments sake, roughly a £1,000 per week for a forward like Danny Mills. The elusive 20-goal a season striker will opt for the closer one everytime.
And not just the striker. The problem also exists for that much sought after defender, or that special midfielder. Borough, due to their location, are always going to be playing catch up in this scenario, unless they of course they receive a serious amount investment.
A different strategy is required and Borough appear to be doing all they can in the situation they find themselves in order to be sustainable. The 3G pitch is an investment that will continue to bear fruit and will eventually top up the first team budget.
The academy is seen as essential if the club are to develop local talent capable of playing in the National League and possibly higher in future. The club have to find the best local available talent and improve them with good coaching and ultimately game time. The reason Howell was installed as manager is because he wants the club to be successful and sustainable on a long term basis.
The problem he faces, and one he is all too aware of, is that football, in terms of results and a happy fan base, is very much the here and now. Words like sustainable and long term are pretty boring for football fans who want something to get excited about on the pitch each Saturday.
“People will get fed up of me saying how much we are getting right as a club if results are poor,” Howell said on Thursday, a few days after a pre-season defeat to Burgess Hill.
The manager described this pre-season as the most frustrating of his career. Deals have been thrashed out only to fall through at the last minute. Just when he thought he’d landed one or two players they wriggled free and signed elsewhere. The fact that a key target ended up at Steve King’s Welling made it all the painful for fans, and probably Howell, to take.
It’s a time of cat and mouse. Players are looking for the best deal and many clubs will be waiting until the last minute to finalise their squads ahead of kick-off on August 5.
Howell has and will work tirelessly to get the best possible team on the pitch for the opener at Oxford. Two of his summer signings, Dave Martin and Charlie Walker have offered reason for cautious optimism.
Together with the promising Lloyd Dawes (another Howell signing from last season) and Yemi Odubade, they are likely to cause a few problems going forward.
It’s at the other end of the pitch where Borough have big concerns and Howell, hook or by crook, needs to pick up a decent centre back from somewhere.
Academy graduate Harry Ransome has looked one of the best players in pre-season while Harry Pollard, who hails from just around the corner at Saltdean, will no doubt go on to be a fine player. But at 18-years-of-age, playing 40 or so matches in the South will be a tough ask. A centre back remains Howell’s top priority.
Borough looked under-cooked against Burgess Hill and the fans know it. Howell heard the moans and this week he asked for understanding and a realisation of where the club is at.
Howell won’t complain though and he would never criticise the supporters. He will keep working and keep taking the stick if he has to. “It’s part of the job,” he has said in the past.
But it’s also a source of frustration for the manager because he wants the best environment for his players to perform.
The players are going to be up against it in what will be a very competitive league. Borough have proved in the past, they are at their best when they stick together as a club.
Burgess Hill wasn’t the best but who cares? It’s still pre-season. The manager, and no doubt the players, will do their best to represent Borough this season in a league many other teams in Sussex would love to be in.
Borough are there, it will be tough and they may not be challenging at the top end but let’s get behind Howell and the players. It’s just too early to start moaning already...At least wait until after the Welling match.