Ben Strevens: The plan for next season is already underway

Eastleigh FC

This is the second part of a two part blog, my latest sit down interview with Eastleigh boss Ben Strevens:

TK: Are you still surprised to see the likes of Fylde, Chesterfield and Wrexham still deep in trouble?

BS: I am yeah just because of the players they have in their groups, if you had told me at the start of the season three of the teams that would be in the play-off come the end most managers and not just me would have said those teams. Fylde in my opinion have been the best footballing team over the last two seasons, it was always really tough going to their place so I thought they would be there or thereabouts. We played against Wrexham in the eliminator last season and we knew a lot about the boys in their group, lots of ex Forest Green and Grimsby so that was surprising to see them struggle at the start of the season.

And Chesterfield of course. When John Sheridan came in after Martin (Allen) their form at the back end of last season gave everyone the intention that they were going to kick on this year. It’s the league this season though, not being disrespectful to teams like Woking but you wouldn’t have expected to see the likes of them up the top end of the table or even Halifax so I think it just goes to show there are fine lines within this league, there are some good squads that people probably don’t give enough credit to, Maidenhead were often talked about being in a relegation battle, but every time you go there you know you’re gonna get a game, Dev (Alan Devonshire) knows the level as well as anyone, its just hard whoever you play.

I still think Chesterfield will put a run together and Fylde have enough good attacking players to get themselves out of it, it’ll be interesting to see their results over the next few weeks but yeh definitely a surprise to see those three down there.

 

TK: Have there been any players or clubs who have impressed you this season?

BS: Yeah there are, I’ve got to be honest Boreham Wood are a good side, they struggled massively last year in a relegation battle and eventually finished one place outside of it, they’ve added a bit of pace, the boy Tshimanga up front who a few sides looked at including us, maybe should have taken a punt on him but Boreham Wood did so credit to them. They also got in Tyrone Marsh who won the league with Macclesfield, the two games against them and I’m saying this after picking up four points from those games we beat them 2-0 here and then we went there not so long ago and drew 2-2 with the last kick of the game from Tyrone Barnett they were very good that day. Their right back, Kane Smith, missed all of or most of the season last time out with injury is I think the best right back in the league.

Barrow, I think you can’t look past them and admire what they’re doing there. We played them very early in the season and then you wouldn’t have said they were going to be where they are now. Their form and some of the wins they’ve put together, winning 7-0 twice that’s the sign of a team that goes on and wins the league.

I think Notts County will make the play-off picture, as we were talking earlier I expect Barnet to be in there, the squad Darren (Currie) has and now signing Paul McCallum they’ve got a very good chance, you’ve got Halifax who’ve been doing it all season so credit to them. There’s always going to be one who comes out of the pack, like a Dover or a Barnet, bit like we did last year.

It’s a bit hard to pick out a player, but someone like (Scott) Quigley for the goals he’s scored, I liked him at Wrexham last year when he played against us.

 

TK: Would you say its Barrow’s title to lose or is there a surprise to come in the next 10 weeks?

BS: I think if we had had this conversation six weeks ago, I would have said someone else might do it but with their form and results no. I thought Yeovil had gotten themselves into a position to challenge and I still expected Solihull to come strong, Harrogate though have been on a very good run and got themselves close but I wouldn’t look at anyone else other than Barrow. The difference between the crowd levels from when we played them second or third game to watching the highlights now there’s a bounce there within the club, so I can’t look beyond them to win it.

 

TK: What will Paul McCallum bring to Barnet other than goals?

BS: Nothing haha! No, I’m only joking! He’s a great lad Macca, he’ll visit the treatment room, he needs a bit of tender loving, he’ll bring a confidence around the place, got on well with the boys here. His hold up and link play will bring in the likes of (Simeon) Akinola and (Josh) Walker but his aerial ability is the best in the league, if the crosses come in with quality on them there’s not anyone else I’d have to get on the end of them. We ourselves have got Tyrone Barnett who can do exactly the same.

Last year Macca got almost twenty of those goals with his head, I know the Barnet fans are going to like him, I’m surprised it didn’t work out at Solihull, he phoned me for a bit of advice at the time. I was expecting him to go into the league, but the deal to take him north was very, very good. So I was surprised when he phoned to say he’d been told it was best for him to move on, I think he’d still scored 11 goals in 23 games, were they expecting more, for him to take them to the next level, I don’t know. He missed a few games when maybe they thought he might have been ok to play, I’m not sure, just really surprised it didn’t work out for him, but I’m sure Darren will get the best out of him.

 

TK: How soon do you start to plan for next season?

BS: It’s already underway yeah, you have to be. The change in squads and players from one year to next can be huge, as I mentioned to you earlier, we’ve got only 2 players currently playing from the side that featured in the play-offs. Jason and I are already out watching games, making lists of who we play against, players we like the look of, and I know we won’t be any different from other managers in this list or League Two. We’re scouring the lower leagues to see if there are any hidden gems we can unearth.

This season we took Sam Smart from Basingstoke Town and he’s done brilliant for us, we got Rob Atkinson from Fulham U21’s and obviously ended up selling him six months later to Oxford Utd. It doesn’t matter who you are in this league, you’ve got to be looking for them. Peterborough are a great example for doing that kind of thing, they almost agreed a deal for Rob whilst they were completing for Jack Taylor, who I thought was the best young midfielder in the league at the time, but it couldn’t be agreed and off he went to Oxford.

We have him back on loan until the end of the season so he can continue his development, but they can call him back at any point. I firmly believe Oxford will end up selling him on higher in a couple of years, I think he is the best young defender in this league, same goes for Taylor, I liked him at Barnet and when he played against us he scored a heck of a goal.

I expect Smith and Tshimanga at Boreham Wood to be looked at by league clubs come the end of the season too, so there are plenty to be found out there, you just have to keep looking. Sometimes you have to take a chance, you watch a player but he might not look able to step up, John Still was and is great for that with young players, he gave me my chance at Wingate & Finchley so occasionally you have to take that punt and work with it.

My thanks to Ben for being as accessible as earlier in the season, there will be a final interview once the season ends in April.

Ben Strevens: 50 pts is the target as quickly as possible

Strevs

Three months on and it was time to sit down with Eastleigh boss and former Barnet, Gillingham and Dagenham striker Ben Strevens and find out how the Spitfires season was panning out. As per usual this will go across two blogs, so grab a cuppa, sit down and have a read the thoughts and views of a National League manager:

TK: Since we last sat down in October/November, form was good until the end of last year, 4 pts off the play-offs but now transformed to 5 pts off the relegation zone, can you put your finger on why?

BS: Yeh, it’s the nature of the league being so close, its very results based, win two and you head up towards the play-offs, lose two and you drift back down again. We had four away games and for two of them especially at Hartlepool we literally went with just 11 fit players, such a bad time with injuries, especially to our defenders over the course of the season, Reda Johnson played over 30 games for me last season, has only completed 6 or 7 games this season culminating in him leaving the football club this weekend, Alex Wynter who missed only one or two games last year has been absent pretty much all season, he’s had such a bad run of injuries and then Michael Green whose been our starting left back has missed the last three months, so from the group of players I had last season three out of the back five have been missing more often than not. You can’t carry too many players in those positions, at left back we were lucky that one or two can cover that position, Cav Miley and Joe Partington, but that turned into three months and in hindsight we probably should have got someone in on loan, the defensive area has just been a nightmare.

It’s been tough, it’s been hard to keep the boys positive with some of the line-up’s we’ve had to put out and players playing out of position often but hopefully we’re through the worst of it now, well we’re hoping anyway! We just need to pick up a few results now and head back in the right direction, I look at Dover who have just picked up a couple of results and now are just outside the play-offs, that’s what we’re looking to do and then the picture changes again.

 

TK: I think I put the goal scoring kiss of death on Danny Hollands as he’s only scored twice since I mentioned his form! Do you think other teams have paid him more attention than before?

BS: I don’t know, I just think you go through spells especially as midfielders, I mean he’s on ten goals now.

TK: That’s a great return for a midfielder so far.

BS: I know, I mean I haven’t looked at the stats for the league but I bet there aren’t many if any central midfielders that have scored more than ten goals this season, Rooney plays a little bit deeper for Barrow and takes their free kicks and penalties too, without being bad to Dutchy taking his play off goal out of the equation he managed one goal last year! We were looking to add goals from our midfield this year and when I was looking, I didn’t particularly think it would be Danny Hollands because he did a lot of the defensive side of things this year but signing Jack Payne has allowed him to get further forward and I’m pretty sure he’s going to get a couple more before the season ends.

 

TK: Having struggled to score a bit during January, do you think that increased the pressure on the defence to keep clean sheets?

BS: Maybe yeah, but with that period we should have done better in the attacking third of the pitch, I think the Chesterfield game we put 49 crosses into the box with 27 efforts at goal. That day we didn’t score, switched off and conceded then we’re chasing the game which puts more pressure on the defence. But in fairness to the boys we had two or three playing out of position once again so if I’m being honest during the period we would have to have scored two or three goals a game to give the back line a chance and that’s nothing against any of the lads I had playing in those games, just the nature of what we had and could use. It was a tough run of game too, four out of five away including Hartlepool on a Tuesday night but overall we’ve created enough chances to score goals this season, Tyrone Barnett has ten goals, Scott Rendell is close to double figures and Danny’s contribution too, but you know last year we had someone who scored 27 goals and the teams that do well in this league have one of those guys.

 

TK: How difficult is it to keep your beliefs when things aren’t quite going the way you plan?

BS: It is tough, after the Chesterfield game we played so well exactly how I wanted us to play and we didn’t get the result I wanted but I still felt quite positive and believed after the game if we played like that then we would win games of football. We played the same way a week later at Maidenhead, but we were nowhere near good enough and lost 2-0. We didn’t create anywhere near as many chances but missed three good one-on-one efforts. So, against Aldershot the following Tuesday night I did go against my beliefs and set us up with four at the back, very defensive minded, solid base, we ended up drawing 0-0 and I’ve gotta be honest I hated every minute of the game! I said to Jason afterwards I’d rather do everything my way on how I want to play football and if results don’t come then I’ll take it on the chin. I felt a lot worse drawing 0-0 than I did losing at home to Chesterfield even though we got one more point out of the game.

The next game was Woking away and I said we’re going back to exactly that, we played really well and were 2-0 up at half time and no disrespect to Woking if we had been on a run of winning games we would have scored three or four, but credit to the boys they maintained themselves second half to win the game. Hard when you’re losing games to keep doing what you want to do but if you’re strong in your beliefs and the players believe in you then it will come good, if they question you and the way it’s going then it’s a different story. They know how I want to play and what is our strongest formation and we’ve looked more like that the last couple of games.

 

TK: Looking ahead to March, a lot of games away from home during the month, is the aim now to get to 50 pts as quickly as possible?

BS: Yeh I think anyone who is around those places will be thinking that, I speak to people all the time, Hessy (Andy Hessenthaler) last week and he was like we want to get to that mark. I think given the nature of the league this year to get to that first target and then evaluate after that, I hope we do that in three games time. There are some good teams down in that area that can go on runs, I think anyone from us upwards to the middle table area are thinking the same thing, there are a couple who will be thinking we don’t want to be slipping down the wrong way and there are a few teams I expect to climb, I didn’t expect Wrexham to be down there, it’s tough to get a run of wins together this year so credit to anyone who manages it. It’s no different this year to last year either, our aim was to get to the 50 point marker and then see what we needed to get in and around the play-offs, so yeah we want to get there as quick as possible now.

Bees on course for bright end to the season

The Hive 1

After taking in a tour of the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium on Saturday it fitted perfectly with a trip to The Hive to find out if Barnet could make further progress in this season’s FA Trophy, standing in their way were National League leaders Barrow, themselves in the middle of a quite outstanding campaign.

The Bees are on a run of eleven matches unbeaten in all competitions since defeat to the same opponents back in November and finally it appears the players are responding  to the way and system Darren Currie wants to play.

The game also saw the debut of Xander McBurnie, high hopes from the coaching team that he could well turn out to be next star in the making. The return of Ricardo Santos to the bench also provided an extra lift to the proceedings.

The first half itself was a drab affair, neither side able to string much together in terms of possession nor chances, Barrow despite making several changes to their line up proving just as tough a nut to crack. It’s fair to say that Scott Loach either side of half time was the reason for the score-line staying blank with two fine saves to keep out the visitors.

The second half just exploded into life on the hour mark and within ten minutes Barnet were in control and Barrow were brushed aside. The first goal arrived from an unlikely source in Cheye Alexander slotting home calmly after having dummied a defender. There wasn’t long to wait for a second either when the once again impressive Simeon Akinola scored his 16th goal of the season. Before the 70th minute ticked onto the clock Akinola’s strike partner Josh Walker got in on the act calmly beating his man and slotting past the keeper for 3-0 and game over for the visitors.

Santos was given the last fifteen minutes for a belated return to action in the black and amber whilst young Ronnie Edwards also saw a few minutes on the field as the Bees secured a place in the quarter finals for the second year running.

As every game passes there is a growing belief that this season is not done by means, nicely placed just outside the play-offs and within sight of Wembley in the Trophy. It might have taken time for some people to get on board with Currie and the way to play for this team, he has believed in the group from day one and now the just rewards are coming together at the right time of the season.

Writing this after the Trophy draw on Monday, another home tie this time against Halesowen is a decent draw and gives a good chance to make the semi-finals whilst if the Bees can maintain the league run then the play-offs are very much in the thinking as well, whilst much can be made of another sub 1000 attendance crowds on Trophy weekend didn’t register well for most clubs.

I think the one interesting question I’d like to put to DC would be ‘do the performances matter as much as the result to get us where we want to be’? I know what my answer would be, does it match the boss?…………………….

Lions beginning to roar

Pagham vs Steyning

(Photo courtesy of Roger Smith) follow Roger on Twitter @PostieRoger

Last Saturday afternoon my destination was to be Chichester City for what would have been a first trip to Oaklands Park, but with the match referee deciding one or two parts of the pitch were unplayable and lack of options available close by, Pagham’s Nyetimber Lane was the venue and back watching County League football.

It’s fair to say I think that the Lions haven’t got up and running into a full head of steam yet this season. Normally safely ensconced at the top end of the table, Pagham have found life much harder this season and despite only one team expected to be relegated from the Southern Combination Premier Division due to expansion above Step 5 they are a little closer to that spot than they would like to be.

In charge of Pagham these days is ex Wick striker Kerry Hardwell, having enjoyed success at Rustington and a brief spell at East Preston earlier this season, joined by another couple of ex Wickers in Ryan Pharo and Aaron Millar. Their visitors Steyning Town arrived in ninth place in the table and look to have settled nicely into Step 5 football, the hosts however certainly in need of the points.

On a cold and blustery afternoon, the visitors began the brighter with the wind in their favour, but apart from hitting the bar early in the game they didn’t really trouble ‘keeper Jordan Matthews, another ex Wicker. As it was Pagham then began to get a grip on the game, the tireless work and energy from Callum Chambers up front pulled the Steyning defence all over the pitch and it was no surprise to see him open the scoring with a neat finish after just ten minutes.

Once behind Town struggled to get a foothold back into the game and Pagham duly doubled their lead through (ex-Wicker – see a theme here) Kieron Howard’s sweetly struck half volley into the net gave the Lions a 2-0 lead which was how it stood at half time.

The second half saw Pagham play very much on the counter for the majority of the half and for all the possession Steyning had, they struggled to create many clear cut chances despite the Lions having to defend resolutely for the final ten minutes as Town fought for a way back into the game.

Overall I was pretty impressed with Pagham’s performance, I had expected a little more from Steyning given their comfortable league position but it just didn’t come off for them on the day, if the Lions can keep up these kind of performances then Hardwell and his staff will ensure the club aren’t anywhere close to that one or more relegation places.

*Pagham picked up three more valuable points on Tuesday evening with a 2-1 win at East Preston which lifts them to within two points of the Lashmar Road outfit and eleven points clear of bottom placed Loxwood.

The danger of too much money

fa-cup

Much of the debate this week has been the fallout from Liverpool’s draw at Shrewsbury in last weekend FA Cup tie and the decision by Reds boss Jurgen Klopp deciding to forgo the replay himself and his first team due to the game falling during the pre-arranged Premier League midweek break.

But, its not the cup itself that is causing the problem and it’s a little more complicated further down the pyramid. It’s almost a case of where do you start with it all? It’s clearly not the fault of the players nor the managers, but the owners who want more and more whilst flogging the product and it’s assets to the extreme maximum for financial gain.

As we all know the FA Cup has a long tradition not only here but across the world and while you and I both know things change and evolve you can’t help but feel that there is only a percentage that benefit from this change. As per it has been pretty much since the inception of the Premier League money has flowed into the top end of the game from all angles and a very small amount of that filters right the way down to the bottom tiers of the game.

We all know how different our structure is to the rest of Europe and in the face of change it still maintains its part in the game especially in the FA Cup where over 700 odd teams start off in August dreaming of winning  a couple of rounds and the prize money it brings. That money is pocket change for the big boys but so vital for Step 4, 5 and 6 clubs to improve facilities, market their club better, working in the community or clearing some debts that naturally occur over time at those levels.

And as mentioned the issue is not the cup itself, its the lack of space in an already crowded football calendar brought on by increased Champions League matches and energy sapping pre-season tours to far flung corners of the world all in the name of money, money and yet more money.

There are many fans out there who have never experienced relegation or worse, dropping out of the entire Football League. Going one step more than that, clubs going out of business over a few thousand pounds, debts occurred when gates were low or games were postponed and no income was forthcoming, thats a million miles away from the Premier League and European competition, so why should the FA Cup and smaller clubs suffer?

In all honesty there is very little reason why either the Carabao Cup or Checkatrade Trophy should continue in their current format, after all the former only provides a route to Europe if you’re a Premier League club and the EFL is now 72 clubs not 92, why are the Premier League still involved? The latter now has invitations extended to the elite clubs for their Under 21’s to participate, has it raised the profile or those attending the games? Absolutely not and nor will it, this one has run its course. If anything lose the trophy and make the League cup the only competition, either lose the Premier League clubs or invite those who don’t make Europe.

Back to the FA Cup though because thats the competition non-league players get a chance to play in year in year out, locally you only have to looks at the likes of Arundel and Chichester City, the former winning their way through a few qualifying rounds and banking some precious cash, the latter starting in August and reaching the Second Round Proper and setting themselves up for at least two years budget-wise with the money they’ve banked, thats how much difference it can make to the clubs we follow, something fans or indeed boards of bigger clubs just can’t comprehend and never will, it’s almost like two games in one these days.

You can see replays disappearing from the 4th and 3rd rounds in the next couple of years as the bigger boys tighten their grip, it has been mentioned that the smaller clubs could not lose out by choosing if they want a home tie or to travel to the bigger club to earn a bigger gate receipt, but does that not take away the fun of a live draw too? Barnet come out at home to Arsenal, no wait we’ll switch to The Emirates for a bigger pay cheque instead of trying our luck at The Hive in a smaller more compact arena, that to me wouldn’t feel right, thats the job of a replay, but the football calendar dictated by 20 clubs and those desperate for more money across Europe says there’s no room for that, either way it’s a big worry for the smaller clubs whose very existence across all levels is being dictated to by so few.

 

 

Progress or stagnation

The Hive 3

This season certainly feels like the crossroads of Barnet FC in more ways than one. Only last week in a different article I wrote about Bees manager Darren Currie finding himself at those crossroads regarding the investment in his squad for the remainder of the campaign. And going on recent developments over the past ten days or so Currie should have the re-inforcements he needs on the pitch to push on for the play-offs.

Off the pitch however, it’s hard to deny there is a definite rift opening up between the club and it’s supporters. The Hive itself was built and designed to bridge the ever widening gap of money in the game to allow the Bees to compete on an even or better keel than it’s rivals and while it’s been bringing in much needed income for the club it doesn’t appear the football side of things is the number one priority.

The pitch is suffering from having three teams playing on it over the course of this season and often with two games a weekend, coupled with the wettest winter the country has seen for years gives you a pitch that is not conclusive for playing Currieball. The amount of postponements so far is well in front of others at this level and while cup runs created a fixture pile up last season, the state of the pitch is doing its best to match that this season.

Off the pitch there is a prickly indifference between the club and those in the stands. This season has seen an alarming decline in people coming through the gates to support the team. There has been a gradual decline since the move from Underhill nearly seven years ago, many feeling the club will never return to the borough of Barnet despite the move to play at The Hive a temporary one until a new ground is sought, this is after all the training complex but that return seems a long long way in the distance.

Ticket prices are amongst the highest in the National League for both home and away supporters which is not encouraging the maybes or maybe-nots to come to a game, and unhappiness over the lack of quality within the squad. Those prices would suggest the budget would be producing a decent performance on the pitch and as such was promised two years ago only for the club to end up being relegated back into non-league football. The club will point to various marketing ideas they’ve implemented but there is no visual rise in attendances, a winning team I know does swell the stands and there has been little of that since promotion five years ago.

When you bear in mind what has happened to Bury and knowing there are other clubs in danger of going the same way, there is where the crossroads come in again. Whilst you can applaud the chairman for running a tight ship and there is little evidence of the club holding any debt or very little, it’s not likely to go the same way as others due to that very fact. Money has been invested back into the team from cup runs and player sales, albeit just not very wisely.

I don’t disagree that over the past few years money has been squandered instead of invested correctly in the team, Kleanthous has to shoulder that one as the buck stops with him appointing a head coach or manager but that can’t be to the detriment of the club moving forward. His legacy will be the complex he has built for the club to last well into this century and probably beyond, but a club at this level is nothing without it’s paying public.

But whilst that part is the plus point there are many negatives that go against that one point. A lack of understanding and at times communication has led to a breakdown between the two sides, in an age where social media can report things within minutes and club communication can also be released as quickly sometimes its silence can be deafening.

I’m not suggesting for one minute that Tony Kleanthous should be Andy Holt nor Darren Currie on Twitter, it doesn’t have to be that open but it does need to be more forthcoming. I am well aware there are some things that can’t be disclosed or not until the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted and it might only be a small thing but it matters to a lot. There has to be a way to better engage with its supporters, its either that or the club will start setting records weekly for the lowest attendance watching National League games.

Another falls by the wayside

Greenwich

Sometimes an article just drops itself into your lap to write, sometimes more than one in a day. Upon checking through Facebook this afternoon, I came across the one thing a football fan never wants to see, but something that may become ever more common  over the next few years, maybe even months.

Greenwich Borough of the Southern Counties East Division tendered their resignation this afternoon as the club became the latest to disappear from the footballing landscape. Despite being as close to London as they are to Kent, Boro’ have been encased in Kentish football since the mid-80’s.

They were the team that launched the career of star striker Ian Wright on his way to Crystal Palace, Arsenal and England stardom and also for those more local to Kent and Sussex, Mark ‘Smokey’ Gall who starred for Maidstone Utd and finishing at Brighton before injury curtailed what should have been a long Football League stint.

However for the past eleven years Greenwich  have been non-league nomads, no permanent home to call upon which in general for a non-league club means the death knell is coming. Whilst ground-sharing for a year or two can provide respite to get a ground up to standard it has a huge financial strain with no income or very little coming their way and going beyond those years can consequently send a club to the wall.

Interestingly Borough stated their resignation isn’t down to financial issues which has led some to believe there is an issue with their ground share with Phoenix Sports, their final destination of a tour around Kent. It’s been documented that Borough were well financed which enabled them to rise up to the then Bostik League South Division for a three year stay at that level before relegation last season returned them back to the Southern Counties East Division.

As though has been seen in the past, without a good budget when you jump up one division chances are you’re coming back down again, although Borough’s troubles didn’t surface until last season which would suggest the financial backing was withdrawn and their resignation comes as the club were staring down the barrel of a second successive relegation. Who knows if the club would have even survived dropping down one further division had they completed this season and whilst most clubs disappear through financial issues, this one does show that while the budget might be manageable for their standard, without that significant investment or a bigger budget through whatever means the game becomes a struggle at any level even in non-league.

There is a danger that as the pyramid takes full effect in the next couple of years some clubs will find they can’t afford to compete with those around them nor compete at levels higher and will fall by the wayside, I’m not sure exactly how you police this down to County League levels but to lose so much history is criminal despite some seeing it as ‘natural selection’ as time goes by.