It’s our first pre-season game of the summer on Saturday, and I’m starting a regular feature where I interview a supporter of our next opponents. This week, is Ashley Wilkinson, who is an Alfreton Town reporter for BBC Derby Sport. You can follow Ashley on Twitter: @WilkinsonAshley Here, he talks about Alfreton’s transfer activity so far, the excitement of non-league football, and gives us tips on where to go for a pre-match drink.
You were promoted to the Conference National in 2011, and got your highest ever position last season, finishing 13. It’s been a good couple of years for you, hasn’t it?
It certainly has. I’ve only covered Alfreton Town for the last six months or so but as a local lad, I’ve followed the side’s progress throughout and I’d be inclined to agree with you. On a shoestring budget, even for Conference sides, Nicky Law has assembled a squad that, last season, was just two points away from finishing in the top half of the Conference.
That was only the Reds’ second ever season as a full-time club and now, with the Chairman announcing that the club are going to be reverting to part-time status once more to save money, Law will have his budget cut and is going to face a battle to keep the club moving forward. In the last game of the season, Law told me staying in the division would be difficult but, as we’ve seen over the last two years, Alfreton have a very hungry young squad capable of playing good football at this level.
There hasn’t just been league success, either. The Reds reached the second round of the FA Cup last year and hosted Leyton Orient at the Impact Arena in front of the ESPN cameras. The Reds lost 4-2 but actually led through top scorer Paul Clayton at one stage and were ultimately unlucky to lose.
|Knows what it takes - Law|
Nicky is vastly experienced and knows exactly what you need at this level to succeed; he is hampered only by his lack of budget. When Nicky came in six years ago the club was middling in the Conference North and, after a 16-placed finish and two play-off campaigns, he took the Reds to stage 1 as champions.
Any manager, chairman or director will tell you that what a club ideally needs is stability (unless that director is Shebby Singh). Law (and his assistant, Russ O’Neill) have worked wonders in getting the club to stage 1 of non-league football and then to keep them there on, again, a shoestring budget, and hopefully he will remain at the club for a while yet.
Last season, your defensive record wasn’t great. What impact do you hope the signing of centre-back Michael Wylde will have?
Wylde has a vast amount of experience at this level with Tamworth and Cambridge United, and is a solid signing for Alfreton following the losses of Theo Streete and Leigh Franks.
A lot was made of Alfreton’s defensive record last season but a lot of that, for me, was due to not having a settled, consistent backline. Injuries at key times to key players often meant emergency loan signings coming in, and when you sign a player on an emergency loan it tends to be one out of match practice. So it takes a while for them, and the backline, to settle.
I certainly think Alfreton’s new-look defence, with one or two more potential signings, is looking solid. Bradley Wood, a right-back, has just signed on a free from Grimsby Town and Wylde looks like a good strong partner for captain Darran Kempson. The Reds’ highly-rated left-back Conor Franklin has also signed a new deal which is good news.
If Wylde and Kempson can get a run of 10, 20 games at centre-half together, I think Alfreton will reap the rewards.
|A grafter - Clayton|
How pleased are you that 17-goal top scorer, Paul Clayton, has signed a new contract?
Delighted, as are several fans, understandably. Clayton is a real fan favourite and you can never accuse him of a lack of effort. He’s honest, wears his heart on his sleeve and goes in for every header (winning a good number, too). His positioning sometimes leaves something to be desired, and it’s not unusual to see Nicky Law screaming at him to get back into position, but at the end of the day 17 goals at a mid-table side isn’t to be sniffed at.
On the flip side, 5 players have been released to cut costs. Any of them you’re sad to see leave?
Not necessarily released. As far as I’ve been told each of the players who have left Alfreton so far were offered new deals, but due to the budget cuts they chose to ply their trade elsewhere.
Leigh Franks, Anton Brown and Ashley Worsfold have all left for Conference North side Harrogate Town (who are building quite the squad as they aim to push into the playoffs next year). Brown is a physical midfield battler who was a key part of the first XI, so I’d say I was most disappointed to see him leave (though there are rumours that by the weekend Law will have announced the signing of a new midfielder).
Worsfold and Franks were two promising talents but evidently, each have decided to play elsewhere. Both signings have been replaced, with Kristian Ramsey-Dickson signed in place of Worsfold up front and Wylde covering the loss of Franks.
Theo Streete will be missed, not the most technically gifted of players but still a competent defender at this level (evidenced by his move to recently-promoted Nuneaton Town). The departure of goalkeeper Phil Barnes represents a problem, as he was Alfreton’s de facto number 1 until Sunderland youngster Jordan Pickford came in on loan toward the end of last season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Law go for a young goalkeeper on a season-long loan as a replacement.
What would you say to those who argue non-league football doesn’t have the same atmosphere and excitement as elite football?
The football may not be as technically astute nor as ego-driven, but there is plenty (and I do mean plenty) to enjoy about non-league football. Let me give you an example, my second game covering Alfreton Town was a home game against Gateshead. The Reds were 2-0 down for 77 minutes, had hit the woodwork various times and looked like losing a game they should have been winning.
On 78 minutes, Ben Tomlinson headed one in at the back post to make it 2-1. On 80 minutes, Steven Hewitt smashed one home and it was 2-2. The Reds kept pushing and smashed a few more shots against the woodwork, before Gateshead’s Liam Hatch got sent off for an elbow in injury time. From there, the Reds kept endeavouring until the finally bundled one home in the 95 minute through Scott Boden, snatching three points in just 15 minutes.
If that game had been in the Premier League, Sky Sports News would have been showing highlights through the week. Games like that happen most weeks at non-league. Excitement and unpredictability are certainly more commonplace than they are in the more elite leagues.
You came very close to reaching the third round of the FA Cup last season, losing to Leyton Orient on TV. As a lower league follower, do you feel the FA Cup holds the same prestige as it did years ago?
Personally, yes. The FA Cup is still one of the best events on the calendar each year, diminished somewhat by the ridiculous (thankfully now reversed) decision to stage it BEFORE the end of the Premier League season. Alfreton’s cup run, beating promotion hopefuls Wrexham before playing so well against Leyton Orient, was proof of that.
There’s no better feeling than timing your lunch break accordingly to get a stream of the third round draw on a cold afternoon in January running, is there? Every fan of every club is excited for that third round draw, I only wish Alfreton could have scored a few more of those chances against Orient…an away trip to Championship (and now of course, Premiership) Hull City.
What would make a good season for you 13/14?
Nicky Law said to me after the final game, having told me about the budgets for next season, that the aim was to stay in this division and keep hold of the squad he has as best he can. By and large, Law has done that, keeping hold of some of the club’s most valuable assets (Franklin, Josh Law and England C international Dan Bradley have all signed new deals) whilst bringing in some experienced heads. For me, a good season would be another campaign of consolidation, repeating last year’s 13-placed finish in a much tougher league may just be out of reach.
For Birmingham fans making the trip up to your place, where would you recommend for a pre-match drink?
There’s a BP station right next to the ground that does Lucozade at 2 for £2! In all seriousness, for obvious reasons I’ve not been to the pub before covering a game, though from what I understand the pubs nearby are friendly to away fans as long as the away fans are friendly. The Alfreton Town Supporters’ Club, which is right outside the main stand (opposite the away end) is usually open to away fans.
I’d recommend straying slightly away from the ground and toward Nottingham Road (big main road that North Street is just off), where there is a pub serving real ale called the Victoria. Sky Sports, big screen, etc.. I hear plenty of good things about the Victoria, certainly.
And finally, your prediction for the game…
Without knowing exactly who’ll play for Alfreton (expect many trialists!) it’s difficult to say. I’d probably go for a Birmingham win, 3-2, with Paul Clayton and Josh Law scoring for the Reds. But don’t bring a weakened XI, or else you might get the Sheffield Wednesday treatment………. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/14363245
By Gabriel Sutton
My thanks to Ashley Wilkinson for his answers.