Defending The Indefensible: Do Billericay Town Deserve to be ‘The Most Hated Team in Non-League Football’?

You wake up on a picturesque August morning, peer outside the window of your £18m rural mansion and see the sun streaming down onto your collection of classic cars. The waft of freshly brewed coffee saunters up the stairs, and you head to the kitchen to greet your beautiful wife and your picture perfect family. As you sit around the table discussing your plans for another fun-filled weekend, feeling unbridled contentment at the opportunities your hard work has afforded your children, and pride at the life you’ve been able to give those closest to you, a thought pops into your head. There is a moment of anxiety; a deep, stirring concern that nags at your brain while you cycle through all possible causes of the knot swiftly tying in the pit of your stomach. Something is wrong. There was something you meant to do. A task that, if you forget, could have untold consequences. Your daughter’s piano lesson? No, that was on Wednesday. The MOT on the Berlinetta? That’s not due til December. What could it be? Then, a moment of clarity. Of course! You take the smartphone out of your pocket, open the app for your favourite social media site, click in the top right corner and type: “BTFC will never come off top spot all season from game 1”. You are Glenn Tamplin, the owner of the most hated club in non-league football.

Let’s rewind to 136BG (that’s Before Glenn). Billericay Football Club are formed in the borough of Basildon in Essex, competing in the Romford & District and Mid-Essex Leagues, and lifting their first piece of silverware, the Division Two title, in 1913. After the end of the Second World War, the club added the ‘Town’ suffix to its name to distinguish itself from local sides Billericay Albion and Billericay Thursdays, and became founder members of the Essex Olympian League, the eleventh tier of English football, in 1966. Their short stay in this division comprised back-to-back league titles in ’69 and ’70, before becoming founding members of the Essex Senior League, two levels up the pyramid. The 1970s proved to be a golden era for Town, as five league titles, five J. T. Clark Memorial Trophies, and three FA Vases were added to the club’s trophy cabinet across the decade. By the mid ’80s, Billericay Town had worked their way up to the Isthmian League Premier Division, though two quick relegations would begin an absence of twelve years.

Under the guidance of local businessman and owner Steve Kent, the club returned to the Premier Division in 1998, and eventually earned promotion to the Conference South in 2012, but were relegated after a season. With financial competitiveness creeping in at non-league level in English football, Kent was able to stabilise the club in the Isthmian League Premier Division, though attendances had levelled out at around 300 per game, and the club’s New Lodge ground was in desperate need of renovation.  Working with a modest (though not atypical) wage budget of £1,000 a week, manager Craig Edwards was able to keep Town plodding along in the league, though apathy slowly infiltrated the stands. Put off by the club’s mediocre form, and the owner’s perceived hostility towards the fans, Billericay’s followers voted with their feet. Enter Essex’s answer to Roman Abramovich.

Tamplin made the bulk of his £30m net worth in the steel industry, setting up his first company AGP in 2002. Though the Dagenham-born millionaire has faced his fair share of trials and tribulations on his way to untold riches – AGP was liquidated in 2017 owing £825,000, one of a string of failed businesses – he wasn’t backwards in coming forwards when deciding to takeover a football club. Initially rumoured to be leading a consortium to purchase his hometown team Dagenham and Redbridge in early 2016, Tamplin turned his attention to Billericay Town in December of the same year, purchasing a 95% stake in the club for £120,000.

Seeing his new investment as a blank canvas, the new owner set about turning a club marooned in midtable to genuine title contenders. Around £1m was ploughed into renovating New Lodge and the club’s training facilities, with a new all-seater stand erected, and full covering provided along the other three sides of the pitch. The club’s wage budget was also increased, allowing them to renew the contracts of their most talented players and scout the league for new additions to add to their promotion push.

We caught up with James from BTFC Unofficial, a Billericay Town fansite, to discuss life as a Town supporter. He explains the initial reaction to the takeover:

“The mood around the club was very positive. Glenn’s very approachable and passionate about everything he gets involved in.  In those early weeks he would stand with the fans and talk to them about what he wanted for the club.”

Those supporters that had abandoned all hope of seeing their club compete again soon returned. The opening day attendance of 272 had swelled to 1,970 by the last home game of the season, but it wasn’t just the new seats attracting old faces back to Blunts Wall Road. To the untrained eye, Tamplin’s early months as owner of Billiericay Town had been low-key, reuniting the local community with its football club and providing some healthy competition in the Isthmian League. In March 2017, however, the project seemed to shift, as former Tottenham Hotspur and Wolves midfielder Jamie O’Hara was announced as a new signing. The addition of an ex-Premier League star to his playing staff was a real statement of intent from the new owner, and the signatures of Paul Konchesky and Jermaine Pennant soon followed, as the previously modest wage budget ballooned to a reported £30,000 a week – ten times the Isthmian average. Naturally, this went down badly with the rest of the league.

Rather than seeing the pull of professional footballers as a positive – many of Billericay’s divisional rivals recorded season high attendances when the Essex side rolled into town – the fact that a club in the seventh tier could benefit from financial doping caused consternation across the league. Dulwich Hamlet played money-themed songs ahead of their meeting with Town at Champion Hill, while opposition fans relished in accusing the owner of wasting his money whenever Billericay fell behind in a game.

“Any hostility there has been since Glenn came in was there before he arrived.  There are a few clubs with fans that will always cause trouble. Its all part of the game. You’ll always try to find something negative about the opposition to sing about.”
James, BTFC Unofficial

It could be argued, however, that one man’s exorbitance is another man’s ambition. Now more than ever, football is a game dominated by money, and though the non-league game is often spoken about in unwritten terms of virtue, success and achievement shouldn’t be dirty words. The same is true up and down the pyramid of course, with Manchester City and Chelsea often the butt of jokes from football purists. Other clubs, though, have managed to scale the heights of the football league without attracting the same kind of ire. Bournemouth’s budget on their way from League One to the Premier League outstripped the established ‘bigger’ teams around them, while Forest Green Rovers’ arrival in League Two last year was broadly praised despite heavy backing. AFC Fylde were an amateur side knocking around the North West Counties League in 2007, before businessman David Haythornthwaite took the reigns at the club, changed the name, built a plush new stadium and led them to five promotions. Nowadays they’re challenging towards the top end of the National League, and look likely to make their Football League debut in the next few seasons. Few of the regulars at Mill Farm would agree that their team is the scourge of non-league.

“Most non-league fans would like to see their clubs improved and the team go on to win trophies and titles.  It’s what the future holds that concerns most of them.”
James, BTFC Unofficial

There is a school of thought among Billericay’s detractors that, were the owner pumping money into the club while keeping himself to himself, Town’s success would be a less bitter pill to swallow. Unfortunately Glenn Tamplin isn’t a man that knows the meaning of subtlety. Ahead of the 2017/18 season, he commissioned murals both outside the ground and in the dressing rooms, inviting an the ever-growing list of interested media outlets to come and take a look, as Billericay experienced the kind of coverage usually reserved for the Beckhams. Wrapped around the newly christened AGP Arena, the new owner was depicted asleep next to his wife, receiving instruction from God to “Get Promotion to Professional Leagues”. Inside, graffitied lions daubed the dressing room walls, with the owner dubbing Town’s ground a ‘jungle’. Combined with the ill-advised pre-season comments that his team would “smash the league”, the steel magnate was quickly setting himself up for a fall. A home defeat to Kingstonian on the opening day of the season should have provided a harsh lesson in humility.

By now Tamplin had installed himself as first team manager, with Craig Edwards’ resignation proving the first test of his ownership. James (BTFC Unofficial) reveals “Edwards’ departure was a negative for a lot of fans. He’d worked wonders on a tight budget.  It was a shame he left having felt he’d been let down.” Unsurprisingly, the flamboyant owner brought his own unique style to management, regularly filming team-talks and posting them on social media, and introducing the pre-match ritual of a team singalong to R Kelly’s ‘The World’s Greatest’. Meanwhile mockumentary writers up and down the country threw their scripts into the bin.

On the pitch, progress was unusually serene in the opening months of the season. Town were soon top of the Isthmian Premier League, and looking odds on to earn promotion. Off it, however, the owner/manager was further enhancing his bully-boy reputation. The FA were forced to censure Tamplin in August 2017, after suggesting one of his Twitter critics “just jump” off a “tall building or fast train”, following up with an image containing phone numbers for Alcoholics Anonymous and the Samaritans. It’s incidents like this that undermine his desired image as an overenthusiastic owner. Combined with claims that a pre-season friendly with Concord Rangers was cancelled over a tongue-in-cheek tweet from their owner, and the sacking of manager Steve Watts via WhatsApp just hours after his appointment due to ‘disparaging comments’, Tamplin paints the picture of a delicate wallflower. If you’re going to make bold claims about being the best, you’d better have a thick skin.

By the beginning of 2018, Billericay Town and their larger-than-life owner were regular features in the national press, with Tamplin dropping hints in each and every interview that he’s perhaps not the down-to-earth Essex boy he’d like everyone to think he is. After spending £1m on a custom-wrapped Ferrari in Town colours, he told Essex Live “it’s great for the fans to have their picture taken and enjoy a little sit in a Ferrari.”, while in the Non-League Paper, he revealed why he loved  the grassroots game.  “I like the honesty of Non-League football. I like the fact families can’t afford forty or fifty quid, or to eat a stale pie.” he said, whilst dripping in condescension.

With the Blues coasting at the top of the league, a brief spell out of the limelight followed, before Tamplin concocted a masterplan to seek it out once again. After a poor run of results began to jeopardise their promotion chances, the owner announced that he would step down as manager if they lost an FA Trophy fixture against Wealdstone. The Royals duly won 5-2, and he effectively sacked himself. Not content with the amount of clicks generated by his self-sacrifice, he then re-hired himself as manager two days later, as WTF keys across the country took a pounding. By April he’d stepped down again, with assistant coach Harry Wheeler promoted to the top job, with the whispered caveat that he would face the sack if Town failed to earn promotion. They succeeded, but Wheeler would only last a few more months, as he was sacked by the owner via text message five minutes before the end of Town’s 2-0 defeat at Chippenham Town, the manager’s first defeat in 29 games.

It’s not Tamplin’s role as ringmaster at the New Lodge circus that inspires belligerence in the Blues’ rivals however, but his apparent ignorance of life as a regular non-league club. John, a Hendon FC supporter contributing to the Dulwich Hamlet fan board, laid out the antipathy towards Billericay’s owner in succinct terms. “Non-League football is built on showing respect and dignity. Tamplin has shown very little in the way of respect for opponents, dignity in victory or defeat and very little humility. He has no concept of how hard many hundreds of people work, unpaid, to keep their own clubs alive at this level.”

It’s worth remembering though, that Glenn Tamplin is a newcomer to this industry, and rookies will make mistakes. Unlike the likes of David Dein, David Moores or Ken Bates, Billericay’s owner didn’t accumulate his wealth in boardrooms across business lunches, but rather built a company up from scratch in a sector known for its machismo. By hook or by crook he has amassed a fortune, and has used it to indulge in the kind of pastime most football supporters can only dream of.

“We know how passionate and animated he is about the club.  He made a fortune very quickly, he can provide a great future for himself and his family and he wants to give something back. We’re just lucky he chose Billericay Town.”
James, BTFC Unofficial

When his isn’t firmly filling his mouth with his feet, Tamplin comes across in interviews as genuine. Unafraid to show fragility, he has spoken publicly of his own battle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. For that he should be commended. He’s also championing community around the club, introducing street pastors to home games so fans can talk over problems, and giving free admission to children with disabilities. One of the stands at the AGP Arena is named after young supporter Harry Parker, who suffers from a rare form of cerebral palsy. Not content with merely honouring him at the ground, Tamplin donated £45,000 towards an operation to help Harry walk again. Beneath the white teeth and chinos, there is generosity and compassion. Though little modesty.

“All I am guilty of doing is building a football club, bringing the local community together, employing good footballers and providing jobs and helping children with disabilities”
Glenn Tamplin, doing his best David Brent impression

The question-mark shaped cloud hanging over Billericay Town has recently been pulled into focus, as Tamplin announced his intention to sell the club following accusations that he had been snorting cocaine at an away match. The owner’s asking price is yet to be revealed, but given that the club is currently being run at a loss, chances are that his successor will need to invest serious money into the project. The alternative would be a severe brand of austerity that could kibosh much of the progress made since Tamplin’s arrival. Should that come to pass, of course, it would provoke a rousing chorus of ‘we told you so’ from their critics. If Billericay Town want to become more than just a short-term vanity project, their next move is crucial.

“When Manchester United dominated English football they were the most hated club in the country.  I don’t imagine their supporters could have cared less and we don’t either.  Blues fans are enjoying the moment and the negativity hasn’t taken anything away from that.”
James, BTFC Unofficial

So do Billericay Town deserve their status as The Most Hated Team in Non-League Football? In short: probably not. Though the fans making up their increased attendances may be dubbed ‘glory-hunters’, for every Johnny-Come-Lately, there’ll be supporters that have followed the Blues through thick and very very thin. While they can afford a higher calibre of players than their rivals, for every Jamie O’Hara, there’s a Moses Emmanuel, who has earned his stripes as an effective non-league striker. Hatred is part-and-parcel of their newfound wealth and success. Without Glenn Tamplin, both the target and architect of most ill-feeling towards the club, they would not be experiencing the success of the last eighteen months. Without that success, the section of their support intent on fanning the flames would lack the requisite fuel. Instead, they would likely fill the role of another decent, modestly supported non-league side. And where’s the fun in hating that?

 

 

A massive thanks to James from BTFC Unoffical for his time and patience in helping out with the Billericay Town perspective for this piece.

 

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