Tamplin put a mural in the Billericay Town dressing roomMATTHEW LEWIS/GETTY IMAGES
Published 04/09/17, The Times
This column has taken me to some of the more off-piste venues in British football, but the lions’ den of Billericay Town is going to take some beating. You may have heard about the goings on over in the Bostik Premier League, where owner/manager/motivational mastermind Glenn Tamplin is making waves with his bid to take ’Ricay into the Football League. It certainly feels as though he has endeavoured to tell the world of his grand designs, one jaw-dropping tweet at a time.
But, if not, and this is all news to you — I realise this is the seventh tier — trust me, it was only a matter of time. For the uninitiated, a quick recap, thoughtfully aided as we are upon arrival at the AGP Arena with an invitation into Tamplin’s mind: an ethereal experience you do well to escape until leaving for the relative sanctuary of a Saturday evening in Essex.
A striking mural greets you, 120ft in length, depicting first the club’s three FA Vase triumphs in the Seventies. After that, it would seem, nothing but decades of frustration, decline and despair preceded their saviour’s arrival on the scene in December. That was when Tamplin, asleep in bed with his wife, received his epiphany from up on high: “build a stadium”, “win trophies”, be “selfless” and “get promotion to the professional leagues”, it says, along with many other admirable aims for Billericay Town.
Yes there may have been similar interventions before his failed attempts to buy Brentwood Town, Bishop’s Stortford and Dagenham & Redbridge, we’ll never know — but regardless, Billericay’s brave new future here was born.
Craig Edwards, the long-term manager, resigned in March after Tamplin said he wanted to joint him in the dugout, leaving the former Barkingside player — not forgetting a spell as coach of his son’s football team — to take his place and lay claim to having assembled “the best non-League team in the world”. Not all that hard with £22,000 to pay your squad each week (signing-on fees excluded), you might say; a figure almost ten times that available to many teams in their league, and more even than some clubs three tiers above them in League Two.
Still, Billericay began Saturday’s FA Cup first-round qualifier with former finalists Paul Konchesky and Jermaine Pennant in their side, while another, Jamie O’Hara, missed out through injury. Tamplin, who made his millions in steel, is not the first non-League sugar daddy to buy a toy and aim for the stars, nor is he the first even to place himself in charge. But of all the colourful characters, he undoubtedly brings something unique: think of a combination of David Brent and a heavily tattooed Danny Dyer on steroids, and you’re getting somewhere close.
He had planned to step aside as manager this season, he says, but his players begged him to stay. “Their words: they’ve never had a gaffer like me in their life, because I’m real, I’m honest, I tell them the truth, I’m transparent, I do what I say and I love them and they love me back,” he said. And then there’s those inspirational and innovative methods, all published on social media, of course: The pre-match changing room R Kelly recital, sung in unison in a huddle; the “king of the jungle” team talks that would frighten the life out of the lions and eagles adorning the walls; and the stormy waters mural in the tunnel, to unnerve the opponents — you thought Manchester City had it tough in the aquarium at the Etihad.
Now, I know there is a school of thought that Tamplin and Billericay shouldn’t be given the time of day. The brash, flash, occasionally abusive social media persona, along with an endless stream of self-publicity, is enough to leave a nasty taste in the mouths of many people. Yet no matter how much you may wish to avert your eyes, of one thing we can be sure: his tenure is going to end in triumph or disaster — there won’t be any in between.
Having met Tamplin in the “Gaffa’s Room” on Saturday, I have to admit, I’m no “hater”. His enthusiasm is real and the born-again Christian’s charitable work, while well versed, is touching and genuine. Even if his methods are spectacularly misguided, “they get all of me, my heart on my sleeve”, he says. On that point, it is hard to disagree, even if the worry is how long that passion will remain.
The serious point in all of this, though, is how followers of non-League football feel, for whom Tamplin is no laughing matter. Many spend their Saturdays at clubs who play in leagues that are seen as wider communities; competitive spirit is paramount and many enjoy watching football seen as being free from the corrupting influence that money has had on the elite level of the game. To them, Tamplin shows no respect for his surroundings.
“I’m not disrespecting anyone, because I’m not just throwing money at it; I’m giving it my time,” he said. “People don’t like change, which is the non-League. They want someone to come in and do it the way everyone else has done it. I do get why they might think I’m flash, that I want the attention. But I know the real me. I know what I do, how I help people . . . ”
He funds a local charity for disabled children and named a stand at the AGM Arena after a young supporter with cerebral palsy, Harry Parker, to whom Tamplin donated £35,000 towards a successful operation to help him walk. He has also spent nearly £2 million on the stadium and pitch, he says — even if the VIP balcony is everything that non-League football is not — undeterred by the fact that the council-owned land has just 18 months of its lease remaining.
So what do the Billericay supporters think? Of the fans I spoke to on Saturday, some of whom have been supporters for 40 years, there were those who missed the rustic charm of leaning on the rail beside the same friends every week — watching from the comfort of a seat a whole five rows back was taking a little getting used to, they said. Others spoke of friends who were turned off by the changes in surroundings and Tamplin, of course, who “doesn’t help himself”, they said, putting it mildly. But the ’Ricay faithful were in fine voice behind either goal, from the terracing they insisted had to remain. Crowds, meanwhile, have increased four-fold from a previous average of about 250.
“What a waste of money” was their ironic chant of choice, as the fourth and fifth goals against a spirited Didcot Town, from the Evo-Stik Southwest League in the tier below, went in with no reply. Billericay’s £24,000 record signing from Hemel Hempsted, Jake Robinson, bagged a hat-trick, with the other goals coming from Ricky Modeste and Adam Cunnington, both signed from the National League during the summer. Konchesky, 36, pulled the strings from midfield, while Pennant, 34, limped off at half-time after an underwhelming display.
After a 1-0 defeat by Kingstonian on the opening day of the season, managed by a familiar face in Edwards, Billericay have won all their games and sit atop a league that is surely theirs to lose. Beyond that, Tamplin appears unlikely to change his ways. There is talk of a documentary and he spoke of outside investment in the club. An FA Cup run, perhaps? No matter what the future holds, we’ve not heard the last of Tamplin’s Billericay Town.