Well – as they say in elementary French - Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi.
Managers don’t tend to come and go at the Lane. Apart from Steve Richardson, who came and went like a fleck of dust in the eye of Langney Sports’ history, we have measured them in years if not in decades. Pete Cherry, Garry Wilson, Tommy Widdrington: shoulders of giants, you might say, for any newer managers to stand on. I read recently that the average tenure in the Football League is just over three years, and I’m surprised it is even that long. The managerial ride is a turbulent, fast-moving, set of rapids – sorry, I’m in a mixing-metaphor mood – and there is only so long that you can balance on the log before you tumble off.
That, at least, is the broader view. But at Priory Lane, managers have been a little more sheltered from the wrong sort of pressure. We don’t tend to attract capricious owners or maverick chairmen. Level-headed and a teeny bit boring, Eastbourne Borough likes its stability. So why was Jamie Howell’s tenure shorter? Well, in fairness, he was on a two-year contract and not a lifetime guarantee, and the board had hopes and plans which needed to be taking shape if Jamie was to stay longer. And they were not really taking shape.
At the end of Tommy’s last season, with Hugo in temporary charge, we stayed up, but with not much to spare. In Jamie’s first season, we stayed up, but with not much to spare. And in Jamie’s second season – well, yes, you get the picture. Leaving aside for the moment the other areas of the club’s life, the first team record is disappointing, and this is a “results business”. Fairly or unfairly, the manager – almost alone – has to answer for that.
Now then, I should declare an interest. Yep, I know Jamie Howell pretty well and I count him a friend. Twenty-five years ago, I was English Schools FA match secretary when Jamie captained England Under-15s. It was a role he filled superbly, and with pride for his family, his county, his country. Much later, as a BBC reporter, I trekked around to quite a few Bognor Regis Town games – including the run to the Trophy semi-final which ended, only narrowly, on a bitter March day at Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park, where the wind comes straight off the North Sea. Trust me, the weather here at the Lane, off a mild English Channel, is a breeze by comparison.
In that time, I realised I was dealing with a different sort of manager. I’ve met and worked with all sorts. Some cheats, some charmers, some braggers and liars, some clueless and some who think with their fists. (Incidentally none of those descriptions apply, not even slightly, to any other manager mentioned in today’s column.) I’ve met some who evaded reporters at all costs, and one who grabbed me by the throat and spat industrial language at me – ironically for something he thought I’d written which had actually been penned by a different reporter! And I’ve met some who were excellent on all fronts: perceptive tactical thinkers, wise man-managers, smart businessmen, honest and principled people. My top three? Oh, very well, then. Leroy Rosenior, Ted Shepherd at Crawley Town, and Tommy. I’m only not including Garry because I might well sup a cup of tea with him at half-time...
But you know, on many of those measures I would put Jamie up there too. On the honest-and-principled scale, he stands out, and I think that matters a lot. All who have had any dealings with Jamie find him courteous, transparent, reluctant to snipe at others, quick to respect opponents, affable. He respects confidences, values loyalty among players and staff and supporters. In a club full of family values, he cherishes his own family and he would turn up for the team coach with young Harry in tow, and having dropped off his girls at their swimming or dancing. He’s possibly the first manager whom I’ve sat alongside on away coaches, and discussed politics, society, religion, and the meaning of life. So why didn’t he win enough football matches?
Track back to the start of his reign. Jamie will say he inherited players from Tommy and Hugo whom he didn’t especially want. Well yes, but so do most new incumbents – and he did plenty of recruiting of his own. Some failed to make the step from Ryman to National South, such as Leon Redwood and Will Hendon – I am absolutely not criticising those or any other lads, I’m only trying to be objective – and for half a season he relied on a goalkeeper who was not quite ready for National South. Against that, Jamie – with the board’s backing – did bring in major names in the shape of Sergio and Yemi, both of whom justified their salaries, and others such as Kane Wills, who more than earns his corn week after week.
But it was an odd team, that 2017-18 squad. The mix was never quite right, and they could not quite deliver the style of football that Jamie wanted. Ah, style. High tempo, pass and move, defend from the front. It’s exciting but risky, especially if you opt for, say, ball-playing full-backs who play so high that their centre-backs are stretched and sometimes spreadeagled. And it copes less well with poor pitches, poor weather, midwinter. I remember suggesting to Jamie – not that I know much about all this – that his teams play what I always call September football., and he actually said yes, we are a fair-weather team. We must surely be – not unlike the best Bognor teams – everyone’s favourite opponents.
The last two seasons have an uncannily similar results curve. Great start, dreadful midwinter, spirited late season. Ok, I know the 2019 late season is still to happen, but it will do, whether under Howell or McGhee. Did we not learn lessons from 17-18 to take into 18-19?
This must surely take us back to last summer. With gaps in his squad and a reasonable budget to help fill them, Jamie seemed unable to nail the right players. Sometimes it was wage demands, sometimes the insoluble issue of persuading players to travel to a club two hours south of London and nearer to Dieppe than Dartford. (not sure if that’s literally true, but you know what I mean.) We reached the final friendly – a dismal 0-3 at the Dripping Pan – still several players short. And then a rush of signings, all of good pedigree in their own right, but the feeling persisted that this was player-collecting rather than team-building.
Injuries haven’t helped. How many points did that crunching Chippenham tackle on Sergio cost us? What if Dawesey hadn’t pulled up with his hamstring at Dartford? Lady Luck has snubbed us a good few times, too. A sensational but freakish goal turfed us out of the FA Cup. Penalty after penalty decision seemed to go against us. Even the wind turned at least once at half-time – or was that my imagination?
What it does come down to is fine margins. And perhaps all life, and all football, is like that. You have to go with what is, and not what might have been. But let us hope, at very least, that the last few games see an upturn and an upbeat finish to the season. The new Gaffer comes in with all our goodwill, but the last Gaffer has been one of the good guys. Jamie remains our friend, and we hope sincerely that his footballing career is back on track very soon.
Or as they say in GCSE French - L’ancien Entraineur est parti. Vive le nouvel Entraineur!