According to the Gregorian calendar, 1 January 2020 marked the start of a new decade heralding the 2020’s or “twenty-twenties”. The decade just passed, the 2010’s, threw a magical cloak of success and excitement over St James Park as the club grew, thrived and prospered. Five seasons under Jon Brady and five seasons now with Kevin. Overall, 397 league games, 185 wins, 104 draws, 108 defeats, 638 goals for, 433 goals against. Here’s a snapshot view of Brackley Town’s decade.
2010-11 was our fourth season of Southern League Premier Division football. The previous season’s 5th placed finish (the highest in the club’s history to that point) meant hopes were high. Football being football these hopes were immediately dashed by a poor August with a return of just two points from the opening four games. FA Cup and FA Trophy exits against Buxton and then Wealdstone brought further autumn disappointment and a mixed season ended with a 9th placed finish as Truro City were crowned champions with Salisbury City winning the promotion play-off final on penalties against Hednesford.
While 2011-12 was to be an altogether more successful season, it again began badly with three defeats and a draw in the opening four fixtures. However, come April we romped home as champions, claiming the title by eight points from second-placed Oxford City who joined us in promotion celebrations by winning the play-offs. The final day of the season in late April would live long for Saints supporters, as a performance of champions brought a 6-0 hammering of St Albans City who were gracious on the day.
28 April was a chill and windy day but the rain had let up before kick-off as 535 spectators crowded through the St James Park turnstiles to be part of the big occasion with half-priced admission a further attraction. Elliot Sandy got a hat-trick, Brett Solkhon and Marvin Robinson were on the score-sheet as was Steve Diggin with a goal of high quality and supporters roared their delight as Tom Winters made a cameo return to action late on. Post-match presentations on the pitch were prolonged and captured the spirit of the day with manager Jon Brady and keeper Billy Turley in the thick of things.
So as Britain continued to bathe in the success of London 2012 Olympics, Saturday 18 August dawned humid and hot as a new stage in the life of the club was born at Step 2, the 2012-13 Blue Square Bet Conference North season kicking off for Brackley Town at Altrincham. It was a day to remember at Moss Lane. Level at the break after Sandy had opened the scoring with a 19th minute penalty to get our account underway and 4-1 by the close with home supporters booing their team as Northamptonshire newcomers announced their arrival with two goals from Gary Mulligan and a trade-mark rocket from 25 yards by Winters. As one fan reported, “What a day!”
303 turned up for the first home game as Hinckley United were torn apart in a 5-0 mauling. Eight straight wins saw ten different goal scorers including Glenn Walker with four goals and Owen Story with five. FA Cup defeat at Arlesey Town was followed by a 6-1 humbling at Harrogate Town before a further unbeaten run of six games led into a rough patch over the festive period but a magnificent third place going into 2013. And that was how it ended, a first Step 2 campaign and a neat symmetry with a two-legged play-off semi-final against Altrincham. The narrow midweek first leg defeat set up the home second leg beautifully where a performance of perfection by Jefferson Louis powered us into a play-off final at St James Park against FC Halifax.
Sunday 12 May dawned dry and bright but by kick-off relentless rain had set in, soaking supporters who were mostly without shelter in the sell-out, all-ticket crowd recorded as 2604. Halifax just about deserved their narrow win and the feeling among many was of relief that a day in the spot-light, so carefully planned and with so many concerns, had gone well off the pitch despite the disappointment on it. If we were to step up to National League, as a club there was work to be done.
2013-14 again started brightly, unbeaten in 13 games with a winning opening day at Barrow, remembered not just for Izak Reid’s late goal to claim the points but the gale-force winds and driving rain as the Irish Sea threw its wild worst at its August visitors. The season brought a 7th placed finish just outside the play-offs but is remembered most for its FA Cup exploits. Wins against Gresley, Boston United and Barrow saw League One Gillingham pulled out of the first round hat and a trip to the Priestfield Stadium, only the second time we had contested a first round tie.
The town was alive with excitement and coach after coach pulled away for the trip to Kent on that Saturday morning. They were not disappointed as we gave a good account of ourselves on the big stage against Peter Taylor’s side who looked distinctly green around the gills by full-time. The Monday night replay brought live TV to SJP for the first time and a solitary goal by Glenn Walker lit up the dark night sky and living rooms around the country as we pulled off the shock of the round. A first ever second round appearance and defeat at Macclesfield were to follow but it would be some years before the heroics of Monday 18 November 2013 would be matched.
Drama of a different sort was to engulf us in 2014-15 as we entered the final day of the season with relegation looming large, from which only a miracle could save us. A seven-game winless run spelled jeopardy going into April but a draw at Worcester City, a win against high-flying Barrow and again at already relegated Hyde United brought a do-or-die finale with Hednesford the visitors to SJP on the last Saturday of the season.
The arithmetic was clear between ourselves, Stalybridge Celtic and Colwyn Bay. At a goal-less half-time it was even clearer – we were heading down. As the second half wore on with apparently no chance of a goal in a dire stale-mate playing out before us, it stood Stalybridge 4-4 Gainsborough Trinity and Worcester City 3-5 Colwyn Bay so nothing other than a win would suffice. Up stepped Ryan Rowe who rifled in his shot, arrow-like, on 75 minutes to put us ahead and we held on as every one of the 775 in the crowd held their collective breath until the final whistles blew up and down the country. Relief. Behind the scenes emotions were raw, never had so much appeared to hang on so few, crucial moments.
That was until the following season when we there again to face another final day survival act, no less dramatic, this time under new manager Kevin Wilkin who took over as Jon Brady stood down after a rocky start to the new season. Chelsea favourite Frank Sinclair briefly held the reins before Wilkin stepped in, starting with an FA Cup win at Tooting & Mitcham on 26 September. A new era had begun but on the pitch some of the old problems remained – scoring goals. In 2014-15 the tally was a measly 39, in 2015-16 just 45, only Gloucester City finding the net fewer times. The final six games of a long. hard season yielded just three goals but somehow survival was conjured as a mean defence conceded just twice in that final run of fixtures – if you can’t score, you’d better keep them out.
30 April was blustery but largely dry as Tamworth arrived for another SJP D-Day. Only a win could save us and only if Lowestoft failed to win in their game against Gloucester City. At half-time the omens were not good, goal-less at SJP and Lowestoft leading. But in an incredible turnaround, first Glenn Walker fired us into a 52nd minute lead and then news came through of Gloucester’s 66th minute equaliser. Another escape!
If the second half of the decade had begun so dramatically, this was just a precursor to more drama, further success and today’s sky-high expectations.
Kevin’s first full season brought relief from relegation struggle and a 7th placed finish, three points behind Darlington who occupied the final play-off place. The Quakers were then disqualified from participating in the play-offs making the margin by which we missed out even tighter. But it is a season remembered by many for another terrific FA Cup run and the start of something special in the FA Trophy.
FA Cup wins over Rugby Town, Worcester City and Beaconsfield delivered up another trip to the Priestfield Stadium, home to Gillingham, now under boss, the late Justin Edinburgh. With the first game tied at 2-2 the TV cameras again alighted upon SJP and again, remarkably we came out on top in a game of high drama. Jimmy Armson scored a quite brilliant hat-trick in a game that went to extra-time but in which Saints matched their full-time opponents for fitness and organisation, holding on in the final nervy minutes to set up a second round visit to Blackpool. There was little to separate the sides at Bloomfield Road but the troubled League Two team went through in front of a disappointingly low key and small crowd still demonstrating its frustrations at the club’s owners.
In the Trophy, wins over Mickleover Sports, AFC Fylde, Stockport County and Wealdstone brought a quarter-final tie at York City. The 1-0 defeat felt harsh but York went on to win the competition at Wembley. Kevin’s words to his players were sharp – this is a competition we can win.
The National League North line-up for 2017-18 was really tough and it would be no surprise that full-time teams of the pedigree of Salford City and Harrogate Town occupied the top two places come April. We were third at New Year and at the end of the season, beating Bradford (PA) in the semi-final play-off, a gruelling cup tie settled by Aaron Williams’ goal in extra time, before losing out in the final to an impressive Harrogate side.
The story of the season came in the FA Trophy. The story is a quite remarkable one - an epic adventure with a fairy tale ending. And we did it the hard way beating Salford City 4-0 in the qualifying round, knocking out table-topping National League South side Braintree Town after a replay, defeating National League Barrow in a midweek replay in Cumbria, then high-flying National League Sutton United and eventually Stockport County again after a replay. This set up two legs of a semi-final against fellow Step 2 side Wealdstone. At a packed SJP, Alex Gudger’s late strike gave us a lead for the away tie after a physically draining first leg played in brutally cold and heavy conditions that tested players and spectators alike. Then in front of a hostile home crowd but buoyed by huge away support, goals from Shane Byrne and Aaron Williams and one of our finest ever team performances, one of courage and determination, skill and bravura, sent us through to a Wembley final to face National League Bromley. A Wembley final!
Sunday 20 May saw an exodus from the town as 7000 supporters headed for Wembley Way on what was to become a day that nobody connected with the club will ever forget. A performance of outstanding composure, huge determination and high quality seemed doomed to end in defeat as the game entered its 94th minute with Bromley ahead. Twice keeper Danny Lewis had been sent up into Bromley’s penalty area for corners, twice racing back to guard his goal. With the whistle seemingly pursed in the referee’s lips, Matt Lowe’s shot came back off the post and captain Gaz Dean nudged the ball over the line to spark wild celebrations. Extra-time passed with little goalmouth incident and so it was to be settled by penalties in the cauldron of heat and noise that was the national stadium on that scorching late May afternoon. The toss won, the kicks were to be taken at our end of the famous stadium – an omen perhaps? Our first kick – missed! Bromley penalties – fired in with glee! Then Bromley falter with a miss and then another as our kicks ruthlessly find the net so that Andy Brown can step up with a chance to win the cup – one kick, just one kick - and the world dissolves into sporting bedlam.
Gaz lifts the gleaming cup, Kevin kisses the silver trophy, everybody is waving and embracing and dancing and unable to find the words. Delirium. Near disbelief. But joy. Back at SJP the party is underway and the roof lifts off when Kevin arrives back cradling the trophy – it is ours! The day of our lives!
Back to business and 2018-19 began with three defeats from the opening four games. At the turn of the year we occupied tenth place. Despite an early exit to Marine in the FA Cup, FA Trophy hopes as holders were alive after wins over Nuneaton Borough and Hayes & Yeading. The FA Trophy run came to an end in a brilliant quarter-final tie against Leyton Orient and the season ended with another third place finish and play-off opportunity as Stockport County ended top. Spennymoor Town were our opponents in a single home semi-final play-off match with Chorley waiting in the final. Again extra-time could not separate the sides so it boiled down to another penalty shoot-out. In a disastrous sequence of missed kicks the moment was gone and the season’s hopes extinguished. The contrast with the feelings of 12 months previously was lost on nobody.
As the decades turn one into another, all is poised this season for another close finish with a dozen or more teams competing for the bear-pit of the play-off spots. Dreams of FA Cup glory or FA Trophy success are on hold for another season. Narrow defeat after a fine performance at National League Hartlepool United brought a 4th qualifying round exit in the FA Cup while Chester put paid to FA Trophy hopes. Going into 2020 in and amongst the top teams means every game is crucial, every goal counts. The second half of the 2020-21 season will be fascinating, challenging and exciting. As Kevin says, that is why we are here, that is what we want – to contest the Big Games and to test ourselves.
Whatever happens this season, planning for 2020-21 is underway whether for another season in National League North or even life in the National League. A new clubhouse will rise from the ashes of June’s fire. New stands, the cabin and improved spectator facilities all around St James Park demonstrate the commitment to future success and the continued ambition that has marked the decade. That ambition carries us forward into the 2020’s.