Honiton’s Crazy Gang - challenging season ahead for football club
PUBLISHED: 07:00 03 September 2017 | UPDATED: 08:53 05 September 2017
These are exciting times for Honiton Town Football Club. After a title-winning season in 2016/17 the club has new men in place to lead them, on and off the field. Steve Jennings spoke to new manager Paul Ashford and chairman Roger Doble.
To say the 2016/7 season was an historic one for Honiton Town Football Club would be an understatement with the Hippos winning their first ever Devon & Exeter Premier League title, thereby earning themselves a place in the South West Peninsula League Division One (East).
This will be the highest level that Honiton Town have ever played. The first team will spend a fair bit of time on the road in the season ahead, visiting the likes of Appledore, Ilfracombe Town, Teignmouth and Torridgeside.
But the club were rocked when manager Kevin Blackwell decided to step down during the summer, despite being the catalyst for these recent successes. The Honiton committee wasted little time in appointing a successor when former player Paul Ashford was tasked with helping his home town club consolidate their lofty status alongside the best in the South West.
Paul brings a lot of experience to the table. He was also on the books of Exeter City when they were managed by Gerry Francis in the third tier of the league. And he remembers well, training with the former QPR and England captain. “He was some player, an international”, he recalls. “He was so skilful - he taught me head tennis. Mind you, I couldn’t match his hairstyle!”
“It was a great experience as I was 21 at the time. It was Barry Pulman who pushed me to go to City,” he adds. “Barry was the best manager I played for – one of the best in Honiton’s history as well - and he arranged everything. At the time I was working for Roy Carnall, a local landscape gardener, so would start work at 8am, train with City from 10.30am to 2pm then go to back to work!”
And whilst at Exeter, Paul shared a dressing room with another England international and future England manager, who he names as the best player he played with. “Peter Taylor came down to Exeter – ex-Tottenham and Palace. It was the end of his playing days but he still had it. He could control games with his knowledge. And he had the biggest legs I ever saw on a player!”
When he was the grand age of 29 the Ashford house took an unexpected call that offered an opportunity to play a high level again. “I was in the garden when the missus said she had taken a call from Martyn Rogers,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Martyn Rogers from Tiverton Town?’ and she said ‘yes, but I told him you would call him back as you were doing the gardening’.”
Ashford has also managed at a high level and two of his former sides, Axminster Town and Sidmouth Town, will offer competition much closer to home. Club chairman Roger Doble believes Paul is the right man for the job. “I have watched a lot of local football, and the best team I have ever seen at that standard was Axminster when he (Ashford) was in charge. And he’s a Honiton lad who wants to win as much as I do.”
Roger, himself a former Honiton player, has been working on the committee for a year now, originally as vice-chairman. His initial impressions were mixed. “The club was successful on the pitch but with work to do off it,” he said. “Kevin Blackwell did a great job and he pieced together a really good side but the club needed structure and the committee is bringing that structure.
“One of the first things I did was increase the size of the committee. What we want to do is bring in as many people as we can who want to help, and then have some direction.”
The outgoing manager, Kevin Blackwell, thinks Roger is the right man to lead Town forward. Soon after his resignation he spoke to the Midweek Herald and was quoted as saying: “Roger Doble has come in this season, and has also been supportive, phoning me two or three times a week making sure I have everything I need and asking can he help with anything.”
But Roger retains a firm sense of reality when discussing the challenges ahead.
He states: “A lot of players we will be up against next season would have been at professional clubs – released by City then played for Tiverton. They’re good sides. Ninety per cent of these clubs have got playing budgets and we haven’t.
“We haven’t been promoted one division, this is a whole new level and I am sure there are some who don’t realise how hard it’s going to be.”
With Roger driving things off-the-field, Paul oversees the playing issues and inherits a team full of confidence having lost only once in 28 league matches last season.
Paul, like his chairman, will not be setting ambitious targets for the season ahead: “If we finish above third from bottom this season then I have done my job,” he says emphatically. “It’s all down to the commitment of the players, and I have got an honest bunch of truly committed lads. No player here gets paid. We will have strong camaraderie – a bit like the old Wimbledon – and build from there.
“I have come to be the first team manager but I train the whole club. There’s no point having a third team if those players don’t aspire to be in the seconds. And the second team players must play with the belief that they can make the first team.”
The two men are forming an alliance that, they hope, will make their home town proud with a desire to keep things local. Paul says: “The town is gifted with local talent at the moment and I want to build a team of good, local players who the locals will want to watch.”
Roger, who will divide his time also running his successful business RDA Insulations, says: “For the last ten or so games last season we were averaging 60 to 70 paying spectators. New league rules dictate that we have to charge at the gate but that’s our income. So I say to all those sat in pubs or watching Sky Sports at home on a Saturday to come down and support your local club. This is Honiton’s football club.”
Paul is excited at the prospect of leading Honiton Town – his ‘Crazy Gang’ - and, hopefully, seeing some old friends: “It’s all about a love of the game,” he says. “A Paul Ashford team will be solid, strong and will score goals. And we will have togetherness. We won’t be the best side in this league but we will play with pride and will never give in!”n