It’s a sign of just how fragile the life of a football manager has become that Antonio Conte, a Premier League winner in just his first season in English football in 2016/17, was under pressure just two games into this season. However, whilst the average length of time in charge seems to be a season and a half in the Premier and Football Leagues, further down the pyramid the chairman of semi-professional football clubs tends to be a bit more forgiving and allow their managers time and don’t panic after a run of bad results or form. The eight seasons that Jamie Howell stood in the home dugout of Nyewood Lane were some of the most successful and memorable seasons the supporters of Bognor Regis Town have witnessed in a long time, but it’s unlikely he would have been given the same length of time further up the leagues that’s for sure,
However, when Jamie and Darin Killpatrick agreed to take over as joint managers from club legend Jack Pearce in 2009, the Rocks were, in football terms, at least on a life-support machine and the club was heading in only one direction and that was down. A financial crisis, a points deduction, an arson attack on the clubhouse, a former manager battling a serious illness and a mass exodus of players were just the tip of a very big iceberg that hit the club around the same time. Did Jamie and Darin quite realise what a huge task they had on their hands to turn the club around? “When Darin and I arrived back at the club we were in a difficult situation, Jack had been ill and the current side had just been relegated. I think we both agreed it was going to be a big job but we were determined that when we did leave at some stage that we wanted the club to be in a better state than when we found it.” However, before the club could start the rebuilding process, they were to suffer another relegation to the Isthmian Division One South in April 2010, just one league above the Sussex County League.
The following season, 2010/11, Jamie, Darin and the club started the long road back, but they were to suffer an early hammer blow. The team had challenged at the top of the league for most of the season and went into the final game knowing a win would earn the club a league title and promotion double. Their opponents on the final day were struggling Chatham Town, but the home team hadn’t read the script. The Chats took a first half lead, and despite an equaliser by Bognor before half-time, their relentless pressure in the second half couldn’t produce a winner, so the Met Police pipped the Rocks to the title by just one goal. It was utter devastation for everyone involved in the club and for Jamie himself too; “I think that was one of my most disappointing days in football, I felt we had the best team in the league, the supporters were brilliant as always and it was all set for us to go there and clinch the title. I think I learnt from that experience as it shows how cruel football can be. I remember going into the bar at the end of the game and I was trying to lift the players for the play-off game on Tuesday, but it was a real low point.” Unfortunately, Jamie and Darin just couldn’t lift the players in time and Dulwich Hamlet ended the promotion dream at the Lane on a miserable evening that ended in a 3-1 defeat for Bognor.
Despite the disappointment of the Chatham and Dulwich games, the club and the players dusted themselves down, licked their wounds and managed to secure another shot at the play-offs the following season. However, there was yet more drama in the play-off semi-final as Godalming Town played their part in a dramatic 4-4 draw resulting penalty shootout in which Bognor goalkeeper, Craig Stoner, emerged as the hero to send Bognor through to the final. Their opponents in the final were Dulwich Hamlet. A single goal from loyal defender Stuart Axten won the final for Bognor, and Jamie and Darin had their first promotion under their belts. After the crushing disappointment of the previous campaign, had Jamie and his assistant done anything different to get the club over the line this time; “I don’t think so, I actually felt we were a better team the previous season but the players were really together and we had a great team spirit. When you play good teams, as Dulwich were, the margins are so tight. I remember in the final taking a risk by bringing off Ashley Robinson after 60 minutes and thinking can we defend and see the game out? Dulwich then got a penalty and if they scored they would have the momentum to go on and win. Luckily Stoner saved it and from that moment I felt it was just our day”. It certainly was Bognor’s day, and the club was back in the Isthmian Premier Division.
After promotion to a higher level, Jamie had to make some tough decisions if the club were to kick on again, and that meant letting players go who had helped get the club promotion. It wasn’t always an easy process; “I have always tried to be loyal to players but ultimately if I felt a decision needed to be made for the benefit of the club that would improve us, then that would be my job to do so. I don’t think we had a massive turnaround of players. I would bring them in, Dabba and the coaches would work tirelessly on the training ground and then they hopefully would stay with us for a long time.” After that first promotion, it didn’t take long for the club to adapt to the higher level, but behind the scenes there was a lot of hard work involved in getting the players in that Jamie needed to help push the club forward and club legend Jack Pearce played a major part in that; “I was very lucky to have a chairman that understood the difficulties of a manager as he had done it himself. We couldn’t afford to buy players so we had to identify them and then work hard with them. Jack and the fans also gave us time. I remember in the first season in Ryman Premier we were around the play-offs in January and we played Enfield. During the game, our goalkeeper, Stuart Axten and Ben Andrews got injured and we only had a small squad with not much experience or back up. I spoke to Jack at the time and he said we should use the rest of the season to give experience to the likes of Doug Tuck, Ollie Pearce and others. Unfortunately, we did not win a game for the rest of the season, but the next season we came third with a core of young players that we had molded into a team.”
That season was the 2013/14 campaign which ended with the club finishing in 3rd place with 85 points and another play-off campaign. The higher placed finish gave the team home advantage at the Lane in the semi-final, but Lowestoft Town proved a hurdle too far, as the Suffolk club won 2-1 on the night. It was setback from Jamie, Darin and the players as a mixture of fatigue and fixture congestion caught up with everyone at the club. How did Jamie reflect on that season? “I just felt we had a lot of injuries and the sheer number of matches at the end of the season meant we just ran out of steam at the wrong time.” The following season, 2014/15, was very much one of transition on the pitch as the club ended with a final league position of 14th. After six seasons in charge did Jamie or Darin start to have any doubts that they could still take the club forward? “I think that the end of that season (14/15) was a real cross road for me. I remember we played Margate at the end of the season and we lost 3-0 and Jack, Dabba and I had a heated debate at the end of the game (this is how we communicated most of the time by the way!) For me personally, I just wanted to compete in this league. Jack said we couldn’t afford to match Margate and their finances and he didn’t want us to put the club in jeopardy. However, Darin and I felt we needed more help and thankfully that summer Jack really backed me financially and we signed Jason Prior, Craig Robson and a few others and it worked for us, as we had a great season”. It certainly was a great season the 2015/16 campaign, a season of so many highlights and one that will go down in folklore at Nyewood Lane.
There was, of course, the fabulous FA Trophy run to the semi-finals which included wins over the likes of Maidstone United, Sutton United, Altrincham and Torquay United, plus the FA Cup giant killings against Lowestoft Town and Oxford City. In the league, a tremendous last few months of the season saw the club almost snatch the title and promotion from under Hampton and Richmond’s very noses. That run included six straight wins and 24 goals. Nevertheless, promotion to step 2 was again to elude the club in the play-offs. A truly memorable season ended in an extremely heartbreaking way when nemesis Dulwich Hamlet scored in the 91st-minute winner in the play-off semi-final, after Jason Prior had missed a penalty in the second half. For Jamie though he only has special memories of his that campaign; “That season was brilliant, the FA Trophy run was superb and I felt we were very unlucky not to win the league. Those three away games in five days at Enfield, Dulwich and Kingstonian with a depleted squad probably cost us the league title, but who can forget those games against Torquay, Grimsby and Sutton which were just superb. One memory that really does stick out from that season was having the cars on the pitch against Altrincham on a freezing January night to get the game.”
After such a tremendous season in 2015/16, no-one quite expected Bognor to be challenging at the top again last season after losing some real quality from their squad in the summer of 2016, but challenge they did, and the 2016/17 season ended in an almost mirror image of that first season in the Isthmian South in 2010/11, when promotion and the title was snatched away on the very last day. This time it was Havant and Waterlooville who snatched the title from Bognor’s grasp, as in another ironic twist 2011 nemesis Met Police failed to read the script like Chatham Town had done and prevented the Rocks from claiming a deserved title and automatic promotion place. After such a dramatic ending to the season, somehow Jamie and Darin managed to raise the players’ spirits and finally get the club over the line and that promotion we all craved to step 2 through the dreaded play-offs. But just how did they do it? Jamie explains; “Drawing the game against Met Police and losing the league title was the hardest day in football for me. I so desperately wanted the club to win and it just didn’t happen. The next two days were hard but the players were a special bunch and showed tremendous resilience and they loved playing for each other and were brilliant especially against Dulwich when the pressure was really on to deliver.” Deliver they did though, and two second half goals from Jimmy Muitt and Ollie Pearce gave Bognor a 2-1 win and a long-awaited promotion to the National South.
However, no sooner had the club and the supporters finished celebrating a glorious promotion, Jamie decided after eight seasons to depart Nyewood Lane and take up a full-time position with Sussex and National South rivals Eastbourne Borough. For a man that will go down in Bognor Regis Town FC’s history as one of its most successful ever managers and a club legend, how does Jamie himself reflect on his eight seasons in charge at the Lane, and how difficult was it for him walk away in the summer? “It was a very hard decision to leave as my time at Bognor was brilliant. I made so many good friends like Michael Birmingham, Colin Hunwick, Neil Cockcroft, Simon Cook, Coops, Rach and Lee Conway who were wonderful people to be around. We enjoyed five play seasons of play-off campaigns in eight years, with two promotions and the FA Trophy run. I hope the supporters of the club enjoyed my time at the club as much as I enjoyed being the manager, they were always brilliant and very supportive to me. Also, the players are a top group of men who were a joy to work with and I will always look at their results and wish them every success in the future which I am sure they will be. The club is in great hands with Jack and Dabba still at the club and I am sure success will continue. I was very lucky to have worked with them as they were an integral part of mine and the club’s success.”