The hard work begins on Saturday when the Whickham squad return for pre-season training with the new season edging ever so closer. I spoke with manager Tony Fawcett about his preparations for pre-season and the hunt for new additions. WRITES ADAM TONES.
After a strong finish to last season, Tony has had little downtime since the final whistle was blown with his attention quickly turning to the forthcoming season.
The Lang Jacks claimed the seventh spot last season the club’s highest ever Northern League finish.
Fawcett is looking forward to kick-starting the new campaign as he looks to continue climbing the league table and enjoy a strong cup run.
The 42-year-old finished last season unbeaten at home but is fully aware of the pressure and expectations his management team will face going into the new campaign.
He said: “It’s natural it comes from winning; I want us to be in a position one day where we get pressure every single game because we’re such a good team.
“Last season was good, but this is a new league campaign, so we’ve got to start that run again and start being competitive straight away.”
Fawcett is aware of the importance of pre-season for several reasons, with a range of sessions planned to get the squad in tip-top condition.
The manager has also arranged six competitive friendlies which include trips to Clyde, Wallington, Hebburn Town, Newcastle Blue Star, and Winlaton before finishing pre-season against Jarrow.
He added: “It’s massively important, we’ve structured our pre-season in a certain way. It’s massive as you’ll fall behind if you don’t get fit.
“There is a way to get fit, I hate nothing more than having to send the team on runs.
“Results aside it’s the effort and physicality they put into the games. If we turn up and just pass the ball about a thousand times with no tempo or aim, then it’s pointless.
“You have to go into the friendlies and be real and put a shift in and work really hard otherwise it’s not worth doing.”
The First Mortgage Glebe will not see any action until the season starts as the manager looks to improve the team’s away form.
He said: “We’ve not got any home friendlies so I’m hoping it will help us improve our away form whilst getting us fit at the same time.”
When asked if there was any reason behind the chosen friendlies Fawcett went on to say: “There are a few local teams with links to the club and I think it’s nice to keep those links.
“They’re all good teams, and they will offer us competitive games. They’ll see us as a scalp.
“We play Clyde because Wayne knows someone up there and we wanted a day out, so Clyde was a no-brainer. You can also play friendlies a little bit earlier in Scotland.
“It’s a competitive pre-season and it’s not meant to be easy, if we can get through it with positive results as well as performances then it’s a productive pre-season.
“As long as we are fit by the end of it that’s the number one goal.”
Fawcett regularly checks in with the team every week or two to see how they are getting on.
However, he appreciates the players need their own time with family and friends away from football to enjoy their time off and return fully refreshed.
When asked if he provides the players with a plan during the off-season. He added: “Not massively, we give them a small close season plan but it’s optional.
“They can choose what they want to do, the goal is to come back fit.
“Most of the lads these days already keep themselves ridiculously fit and gym nearly every day.
“The lads keep themselves ticking over regardless. Even though the season they are at the gym a lot.”
Another area that is “relentless” and keeps Tony extremely busy throughout pre-season is player recruitment, as he looks to strengthen his team prior to the season kicking off.
Since the end of last season, the club have seen Zak Atkinson, Declan Bisset, Danny Barlow, James Anderson, and Callum Elliott depart the Glebe for new challenges.
Fawcett praised the player’s contributions during their time with the club and wished them well for next season.
He added: “I’m really pleased for Danny (Barlow) going to Blyth. He came in and we knew he was above our level, but he put everything he had into playing for us while he was here.
“James signed his contract with Morpeth (Town) and good on him he’s gone down that path and it’s up to him which way he goes.
“Zak (Atkinson) has played in the Northern Premier League before and he was keen to get back there, I wish him all the best and I hope he does well.
“Dec (Bisset) got the chance to play at that level and I hope he absolutely flies and has a brilliant season.
“Callum played for Dunston, and he’s probably got a point to prove so I can understand why he’s gone.
“He’s a great lad and he give everything he had when he played for us. I wish him all the best and I hope he smashes it too.
“I know I sound like a broken record here, but I generally mean that I don’t have any hard feelings for players moving on.”
The Whickham boss is confident in his current squad and moved quickly to further strengthen the team with the signings of goalkeeper Nathan Harker and experienced striker Mitchell Ramsay.
When asked about the two new additions a thrilled Fawcett replied: “They will both be massive players for us next season.
“Nathan is highly thought of, he’s a good person and I think he’ll fit the ethos of how we are as people.
“His playing style is going to be great; his distribution is excellent, and it’ll be great to have him around.
“I think he will also really enjoy his football here he’s ambitious like we are. He’ll learn a lot from Chris (Bannon) as he’s so knowledgeable it’s unbelievable.
“Mitchell, I love his playing style he’s old school he’s such a hard-working player both at home and playing football.
“He’s one of the best hold-up players in the league, he will give us something different to what we didn’t have last year.
“He’ll be a great asset and he can score some goals as well. He’s left-footed which we didn’t have in our attacking positions, so we’ve added a little bit of balance in our forward line.”
The Whickham manager is looking to further bolster his squad with talks ongoing with a few players.
However, Tony remained tight-lipped on his targets but remains confident in attracting the right players to the club.
He added: “It’s early days we still have a bit of business to do this pre-season but there won’t be loads because we don’t need loads in.”
One area Fawcett is passionate about and is looking to use is the club’s youth system.
Last season was a breakthrough season for Whickham’s youth set-up with George Priest, Kobe Bewicke and Keros Lizinde all featuring for the first team.
Fawcett added: “I’m quite passionate about youth development and pathways being available for players.
“It’s pointless being at a club and having the goal of getting somewhere but not having the chance to be able to do that.
“We have the Under 23’s and some of those have started featuring last year and this season we have a new Under 20’s team.
“We’ve got them in the background, so we don’t want a massive squad where those lads don’t get chances.
“We need to keep a pathway and doorway open for them to progress through.”
As the different clubs prepare for the new season with the common goal of challenging for promotion it’s been clear to see several clubs have invested heavily.
When asked if he was concerned, he replied: “I feel I have a strong squad and I never felt we needed to change much as we’ve already done that when we joined last year.
“For me, it’s not about the money that gets spent at a football club that’s not what makes you successful.
“It’s about the closeness of the squad that’s where the winning teams come from.
“The structure of the pyramid now makes it important to get out of this league when you can as it’s becoming a bit more of a feeder league for the Northern Premier League.
“There is going to be a lot more teams getting promoted and not coming back down and they will raid the Northern League for their players.
“I can understand why teams are taking a bit of a gamble and spending a fair bit of money on recruiting players to try and gain promotion.
“Again, though it’s not about the money that is spent, it’s about the belief, ability and closeness within the squad.”
As the season gets closer by the day it’s building up to be another competitive campaign full of surprises.
One thing is for sure come 31st July, Fawcett will have his Whickham team organised, fit and ready for the challenges ahead.