Southend Manor found themselves in trouble. The Essex Senior League side were battling at the bottom of the table for survival, but despite their best efforts, they just couldn’t catch a break. Instead just before Christmas, they decided to make a change.

James Wakeling, the former Hullbridge Sports Assistant Manager, was brought in to try and keep the club at Step 5 of the National League System. His decision to take up the role had come about under some caution from others, but the vision and future of the club swung it in his favour, something he hadn’t expected.

“I was the Assistant Manager at Hullbridge [alongside Darren Manning] and always knew I wanted to take on a [managerial] role myself. I had a few options and opportunities presented to me, but I didn’t feel they were right. After speaking to Gerry at Southend Manor, it was clear the ambition was to stay up and have a real good go at the league next season.”

While James had been Assistant Manager at Hullbridge and had helped lead the team to title-winning success in the Essex Senior League during the 2018/19 season, on paper the Southend Manor job looked like a complete different prospect, but he was able to find comparisons between both.

“When me and Darren took the job at Hullbridge, it wasn’t too dissimilar to the situation that Southend Manor found themselves in. They were in the relegation zone, so I used that experience to a degree. In football it’s about adapting and getting the right result. Bringing in experienced players like Perry Dunn was huge for me. I remember him in my time with Hullbridge as well as the other signings I have made, who have really helped the players already at the club.”

His first assignment saw his side travel to Champions-elect Walthamstow in the Errington Challenge Cup, a tough game for any manager to start with. Before he had taken over, the Stags had beaten Manor 8-1 in the league, making it look rather one sided on paper, but that wasn’t as expected.

It had been a narrow win for Stow, but with both sides being reduced to 10 men in the game after a brawl, it certainly could have gone either way. While he didn’t see

“From the Walthamstow game to Sawbridgeworth game at home, I knew I had to hit the ground running. I felt after the first 10, 15 minutes, we were absolutely battered [against Stow] and our keeper, who was on loan from Leyton Orient, had to make some great saves as well as having to do some last ditch defending. Prior to that game, Walthamstow had beaten Manor 8-1 [away from home] and I knew the quality of Walthamstow from playing against them in the FA Cup with Hullbridge. After those first 15 to the red card, I felt we had taken better control of the game and remember thinking ‘wow’, especially having met the players once before that game. Obviously, it got a bit messy, but I always felt that the team who netted first, would go onto win that game and it was unfortunately that Stow got that early goal.”

“It was from the Sawbridgeworth game, that my focus really turned to trying to keep Manor in the league. I like to think that Manor have been on a good run since that first game.”

[11 points in 22 games. Bringing in players]

“Conceding over 80 goals in a whole season is bad, never alone by Christmas. Bringing in players like Perry and Eammon [Payne] was vital in being better across the pitch and bringing in a new keeper [in Christan North] after the Orient keepers loan expired was also key. I’ve signed about 7 players since taking over, so the combination of youth already at the club and experience, it has bode well.”

[Proud of the squad. 19 points in 15 games]

“I’m delighted with everything. Being manager now and the number one at the club, I see that as a bigger achievement than being a number two and winning the league. At lot of people thought I was mad, taking the Manor job as my first one, and I heard a lot of things from different people. To me, I just got the feeling straight away that this was the job for me and I’m delighted with the effort the players have shown. Looking back, after the first few games, I thought it wasn’t as bad as people said, but the [4-0] loss to West Essex really brought me down to earth and really showed the nature of the task at hand.”

[Points in the right games]

“When I first came in, I crossed out the league table in front of the boys and pointed out that our number one spot was to be top of the pile amongst Clapton, St Margaretsbury, Sawbridgeworth and Sporting Bengal. Against those teams, we haven’t lost and haven’t even conceded a goal [beating St Mags and Bengal 3-0, beating Sawbo 1-0, and drawing 0-0 with Clapton]. I knew whatever happened we had to beat those teams, who found themselves 6 points ahead of us at the time, so it was important to get them points quickly and prevent those sides pulling away. Now, with just two games to go, we are top of that league table.”

[Safety on Friday Night]

“On paper, the teams who hadn’t been picking up the points, had to go and win three on a bounce. I thought to myself that we had done enough [after the draw with Walthamstow], however, football is a funny old game. Without being mathematically safe, and thinking you’re out of trouble, can sometimes come to bite you on the arse. I made sure the players took every game seriously until it was confirmed with that draw.”

[Final two games]

“I want to win every game we play, but it now gives me a chance to give some of the youth players a chance. We played a couple of youngsters against Stansted and I think they played really well, but this now gives me an opportunity to prepare for next season and see if they can add to the quality of the squad. Everyone who gets picked will know what I expect and I will certainly be hoping for the points when we play Stanway.”

And what is your target come the end of next season?

“1st. There is no place I want to be than first place. Some people will say I’m crazy, naïve and stupid as Southend Manor have never really been that end of the table, but if you don’t want to be winning the league, there is no point in your being there. Obviously, I would love to make that a reality, but if we are in the promotion mix come the end of the season, I will be a very happy manager.”