After a decade in charge of the club, Simon Armstrong stepped down from his duties in November 2021. This could’ve posed a threat regarding succession, but Assistant Manager Sam Dexter stepped up to follow in Armstrong’s footsteps. Fast forward to the present day, and Ilkley Town find themselves thriving in only their second season in the North West Counties Football League (NWCFL), writes Matthew Lambe.
In Part Two of The Making of a Semi-Professional Football Team – after Evan Seaman’s Part One piece - I’ll cover Sam Dexter’s reign as manager, including the rise from the cusp of relegation to having all to play for with only two games of the 2022-23 season remaining.
Despite the transition being a swift process – and the squad not having to adapt to a new philosophy of football – it wasn’t all plain sailing to begin with, as the Baht’atters were stifled by injuries and Covid-19. Regarding his first month at the wheel, Dexter says, ‘My first few games as manager were extremely difficult as we lost the first three games. Close defeats away at Atherton, Daisy Hill and Cleator Moor meant we were in the bottom three and fighting for survival at Christmas’.
On a bitterly cold December afternoon against a physical Ashton Town side, the Baht’atters fortunes were about to change. Recalling the game, Dexter states, ‘The turning point came with a dramatic home win against Ashton Town. We were 3-1 down with 20 minutes to go and we came back to win 4-3 in stoppage time. That was the turning point that gave the players the confidence and belief they needed and our results slowly improved after that performance.’
From this point onwards, the Baht’atters form improved greatly, managing wins against Pilkington, South Liverpool and notably a 6-2 hammering of promotion-bound Golcar United.
However, back-to-back losses against Holker Old Boys and Darwen in the final two away trips of the season left Town in a precarious position: they had to beat AFC Blackpool (who were fighting for promotion) to ensure survival. When asked if he altered his preparations for such a monumental occasion, the manager responded, ‘We prepared in exactly the same way as we had done for the previous 33 games of the season, two high intensity training sessions based around our playing principles. It’s important to have courage in your convictions and we believe in playing a certain way and we won’t deviate from that no matter who the opposition is or what the occasion is. It would have been wrong to change anything, I knew what the squad were capable of and I believed in them 100%. That experience of survival has had an immeasurable impact on our current squad, they are better players because of it’.
Ultimately, Dexter’s side ran out 2-0 winners thanks to a double from Kevin Gonzalez and an excellent display defensively, meaning they finished their first season at semi-professional level one point above the drop.
The 2022-23 campaign couldn’t have gone any differently. Clearly not suffering from second-season syndrome, the Baht’atters burst out of the blocks - gaining four wins in their first five games which saw them languish in 3rd.
Dexter believes consistency away from the MPM Stadium has been one of the driving factors contributing to the Baht’atters success thus far; ‘Our away form has also been a contributing factor as we only gained 4 points away from home last season. This season we have flipped those stats on their head and were unbeaten away from home for the first 6 months of the season (up until the end of January), which is a fantastic achievement for any club at this level.’
During this unbeaten spell away from home, Ilkley were involved in several lively games, including comeback victories against Daisy Hill and league leaders Pilkington, both of which finished 2-3.
This season has added increased competition to the league, with both promoted sides (FC St Helens and Euxton Villa) proving tough opposition. This can be seen from the current table, with Ilkley, St Helens and Euxton all occupying playoff positions currently – causing a dramatic conclusion to the campaign.
Whatever the outcome of this season may be, Ilkley Town remains a highly community-minded club, as well as having a reputation for playing an attractive style of football:
‘I have the responsibility to continue the outstanding work of my predecessors Dave Houlston (who is still our first team coach) and Simon Armstrong whose contributions to the club have been immeasurable. I think we are one of the most attractive semi-professional clubs to play for, for any potential new players wanting a new challenge or a young player wanting an opportunity. We have superb facilities, a team of very experienced coaches, and we play a very exciting and attractive brand of football that isn’t mirrored anywhere else. We have a proven track record of giving young players a chance to play semi-professional football (the current squad of players is proof of that) and I don’t think there is another club who offer those opportunities we do.
‘But it is also important that I steer the first team and male senior section in a progressive direction that is at the heart of the clubs’ value which lie in the heart of the local community.’