A PILLAR OF SUCCESS

BACK THEN: How the Free Press reported Richard Wilkins' arrival in July 2000 and his first Free Press headshot
BACK THEN: How the Free Press reported Richard Wilkins' arrival in July 2000 and his first Free Press headshot
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You have to go back 5,060 days, 594 league games and more than 700 editions of the Bury Free Press to reach a time before Richard Wilkins was in charge of Bury Town.

Former manager Keith Vince had resigned in June 2000 due to work commitments after a disappointing campaign in the Eastern Counties League Premier Division — then the Jewson League, now the Thurlow Nunn League — had seen the Blues slump to 17th in the table, just a handful of points above the relegation zone.

Mildenhall Town, Diss Town and Ipswich Wanderers were just three of the teams who finished well clear of Bury that season, but a 35-year-old just out of the professional game with a career-ending neck injury was about to be thrust into the picture, tasked with restoring the west 
Suffolk outfit to their former glories.

Only two years earlier Wilkins had been lifting the Football League Division Three play-off trophy above his head as captain of Colchester United under the twin towers at the old Wembley Stadium.

But he was about to make his next step in the footballing world in front of Ram Meadow’s wooden-clad main stand, thanks to a phone call from former Colchester teammate Steve McGavin.

“My father was good friends with the late Colin Hurley (then Bury chairman),” said McGavin, now head of recruitment at Ipswich Town’s academy. “At the time, Bury Town were looking for a new manager and Richard had just finished his playing career at Colchester United, where he was a teammate of mine.

“He lived locally and to me it just seemed like a good fit.”

As right as he thought Wilkins was for the job, little did McGavin know that the fresh-faced new boss — smiling broadly in his first picture for the Free Press — would go on to carve such a legend in those wooden stands of a west Suffolk market town.

Double act

“I know Bury Town has the potential,” Wilkins stated under the Free Press headline ‘Town appoint new double act’.

That double act was an association with his first assistant manager Trevor Collins — whose own future remains unclear at Ram Meadow.

John Zdrenka, Richard Skelly and Ben Chenery would all go on to hold the position of Wilkins’ number two over the following 14 years, key figures in the small coaching teams formed at the club.

Gary and Trevor Newman, both from Walsham-le-Willows, would become Wilkins’ first signings — echoing a strange coincidence that Walsham duo Jack Brame and Nathan Clarke were the last two he brought to the club — but a first win would prove elusive.

Dale Vince, son of ex-boss Keith, and Shane Foreman appeared to have set the Blues on their way to victory in Wilkins’ first match in charge against Woodbridge Town, but two late goals put paid to that.

An FA Cup exit at the hands of Maldon and FA Vase defeat to Bowers United followed, while a rotten league run included a 5-1 defeat at Fakenham Town.

However, Trevor Newman struck to hand Wilkins his first competitive victory as manager — a 1-0 triumph over Diss Town — but things would not get much easier for another 18 months.

Pro signings

During that time though, former Blackpool, Chesterfield and Mansfield Town player Ian Stringfellow became the first former professional to be signed by Wilkins — a list that would be added to by the likes of Gavin Johnson and James Scowcroft over the subsequent years.

That first season ended with a minor improvement from Vince’s last in charge, with Bury 16th.

However, the Blues found themselves battling off-the-field issues, with Hurley resigning as chairman and no main sponsor found until Cecil and Larter took over in November 2001.

Russell Ward was promoted to chairman that summer in a reshuffle to help arrest the slide, but results on the pitch took a nosedive as a result and Wilkins was ‘defiant’ after losing the first four league games and an FA Cup tie.

James Tatham ended that run by sealing a 2-0 win over Felixstowe on debut — and it proved to be a victory that would mark the beginning of a surge into the top three.

A poor second half to the season saw Bury only finish seventh, but Wilkins found himself having to distance himself from the vacant Colchester job in February 2003.

‘Maybe in the future’ was his remark as he continued on his managerial odyssey with Bury, which yielded back-to-back ninth-place finishes and a place in a cup final for the first time — a 4-0 defeat to AFC Sudbury in the Suffolk Premier Cup final at Portman Road.

Promotion #1

From there though, Bury would begin their charge out of the Eastern Counties League — which had changed to the Ridgeons League.

They topped the table during the 2004/05 season before eventually finishing second, reached the quarter-finals of the FA Vase and suffered more Suffolk Premier Cup final heartache, this time at the hands of Lowestoft Town.

That performance, along with the signing of McGavin and the emergence of future skipper Tom Bullard, led Bury to apply for promotion the following season.

Mixed in with a memorable FA Vase run — which ended one step short of Wembley at the hands of Hillingdon Borough in the semi-finals — the Blues achieved their goal and a second-place finish to Lowestoft secured their spot in step four of the non-League pyramid for the first time in a decade.

College dynasty

The loss of Ian Miller to Ipswich Town at the beginning of the 2006/07 campaign would hurt Bury badly, but was the first sign of the footballing dynasty being created by Wilkins at Bury and as a coach at West Suffolk College.

Nick Pope, Ben Coker and Liam Trotter have all progressed into the professional game and Connor Hall is expected to follow after a year of injury problems delayed his switch to Cambridge United.

“He had a massive influence on my career,” said Hall. “I am only young, but he has been the best manager I have worked with.

“That is not just because he brought me into the first-team.

“At West Suffolk College my first year was not my best year, but he put faith in me and luckily I pulled through.”

Fighting for job

Five months after the departure of Miller and with Bury struggling in Ryman One North, Wilkins admitted he and the players were ‘fighting to keep our jobs’.

They ended the season 17th and the signing of Johnson galvanised Bury as they stormed up to seventh the following season.

Twenty-year-old goalkeeper Marcus Garnham joined ahead of the 2008/09 season — another seventh-placed finish, this time in Southern League Division One Midlands — but that campaign was all about the FA Cup.

A 4-1 fourth qualifying round triumph over Basingstoke Town crowned that run, which ended in the first round at the hands of Alfreton Town, as hundreds of fans enjoyed the club’s best cup run since 1968/69.

What was to follow in 2009/10 though, would top even that as the five-year five-trophy run began in glorious fashion.

Promotion #2

With Skelly appointed as Wilkins’ assistant in the summer, Bury set club record after club record — including most league wins and most points in a season — as they overcame the challenge of Hitchin to take the Southern League Division One Midlands title.

Hitchin racked up 100 points, but Bury produced a superhuman effort to win 14 and draw one — with Hitchin — of their last 15 games to seal the greatest achievement in the club’s history with 102 points.

The 1,550-strong crowd who were at Ram Meadow the day Kieran Leabon hit a hat-trick to down Marlow and seal the title will cherish those memories for years to come, few more than Skelly though.

“We just kept going and going,” said the former Mildenhall Town manager. “We had a group of players who had a real team spirit and will to win.

“We tried to keep them focused, relaxed and enjoying their football — it was all about enjoying it because we knew they had talent.”

Premier class

With Scowcroft part of the team, a historic first season in the Ryman League Premier Division followed.

With a side playing with little fear of the big non-League names such as Kingstonian, Wealdstone, Grays Athletic and Canvey Island, they took the title race down to the wire before fading in the closing weeks to finish third behind champions Sutton United.

Play-off disappointment followed at the hands of rivals Lowestoft Town, a scene repeated 12 months later at AFC Hornchurch after a fifth-placed finish.

On each occasion though, Bury had a trophy to comfort themselves with thanks to superb goals in both games.

Sam Reed hit a cracker as part of his brace as the Blues defeated Needham Market 2-0 in the Suffolk Premier Cup final of 2010/11 at Portman Road — finally getting their hands on the county trophy they craved — and Mark Coulson’s 30-yard wonder strike sealed the Alan Boon Isthmian League Cup the following season.

With the likes of Craig Parker back at the club and John Sands banging in 33 goals to become the Ryman Premier’s top scorer, 2012/13 should arguably have been the year Bury finally broke through the class ceiling.

However, they were left with just the Suffolk Premier Cup again after a lack of squad depth was exposed during the early part of 2013.

The final few months

Bury went all out with the budget to try and reach the promised land of Conference football this season, but ultimately overstretched themselves — culminating in the financial restrictions that brought Wilkins’ Bury career to a close.

In the end, there was a tinge of relief in his voice — almost hidden by the pride at a job well done — but a sweet release from the pressures and the constraints that have blighted his final few months in charge of Bury Town.

The signs were there for him to walk away from it all during the season — unpaid and late wages, top players leaving, a depleted squad that featured a mere seven senior players for a trip to Hampton and Richmond.

But — true to his character, true to his word and with the persuasion of his family, friends and colleagues — Wilkins made sure he finished the job.

When consigned to the record books, 12 points from his final 20 league matches in charge will not even begin to tell the story.

Without those 12 points, Bury would have suffered the ignominy of going from play-off contenders to going down.

Permanently shorn of Shane Tolley, Ryan Semple, David Bridges, Russell Short and Adam Bailey-Dennis, Wilkins — along with assistant Ben Chenery and the remaining senior players — summoned enough strength and believe in the club’s youngsters to step up, be counted and get them over the line.

There was still one final act, one hurdle to overcome, one more glorious night with which to close an illustrious career.

Wilkins may have been his own pillar of success, but he called upon two of his own on the pitch to dig Bury out of a hole in the Suffolk Premier Cup final.

The score was 1-1 after an hour, but lower-league Felixstowe and Walton United were dominating.

Only goalkeeper Garnham kept the Blues in the game and Bullard — so often the man to stop goals — popped up with one of the most important strikes of his career to make it 2-1 and from there Bury never looked back.

That allowed Wilkins to walk away from it all — off the pitch at one of his greatest rivals over the years, AFC Sudbury — and leave with five trophies in five seasons.

In most people’s eyes — if not everyone’s — that makes him the most successful manager in the club’s history and a legendary figure whose legacy will surely stand the test of time.