This article originally appeared in The Non-League Magazine.
Thirty years after their best-ever League season, Bracknell Town are emerging from a long period of struggle in a rebuilt ground and with ambitions of progressing up the National League System.
The Robins lead the Hellenic League Premier Division at the time of writing despite having spent the first four months of the season playing home matches at the ground of Sandhurst Town while the ground at Larges Lane – Bracknell’s home since 1933 – was redeveloped. While work continues to complete the transformation of the stadium, Bracknell were able to return home on 1st December and won a local derby against Binfield in front of 476 spectators.
The match marked a significant shift in the club’s fortunes after almost 15 years of struggle. After finishing fourth in Division One South of the Isthmian League in 2001-02 the club endured a series of difficult seasons, particularly after being transferred to the South & West Division of the Southern League. In six seasons in this division, the Robins never finished above 19th and were relegated in last place at the end of 2009-10. Worse was to follow in 2011-12 when the club suffered another relegation, to Division One East of the Hellenic League. Although the Robins spent only one season at Step 6, relegation was again a possibility last season, until the return of club legend Mark Tallentire for a second spell as Manager.
The appointment of Tallentire was driven by Chairman Kayne Steinborn-Busse, who has led a revamp of the club which has included personnel changes and a new club badge in addition to the ground works.
Steinborn-Busse remarked: “When I arrived in the summer of 2015 the club was in debt and in a poor state of affairs, we had to make some very quick decisions about how the club could survive. The club had blindly focused all its efforts for many years on moving away from Larges Lane. This led to a very run down ground that did not engage with the local community well. We decided to make some changes at Board level and buy out the option that Luff Development group had on our land. We stopped focusing on a move and looked at what we could do at Larges Lane. A historical suggestion was to sell some land and we looked at how feasible this would be, and in August 2015 decided this was the best way forward. In February 2016 we submitted our planning application and pressed on with redeveloping the ground whereby the current board have born the cost of this process, and the works up to this point.”
Contracts have been exchanged which will lead to the sale of a parcel of the club’s land, on which houses will be built. Unusually, the Robins were only away from their traditional venue for six months, as Steinborn-Busse explained:
“I recruited a team of specialists early on. We asked MUGA UK to design the pitch, Ascot Design Architects to design the housing scheme, and Davis Planning to support the application. It was a major application so required around 12 weeks of pre planning work and then a further 12 weeks of consultation with the Council. The Council and local residents have been very supportive of our plans from the start and we gained a good volume of support for our planning application which was lodged in February 2016. We got an approval in May 2016, and we had Velocity our pitch builder on site in June 2016. I was a bit disappointed it took so long, but as I now understand, it was extremely quick for a project of this scale.”
On the appointment of Mark Tallentire as manager in October 2015, the Chairman was adamant that it had been a key decision: “Tally was the only manager on my personal shortlist when I joined the club. We needed a manager that could get the club off the foot of the table and to get a team of players in that would be committed. When Tally arrived we had 80 First Team players signed and a different eleven each week, it was madness. The club had no leadership on or off the pitch and it was showing. Tally fixed that straight away, we survived and the rest of that season is history!”
Tallentire had played for Bracknell, been joint manager with his brother Clive from 1999-2001 and later assisted his successor Alan Taylor. During Tallentire’s previous spell in charge at Larges Lane, Bracknell reached the First Round Proper of The FA Cup for the only time to date, losing to Lincoln City. He went on to manage Binfield for six years before a short spell in charge of Burnham.
On returning to the club, Tallentire remarked: “The main reason for me returning to Larges Lane, was Kayne Steinborn-Busse and his vision for the club. I had previously been approached on numerous occasions to go back to Bracknell, but I was very happy during those times at near neighbours Binfield. I was in between jobs after leaving Burnham when Kayne met me and outlined his vision for the club. Shortly after that meeting with Kayne I was offered the chance to go back as manager. It was a job I couldn’t say no to.
“After six years at Binfield, a club that was so well run, going from there to Burnham and then to Bracknell it seemed I’d stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire! The team were second from bottom of the Hellenic League Premier Division with players that were just not up to the required standard. The job was a lot bigger than I first envisaged. Some players only played when the team were at home, most of them had terrible attitudes and nobody really cared about the club. Sweeping changes were made to the team in those first weeks, with players leaving and for me it was really a case of bringing in players that I could trust, to keep the club in the division. Once I had the players I wanted, it was a case of getting them to gel as quickly as I possibly could. I split the bottom six into a mini league, with the aim of finishing top of that mini league. I can’t tell you the feeling of relief when we were mathematically safe from going down. To put it all into context, this time last year we were still second from bottom, twelve months on and we are top of the league table with ten games to go.”
Tallentire is clear that the new facilities at the club had a positive effect even before they were built:
“The redevelopment of ‘the Lane’ was a real selling point when recruiting players in the summer. Myself, alongside the Chairman and my assistant manager Steve Nebbett, invited our potential targets to the club office. Kayne sold the redevelopment of the club, whilst Nebbs and I outlined what our vision was on the football side. It was difficult for players to walk out of those meetings without feeling excited and wanting to be part of a new era. So the redevelopment was a very important tool in our recruitment drive.
“I knew that we would need some time to integrate all the new players, so it was difficult to predict how quickly that would happen. The other problem we had was that the bulldozers were moving into Larges Lane and we would be playing our early home games at Sandhurst Town FC. That was going to be an unknown entity for not just the players, but the management team as well. Privately I was worried about that, because it was a scenario I had never experienced. We were inconsistent in the early games, but during certain spells the green shoots of quality began to show, which made me believe we were on the right path.”
The final months of this season promise to be as exciting for supporters as the climax of the 1986-87 season, when Bracknell finished third in Division One of the Isthmian League, missing out on promotion to the Premier Division by a single point. In those days, the Premier Division of the Isthmian League fed directly into the Football Conference, so the club came extremely close to promotion to the equivalent of Step 2.
Three decades on, the Robins’ aim is to secure the Hellenic League Championship, while the club has also reached the Final of the Berks & Bucks Senior Trophy and the quarter-finals of the Hellenic League Cup. However, Mark Tallentire remains focussed on the task at hand:
“To get the club promoted would be right up there with everything I have achieved as a player and as a manager. I don’t want to tempt fate by talking too much about this as we have ten massive games to play before that becomes a reality, but the fact is that we have put ourselves in a fantastic position and our future remains firmly in our own hands.
“If all goes to plan and we end up in a position to move up to the next level, we won’t be turning that chance down. We have a fantastic new ground that has been designed for us to move up through the levels of the pyramid.”
The last word goes to Bracknell’s ambitious Chairman, Kayne Steinborn-Busse, who declared: “We have a robust 10-year plan at the club and are an extremely focused team on and off the pitch. However, we will always operate within our means. I believe a town of Bracknell’s size deserves a team that can operate at Step 3 however we have to remain grounded; right now we are a Step 5 club with ambition.”