PAUL Cox looked back on seven years of life at Eastwood Town this week and declared: “I’d taken the club as far as I could.”
Cox quit his role as boss of the Badgers last week, citing the significant changes taking place at Coronation Park following a season of both joy and despair as being a good time to seek pastures new.
And as new owners prepare to move in and bring with them a new manager, Cox is urging supporters to get behind the next regime as they aim to continue the momentum gained in recent years.
He said: “I’ve got a lot of friends at Eastwood and have loved being here, and I just hope everyone sticks by the new people and that the progress we made continues.
“I really hope the foundations people like Rob and myself have laid will be sufficient for people to take the club on to a new level.”
Cox first arrived at Eastwood as assistant manager to Bryan Chambers - as well as overseeing the club’s academy - following a playing career that had seen him appear for the likes of Notts County, Swindon Town, Kettering Town and Hull City.
The club were then in the Northern Counties East League and although promotion was gained in Cox’s first season, Chambers resigned in 2005 with the club bottom of the Northern Premier League Division One.
Cox took over as boss, and proceeded to guide the Badgers up the table to finish just outside the play-off zone.
It was a period of time which he learned a lot from.
He said: “I took over just after the Cambridge City FA Cup tie when we’d been knocked out, and the first five or six games were really difficult. I’d say it was probably the biggest learning curve I’ve ever had in the game because I came in with a philosophy of wanting to do it a certain way, but you soon realise what the job is about and changes had to be made.
“We then went on a great run and finished just a point outside the play-offs. That was some achievement because we had no money and a team full of kids.”
Victory in the Notts Senior Cup against Sutton Town brought his first silverware, and another solid season followed as Eastwood finished seventh and again won the Notts Senior Cup.
It was the 2006/7 season which was to bring the first of three promotions in Cox’s tenure, with a play-off final at Cammell Laird securing a spot in the UniBond Premier Division.
Cox added: “You have to remember that all of the achievements to that point had been secured with very few funds and attendances at Coronation Park struggling to get over 200.
“People have tended to only associate the success at Eastwood Town with the money we’ve had in recent years, but initially we did really well with a very tight budget and a squad which included a lot of players I’d brought through the academy.”
But life was to change dramatically in October 2007 when the club was bought by local entrepreneur Robert Yong, who moved quickly to persuade Cox to leave his teaching job and work full-time as boss.
Cox says that was a situation that took some getting used to.
“Rob’s first game was against Fleetwood where we had a right-back playing up front and a young lad we’d just brought in from amateur football alongside him, so even though we won 2-1 it was immediately obvious what was needed!” he said.
“But going full-time was a bit strange as it wasn’t really a full-time job at first, as we didn’t have an academy to work with every day, nor any full-time players which I don’t think football at this level warrants. But in the end I was spending a lot of time on the phone and watching games so it kept me very busy.”
With a vastly-enhanced playing budget the Eastwood squad grew in quality and promotion was only denied thanks to a 4-0 play-off semi-final defeat against Gateshead, though that match left the owner and management certain that a large overhaul was needed if further progress was to be made, despite more silverware in the shape of the UniBond League Challenge Cup and yet another Notts Senior Cup success.
Cox said: “The Gateshead game was men against boys and we found out the kind of quality we’d need if we were going to challenge, but considering we’d been promoted the season before it was a great achievement to finish as high as we did.”
What followed was a season it would be hard to match ever again, as Eastwood reached the third round proper of the FA Cup and went on to sensationally win the UniBond Premier Division title and progress to the highest level in the club’s history.
Cox said: “It was a campaign I don’t think we could ever have come close to repeating. Clubs two or three times the size of ours never get as far as we did in the FA Cup in their history, and to win the league too was unbelievable.
“I said to Rob Yong at the time that it doesn’t get any better than that for a football club like this - in fact I should probably have resigned then because how do you top it?!
“But it meant the expectation was very high for the next season and we had to try and fulfill that but within reasonable means.”
The first season in the Conference North saw Eastwood start strongly before ultimately falling away and finishing tenth - still a fine achievement for a club of its stature.
And despite the sacking of his close friend and assistant manager John Ramshaw, Cox felt pleased with that campaign despite some dissenting voices on the terraces.
“There were a minority who seemed to have forgotten how far we’d come so quickly and it was perhaps a case where we became victims of our own success,” he said.
“I want to win every game but a sense of realism had to be maintained throughout the club. Many fans who’d been with us right from the beginning told me they had to pinch themselves because of where we were, but we couldn’t get blasé about winning.”
Cox’s final season at Eastwood was as exciting as it was bizarre.
Defeats in the opening four games left the Badgers rooted to the bottom of the table, and whilst FA Cup progress again saw them reach the first round proper, where they were put out by Swindon Supermarine, the league form only started to pick up after a pivotal game at Nuneaton Town in November.
Cox said: “I made some pretty drastic changes and the impact was immediate. We’d been playing some great football but were being beaten, and as I’m someone who’s only in the game to win, something had to be done.
“The players responded well to their new, more familiar roles, and we went from strength to strength.”
A number of unbeaten runs followed, including a league record 19 games to the end of the season, and Conference Premier side Rushden & Diamonds were dumped out of the FA Trophy in a thrilling 4-3 replay win in January.
But the news that Coronation Park’s ground grading was insufficient for the club to compete in the end-of-season play-off competition was to shatter Cox and his squad, with their blistering climb up the table and into the top five suddenly rendered fruitless.
“We were all demoralised but to the credit of the players they pulled their socks up, got on with it, and finished fourth,” he said.
“We had no fear of the Conference National and I really felt we could compete, not necessarily in the top echelons but I don’t think we’d have been relegated, not with the team spirit, mentality and good players we had.”
But in a final reflection on his time at the club, Cox looked back with great pride.
He said: “People kept throwing stats at me saying my win ratio was up there with some of the top managers in the game, and that’s not me being arrogant, it just shows how much we’ve achieved as a group in the last few years.
“But I felt it was a good time to walk away and while I don’t currently have anything lined up I hope to be back in the game very soon.
“I’ve been really humbled by the messages I’ve had since I resigned and Eastwood’s will certainly be the first result I look for each week.”