Hawks star Wes Fogden on life in lockdown and the chance to win promotion via the National League South play-offs

When lockdown was imposed on March 23, Wes Fogden still had visions of kicking a ball again within a month or so.

Wednesday, 1st July 2020, 8:37 am
Wes Fogden is tackled during Hawks' win at Dorking in what turned out to be their last game. Picture: Kieron Louloudis

As it turned out, today - Wednesday, July 1 - is the 109th day since Hawks last played a National League South match.

And it’s going to be the best part of another month until Fogden and his colleagues return to competitive action.

Hawks are provisionally scheduled to host Slough or Dartford in their South play-off semi-final behind closed doors at Westleigh Park on the weekend of July 25/26.

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The game could possibly be screened live by BT Sport.

If successful, Paul Doswell’s side will provisionally host the final a week later where another win would see the Hawks again take their place at the top table of non-league football.

Fogden, 32, is aiming for this third promotion in four seasons since returning to Westleigh Park after five years in the EFL and over 100 appearances for AFC Bournemouth, Pompey and Yeovil Town.

He hasn’t met any of his team-mates in person since Hawks last played at Dorking on March 14. But the squad’s covid-19 testing starts this Thursday and a week of non-contact training will begin two days later.

Reflecting on the last few months in lockdown, he admitted: ‘It’s been different, very different - just strange. But then it’s been strange for everyone.

‘We’ve had a few video calls but it’s very different not having face-to-face contact with anyone, not being able to see people. Everyone is itching to get back - hopefully we can all gel quickly again.’

Regarding the pandemic, Fogden said: ‘I didn’t know too much about it at first. Our league was one of the last to stop playing.

‘I thought we might have a three or four-week lay-off and then come back to finish the season off.

‘Even when we were self-isolating in lockdown at the start, we were keeping up our fitness programmes in case we had to play our last few games.

‘We were making the most of our hour to start with, running and cycling to try and keep our fitness levels up.

‘But there’s no fitness like football fitness. You can do all the running you want but it’s not the same as twisting and turning in training. It’s completely different.

‘Watching the top level games so far, you could see in the first 6-10 games that their match sharpness wasn’t the same.’

He continued: ‘We’ll have three weeks to build up our match fitness as best we can.

‘Normally in pre-season you’d have three or four weeks of just running.

‘In the first friendly everyone would probably play 45 minutes each and try to build up that way.

‘Our fitness levels will be fine, it will just be a case of getting the sharpness again.

‘We’ll need to use these three weeks wisely.

‘Hopefully we’ll have some friendlies - it might be an in-house game or against another club.

‘I wouldn’t want to go into a semi-final having just trained.’

Shining a light on what fitness work he has done in the last 107 days, Fogden explained: ‘Training on my own has been difficult.

‘In a normal pre-season you’d be running for three or four weeks, gradually building it up.

‘This time we’ve been running for 13 or 14 weeks and before a week or 10 days ago there was no end in sight.

‘To find the motivation some days has been difficult, you try and mix it up - some days you’d go for a longer run, then some shorter distances.

‘For four weeks I just went cycling, to give my joints a rest from running.

‘That did a job for four weeks but then I started running again to use the muscles I would need for football.

‘Cycling training is totally different, but it was pretty good.’

After Boris Johnson announced total lockdown on March 23, the Football Association - acting with undue haste - quickly null and voided steps 3-7 of the non-league pyramid.

For Hawks, who play at step 2, the wait to find out how their campaign was being brought to a finish took a lot, lot longer.

The National League were then forced into an embarrassing U-turn with regards to the South and North division play-offs. After initially declaring they wouldn’t take place, a few days later they were back on the agenda.

Fogden wasn’t happy the leagues below his club were scrapped with no promotion and relegation.

‘Players have put in all that effort, and the fans have paid good money to watch the games ...it was harsh to call null and void at such an early date,’ he said. ‘I thought originally they (the FA) would go back on that.

‘The play-offs (in Hawks’ division) are going ahead and rightly so. Players have worked hard to get into the positions they were in.

‘I do have sympathies for the teams that have been relegated, but we’ve played more than three-quarters of the season - teams deserve to be in their positions.

‘The aim for most clubs at the start of the season is to win promotion, and we’ve got a chance to do it.’

It would be a superb achievement if Hawks did win promotion, bearing in mind boss Doswell almost totally rebuilt the squad he inherited from Lee Bradbury after taking over 13 months ago.

Only Fogden, Alfie Rutherford, Bradley Tarbuck and Chris Paul were left from the 2018/19 squad that suffered National League relegation.

‘It was a completely new squad, only about three or four of the previous season’s squad were left,’ Fogden said.

‘It was great how quickly the squad gelled so well from day one.

‘With so many new players, you don’t always know how people will click with each other.

‘The manager brought in some very experienced players, a lot of them had played at a higher level.

‘They gave us a bit more nous.

‘We’ve got a very honest set of lads, there’s a great mentality and spirit in the squad.’

That was underlined by the fact Hawks were unbeaten away from home in league action - the first club to do so in the top six divisions of English football since Arsenals’s ‘invincibles’ in 2003/04.

Fogden stated: ‘To go unbeaten away at any level is a great achievement.

‘It was our home form which let us down. Even if it had been slightly better we could have been top.’

Fogden is in his second spell with Hawks, having previously played between 2009-2011 before signing for AFC Bournemouth.

After being released by the Cherries, he signed an 18-month deal at Pompey in January 2014.

He went on to make 28 league appearances - 19 starts - and the first of his two goals was a memorable winner in front of the Fratton End after coming on as a sub against Bristol Rovers in April 2014.

After leaving the Blues at the end of 2014/15, he spent a season with Yeovil Town before returning to Westleigh Park in the summer of 2016.

Hawks had just been relegated to the Southern League, but Fogden helped the club win back-to-back promotions and a place in the top tier of non-league football for the first time.

Up against mainly full-time clubs, though, the Hawks were relegated at the first attempt.

‘We stuck with the squad that won us promotion. Being part-time we always knew it would be difficult. We gave it our all but it wasn’t to be,’ Fogden recalled.

‘If we were to go up in the play-offs, the squad we have now would be able to have a better bash at the National League.

‘We only trained Tuesday and Thursday evenings last season. I think any team who only trains two evenings a week will struggle in the National League.

‘This season we’ve trained three mornings a week and it’s made a massive difference. You feel fresher, the brain is functioning better in the morning - and I think that’s showed.

‘This is a competitive league, probably the strongest National League South I have played in - and this is my sixth season at the level overall.

‘There’s some quality players, a lot have played at a higher level, there’s some big clubs with good followings.

‘There are clubs who have made big investments.’

Hawks only lost one of their eight league games against their play-off rivals in 2019/20 - winning six of them including doubles over Weymouth and Dorking and a stunning 4-1 victory at champions Wealdstone.

A handful of those successes are the games that stick in the memory when Fogden reflected on the season.

‘Dorking at home was a stand-out for me,’ he said of Hawks’ 6-0 home romp last August, their biggest win of the season.

‘We knew they liked to play football, but we won the ball high up and were very clinical.

‘We had some good results away from home. We won at Wealdstone, we won 1-0 at Weymouth - that wasn’t a pretty game but we showed a different side to us that day.’