‘I approach football very differently now having had a managerial stint’ – Baffins Milton Rovers’ Lee Molyneaux enjoying life as a Wessex League title challenger

Lee Molyneaux has insisted Baffins Milton Rovers’ blend of ‘professionalism and camaraderie’ is behind the club’s emergence as a genuine Wessex League Premier Division title contender.

By Simon Carter
Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 12:08 pm
Lee Molyneaux, left, enjoyed his battle with Moneyfields striker Steve Hutchings on Monday. Picture: Martyn White.
Lee Molyneaux, left, enjoyed his battle with Moneyfields striker Steve Hutchings on Monday. Picture: Martyn White.

Rovers moved into a four-way tie for top spot on Bank Holiday Monday with their sixth successive victory. Six weeks after coming from 0-3 down to beat Blackfield & Langley 4-3, they stormed back from 0-2 down to win at Portsea Island rivals Moneyfields with three goals in five minutes.

It was a sixth successive league triumph and again underlined the right of Shaun Wilkinson’s squad to be considered realistic challengers for a place in the Southern League in 2022/23.

Molyneaux - a former Gosport Borough and Havant & Waterlooville regular - has been a virtual ever present for Rovers since joining last summer.

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Lee Molyneaux, right, in action for Gosport during the 2013/14 FA Trophy final at Wembley

The veteran - he turns 39 on January 16 - hadn’t played regularly for a few years, including the 2019/20 season when he was manager of Gosport Borough in the Southern League Premier South.

Molyneaux candidly admits to making mistakes during his time in charge at Privett Park, and believes Wilkinson isn’t falling into the same trap he did.

Throw in the classic mix of youth and experience - in addition to Molyneaux, Baffins have recently signed 41-year-old Craig McAllister - and the question has to be asked: Can Rovers become the Portsmouth area’s first Wessex League champions since Gosport Borough in 2006/07?

‘In the Wessex you’ve generally got two or three teams with a good budget and they dominate the league, but that’s not always the case,’ Molyneaux said.

Lee Molyneaux, right, in action for Gosport during the 2013/14 FA Trophy final at Wembley

‘Having been at Portchester, where we had a very good budget, I learnt that you can’t always buy yourself the league.

‘We have proven that this season as a team with a very, very low budget.

‘You can have good individuals in this league, but you might not get good team performances. You can have players that are too good for this league.

‘You need that togetherness. I think Baffins nearly had it last year, they were just missing a few positions - I’d like to think I’ve filled one of those.

Lee Molyneaux on the touchline during his season in charge of Gosport Borough. Picture: Duncan Shepherd

‘They had a young side last year, and I’ve increased the average age - but now Macca (McAllister) has come in and he’s made me feel like a spring chicken!

‘We’ve got a good blend of youth and experience, and that goes a long way.

‘You can have experience in terms of age, and experience in terms of playing lots of games at this level.

‘Look at Harry Sargeant, he’s probably played his whole career in this league. Arguably, he’s our strongest player. He’s understated, no frills.

Harry Sargeant, right, keeps a close eye on Moneyfields' James Franklyn during last August's Wessex League win at Baffins. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

‘If you don’t understand football, you can watch a game and someone might ping a 100-yard diagonal and you’d think ‘he’s a good player’.

‘If you do understand football, you’d know how important it is for a player to track a runner, or make a simple pass - and Harry Sargeant does that better than anyone I’ve seen at this level.’

Sergeant was instrumental in Baffins’ stunning recovery at Moneyfields. The defensive midfielder was asked to try and nullify the threat of James Franklyn, and for the most part did, while also netting Rovers’ winner.

‘Harry was told to do a (marking) job on one of the Moneyfields players as we knew he liked to arrive in the box late,’ revealed Molyneaux.

‘At half-time Shaun Wilkinson said to Harry ‘if you get a chance, now you break’ and that’s what he did.

Molyneaux, who has formed a solid central defensive partnership with Ed Sanders this season, has only missed two league games due to a work trip that took him to the United States. But for Covid, he would have been unavailable a lot more.

Asked if he’s played far more often than he expected, Molyneaux replied: ‘Absolutely. I only turned up in pre-season to get some fitness, as I was bored of road running. I didn’t really know any of the players apart from James Cowan.

‘Shaun asked me if I wanted to do any coaching and I said no, I just wanted to get fit.

‘I was coming first in the bleep tests, I was the fittest player there - that probably made a few sit up that a 38-year-old was that fit. Perhaps there were a few reality checks.

‘I thought this year could potentially be my last one, but I’ve played so many games I wanted to play again next season. But now Macca’s come in, I want to go on longer!

‘I know as a target man you can get away with being a bit less mobile than in central defence, but maybe I could play in the middle of a back three next year?

‘I approach football very differently now having had time out and having had a managerial stint. I’m enjoying it more now than I ever have done.

‘I think I’m playing well, for the first time in my career I feel I’m playing on merit. For most of my career I never really thought I was good enough.

‘I back myself in my ability at this level.

‘I’ve had contact from clubs in the league above. I’m happy at Baffins but it’s nice to feel wanted.’

Wilkinson recently praised Molyneaux for his off-field role as well as his on-field one, saying his experience and professionalism have been invaluable in the dressing room.

‘It’s something I’ve relished, that stuff just comes naturally,’ said the player who was part of Gosport’s 2013/14 FA Trophy final side and who helped Hawks to Isthmian League promotion in 2016/17.

‘I like to think I’ve got a good blend of professionalism and camaraderie. It’s important for a team to have something like that.

‘You can easily lose a changing room to silliness if you’ve been too jovial, and you can go the other way and be too serious.

‘At Gosport I was probably too serious, just because I wanted the best out of my team.

‘I think Lee Bradbury had the same thing when he took over at Havant after being at Bournemouth.

‘You need that air of professionalism but you need to understand it is non-league football and players have got full-time jobs and see football as a release.

‘I don’t think you’ll get a better blend than what Shaun Wilkinson has. He’s got that blend of friendship but the players have all got the utmost respect for him. I don’t know if he realises that.

‘I would love to get back into management. I learnt a lot, and I learnt it the hard way.

‘I put too much pressure on myself as a manager and that’s why I walked away. I was putting pressure on my family.

‘My kids are slightly older now, but back then I was going out three times a week and leaving my wife with two young kids. She didn’t complain, but you could tell it was putting pressure on the relationship.’

The highest Baffins have ever finished is fifth in the Wessex Premier, in 2018/19, but Molyneaux is convinced that position will be beaten this term.

‘From what I’ve seen, we’re the best team in the league,’ he remarked. ‘Even the games we’ve lost we’ve deserved to get something out of - draws, if not wins. I don’t think we fear anyone.

‘It’s not as if we’re playing badly and winning, we’ve been playing well.’

Baffins have won 16 out of their 22 league games so far. Their only defeats have been at home to leaders Horndean and at Stoneham and Brockenhurst, the latter a 2-1 loss via an injury-time winner.

‘The games I’m looking forward to are Horndean, Stoneham and Brockenhurst, the chance to put right some wrongs,’ Molyneaux declared.

‘Horndean will be the team to beat, but it’s halfway through the season, there will be lots of twists and turns. We have been going under the radar, but we’re not under it now.

‘There’s no pressure on us. Shaun Wilkinson is good at that - he makes it intense but not so it puts too much pressure on you.

‘We have no fear, regardless of who we’re playing. When we played (higher tier) Sholing in the FA Cup we thought we’d win. We didn’t, but that was our mentality.

‘It didn’t surprise me that we scored three quick goals (at Moneyfields). Even at 2-0 down we never doubted ourselves. There were no panic buttons being pressed.

‘We’ve got a good blend. Someone like James Cowen has played at a good level in Scotland. We’ve got good players on the ball, and players like Harry Sargeant - a workhorse - who is good off the ball.

‘We’ve got good wingers. Oscar Johnston has good feet, Rudi (Blankson) likes to get in behind, and the ball George (Britton) put in for Macca’s goal was phenomenal.

‘All five of the players we had on the bench would get in most Wessex League teams. It was a very attacking bench - I wouldn’t want any of those players coming on in the last 15 minutes against me!’

Molyneaux enjoyed his physical battle with Moneyfields striker Steve Hutchings on Monday, even though the Dover Road talisman scored twice.

‘He’s better than this level, he could easily have played higher. I would put money on him being the best striker in this league.

‘He’s a real handful, he knows how to play defenders - he can drag you down and then win a free-kick.

‘I had a good battle with the striker (Silvano Obeng) at Brockenhurst, I ended up with a lump the size of an egg on my head! And he ended up scoring two goals that day as well …’

Moneyfields boss Glenn Turnbull was annoyed that referee Jacob Wright didn’t send Molyneaux off for a late challenge on Franklyn.

The player, however, was equally frustrated that he had been booked after claiming he won the ball.

‘Why I got booked I didn’t understand,’ said Molyneaux. ‘I got a toe to the ball.

‘There were players trying to get other players sent off all the time, it was a tough game to referee. There was a lot happening off the ball.’