The former Brighton, Hawks and Weymouth midfielder has stood down as manager after Rovers collapsed late season to finish eighth in the Wessex League Premier Division.
Had they beaten Fareham in late January, Rovers would have gone top. As it was, they conceded two goals in the last five minutes to lose 5-4 and ended up winning just three of their final 17 games – having won 17 of their opening 23.
Wilkinson pinpointed increasing work commitments as one reason, with a desire to spend more time with his partner and their combined five children as another.
Wilkinson also admitted his impatience in wanting to win promotion to the Southern League also helped make up his mind after the ‘culture shock’ of managing at the ninth tier of English football.
He is confident, though, that he leaves the Portsmouth-based club in a far better state than when he arrived, replacing Steve Leigh two months into the first national lockdown.
‘I’d say the club is two or three years away from mounting a serious (promotion) challenge,’ Wilkinson told The News.
‘I’d rather give my time to my family and my children. For the first time, it’s family first and football second.
‘When I took the Baffins job I was single, it was during the first lockdown, there wasn’t much going on. But now my life has changed - I’ve got a new partner, she’s got two children, so there’s five children in all. My children deserve my time.
‘I started up my own (thermal insulation) company around Christmas time, and I genuinely, genuinely haven’t got the time (to devote to football).
‘I’m currently working in Newcastle and then I’m getting on a ship and going to Belfast for three weeks.
‘With football, I’m either all in or not at all. And if I can’t give it my all, it’s only right someone else comes in.
‘I do feel a little bit of having let them (people at Baffins) down, but it’s my decision and I have to do what’s right for my family.
‘I’ve got ambition, I want to be in football for a purpose. I don’t want to bob along for six or seven years without winning anything.
‘Look at Michael Birmingham at Horndean, he’s been there six years and won nothing. I like Birmy, he’s a good coach and he’s brought players on. But he’s a classic example of someone I don’t want to be.
‘Same with Pat (McManus) at Brockenhurst, he’s been there eight years. That sounds like a life sentence to me! But each to their own.’
Wilkinson’s first season at Baffins saw Rovers win just three of their 13 Wessex Premier games before the non-league season was ended prematurely due to the pandemic. Still, that was enough time for him to be sent off twice and pick up a 56-day stadium ban for social media comments.
‘It’s been a culture shock,’ he declared. ‘If I hadn’t had a big ban in the first season I would probably have knocked it on the head then, but I felt I owed the club a full year.
‘I probably want it quicker than the club wants it. But they run it how they want to run it - they pay the bills.
‘It’s a slow burner, but it’s a fantastic club with brilliant people. I’m glad I went there, I wouldn’t have wanted to cut my teeth anywhere else.
‘The club had done well with the same group - Shane Cornish, Danny Rimmer, Blu Boam, Tyler Moret. I broke the old guard up, which was a hard thing to do.’
Wilkinson is full of praise for everyone involved at Baffins, a club only formed a decade ago and who started out as a Portsmouth League club.
‘It’s a fantastic club at that level, with great people - from the chairman to the bar staff to all the volunteers,’ he said. ‘ You couldn’t wish to meet a nicer bunch of people.
‘I’ve always said when you join a football club you want to leave it in a better state, and I genuinely believe I have.
‘I’m happy with what I’ve left. When I joined it was a shambles - players turned up when they wanted, they dressed how they wanted, there was nowhere to train.
‘We ended up (in 2021/22) with the most wins (20) and most points (66) they’ve had in the Wessex Premier.
‘I’ve helped raise the profile - they’ve never had clubs like Dorking and Worthing visiting the PMC before (for pre-season friendlies).
‘We brought in the under-18s - I don’t think there’s a club in the area that has given youth the same chance we have this season.
‘We’re getting a lot of young teens wanting to join Baffins because they can see there’s a pathway to the first team.’
Wilkinson hopes Baffins go down the continuity route and offer the manager’s job to his assistant, Danny Thompson.
‘It’s an attractive job for whoever gets it. There’s a good young squad, a good backroom staff, a good medical team, they’re on a sound financial footing,’ he explained.
‘I’ve given them my opinion. I hope Danny Thompson gets it, he deserves it. He’s always stood by me - I haven’t always been easy to deal with!
‘The most important thing the club need to do is make sure the backroom staff stay.
Can Baffins reach the Southern League? ‘In two years, probably not. But in three or four, yes. It depends what they want to do. If they got Michael Birmingham in, half the Horndean side and half the Baffins side would create a better team than the two they have now. It depends who they get in.’
Wilkinson admits he didn’t know too much about the Wessex League prior to accepting the Baffins role. ‘I was told whoever has the biggest budget generally wins the league. That didn’t happen this year with Portchester but Hamworthy wouldn’t have been far behind.
‘You do get what you pay for in football - that’s a fact. But I think we delivered on limited resources, it was genuinely a bottom half budget.’
The fear for Baffins now is that their standout performers in 2021/22 could be tempted away by better offers from PO postcode rivals.
‘Players like Rudi Blankson, Harry Sargeant, Charlie Williamson, James Cowan … other clubs could offer them more based on how well they’ve done bearing in mind what they’ve been earning,’ said Wilkinson.
‘If I couldn’t have offered them any more I would probably have lost them. At that level, there’s a difference between £30 a week and £100 a week.’
Wilkinson admits his professional and semi-pro background may have been a hindrance during his time at Baffins.
Not only had he been a pro at Brighton under some highly experienced managers, he also played under the likes of Garry Hill and Ian Baird - two more ‘old school’ campaigners - at Weymouth and Hawks.
‘I was brought up with managers like Micky Adams and Brian Horton, really good managers who would call a spade a spade,’ Wilkinson recalled.
‘If they didn’t think you were working hard enough (in training), you’d have to do 50 laps.
‘You can’t do that now with players - now they call it bullying. The game has changed.
‘I’ve got an old school head on young shoulders.
‘I have tried to manage in the mirror image of the managers I played for when I had success.
‘There was Gary Hill at Weymouth, where we won the Southern League. Ian Baird at Havant, where we reached the fourth round of the FA Cup.’
Wilkinson is looking forward to his family time, but admits it’s a case of ‘never say never’ regarding a managerial return - even at Wessex League level.
‘If there’s a project with real ambition … people know where I am if they want to contact me,’ he stated.
‘I know I’m outspoken at times, but I wear my heart on my sleeve - like I did when I was playing.’