Prolific Horndean strikers Connor Duffin and Zack Willett challenged to repeat 79-goal season in 2022/23

Horndean manager Michael Birmingham has challenged prolific pair Connor Duffin and Zack Willett to repeat this season’s form if they want to play higher up the non-league pyramid.

By Simon Carter
Tuesday, 3rd May 2022, 10:44 am

But he also admits desire and hard work will be as important as the goals they score.

Birmingham has helped oversee the careers of Accrington’s Tommy Leigh, Eastleigh’s Sam Smart and Hawks’ Benny Read during his six years at Five Heads Park.

Smart was a regular in his first season, 2015/16, while Leigh played four times the following campaign - the year Read became a first choice pick.

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Connor Duffin, left, and Zack Willett netted 79 league and cup goals between them in 2021/22 for Horndean. Picture: Martyn White

Birmingham admits those players provide the templates for Duffin, Willett or anyone else aiming higher than the Wessex League.

Duffin fired 41 goals in all competitions in 2021/22 - his 40 in the league seeing him finish as the division’s top scorer. The jet-heeled Willett bagged 38 in all competitions in a stunning debut Wessex campaign; with 35, he was second in the league’s Golden Boot standings behind Duffin.

Both players easily surpassed the previous Horndean Wessex record of 31 league goals set by Graham Lindsey in 2007/08, the season he netted 35 in all competitions.

‘It’s a great achievement, the two boys deserve credit,’ said Birmingham.

‘Connor Duffin is only 26 - he’s not in his prime yet. Zack Willett is only 21.

‘They’ve had one good season. Anybody can have one good season. Can they repeat it? That’s the big question.

‘They need to do it again.’

Birmingham said he had received no offers from higher division clubs for his top two scorers throughout the 2021/22 season.

Regarding anyone wanting to move up the pyramid, he explained: ‘The players have to buy into it, they have to show good habits.

‘That’s what it’s about - getting people ready for the next level.

‘The ones that progress aren’t always the best players. It comes down to drive and desire. When the going gets tough, who hides and who stands up?

‘It’s the ones who will be out pounding the streets at Christmas.

‘You get the same amount of points for beating the bottom teams as the top teams, so it’s the ones who treat every game as if it would be the last three points they ever get.

‘Sam Smart had the biggest drive. It would be a good race between him, Benny Read and Zack Willett!

‘Benny Read was the worst trainer. Every time he went on trial somewhere I would be hoping they would play 11-a-side games rather than train. But when he crossed that white line he was phenomenal for us. You could see it was only a matter of time.’

With six PO clubs now in the Wessex Premier, and many chasing the same pool of players, managers need to be cute with regards recruitment. And within those clubs, only Birmingham delved into the Hampshire League last summer to sign an unpolished gem.

But not only did he watch Willett play for Paulsgrove, he also watched him play for City of Portsmouth Sunday League outfit Southsea prior to giving him his chance to impress at step 5 level.

‘You can find some good players in the Sunday League,’ Birmingham stated. ‘Players in the Sunday League can play in the Wessex, just as players in the Wessex can play in the Isthmian.

‘I’m not saying others are wrong (not to look in the Sunday Leagues), I’m not saying my way is right.

‘Every player can have one good game, you’ve got to watch someone four or five times. We went and watched Zack Willett in Saturday and Sunday football.

‘You want to see how players perform in the warm-up, what are they like when the pressure is on, do they pick up bookings?

‘We saw that Zack did pick up needless bookings. He was frustrated because of the pressure he was putting on himself.’