Steve Leigh reveals ‘total shock’ at being replaced as Baffins Milton Rovers manager

Steve Leigh (left) with his former Baffins assisant Steve Ledger. Picture: Chris MoorhouseSteve Leigh (left) with his former Baffins assisant Steve Ledger. Picture: Chris Moorhouse
Steve Leigh (left) with his former Baffins assisant Steve Ledger. Picture: Chris Moorhouse | JPIMedia Resell
Steve Leigh has revealed his ‘total shock’ at the phone call which heralded the end of his time as Baffins Milton Rovers manager.

Leigh was told he was being replaced by ex-Hawks midfielder Shaun Wilkinson in a phone call from chairman Steve Cripps last month.

Baffins had allowed Leigh some Saturdays off in 2019/20 to watch his sons Tommy and Ashton play for Bognor Regis in the Isthmian League.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And Cripps said the club did not want a similar scenario to emerge next season - whenever that starts.

Ashton Leigh, left, in action for Baffins at AFC Portchester in February of this year. Picture: Vernon NashAshton Leigh, left, in action for Baffins at AFC Portchester in February of this year. Picture: Vernon Nash
Ashton Leigh, left, in action for Baffins at AFC Portchester in February of this year. Picture: Vernon Nash | JPIMedia Resell

‘Steve has been a fantastic manager and it is purely down to our requirements to have a manager present at every match, as opposed to this season,’ he told The News.

Singling out Leigh’s younger son, Cripps added: ‘We felt that as Tommy progresses Steve would feel the urge to get more involved with his son’s career, which is 100 per cent the right thing to do.

‘The lad has the ability to go all the way to professional football and, whilst Steve questioned our strategy in bringing in a new manager, we just reinforced that his son’s playing career was more important than managing our side.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

‘It was better to act now than have to face the decision mid-season.’

Tommy Leigh, right, in action for Bognor Regis. Pic: Tommy McMillan.Tommy Leigh, right, in action for Bognor Regis. Pic: Tommy McMillan.
Tommy Leigh, right, in action for Bognor Regis. Pic: Tommy McMillan. | Freelance

Leigh is adamant he had earned the right to at least been asked about his plans for 20/21 - rather than have any decision taken out of his hands.

He was told he was being replaced in a call from Cripps when he was at the club’s PMC Stadium.

‘I was at the ground talking to the groundsman Jimmy McGhee, I was excited about the plans they have for the pitch there,’ he recalled.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

‘I’d already talked to three or four new players I was hoping to bring in, and on the Saturday morning I’d planned a meeting with my coaching staff. Things were starting to get put in place.

‘The club were very good to me last season. I missed five games and we won three of them, so I had complete faith in my staff (Steve Ledger, Gary Haynes, Darren Robson).’

Leigh added: ‘It was disappointing not to have been asked. I hadn’t been involved in any discussions at all.

‘I think I deserved the opportunity to sit down with the chairman and the committee, and have the opportunity to take the club forward.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

‘They could have asked me to separate the two - would I watch the boys or give it a good go at the club? I know what answer I would have given them.

‘I don’t want to come across as bitter. I wish the club all the very best. I had a great relationship with the chairman - he never really bothered me and I never bothered him with asking for more money. I hope we can still have a great relationship.

‘But if you can stand two metres apart in a supermarket, you can stand two metres apart at the ground and talk.

‘I was in total shock after the call.

‘I think Gary is staying, but Darren Robson and Steve Ledger have not even had any communication at all.’

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Leigh also insisted he didn’t watch Bognor games last season purely because his youngest son was playing.

‘I appreciate the accolades he (Cripps) has given to Tommy, but both of my sons are there. I also think the best people to ask about Tommy’s future are Jack Pearce and Robbie Blake because they are his managers.’

Leigh had helped write new chapters in Baffins’ recent rise through the grassroots league - as recently as 2012 they were a Portsmouth Saturday League club.

Replacing Louis Bell in February 2018, Leigh guided Baffins to a ninth place finish in their debut Wessex League Premier Division season - boosted by nine wins in their last 11 games.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

They included convincing victories over the teams who would finish in the top two.

Baffins trounced eventual champions Blackfield & Langley 4-2 at The PMC Stadium towards the end of the season.

On target were Jason Parish, Fadel Seibou, Callum Dart and sub Joel Jackson as Blackfield suffered one of only four league defeats all season.

Shane Cornish, Tyler Yates and Dart had earlier scored in a 3-0 win at Andover Town - who would finish second, a point behind Blackfield - at the end of March. It was one of only two home defeats the north Hampshire club would endure all term.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Leigh played for Hawks, Bognor and Cirencester during his semi-pro career, while he also had a spell as Newport IoW player-manager in the Southern League in 2005/06.

After his playing career finished, he got into coaching as his sons started playing - mainly at Wimbledon Park and Meon Milton.

He was not seeking a managerial return when Louis Bell, the then Baffins boss, asked him to help out in early 2018.

‘Louis had approached me on three or four occasions. I’d had a big break from football, but Baffins had just signed Tommy from Horndean and Ashton was already there,’ Leigh recalled.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

‘I just went there to help out, I never went there with a view to taking over as manager, I just fell into that. I had no intention of getting the job.’

Once in situ, though, Leigh was excited about the squad he had inherited.

‘We had Jason Parish back and I wanted to work with players like Jamie White - he’s been a colossus for me - Shane Cornish, Tyler Moret and Tyler Yates and bring through the younger lads I felt were good enough.’

The following term, 2018/19, Baffins finished fifth and won the Wessex League Cup at only the third time of asking.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In only their second ever season in the FA Vase, they also reached the last 32 before losing at eventual finalists Cray Valley.

‘I have always said I played the wrong formation that day, I’m big enough and ugly enough to say I got that one wrong,’Leigh recalled. ‘But Cray were a good side, they were paying big money.’

This season, Baffins won six of their first 10 league games despite losing Tommy and Ashton Leigh to Bognor and seeing Parish - top scorer the previous season with 27 goals - rejoin AFC Portchester.

But the wet weather that swept across the south region almost continuously from October onwards hit Baffins hard. A raft of home postponements due to PMC Stadium pitch drainage issues contributed to the fact the club only played 13 league games from early November to the middle of March - only two of which were at home.

Still, Leigh felt there were still reasons to be cheerful.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

‘We were in the semi-finals of the Portsmouth Senior Cup, we’d reached the quarter finals of the Wessex Cup, and with games in hand I still think we would have finished top eight in the league again,’ he said.

‘We’d also had a fabulous season the year before, finishing fifth and winning the Wessex Cup. The players deserve fantastic accolades for that.’

Leigh continued: ‘It’s for others to judge whether I was a success or not,’ he stated.

‘Winning the cup was a highlight for the club, but for me I always took satisfaction when we won playing how I wanted us to play.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

‘For me, the highlight as a coach is when players go out and respond to how you want them to play. If any of the players believe I’ve helped them improve, then I’ve done my job.’

Cripps has ambitions to get Baffins into the Southern League within two years

‘There was a plan to win promotion, I know they wanted to get everything ready off the pitch first,’ Leigh said. ‘I had time to get players in, on what was a small budget. I was fine with that - the chairman was keen on young players being brought through and so was I. I never had any problems with the budget

‘The ambition was to get out of the league, and I wanted to be the man to take them up.’

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Asked if he thinks Baffins will one day progress to the Southern League, he quickly replied: ‘One hundred per cent.

‘I just wish I was the one to do it. I wish Shaun Wilkinson and Danny Thompson all the best, I hope they can take the club up.

‘There’s a lot of people at the club I have a lot of time for, I have no doubt they will go up.’

Grassroots football, like many other things, is facing an uncertain future due to Covid-19. How much money will be swishing around in the Wessex League next season could differ greatly compared to 2019/20.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

‘It will be interesting to see what happens next season.’ Leigh admitted. ‘Some clubs might not have the money to spend they once did - all clubs will have lost money through not being able to hold events at their facilities and not playing games, so no gate money either.

‘Some clubs might have to save the pennies, I don’t know. It could be a good opportunity for Baffins, I would have been excited by it.

‘I was excited at the start of this season. I remember we were second or third and I remember having a conversation with the chairman saying I did fancy us. We had some momentum.

‘But then we had all the problems with the pitch, it was so stop-start. And when you lose your match fitness, it’s very hard to catch up.’

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Giving praise to Leigh, Cripps last month added: ‘Steve can return to management to just about any club in the Wessex premier as and when he wants to.

‘He is a highly-sought-after manager and a fantastic person both on and off the pitch.’

However, Leigh is unlikely to make a quick return to management. I’ll take a break, take some time off. This has knocked me back a bit,’ he remarked.