Laird’s love for Weston will never go away after best ever season in Conference South
PUBLISHED: 15:00 30 April 2020
For Craig Laird his love for the Weston will never go away.
Next month marks the 10th anniversary of when Laird was appointed out of over 20 applicants to replace Andrew Gurney as the new manager.
But despite his sudden departure at the end of the 2013/14 season, after 64 wins in 168 league game in a four-year spell with the Seagulls, the current Bideford assistant coach remembers his time at the club with fond memories.
“I had a great time there,” said Laird.
“I left a successful club at Bridgwater, who were in the Southern League, to step up into the Conference South.
“It was a privilege to manage Bridgwater and then to have the opportunity to mange Weston was a great job and one myself and John Haile relished, knowing the history of the club and the quality of managers that have held the position.
“We had really good times there and we were very fortunate to have such good players and a good team on and off the pitch.
“To have this success a lot of people are involved and it would be difficult to mention them all but everyone played their part, no matter how big or small they felt their job was.
“Bob Flaskett, what great service he has given the club and produced a fantastic playing surface for us to play our style of football, supported by many other people not to forget ‘Fitzie’.
“Barry the kitman, and before him poor Bob who has sadly passed away now. Richard (Hightower) Sloane our famous secretary, who gave invaluable assistance to help us through that first season and Dennis (Usher), who was always about keeping an eye on things and his support.
“Then we had Dave Callow as a physio alongside Amy. We had a really good team. We all worked hard to bring it together at the right time.”
Having finished the 2009/10 campaign in the relegation zone in 21st place, Weston were given a reprieve as Salisbury City were demoted instead because they were unable to pay back a creditor by a set deadline after coming out of administration.
Laird’s tenure got off to the perfect start after goals from Marcus Duharty and Nathaniel Pepperell in the final 20 minutes saw them pick up their first win at home since November 2009 against Boreham Wood.
Things would get better for Weston as not only did they pick up the biggest win of the season after hitting Bromley for seven in December but would go on to finish in 12th place.
“We wanted to play a style that no-one else was playing, this took a lot of bravery on the part of the coaching staff and players. We worked very hard at it in training,” added Laird.
“It was a real pleasure to watch at times and I always felt if I was going to pay money what would I like to watch. At the time it was quite revolutionary and risky but I felt the rewards outweighed the negatives.”
The campaign also saw history being made as Weston picked up their first-ever Somerset Premier Cup after Ben Kirk’s goal handed them victory over a strong Yeovil Town side.
A year later Laird led his side to back-to-back triumphs after defeating Clevedon Town in the final with goals from Pepperell and Shar Kabba.
“A lot of people don’t take these trophies seriously and I think that is a disrespect to the County cup, the county and all of teams that play in it,” said Laird.
“It’s a cup you’ve got a chance of winning. We’re never going to really win the FA Cup and we’ve got to have a good run if we are going be successful in the Vase.
“The Somerset Premier Cup is a cup you can win and why not win it, why not use it to your advantage?
“We used it to give players regular game time and also those returning from injury, but also get that momentum and habit of winning. It’s great to finish the season with a cup, it doesn’t matter what it is and it’s a good cup to win.
“It’s also thrilling for the supporters to have a final to look forward to at the end of the season and even more satisfying for them when you beat your neighbours.”
But the club’s finest hour was still to come and just under a year later Weston did something no team has done before or since as they recorded their highest-ever league finish.
“We had a poor start,” admitted Laird. “We had lost our first two games of the season and we went to Hornchurch and we decided to go there, play a different style than we normally did and grind out a result.
“Then we went on this massive run of 10 games unbeaten and that’s what sort of pushed us into the half of the league and then we never really looked back, we kept that momentum going.
“It was brilliant, we did it on a healthy budget, but it wasn’t anywhere near what a lot of teams were spending to try and get promotion.
“We lost Tristan Plummer as well. He was knocking in the goals for us and caught the eye of a few clubs before moving to Aldershot.
“He was one of our best strikers at the time along with Brad Ash, Dale Grubb and Chaz Hemmings but to get into seventh place was amazing. I lost John Haile after a season as he moved on to Bristol City but the foundations were laid and Rob Boyde and Marc McGregor came in and we never looked back.
“We made a great team and had some wonderful times not only on the pitch but our journeys to London seemed a lot shorter with some of the antics and banter we had with the players and staff. We all had a mutual respect for each other.
“Everyone trained together twice a week and weekends if games where cancelled, in all weather conditions, and the quality of player and training sessions were exceptional. The players would help carry the kit to and from the coach to the changing room, everyone was grounded and did their bit, but it was those little things that made me proud to manage them.
“We had a real connection with the supporters, it was amazing. We all shared in the journey and the excitement of the four seasons. The players would mix with the fans no matter what the result.”
Despite consistent performances and bringing success to the club, Laird was shown the door – before being reinstated as manager one day later!
“It was a crazy 24 hours, but all water under the bridge. I think a few wires got crossed,” he said.
“I’ve worked for a few chairman in my career, Alan Hurford and Paul are the two best people anyone could ask to work for. I’m sure there are more out there, but these are the two I’ve worked under.
“Paul has done wonders for Weston, he dragged them from the lower reaches of the Western League into the Confrence South.
“Like all chairmen they get their fair share of stick, like being a manager, but he is a strong character and that is a quality you need to run a club successfully.
“I just felt it was unfair for me to take a wage rise when I was going to ask my players to take a pay cut. We both had our reasons to stand our ground. I never wanted to leave, but felt there was an impasse.
“I just felt after all the hard work myself and the playing staff had put in over the four years it was unfair to cut the budget. I’m sure this must have been a difficult position for Paul to be in and decision to make.
“But to leave a club like Weston and it’s stature in the Conference South was very hard for me to do.
“To leave the club and not work for people like Paul and Oli that was really difficult to do and all the staff I left behind. We were a family.”
But despite his association having come to an end, three of his sons have played for the club including Callum, Jamie and Scott, who has carried on his father’s legacy after being brought to the club by Scott Bartlett last summer as player/assistant manager.
“As a father I’ve been very lucky to have four boys and I’ve got a daughter as well all to be fit and healthy and making their way in life,” he added.
“That’s what we all want for our kids but for them to all be talented at something and luckily enough for me it is in sport. Paige played for England under-18s in netball and a trampoline champion.
“Both Scott and Jamie played for Scotland schoolboys; Craig, my other son, played for England schoolboys, unfortunately Callum my youngest one had a leg break and never really recovered, but he played for the county and a good level of football, they are all doing their bit now, doing their badges and coaching in the community.
“They are all healthy and had really good careers in football. It wouldn’t bother me what level they played. I’ve been very fortunate they have all played at a good level and to have them play for me was really nice as well.
“Scott’s stepped back and gone into that management position at Weston and hopefully he will be just as successful as I was there, hopefully even better.”
But Laird, who makes sure to check out Weston’s results first after every game, ends on his gratitude to manage the club and one he will always hold in high regard.
He added: “I’d like to finish by saying thank you to everybody, the supporters, Simon (Stephens), the playing staff, they know who they are. What a talented bunch.
“My coaching staff, John, Rob and Macca and all the support they gave me during the good and bad times, the staff behind the scenes and Paul for his support and giving me the chance to manage the club. I hope I did you all proud.”
*Don’t miss next week’s Mercury for another feature on the Weston squad from that historic season.
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