Former Weston captain Kirk will always wonder ‘what if’ after missing out on play-offs in 2012/13

PUBLISHED: 15:30 23 May 2020

Ben Kirk.

Ben Kirk.

Archant

In the second of our two-part special, Weston Mercury Sport looks back on Ben Kirk’s last two years with Weston, where he captained the Seagulls to their highest-ever posistion in the Conference South before revealing his last days with the club and how departure shaped the rest of his life.

Ben Kirk with Simon Stephens.Ben Kirk with Simon Stephens.

After a successful couple of seasons, which included winning back-to-back Somerset Premier Cups, Weston recorded their highest-ever league finish of seventh during the 2012/13 season and Kirk said the campaign brought him so many happy memories.

“Throughout the season we played the best football that we played,” he said.

“We definitely had the strongest squad that we had in the four years I was there and people could rotate in and out.

“We wouldn’t necessary become too much stronger or weaker depending on who was playing. The spine of the team remained constant, but we were a very good team, played brilliant football which was the most enjoyable thing for me as a midfielder.

Former Weston captain Ben Kirk and manager Craig Laird hold the Somerset Premier CupFormer Weston captain Ben Kirk and manager Craig Laird hold the Somerset Premier Cup

“As a central midfielder you want to be on the ball and we certainly were that at Weston. We kind of broke the mould a little bit in non-league football that we tried to play out from the back.

“We went through the phases and we used the players we had and got the best off, the likes of Dayle Grubb, Ash Kingston and Naby Dalio, that are better when the ball is on the deck and at their feet. It was a really enjoyable season and the best I have experienced in football.

“It was a special season and when you are in the thick of it you don’t appreciate it, you just try to win every game and finish as high as we could.”

After just missing out on the last play-off spot by five points and after exiting the Somerset Cup to Frome Town early on in the campaign, Weston came away without any silverware for the first time since Craig Laird took over.

“The most disappointing bit for me was we actually didn’t get into the play-offs or win anything in that league season,” added Kirk.

“Whilst it’s nice to finish the highest Weston have ever had, it’s not an empty achievement and I don’t want to take anything away from what we did, but if we had got into the play-offs I would be saying the same thing.

“Towards the end of the season the club installed some additional seats, so if we did get into the play-offs and subsequently go up, then the club would have been able to do so and the ground would have been substantial enough and we could have gone into the Conference.

“Not over thinking we were going to go up, but we all believed we were good enough to beat any team in the league on our day and the results will back that up in terms of who we played that season and who we did well against.

“It was lack of consistency I suppose that cost us getting into the play-offs. I do look back on that season very fondly, it’s almost like a ‘what if?’ kind of season. If we had got into the play-offs, what could we have done? Could have we won it? We had as much chance as everyone else in the play-offs.

“It almost leaves a sour taste thinking what could we have done? Should we have gone up? But I suppose you look back and I would’ve been 26, 27, going into the best years of my career.

“On a personal note it was amazing to lead that team week in, week out because we had such a good team, we had a great spirit, great players and at the end of season at our do, it just summed up the amount of people that went on that. I was very proud to lead that team to the successes that we had.”

Despite the disappointment of missing out on a chance to move up to the Conference, Kirk and his team set out to go one better the following year, but what should have been one to remember will be remembered by the events that happened off the pitch instead of what was going on it.

“There was that feeling of what if and that was evident, there was fractures that you started to see and not being able to take that step on,” recalled Kirk.

“We lost a few players that summer to Bath and other clubs who were offering more money. Matt Villis left and whilst money is the not the biggest motivator, it does play it’s part and is evident in the level of football you look at.

“I was offered more money to go to another club but I stayed loyal to Craig and Weston, but it just felt like it was the last go of it and we didn’t do it, we didn’t have a proper go at trying to get into the play-offs.

“I think after that season we finished seventh, and again this is not to criticise anybody, if we were able to fill some gaps we needed to go to that next level. If we had an experienced striker, for instance, who could be scoring 20 goals or more a season, or an experienced centre-back to go alongside what we already had, that might have been enough.

“But it was perhaps the level of ambition that wasn’t quite matched, especially the younger lads who were 24 and thinking ‘I could go out and earn a certain amount at Bath or wherever’ and that’s what happens in successful sides.

“Especially ones that perhaps don’t earn as much as other clubs, it’s a scouting system for clubs that can pay a little bit more.

“They look at the likes of Weston and other league clubs in a lower division and they think who’s doing well for them, who’s scoring goals and we will try to bring them up and we were kind of that.”

The exit of certain players saw Weston struggle to reach the heights of previous seasons, but the confusion regarding the position of manager Craig Laird, when he announced he was leaving after four years before coming back one day later, hit the club hard.

Kirk said: “When Craig made that announcement he was leaving and was back within 24 hours, we didn’t really know the ins and outs of what was happening, but we could guess. It felt a bit of a shame, the overriding emotion.

“At the end of my fourth season it was a tough season from a point of view of I don’t think everybody was quite in it and everyone’s heads had been affected a little bit by what was going on behind the scenes. I left after that season when Craig had left and to be honest I only left because Craig left, I kind of owed him as his captain.

“For me to stay at Weston felt wrong at the time, but looking back now I wish I had stayed because my career didn’t really go anywhere after that.

“I went to Bideford briefly which was not as enjoyable and then I moved quite quickly in September to Taunton and that was enjoyable.

“I was playing football on a nice pitch and then I busted my knee in December of that season and that was me done and I have not played since. I always think my last proper season was the one with Weston really.”

Now Kirk, who has two daughters, is the co-founder and director of Inspired Schools and Inspired Somerset, which helps raise physical activity in primary schools, aims to end childhood obesity and help children engage with their learning through being active.

However, those four years spent with Weston will always hold a special place in his heart, but one lingering question remains and upon looking back on his spell Kirk wishes he could have given more to the club off the pitch like he did on it.

“The what if is the overriding feel I have got,” he added.

“But equally the players at Weston were on one of the lowest budgets in the league and when you’re travelling to places like Eastbourne, Dover and Essex and all these places, it is a massive time commitment.

“When I was 24 through to 28 I had no worries in my life, I had no children at the time, but it is a big commitment and if you are a London club it’s a bit different because you are travelling to short distances but for Weston travelling up that M4 most weeks it does become a bit of a grind.

“We were getting paid nicely and handsomely and to be paid for doing something you love, but equally that time you spend is a big commitment. I was a secondary school PE teacher at the time so my time was massively stretched.

“One of the things I regret when I was at Weston, I didn’t give more back to the club in terms of my commitment to doing the stuff off the field, community, the fans, events with Paul (Bliss).

“It was always a struggle to commit to anything because of teaching and doing 70-80 hours a week, plus all the hours spent with Weston.

“I was young at the time, if I was a bit older and more mature you kind of look back and appreciate those times more and I wish I had invested more time with the club.

“It is a short career and Weston gave us a lot in terms of salary, putting out the amazing pitch week in, week out and the fans as well. We had a very good bond with our fans and travelling support. They were really loyal, would never say anything negative because they would appreciate what we were doing.

“One of the things to play at that level in the Conference South, where we were different to other clubs, it’s one of the times I think most fondly about my career playing at that club and I am very proud of what I achieved there.

“It was good times all around and again if you ask the fans, the players from that era, the most overriding emotion would be a positive one and the fans would be thinking what if, as well as we could have had a go at it the following season or I wish we could have got into the play-offs.

“But it is what it is and I hope everybody looks back fondly on that season.”


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