Shepherd confident Crusaders can maintain recent form and challenge for promotion
Hungerford Town midfielder Joe Shepherd believes the Crusaders can challenge for Southern League promotion this season following their recent run of good form.
Shepherd, one of a plethora of new recruits to sign over the summer after Town's relegation from the National League South, has been a regular in Danny Robinson's midfield, impressing with his tenacious attitude, tough-tackling and quality in possession.
The former Cirencester man, who has proved an asset in both boxes so far this term, was at the heart of the action again at the weekend as Hungerford booked their place in the second round of the FA Trophy with a 3-1 win over Isthmian League side Westfield.
The Crusaders were 1-0 down in Surrey when youngster Jacob Breckon was sent off following a collision with Shepherd, which turned the game in the visitors' favour as a 75th minute goal from the returning Sam De St Croix followed by a brace from substitute Elis Watts set up a second round clash at home to Truro.
And Shepherd, who has quickly made himself indispensable to Town's midfield with his dynamic performances, believes his new side should be targetting a cup run this term.
"The game was always going to be a tough one but all that mattered was getting the win," he said.
"I think a cup run is huge, it doesn't matter what competition you're in. Winning is a good habit to have."
Shepherd has made an impressive start since swapping Cirencester's Corinium Stadium, where he was a firm fan favourite, for Town's Bulpit Lane. The broad-shouldered box-to-box midfielder, who has also added height to Hungerford's engine room, admits he's settled into life in West Berkshire with ease.
He said: "I've really enjoyed it. There were a lot of new faces which I think definitely helped as we were all in the same boat. The club as a whole has been very welcoming."
While Shepherd has been a regular at the heart of Hungerford’s midfield, he’s had to get used to a number of different partners. Nathan Davis, who returned to Corsham last month, Brad Hooper, Jack Alexander, Sam De St Croix and even Matt Partridge have played alongside him in the middle of the park at some stage this season. Robinson now looks to have settled on his favoured three, with Alexander screening the defence and Sam De St Croix providing late runs into the box, while Shepherd patrols the space centrally. Despite all the changes, Shepherd doesn’t mind who he’s partnering.
“Everyone I’ve played with are top players,” he said. “I think if you look at our squad you swap quality for quality throughout.”
The Crusaders were unbeaten in seven pre-season matches, winning six, and hammered Plymouth Parkway 7-0 on the opening day of the new campaign, leaving them being tipped by many people to bounce straight back to the National League South. However, Hungerford went on to lose their next two matches, shipping a combined seven goals in defeats at Chesham and Bracknell, and have struggled for consistency throughout the season so far, losing six of their 11 games on the road.
Town, who have found trips to teams with artificial surfaces particularly testing, were poor travellers last season too, but have started to show signs of getting over their homesickness. Since thrashing local rivals Chippenham 4-1 in the FA Cup, the Crusaders have won three of their last six away games, drawing with Sholing. Their only defeats away from Bulpit Lane since the beginning of September have come at National League South side Torquay and Southern League title challengers Walton and Hersham.
Despite their stop-start beginning to the campaign, Shepherd has been impressed with much of what he's seen of his Town teammates, especially bearing in mind Danny Robinson has had to bed in 20-odd new signings.
"The first few months have been very up and down in terms of consistency and results, but it's still always been positive throughout the club," he said.
"We know we've got the squad to compete at the top of the league but it was never going to be straightforward with the amount of new players we've needed to settle in. I think we've definitely started to show the quality we have throughout the squad with some great results.
"We've had some good away results too. I think the one that stands out is Chippenham, it was a massive win.
"We get an amazing following home and away and I definitely think the supporters have been a massive boost for us in all our games."
Prior to arriving at Bulpit Lane, Shepherd had been enjoying a fruitful second spell with Cirencester. Having made his debut in 2012, he went on to make 75 appearances for the Centurions, scoring 15 goals, before returning for a second, equally successful, stint in 2020.
Like so many players lured to Hungerford, Shepherd cited popular boss Danny Robinson as playing a big role in tempting him to opt for a new challenge, while knowing a handful of other players making the switch also encouraged him to do the same.
He said: "I was really happy at Cirencester and didn't even think about moving on, but after speaking to the gaffer and hearing how much he wanted me, he was definitely important in my decision. The way he sets up his team is exactly how I like to play.
"He gives you so much confidence to go and play and I knew that would be the case from when I first spoke to him, he's easy to talk to and a great motivator.
"I knew Brad Hooper and Conor McDonagh had agreed to sign, two very good friends of mine from our time together at Supermarine, and two very good players that I was excited to play with again."
Shepherd, who scored nine goals in 139 appearances at Swindon Supermarine, has promotion-winning experience with both of his former clubs, winning the title in 2014 with the Centurions alongside fellow Crusaders midfielder Brad Hooper, while also tasting promotion via the play-offs with Supermarine.
And the industrious midfielder feels he can put that experience to good use as Town, who are 12th, look to propel themselves up the table and challenge for the third promotion of Shepherd's career come next spring.
"I definitely think that (previous experience of promotion) helps, but we have a squad of unbelievable players with a great mixture of talent and experience and I think as a group we can help each other achieve what we set out to," he said.
"The gaffer is all about winning and that's exactly the mentality I have. The aims haven't changed, we want to be competing at the top end of the table and that's what we're working towards, concentrating on winning one game at a time."
Weather permitting, Shepherd and his teammates will travel to Southampton to put their much-improved away form to the test with a difficult trip to sixth-placed AFC Totton on Saturday.
And the midfielder's message for the rest of the season is plain and simple.
He said: "Win. That's all we want to do and that's the plan.
"The league is very tight and a few wins in a row will put us where we want to be.
"We've got players coming back from injury to strengthen the squad even more so we'll definitely be looking to push on now."