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The times they are a-changing at Tadley as freewheelin’ Dillon returns to to the managerial hotseat

Tadley Calleva joint-manager Ben Dillon admitted the decision to return to the Romans was a “no-brainer”.

Dillon had worked alongside Joe Lawler at Barlow’s Park for two successful seasons, turning the Tadders from a team threatened with relegation into one punching above their weight and challenging for promotion.

However Dillon stepped away from his role over the summer following a change in work and personal circumstances, leaving Lawler in sole charge.

Ben Dillon has returned to the Tadley dugout, reuniting with Joe Lawler. Picture by Phil Cannings
Ben Dillon has returned to the Tadley dugout, reuniting with Joe Lawler. Picture by Phil Cannings

Dillon, who had a prolific spell as a player at Tadley before forming a formidable managerial partnership with Lawler, enjoying success at Badshot Lea and Hartley Wintney, kept in constant contact with his friend and close confidant and jumped at the chance to return to the dugout as soon as the opportunity arose.

“I had a change in work circumstances and my son’s been playing football in an academy, so it’s been quite intense and I just needed a break,” he said.

“I made the decision in pre-season because I needed time to focus on other things. I knew everything would be in good hands and that the door would always be open.

“Luckily it happened sooner than I’d originally thought and as soon as the chance came up to go back, I jumped at it.

“I’ve still been involved and helping out whenever I could, so it was a no-brainer.

“It was an easy decision. I wanted to pair back up with Joe and finish what we started.”

When Dillon and Lawler first took over at Tadley, the club were bottom of the Combined Counties Premier Division North and without a win in their first 10 games; the pair, who led Hartley Wintney to the FA Cup fourth qualifying round, steered the Romans comfortably clear of trouble before guiding them to an eighth-placed finish in their second season in charge.

Dillon’s track record meant he was a man in demand following his decision to step down at Barlow’s Park and even accepted a role in player recruitment at Andover New Street.

Even so, he confirmed his plan had always been to return to Tadley.

He said: “As soon as I stepped away there were a few phone calls but my decision wasn’t football related – it was nothing to do with football and certainly nothing to do with the club.

“It’s nice to have other offers but I’m not one to jump ship and go and start another project when there’s one that’s still unfinished.

“I took on a role at Andover New Street. I know the club well and I was helping them recruit, but it just wasn’t as hands on as I wanted it to be.

“I’m just delighted to be back at Tadley.

“We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved here.

“That’s my focus and it will be until the project is finished – just how far we can take it, who knows.”

Tadley are currently ninth in the Combined Counties Premier Division South table and just six points behind Redhill, who occupy the final play-off spot.

Following a spate of postponements, the Romans have only played just over half of their games – the Tadders have played 22 matches, while two sides have played 30 and most teams have played at least 26.

That means Tadley’s destiny is very much in their own hands but fixture congestion is a concern and could well work against them.

However, Dillon is taking a pragmatic view of the situation and admits that, while he’d love his side to sneak into the play-off spots, he would still consider a top 10 finish a success this term.

“Our main aim is to progress,” he said.

“We’d love to maintain or even better what we did last season, which was finish eighth and six points outside the play-offs.

“There are a lot of big clubs in the league, like Farnham and Croydon. In comparison we’re a village team so we’re punching above our weight at the minute.

“We want to keep us on a stable footing and finish at least inside the top 10.

“If we can get into the play-offs, then fantastic.

“I’d be lying if we hadn’t talked about play-offs, it would be an added bonus.

“It is difficult with the games-in-hand because you lose momentum, and that’s so important.

“I’m not sure there are too many people backing us to get there but all we can do is focus on ourselves and take it one game at a time.”

The dynamic in this season’s Tadley squad is very different to the previous campaign, with top-scorer Ben Wright, club captain Tom Walsh and talismanic winger Jamie Johnston all either retiring or moving on over the summer.

Dillon and Lawler opted to change tack slightly and this term’s crop of players are generally younger and more dynamic, allowing the management duo to implement an energetic and high-intensity style of play.

And Dillon has been delighted with how the more youthful contingent of players, led by skipper Jordan Goater, have adapted to the challenge.

He said: “We felt like this season we needed to be a bit younger, fresher and a bit more energetic.

“Budget-wise, it’s hard to compete with some of the bigger sides and so we have to rely on bringing players through.

“It’s a very young squad but they’re enthusiastic and what we like about them is we can bring them through playing a certain way; that’s not as easy to do with older players who tend to be more set in other styles.

“We see the squad progressing with us over the next few years and growing as a group – we want to create an environment that’s enjoyable and encourages these young lads to stick with us.”

On Saturday, Kieran Rodgers struck a hat-trick as Tadley won for the fifth game in a row, thumping Horley 5-2.

Brad Neal and Alex Miller were also on target as the Tadders recovered from conceding after just four minutes to make it three successive away wins.

Dillon was encouraged by his side’s showing and was full of praise for hat-trick hero Kieran Rodgers, who was one of the players tasked with stepping into the talismanic Ben Wright’s shoes after his decision to step away from football.

“We had a little bit of a slip up around Christmas where we lost three on the bounce but we’re getting back to our best now,” he said.

“We’re peaking at a good time and the boys have been brilliant.

“We’re all singing off the same hymn sheet and working hard for each other – we know that if we do that, then we’ve got enough ability in the squad to get results.

“Kieran’s been a big part of that. He’s been good this season – he’s young, he wants to learn and he’s got a lot of talent.”

There was a memorable moment in the second half of Saturday’s win as father-and-son duo Ryan and Kyan Stephens took to the pitch together.

Dad Ryan has been slowly working his way back to fitness following two career-threatening injuries while Dillon is backing 16-year-old Kyan, who is on loan from National League outfit Eastleigh, to have a bright future in the game.

He said: “Ryan’s been with me and Joe for years now, we played together and he’s been a big part of this journey we’ve been on.

“He had a bad Achilles injury and he had a leg break as well, so to see him back on a pitch in itself was brilliant.

“He’s a fantastic player and a genuine goalscorer – for me, he’s always been massively underrated.

“Kyan is extremely good and I’d be amazed if there weren’t other clubs having a look at him.

“He’s very skillful and we’re just trying to manage his minutes at the moment.

“I think he’s got the potential to go very far.”

Tadley host strugglers Spelthorne Sports, who are without a win since the first week of January, this Saturday.

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