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Rising Stars: Hardwicke Rangers Youth Under-15s Yellows

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Author: Roger Jackson, Posted: Wednesday, 12th January 2022, 09:00

Dean Johnson with Hardwicke Rangers Under-15 Yellows Dean Johnson with Hardwicke Rangers Under-15 Yellows

If Hardwicke Rangers Yellows go on and win the Severn Valley League Under-15A Division title this season, there will surely be no-one in the football fraternity who would begrudge them their moment of glory.

It would be a case of third time lucky for a team who have certainly had their share of bad luck in recent times.

“We’ve been at the top of the league for the past two seasons when Covid hit,” explained manager Dean Johnson.

“And disappointingly for us the league declared both those seasons null and void.

“And at the beginning of this season we also lost our goalkeeper and three key defenders.”

Some teams may have struggled to deal with those setbacks but, as Johnson explains, this Hardwicke team are made of sterner stuff.

“I’m so proud of the boys,” he continued. “Their belief, desire and commitment to do it all again after what’s happened in the past couple of seasons has been amazing.

“To be where we are again is remarkable, with new additions to the squad, players moving positions and a tweak in formation.

“It’s very exciting, but my job is to keep the boys focused on the task ahead, whether it's the next drill, next training session or next game, I never look beyond.

“They’ve put themselves in a great position, although nothing is guaranteed.

“Win the next two games and they win the league. It’s a simple equation but it’s easier said than done.”

The team have also reached the quarter-finals of the County Cup – the farthest they have got – and they are looking forward to the League Cup starting in March.

What makes it all just that little bit more exciting is that this team have never actually won any silverware in all the years they’ve been together.

“I think we finished runners-up in the Quedgeley tournament once, we lost narrowly to Churchdown in the final,” said Johnson, who has been running the team for the past seven years or so.

“While the majority of clubs adopt A, B and C teams, this is not the belief of Hardwicke, so our coaches have to work extremely hard putting out a competitive team, which makes it all the more satisfying.

“It’s about time we won something. Some of the club’s other age group teams have won leagues and we’d like to do the same.”

There’s every chance they will do that this season as they hold a two-point advantage over second-placed Abbeymead Rovers Tigers, who also have two games to play, while the only other team who can overhaul them are Wotton Rovers Youth who Hardwicke play later this month.

So what is Johnson’s winning formula?

“We’re quite flexible,” he said. “We normally play 3-4-1-2 or 4-3-3. In terms of style of football, we play an attacking, expansive game, that’s my philosophy.

“We play free-flowing football with as few touches of the ball as possible and movement all over the place.

“We try to keep hold of the ball, get on the front foot and dictate play.

“It’s taken a long time to get the style of play across to the lads. It’s quite difficult to impose your style of play and get the lads to trust and believe in it but, fair play, they’ve stuck to it.

“It can be so easy to resort to long ball football, particularly when other sides have success, but we have a DNA.”

They’re reaping the rewards now, of course, and those rewards mean just that little bit more because of the journey they have all been on together.  

“We were very good at 7-a-side,” recalled Johnson, who is assisted by Nick Day and also receives plenty of support from Andy East who runs the club’s under-15 Sunday team. “We were unbeaten one season but there was no league.

“We struggled a bit at 9-a-side but since we went to 11-a-side everything just clicked, although it’s been a very, very long project to get to where we are now.”

That’s certainly true because Johnson’s son Marley, a centre-back, first started playing at the club when he was five.

So how did Johnson end up running the team?

“The coach at the time emigrated to New Zealand,” Johnson explained. “It was when the players were seven or eight. Somebody had to step forward otherwise the team would have folded.”

And 38-year-old Johnson, one-time player/manager and manager of Hardwicke men’s 3rd XI, who these days play in Division Three of the Stroud League, is certainly the right man for the job, as his involvement in football over some three decades testifies.

“I played when I was at Crypt School and I also played junior football at Windsor Drive alongside current Gloucester City manager Lee Mansell,” said Johnson. “We had quite a few good players and were quite successful.

“After that I played men’s football for Porky’s in the Gloucester Sunday League – we were very successful – before joining Hardwicke.

“I started off as a striker but then I lost a yard of pace and started to go backwards into midfield, centre-back and even goalkeeper!”

And it wasn’t just football that he was good at because he also played rugby at school before going on to play for Old Cryptians and Gordon League.

“I stopped playing rugby about 10 years ago,” said Johnson, a commercial insurance broker who lives in Quedgeley. “In the end I had to make a choice between football and rugby.”

And the boys at Hardwicke Rangers Youth Under-15s Yellows are certainly pleased that he chose football all those years ago.

“I've been lucky enough to win leagues, cups, promotions and I desperately want the boys to experience the same, there's no feeling like it and achieving it with your mates is all the more sweeter,” Johnson said.

And the boys will also be happy that he remains totally committed to them even though his son Marley is unable to play for the team as much these days now that he trains with the Aston Villa development centre in Gloucester.

“Absolutely I will coach them next season, I love what I do,” he said. “The only caveat is if Marley gets into the full academy.

“When you see the enjoyment of the kids, the smiles, that’s what it’s all about.

“We work hard, we’re a fit team and the players buy into it. We're a talented squad, but one thing I say to the boys is, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard!’

“But I have to say there’s nothing better than seeing them realise their potential.”

And Johnson plans to be with them every step of the way – and hopefully beyond – as they graduate into men’s football over the next couple of years or so.

“I am the club liaison officer for the youth section and help with the transition of the kids into the 3rd team,” said Johnson, who is also on the committees for both the men’s and youth sections.

“The ultimate plan is to take the boys through the under-16s and under-17s and then cut their teeth in adult football.”

And once there he wants to have a hands-on role with the youngsters he has got to know so well over the past 10 years or so.

“Andy East and I would like to manage them in the 3rd team,” Johnson said. “We’ve spoken about it, he’s a good friend of mine.

“Ultimately, we’d like to manage these players in the club’s 1st XI when hopefully we’ll still be playing in the County League.”

It’s clear that Hardwicke Rangers means an awful lot to Johnson. He devotes many hours to the club but is happy to give as much as is required and more.

“I’d like to be chairman of the youth section,” he said. “I’d like to put my name forward in the next couple of years and then drive it forward.

“We’re a community club with a policy of football for all. We’re a very big, well-run club.

“In terms of numbers we’re one of the two biggest clubs in Gloucester but that’s not always been rewarded by winning things.”

Johnson’s team are close to winning a trophy this season, of course, and even though they didn’t have a game on Saturday he still spent the afternoon with the boys.

“We went and watched Cheltenham Town play,” he said. “We do a lot of team bonding, I’m a massive believer in team spirit.

“We go and watch Gloucester City play, we’ve been to see England; the boys want to go go karting, although I’m not sure about that!

“During lockdown the boys created their own WhatsApp group, we had zoom catch-ups and we trained on zoom.”

It’s hardly surprising that Hardwicke are doing so well – 10 wins and one draw from their 12 league games this season – and it’s obvious that Johnson has had a big role in that success.

And while he credits every one of the boys who has played for the team he insists he has had great support from the players’ families too.

“I’ve got fantastic parents,” he said. “The best set of parents I could wish for.

“They’ve got full and complete trust in me and let me get on with it.

“I’ve got some wacky training methods to get the best out of the boys and they never question me.

“We are trying to achieve success for the parents too, for everything they do for the boys, which is a lot, so this would be a lovely way to repay them.”

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