Steve Bracknall: “Give me honesty, give me passion, give me loyalty and you’re welcome at the Oak”

When the first national lockdown was announced in the UK, much attention was given, and rightly so, to the impact of losing access to our workplaces, restaurants, pubs, cafes and shops. But another body blow perhaps not given the coverage it deserved was the cancellation of Sunday League football across the country, an impact felt harshly in cities like Sheffield where grassroots footy serves as the lifeblood of amateur competition.

If Sunday League is the lifeblood of Steel City sport, then Steve Bracknall is a seasoned donor to the cause: one of many unsung heroes routinely washing kits, pumping up match balls, chasing subs payments, booking training pitches, printing out directions and – with limited success – ensuring key players aren’t turning up too hungover on game day.

It’s been a tumultuous year for the game, and just as Steve’s beloved Royal Oak FC prepares for a return to the pitch, the club has found itself weathering a fresh storm of controversy. Rumours of an imminent takeover have sparked tensions amongst the staff, with the outspoken assistant manager pulling no punches in airing his views on the matter. We caught up with Steve last month to get an update on the situation.

Nah then Steve, how are you getting on in this crazy world we’re living in today? Happy to see some restrictions lifted?
Ey up. Firstly, let me thank you from bottom of my heart for taking an interest in my club, Royal Oak FC. It’s nice to see the press take an interest in grassroots football for once. That’s the heartbeat of the footballing community. Never mind the Premier League or the Champions League, Sunday mornings are where I am at, developing the next generation. In terms of this Covid lark, well, it’s been a nightmare hasn’t it? I’m worried what shape my lads will be in when we return to action this month. Our number 9, Tommy, bought a beer machine in lockdown and our utility man, Housey, isn’t exactly Joe Wicks in the kitchen – but these are all things we can assess when we get back training. We’ve got a new 4G training pitch up at Hillsborough Club and that excites me. Although I don’t fancy seeing our Nikki’s face when she sees all them black bits of rubber in the carpet, but that’s all part and parcel of the game. It’s a rollercoaster and I’m here to ride it.

Let’s talk Royal Oak. Big change seems to be on the agenda with a takeover bid incoming from Malin Motors magnate Gary Wainright. What’s the latest at the club?
Listen! I know how these money men work and they don’t phase me. Yer see, what’s happened is our manager Paul Sampson no longer drinks in Royal Oak, where we run the club from. He takes his wife Deborah to some fancy wine bar up Dore now. That’s where he’s seen Wainright! Thing is with these 10 bob millionaires, they promise you the world: new kits, new tracksuits, fancy sponsor. I’m led to believe that he’s part of a consortium that includes Tommy Craig who used to play Tommy Harris in Coronation Street. He’s even telling us that he will get Jamie Cook from Arctic Monkeys to play right-back when he’s not on tour. What he doesn’t know is that I know Cooky’s dad and he’s heard nothing about it. It will take more than name-dropping to impress me. Anyway, I want commitment; I need to know that my players will be ready to play week in, week out.

What are your worries about a fresh influx of cash – surely it’s all part of the modern game?
We’ve all seen what these owners do. They get their feet under the table, splash the cash and before you know it you’ve moved grounds, you’ve changed the colour of the kit and people who speak their mind, like me, are history. Look what’s happened with Chris Wilder at Sheffield United with this prince… I WILL NOT LET IT HAPPEN TO THE OAK.

There have been rumours of a rift between yourself and the Royal Oak manager, Paul. How would you describe your relationship at the moment?
Listen pal, me and Paul go back twenty years. We played together at Red Rose. There’s nothing we haven’t won between us both. I’m not talking about 5-a-side tournaments we’ve won, I’m talking proper domestic success at county level. Between us we know the game inside out. He’s a mate and always will be. I also respect that he’s First Team Manager and I’m Assistant Manager. I’ve not got a problem with that. I also respect the fact that he’s my gaffer at work and owns the electrical firm I work for. That could have been me and he knows it, but I chose a simple life. I don’t need the stress. I’ve got enough on my plate with our Nikki, our Olivia and Bonehead, our dog, at home. Paul just needs to realise that all that glitters ain’t gold. We are the Royal Oak, always have been and always will be. I haven’t forgotten my roots – that’s the difference.

How’ve the players been responding to it all?
They want clarification; we all do. Talk of a takeover only causes unrest. On the Royal Oak badge it says ‘SIMO AMUL’ – that’s Latin, that, for ‘Together as One’. It’s what we stand by. We’ve got a lad in Matthew Wynne who could walk into any Sunday league team in Sheffield. Okay, he’s unpredictable and sometimes doesn’t turn up, but he’s my Jack Grealish, him. If there’s uncertainty behind the scenes he’ll walk. I don’t want that and neither does Paul. Wainright needs to put up or shut up!

We are the Royal Oak, always have been and always will be. I haven’t forgotten my roots – that’s the difference.

Let’s try and drill down into the Bracknall footballing ethos here. Are there any past and present coaches that you’d say you’re particularly inspired by?
Fifteen years ago, everyone told me that tika-taka would change the game of football forever. They called me old fashioned when I stuck to playing four at the back. However, I’m not saying I always play 4-4-2: I often play Wynny in a free role, give the lad some freedom. I want my players to express themselves, but what I don’t want is them messing about with it at the back. If you get ball in a fullback position, it goes and goes long. Have you seen the size of the grass on Concorde Park recently? You can’t be playing triangles on that. No chance. I don’t like to model myself on other managers, but if you’re making me then its Brian Clough or Alex Ferguson.

If you were given an unlimited budget to bring in five players to improve the squad, who are you tapping up and why?
I don’t need money. I never have needed money. I can tell if a player is worth signing within five minutes of watching him. It’s the same when I meet them off the pitch: I figure them out straight away. I want honesty, there’s not enough of it these days. Give me honesty, give me passion, give me loyalty and you’re welcome at the Oak. Once you’ve established that with me, I can work with you, develop you. I see myself as a mentor both on and off the field. I don’t need money. Pay your subs every week, put a few quid behind the bar for Terry and June (they’re the landlord and landlady at the Royal Oak) and that’s me happy.

“We’ve all seen what these owners do. They get their feet under the table, splash the cash and before you know it you’ve moved grounds, you’ve changed the colour of the kit and people who speak their mind, like me, are history.”

Must be nice to see the lads back out on the pitch. How’ve the performances been since the season started up again?
We haven’t played since the re-start. We are waiting for the Imperial League to provide us with a plan on how we are going to finish the season. They relegated us via algorithm in lockdown. Well, they won’t break me. It’s same with any governing body – they’re all out of touch with the common man. They sit in their suits and dish out the rules and regs. They don’t think about us on the shop floor. That’s all I’m wiling to say on the matter before I get myself in hot water. We’ll be ready for Operation Restart when it happens. Mark my words.

Finally, what are your aims for the league this year?
Relegation means we are in the third tier of the Imperial League for the seventh time in our history, so it’s got to be promotion. I’ve made no secret of what my overall aim is for this club. It’s to take them to the Meadowhall Premier League. If I do that, I can retire a happy man. There’ll be tears, anger and sadness on the way, but me and my lads dream. If you can’t dream then what have we got? I still believe.

Follow @SteveBracknall for the latest updates on Royal Oak FC. All images courtesy of Static Flow Productions. 

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