Chris Nunn: The chairman wanted promotion. I thought he was living in cloud cuckoo land
PUBLISHED: 15:27 19 September 2018 | UPDATED: 16:38 19 September 2018
Lee Allinson stepped up. The referee’s whistle pierced the atmosphere and the number six stepped forwards, eyes down.
Behind the goal, a small crowd decked in green and white had their hands on their heads.
Allinson smacked the ball high to the right. The keeper followed it but the ball shot past, inches from his stretching fingertips. Allinson wheeled away, relieved.
That made it Rugby Town 1-1 Biggleswade Town in the biggest game of “the Waders” 139-year history. They’d played 64 minutes of the 2012-13 Southern League Division One play-off final at Rugby’s packed Butlin Road ground.
Five-minutes earlier, Biggleswade were behind but a determined response and Allinson’s penalty had thrust momentum into their attacks. Rugby were scrambling to stay in the game approaching the dying moments.
The 86th minute. The home side’s penalty box was scattered with men in blue and white, collapsed in horror. Bigglewade’s Barnes, after cracking a half-volley in from 15 yards, was launching himself into a crowd of ecstatic fans behind the goal.
The Blues returned to their feet and hauled forward. They couldn’t break through, and the ball broke for Andrew Iwediuno, who thundered out to the halfway line.
Iwediuno to Brett Donnelly. Back again. Iwediuno sprints to the byline. A hopeful punt into the box floats over the exhausted Rugby defence. Barnes, fuelled by adrenaline alone, had raced to the back post.
He tapped it in. 3-1. Biggleswade Town were promoted to step-three for the first time.
“We were out until 4am,” the triumphant manager, Chris Nunn, recalled. “But the next morning I didn’t have a hangover, because we’d made it to step three.
“It was what we’d talked about seven years ago, what we’d set out to do. And we’d done it.”
Seven years ago was 2006. Back then, Biggleswade Town were the worst side in the Spartan South Midlands Premier League.
A portacabin - shared with McMullen Park’s home team, Bedford FC - served as their home changing room, 10 miles from Biggleswade, where the Waders had spent most of their history ground-sharing with the local cricket club.
The Waders’ home - a market town built on the banks of the River Ivel in Bedfordshire - is 40 miles north of London driving on the Great North Road.
Biggleswade can date its antecedents to the 12,000 BC, and has seen its population rapidly expand thanks to new housing developments, as it reinvents itself as a commuter town for London workers priced out of the capital.
In 2006 however, the Waders had moved to Bedford, while a new ground was scheduled to be built just south of their unassuming hometown, on the Langford Road. However, observers were sceptical. According to them, Waders chairman Maurice Dorrington - whose family had run the club for generations - had been talking about it for years.
Meanwhile, 40 miles east, Newmarket Town manager Chris Nunn had resigned, blaming the long travel from his new Bedford family home, and quit after four seasons with Jockeys - his hometown club.
The horse racing fanatic set a record – which exists at Cricket Field Road even now – by leading a stirring run to the quarter finals of the FA Vase run.
His story was enough to get him noticed by former Waders boss Kenny Davidson, who recommended Dorrington meet the 34-year-old.
“I watched them play and remember thinking: ‘there’s no way I’m taking over this,’ Nunn says.
“Then Maurice got the drawings out for the new ground and told me his 10-year strategy to become successful at step three. He told me ‘you’ll decide when you leave.’
“He kept saying he wanted to get to step three.’ Did I believe him? No! I thought he was living in cloud cuckoo land.
“Before my first game sceptics rang me and said the ground would never happen. But I had to trust him. I took him at his word and he kept it.”
An energetic, generously accommodating and disarming presence, Nunn effortlessly earns respect. After breaking his leg aged 18 as a player, he moved into the dugout in his mid 20’s.
A decade on, Nunn walked into the McMullen Park portacabin home dressing room, tasked with saving a sinking green and white ship.
“There was no time and we were going down,” Nunn says gravely.
“Trying to attract players was hard and I was on the phone to all the managers I knew, trying to borrow players. The mentality had to change, quick. There would be no passengers and I told the players ‘this is a big club. We have to put it back on the map.’
“I told them hard work started on at my first training session. Three players came up and said they’d had a deal with the previous manager about not training. I said, ‘well you need to leave then.’”
Nunn’s impact was instant. Losing during a vital relegation clash, he substituted the ‘passengers’, and told the men running onto the field to run through brick walls for him.
They came back to win 3-2, but safety still wasn’t assured with a game to play.
After going unbeaten and winning five in seven, they had to win their final day tie against ninth placed Aylesbury Vale to survive.
Inside 10 minutes to go, Jamie Steel scored to send the Waders 3-1 up. They held on and secured a near impossible 18th place - three points from the drop.
“It was crazy,” Nunn said. “I sat down with the chairman afterwards and we were just relieved. To do it from the bottom of the league, great times.
“I wonder if we’d have done what we have if we’d been relegated. Whether Maurice would have invested what he has. I think it was a pivotal moment.”
In 2007-08, Nunn’s men picked up where they left off the previous season, finishing third - missing out on promotion by one goal. The future looked bright - especially as they were moving back home, into a brand new ground for the 2008-09 season.
With ambitious owners, the Carlsberg Stadium is bordered by the River Ivel to the East and the A1 to the north.
Spacious and with room to expand facilities, the ground is clean and practical. Training pitches, a 3G pitch and a comfortable clubhouse surround the pitch - which is one of their league’s best.
From the white and emerald green seats of the main stand, the crowd face a view stretching beyond the dugouts and deep into the countryside. It’s a variation from the stereotypical image of a lovably ancient, charmingly cramped or dysfunctionally limited non-league home.
If Carlsberg did non-league grounds…
After moving in for pre-season, there was a buzz around Biggleswade as the league campaign kicked off with Nunn’s side in full flight. With 16 games to play, Nunn laid out the requirements for the title:
“I remember getting this chart out in the dressing room before a game,” Nunn explains. “I said to the boys, if we’re going to win the league we’ve got to win 14 and we’ve got to beat Harefield United and Chalfont St Peter.
“We won the game 4-0 that day and when we went in I put a cross by number one on the chart. Now we’ve only got to win 13.
“We were miles behind on goal difference and there was a game where I told the players: I want you to get the ball out of the net and I want you to put it down.
“We scored after two minutes, got the ball and went again. Their manager was thinking: ‘what are you lot on.’ We won 7-0 and 6-0 in the next game, we had to get goals.”
Get goals they did as the Waders went unbeaten for 15 games, winning 13. One match was yet to be crossed off on Nunn’s chart. His side were level on points with Harefield but two ahead on goal difference. It was down the the final day for the third season in a row.
The Waders were hosting Chalfont while Harefield played Broxbourne Borough.
“I used every trick you could possibly imagine to delay our kick-off, and we started seven minutes after the other game,” Nunn says, grinning.
“With seven minutes to go we were 3-2 up. Harefield had finished and won 3-1. I was told the result and knew we didn’t have to go for a goal, so we parked the bus and killed the game.
“When the whistle went we knew we’d won.”
By one goal, Biggleswade Town were going to step four. In two and a half seasons, Nunn had hoisted them from the bottom of the South Midlands Premier, to title victors.
“That was a massive day. The pitch was brilliant, facilities were great. We felt like a big club - immediately people could see what we were trying to do.
“The ground made it easier for me to sell the dream and attract players. Players want to play at nice grounds and it was by far the nicest in the area.
“It played a massive part. We won the league on the Saturday and my son was born on the Monday. Crazy times.”
After losing a chunk of their victorious squad, the Waders’ first season in the Southern League Division One Midlands (renamed Central the following year) was an ‘eye opener’.
They managed 12th, which provided a platform to contest the title right to the death in 2010-11. Nunn’s men qualified for the play-offs, but fell 2-0 in the semi-final to Daventry Town.
After nine games in 2011-12, they led the way, but injuries and ‘the wrong mentality’ yanked them back to eighth. Nunn was ready for promotion but realised his dressing room wasn’t, and performed ‘a clean sweep’ of the squad.
They promptly stormed to the 2012-13 play-off final.
After qualifying with their penultimate game, Nunn was desperate for his best XI to face Godalming Town in the play-off semi-final. He hurried around collecting players who couldn’t make the coach trip, before trekking to Surrey with some of his best weaponry in the passenger seats.
An early Waders goal was quickly nullified by Godalming, who ‘battered’ the hanging on Waders.
But against the run of play, inside 10-minutes to go, 25-yards from goal, Craig Daniel’s thundered left foot volley made the score 2-1. After some more hanging on, the Waders snuck into the final.
It was Monday, May 6th, 2013. On a sunny afternoon in Warwickshire, 1,126 people flooded through the Butlin Road turnstiles, the most the home of Rugby Town had seen in 19 years.
‘The Valley’ had finished the season in second - 11 points superior to Nunn’s men in 4th - but Allinson’s penalty and Barnes’ double overturned the 1-0 deficit and made Waders history.
To top the season off, Nunn gathered his troops - still recovering from the carefree celebrations less than 48-hours before - and went to Kenilworth Road, to beat AFC Dunstable 3-0 in the county cup thanks to goals from Donnelly, Joel Mason and Barnes.
In seven-years, Nunn had done what Dorrington dreamt of doing in 10. Ahead of a first season in England’s seventh tier, a transitional season was expected for 2013-14.
Nunn had other ideas. Instead they brought Biggleswade it’s most successful footballing season ever.
“We had a really good team spirit,” Nunn explains. “Off the pitch it was an amazing year, we had a brilliant atmosphere in the dressing room.
“Everyone that came to the club bought into it and we were just constantly laughing. I could see the players were enjoying it.
“I loved it, I think it was the best year.”
A final day 5-2 dismissal of dominant title winners Hemel Hempstead secured Nunn’s men a superb ninth place, with a defence of their county cup title to boot.
An experienced Luton Town side were seen off 2-1 for that honour, but it was a dreamlike FA Cup run which got everyone talking about little Biggleswade.
Wingate and Finchley, Chelmsford City and Leatherhead were all conquered on the journey to the fourth qualifying round - the gateway to history for the Waders.
They’d never reached the FA Cup first round proper before, despite trying since 1904.
The battle-hardened Canvey Island stood in their way, having a few seasons previously reached the third-round proper only to fall to Burnley.
A nervy first 45 minutes at Langford Road preceded a rain lashed second period controlled by Biggleswade - with Ian Brown untroubled in goal.
The Waders’ poured forward but lacked a finishing touch, so on trotted their reliable troublemaker: Brett Donnelly.
There he was when the ball was squeezed across by Allinson after 79 minutes, and the substitute nodded it cooly into the top corner.
Canvey’s late pressure didn’t stress the Waders, and as the final whistle blew, it was captain Steven Gentle and his team who were raising their arms in disbelief.
Nevermind the 4-1 ‘stuffing’ away to Stourbridge in the next round, it was one the Waders’ greatest days. ‘Buzzing, absolutely loved it,” Nunn beamed.
The team had cemented themselves as the golden generation at Langford Road, and many of them remember it as one of their finest achievements.
“Coming off the pitch that year I thought we could really kick on,” Nunn says.
He was wrong. After a seven year crescendo of success since avoiding relegation, the following seasons were ‘the hardest.’
Many players were tempted away by offers from non-league’s big boys and the required sponsors needed to help replace them failed to materialise. It meant the 2014-15 season was spent battling relegation.
After some nervous moments, Nunn’s men were still candidates for the drop until three games to go.
More than 250 miles from home at Bideford AFC, Kelvin Bossman slotted home after 15 minutes. The Waders scraped through another 75 minutes that secured them survival, two places from relegation, in 19th.
“We had some dark days.” Nunn admits. “But we got through it and I remember reminding the chairman: we’ll start the season on the same points as the teams who lost the play-off final.
“Craig Daniel became my captain and I tried to stamp what I’d always believed back in, having a good time and having a smile on our faces. We’d lost that.
“I think we got back our identity the next year. On the coach back from Bideford I said, have a few beers, it’s been a tough year. We had to get something out of it.
“I was so motivated to make sure it wasn’t going to happen again. I’d got assurances from the club that the financial situation wouldn’t repeat, so we could afford to kick on.
“We saw progression, we weren’t brilliant but we held our own. We did well.”
An otherwise unremarkable 14th place finish in 2015-16 proved the Waders were an established step three club - completing Dorrington’s 10-year project. Surviving a brutal adaptation period was the final piece of the jigsaw.
“I was big time proud to get through it.” Nunn says. “People won’t know how difficult it was to manage and the fact we did is a good achievement.
“I remember people suggesting that I must be thinking about leaving. It actually inspired me.”
The summer of 2016 saw not only a raft of talented players flooding into the Waders squad, but a split at Langford Road.
The Waders u18 side, managed by Dave Northfield, had been making waves in the Thurlow Nunn Youth League.
After strolling to the division title in 2014-15 and 2015-16, they dominated the ‘Champions Trophy’ - contested by the six divisional winners - both seasons. A superb run to the second round of the FA Youth Cup completed two perfect seasons.
Additionally, the young Waders’ star striker Keinan Davis was scouted and signed by Aston Villa U18s on a year-and-a-half contract - before later joining the first team and scoring twice in 28 appearances during the 2017-18 season.
Though most were awarded or offered appearances in Nunn’s first team, the young squad wanted to stick together. With no further academy sides to progress to within the Waders setup, the decision was made to form Biggleswade FC.
‘The FC’ secured a groundshare at Langford Road, parachuted into the step-six Spartan South Midlands Division One, and just like that, Biggleswade had three clubs - with Guillem Balague’s United on the other side of town.
“It’s not even a friendly rivalry, I want them to win every game.” Nunn said on FC. “They play good football and they’re lovely people, it’s very much a sister club. We gave them some players and they gave us some, that’s how close the clubs are.”
While FC romped to the 2016-17 title in their first season under Northfield and Mark Inskip, the Waders were back on form in Nunn’s eleventh season.
Some thumping home wins, classy football and impressive players saw them reset their highest finish in the football pyramid, with seventh in a tough Southern League.
‘Another brilliant year,’ Nunn says. Maybe too good, as again top clubs came swooping for their top talent.
I began reporting on all things Biggleswade football in mid October during the 2017-18 season.
In early interviews with Nunn, the question of what was going wrong kept appearing. After a lightning start to the season - with five wins in seven games - the Waders were in the middle of a barren run of seven winless matches.
His was one of the youngest squads in the league and injuries had reduced them to their bare bones, with captain, leader, legend Craig Daniel’s repeated absence a further blow.
The insightful Nunn was an engaging presence. He was so invested in his side, and so willing to share his thoughts on it.
But confidence was low in the dressing room and the boss told me ‘something was missing.’
Speaking to a victorious Nunn for the first time was a memorable experience.
It was a 2-0 win over Kings Langley, after a midweek draw with St Neots Town had put an end to a horrible run.
He was bursting with pride, and relieved. It was a great weekend all-round, with a much-needed win for his Waders and another for his beloved Arsenal.
“It’s a brilliant feeling, I’m buzzing. North London is red and Biggleswade is green.”
It was a season of patches, with the Waders floating between 10th and 18th throughout the season. They weren’t bad enough to go down but lacked a spark to push up the table.
A highlight was a superb 1-0 win over rivals Hitchin Town at Top Field in January, while a gutsy performance in front of more than 2300 fans at Hereford’s Edgar Street - holding off the fallen giants until the dying seconds, when they scored a scrappy winner - was an example of Nunn’s young side taking it to the big clubs.
They finished the season 16th, helped by a rock solid defence, hindered by a goal tally better than only the bottom two clubs.
Nunn suggests the slump was caused by his side’s youth and injuries to their few experienced players, and insists the Waders would have made the play-offs with the team he had during the 2016-17 season.
February saw the first Langford Road derby - or ‘Carlsberg Clasico’ - between the Waders and FC, in the Bedfordshire Senior Cup semi-final.
Reece Fielding for the Waders, then Josh Holmes for FC, were first-half scorers, before the tie went to penalties.
The squads stood frozen on the half-way line as the 144-year-old Biggleswade side blasted in all their penalties to win 5-3 over the young club.
It was an emotional night. Northfield was immensely proud of a mature performance, while Nunn was generously praising of the their fight. A jovial atmosphere amongst the 200 fans rang around the ground all evening.
After the Waders lost 4-3 to Luton Town at Kenilworth Road in the final, there was little to play for in the league. Nunn’s side’s famous winning mentality slipped away late on, and there were four straight losses before the final game of the season.
Then I received a message: ‘Can you do a piece on Chris Nunn stepping down.’ Surely not. I checked Twitter and there it is. @ChrisNunn1972: ‘After almost 12 seasons I’ve taken this tough and very sad decision…’
When I met him for an interview a week after the announcement, Nunn explained: “Two or three weeks before the season finished I was thinking about where we’d been over the years. I felt after 12-years I was selling the same dream.
“I was so tired, just physically drained by the end of the season. The year before, we’d finished seventh and I’d had to bring in so many players because we lost a lot.
“I thought I’d have another summer of having to do that again and I told the chairman I hadn’t got the energy. When we played Dorchester, I kept thinking, when that whistle blows, pre-season starts and I couldn’t see myself being able to give the energy I’d always given.
“Maurice kept saying: give me one more year, we can do another year. I just didn’t want to let him down.
“The players had been great but I was struggling to motivate myself and I’m actually feeling a lot better already, it’s only been a week. We’d had so many games and it takes so much out of you.
“I run my own packaging company too and I felt I need a break. I’m pleased. It’s the right decision.”
A final day 1-1 draw with Dorchester Town at Langford Road brought the curtain down on 12-years of memories, which were all remembered at an end of season awards night straight after the game.
A tornado of tributes and well wishes came flooding into Nunn’s Twitter mentions. He responded to every single one. The hoard of tributes from former players sum up Nunn’s legacy.
Allinson, Nunn’s former assistant and vice-captain - whose father, Ian, was an Arsenal cult-hero: “Gaffer, what a job you have done at the football club. I played by far my best football under you and you got me enjoying the game again. Thank you for everything and enjoy your rest, I think it’s well deserved.”
Brett Donnelly, the hero goalscorer of that FA Cup game against Canvey Island, wrote: “The man that brought joy back into my football, they should name a stand after you. Thanks for everything.”
Steven Gentle, long-serving Wader and former captain: “Putting aside the success on the pitch that you brought, I can’t even begin to describe the confidence you gave me even after a bad game. That in my opinion is man management at its best.”
Nunn said: “It’s about enjoyment and getting the best out of players. Not just tactically but mentally. To make it a nice place to be, so they’re in the right frame of mind and they’re going to run through a brick wall for you.
“I want us to have a good time and smile. I’ve never felt pressure in football.”
Now it was time for an injection of something new. For someone to take the foundations set by Nunn’s 12-years, and surge forward again.
Lee Allinson stepped up. Just like five-years before, to score the equalising penalty in the 2013 play-off final.
“Before I told Maurice I was leaving, I phoned Lee to ask if he’d take over,” Nunn explained.
“He got on the phone to all the players straight away which is something I’d have struggled to do, he’s got the enthusiasm the job needs.
“The chairman said it’s the end of an era, but to me the end of an era starts a new one. They’ve got a good manager with good links, so I think there’s a chance they can really kick on, it’s a bright future for the club.
“They’ve got the best chairman in non-league with a young manager who’s hungry to do well. The ingredients are in place.”
After playing a major role in the midfield during Nunn’s very best seasons, Allinson left to join his dad, Ian, in the St Albans City dugout.
He gained valuable coaching experience acting as assistant manager at the National League South side, as they pushed towards the play-offs. Simultaneously, Allinson ran his increasingly successful Lee Allinson Football Academy with his partner Faye, and also coaching the Biggleswade Town youth side.
Allinson admitted he’d ‘always wanted,’ to come back and manage the Waders, and with his passion and experience in youth football, expect the Waders’ brand new academy to flourish.
The new boss has called on former Waders Brett Donnelly, Ian Brown and Charlie Merson - son of Arsenal icon Paul - to assist him in the dugout, and they set about welcoming a flurry of superb signings through the doors. A buzz has returned to Langford Road.
They’re aiming to charge into the play-offs in their first season but what of the man who laid the groundwork for what could be another golden era at Langford Road?
“I had offers but for now I need a break. If something comes up that I like, I’ll be interested in it. If it doesn’t I’m not too worried at the minute,” Nunn said.
“I like my horse racing, I like Arsenal, I run my business, my son plays football on Saturday mornings - there’s things I haven’t been able to do since I can remember.
“I feel there’s another project in me but I’ve no particular aspirations. The next job has got to be something I enjoy and I’m not in any hurry. It was strange not being anywhere for the first game of the season.”
A lot has changed in 12-years at Biggleswade Town.
“Just after I took the job, I was talking to two guys from my old club Newmarket,” Nunn says, grinning.
“When I said I was going to Biggleswade, one guy pointed out there was two clubs in Biggleswade at the time. The other said: ‘it’s the one near the bottom.’
“I bumped into him many years later and he said: ‘crikey, they’re not near the bottom now’.”