WHEN TRAFFORD FC named Tom Baker their new manager in May 2015, it was somewhat of a surprise appointment.
Altrincham legend Graham Heathcote had been unable to pull off a minor miracle and stop Trafford being relegated back to the Evo-Stik North so the club was set for a rebuilding job that summer. Yet they went for youth over experience, appointing a 30-year-old who only ended his playing career that February having spent the previous 17 months out with a knee injury.
Baker had won the Evo-Stik Premier with FC Halifax and Chorley, as well as playing for local sides Alty, Ashton United and Droylsden, and he has put that knowledge to good use. In his first season in charge, Trafford finished 8th in the Evo-Stik North, with Baker setting the goal of improving on that this term. Yet they could do even better after maintaining a superb run over the festive period.
After last Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Droylsden, Trafford are on a run of 15 unbeaten in the league, which has propelled them from 15th to second in the table, on goal difference. That means they now have a top-of-the-table clash at leaders Lancaster City to look forward to this Saturday and some fans are dreaming of a repeat of 2013, when Garry Vaughan’s side was promoted to step three.
“We’re where we need to be at the minute,” Baker told Beyond the Big Two. “At any level of football, to go 15 unbeaten is a great achievement. It’s been some climb but it means nothing if we don’t finish the season strongly. There’s 17 games left so there’s still a long way to go. We’re just trying to keep our feet on the ground, keep that run going and see where it takes us. Just like we’ve gone from 15th to 2nd in 15 games, you can go back to 15th in the next 17.
“If we were 7 or 8 points clear in 2nd place then we probably would re-assess what our goals are, but we’re not, because it’s so, so tight. With one defeat you could drop 3 or 4 places, and likewise with a couple of wins you could find yourself sat at the top of the league. So the goal is still the same, to better the 8th-placed finish from last year, that’d be great. But if we can stay in that top 5 then even better.”
That, of course, would mean a play-off place, which Baker feels would be a big achievement for the club. Trafford went up via the play-offs in 2013 but now their rivals carry far more financial clout. That means they must scour local talent to boost their squad, as they did with strikers Mark Derbyshire and Ashley Woods.
“Financially we can’t compete so we have to look at the lower, local clubs and try to pick players up,” Baker explained. “It’s probably the same with a lot of managers at our level, trying to work within your budget.
“Trafford is a fantastic club but we’re not the wealthiest. The club does what they can and I understood that when I got the job. We have to work hard to get the right players in. We simply don’t have the money to go and get whoever I want so it is difficult but it’s a good learning curve for me. We’ve done OK so far, I’d definitely say we’re punching above our weight in terms of financial power and where we are in the league. We haven’t got the smallest budget in the league, definitely not, but we’re probably mid-table. The league’s so competitive now.
“You only have to look at the points totals of the bottom 3. It’s only just after Christmas and they’ve already got totals that, in previous seasons, clubs have been relegated with. It just shows you how competitive the league is and how everybody is taking points off everybody.”
It looked as though Trafford might be down there too, especially after losing 3-0 at home to Bamber Bridge on October 15. And Baker believes that setback proved the catalyst for their current run as the Shawe View-based side haven’t lost in the league since.
Experienced striker Aaron Burns has led the way with 24 goals in 30 games, including 6 in 1 game back in September. Former FC United full-backs Liam Brownhill and Lee Neville have been mainstays in defence while Josh Granite has recently been joined at centre-half by Alex Frost.
Ally Brown, Andy Langford and Kingsley Williams have also been regulars, and after already bringing in Woods and Frost, Baker has made three more interesting additions this month. Striker Greg Daniels made over 150 appearances for FC United before going travelling in the summer and, now back in the UK, he has linked up with Trafford. Jack Dorney has returned after leaving for Chorley in the summer and Baker picked up young midfielder Rob Bourne following his release by Bury.
“We had a really bad home defeat against Bamber Bridge and then made a few changes,” said the 31-year-old boss. “At that point we didn’t really bring anyone in, just a few went out, and things just came together really. Sometimes that happens in football.
“The squad’s looking good and we’ve recently brought a few new players in to help us with the run-in. We’re probably working with a bigger number now than we have been since the start of the season. Sometimes that’s a bad thing but we need to have a bit more strength in depth for the rum-in.”
Baker should know, he’s seen all the twists and turns that a promotion race can throw up. But if the fledgling manager can take Trafford up too it could top anything he achieved in his playing career. Here’s hoping!