LEIGH Robinson is only 42 but is already well into his second decade as a football manager and has been coaching the game for half of his young life.
After his playing career as a midfielder for Hertfordshire side Baldock Town was curtailed prematurely by a knee injury, he concentrated his football energies into his day job, teaching PE and working for Premier Soccer – later Premier Sport – which took football and sport into schools across East Devon.
He said: “Because I was teaching and coaching in schools, I kind of fell into coaching by accident. One of the parents at the school said ‘Can you come and teach my men’s team?’ and things just went up and up and up from there. I went from my day job in teaching to coaching and carried it on."
He was then asked to take his skills to Western League Division One side Wellington and became assistant to Kevin Evans for the 2006-07 season. A year later, Evans moved on, Leigh moved up and Wellington won their first ever league title under their 26-year-old manager.
After the Tangerines finished seventh in the Western Premier Division the following season, Leigh joined Craig Laird as joint-manager at Bridgwater Town for the 2009-10 campaign and nearly repeated the first-time promotion trick. Following a third-place finish in Southern League Division One South, the Robins lost their play-off match 4-3 in extra-time to Cirencester, having led 3-2 with 10 minutes of normal time remaining.
After a year's sabbatical, Leigh began what has become a near legendary spell in charge of Taunton Town, six and a half years of unparalleled and consistent success and improvement. He took over the Peacocks when they were in the Southern League Division One South without a clubhouse, crowds at around the 200 mark, and a shoestring budget.
The only way was up and, after finishing in the play-offs, winning Somerset Premier Cups and reaching the FA Cup first-round proper (as the lowest ranked team), Taunton were promoted to the Southern League Premier Division when they accrued more than 100 points and lost just one game in an amazing season – and that arguably did not count because sole conquerors Yate were disciplined for fielding an ineligible player. In any event, the Peacocks were the only team in the country, from Premier League to non-league, to be unbeaten away from home in the entire campaign.
He said: “When I first got there, it was very much where Tiverton are now, in a huge rebuilding phase. The budget was small and a new chairman had just taken over. Each season, we grew the budget bit by bit, purely because the club was doing so well, off the pitch initially and that married up on the pitch.
“Over the six years, crowds grew massively. Budgets grew, therefore you are signing better players, winning more football matches. If you’d told me, in the first couple of seasons, which were a real struggle because of the size of the budget and the club was scrambling to get into a good financial place, that we’d have had the memories that we created – the leagues that we won, reaching the FA Cup first round – that would have seemed a long way off.
“But, over those years, every year we got better, which is a great experience. I really had great time. There were wonderful people there and it is a really, really well run club. I have to be honest, though, while I was there and however well we were doing, I never thought I was the best manager in the world, but I was very aware that I was in charge of the best club in the area. They do everything there to make your life easy as a manager, and I very much respected that. It was a great club to manage and I was in charge of a fantastic operation.”
National League South side Truro City came calling but Leigh's spell with the White Tigers was a short and difficult one as the Cornish side yo-yoed between playing home games at Torquay United and their Treyew Road base, all the while being taken over by Cornish Pirates rugby club.
He said: “It was sold to me that we’d be playing our home games at Plainmoor – I live in the area; it makes player recruitment easy – and we’d be there for a couple of years before the Stadium for Cornwall opened. For the first few months of that season, September to Christmas, when we were at Plainmoor, things were fantastic – players were happy, I was happy, the set-up was stable and the results proved that. We got from bottom of the league when we took over to ten points clear of relegation, I had a Manager of the Month award in there, and things were great.
“Then the rug was pulled when we found out we’d have to go back to Truro. The ground hadn’t been maintained and we weren’t ready for it. We had a quick nippy team that was suited to Plainmoor’s lovely pitch, which included Niall Thompson. We lost our loan players, couldn’t recruit players, and things behind the scenes became absolutely crazy with the chairman at the time departing and new ownership taking over. They very clearly wanted a full-time manager, whereas I’m a part-time manager. For the first few months, it was super enjoyable but, as soon as we went back to Truro, it became completely crazy.”
Leigh subsequently became manager of Dorchester Town at the beginning of 2020 with the Magpies second from bottom in the Premier South table.
“COVID-19 put a bit of a kibosh on that,” he said. “The first season I was there got completely cancelled because of COVID-19, so it was a rebuilding job for the following season and we started quite well. We were improving a club that had been struggling in their division for quite a few years.
“Then COVID-19 came along again and I think, by that time, I was ready for a bit of a break from management – it’s a big goldfish bowl to be in for 12 seasons in a row, juggling football, family and work lives at the same time.
"I was still enjoying football but it was kind of holding me back from other things I wanted to do in my life. I felt I wanted to step back for a couple of seasons and do some other things, like live abroad, which we did for a year, and then look to step back in – and here we are.”