While it is Dom Di Paola who has been receiving all the plaudits for guiding the Hornets back to the Premier Division after a seven year absence, the manager has always been keen to pay tribute to the contributions of his management team. So, a week after most of us were jumping wildly around in unbridled celebration of our promotion play-off final success over Ashford United, it was our pleasure to catch up with the youngest member of Dom’s team, coach Jimmy Punter, to find out more about the twenty-two year old and to get his thoughts on a remarkable first season with the club. Mark Wells was posing the questions:
MW: Jimmy, you pretty much slipped in under the radar when you first arrived at the club so tell us how it all came about.
JP: I’m a student at Chichester University, where I’m studying Sport and Exercise Science, and combine that with being an Academy Coach at Worthing College. I was looking to go somewhere to learn and shadow a team for my own personal development and was given the opportunity to come here by Dom, back in the summer.
MW: You were a goalkeeper during your playing days so what prompted you to stop playing and pursue a career in coaching?
JP: Yes, I played for Worthing Colleges and was also goalkeeper for Sussex U16s and U18s. I made my first team debut for Rustington and then followed my dad and my grandad in joining Worthing, where I played for the U18s and the first team. After that I played for Arundel, Lancing and East Preston but I had a hernia operation to correct Gilmore’s Groin when I was eighteen and I struggled to play regularly after that because I was always picking up niggling little injuries. I got into the coaching side of things while I was at college and now work alongside Dave Hall, who is the head coach at the Worthing College Academy where we run two teams; the first team is in the Premier League of the English Colleges FA, the top division of college football in the country, and the second team is in ECFA Category Two. We train twice a week and I teach the players sports psychology, nutrition, strength and coaching and if first team isn’t playing, I help out with second team and vice versa.
MW: So why Horsham?
JP: I’d been around Isthmian football at Worthing from the age of seventeen so I knew what the dressing room environment was like but I reached out to (former Eastbourne Borough coach) Jon Meeney to get his experiences as a coach. Literally within a few minutes of talking to him, Dom rang me. He knows my dad, is good friends with Dave Hall, and watches a lot of football so I knew a lot about him. He said he was looking for someone to come in and help and spoke of his ambitions for the club and it all went from there really.
MW: And what were those ambitions? Surely even Dom wouldn’t have envisaged us getting promoted?
JP: No, not at all! He knew he had good players at the club but he was never under any pressure to get promoted and he didn’t put the players under any pressure either. He just wanted them to enjoy the season, do as well as we could, and see how we get on. In the end, I think we exceeded everyone’s expectations.
MW: Was it difficult to establish yourself at the start?
JP: I came in during pre-season, just after the Langney game I think, and initially was just there to learn. But as the season progressed, Dom and Wezzo gave me more responsibility and the pre-match preparations were handed over to me. Dom and Jon Meeney, who was at the club at the start of the season, devised it all but wanted me to run with it. I took my first warm up away to Sevenoaks and was quite nervous but the players were brilliant. I think I’m the second youngest in the group and some of the players like Biff and Mets are vastly more experienced and could have turned around and said ‘who is this twenty-two year old telling me what to do’. But it wasn’t like that at all. They’re a very special bunch of people who have helped me to learn a lot about man-management, coaching, and tactical awareness. It also gives me the chance to plan and think about the game as well as giving Dom and Wezzo a bit of time to switch off a little bit and go into the game fresh. If the warm-up hasn’t been great then at least they’re not taking that into the game with them. As a side, we didn’t make a great start but after about six matches we began to put together some great runs in the league and cups and have been unbelievable since Christmas.
MW: Do you have a particular favourite match from this season?
JP: There have been so many brilliant matches its difficult to pick out just one. I loved Carshalton in the FA Cup, when Charlie’s stepped up to win it with that eighty-seventh minute free-kick. We did so well against a team that have gone on to have a great season themselves. Hythe away in the pouring rain was another great memory, and having chips thrown at me from above. It was probably Wezzo who was throwing them…I never found out! To be honest, though, I’ve even enjoyed some of the matches we lost, like Bath when we gave a brilliant account of ourselves. The boys have been brilliant right throughout the season and fully deserved promotion but we should also give some of the unsung heroes a special mention. Players who haven’t played as many minutes as they should have, like Lewis Hyde. Joey Taylor, who came on in the final and what a delivery for Dylan’s header! Dean Lovegrove came on and shored us up whenever we needed to. They always give encouragement and support to the squad in training, and help to create a great atmosphere in the dressing room which is second to none. For me, the attitude of the whole squad has been spot on this season and is one of the main reasons we have been so successful.
MW: So next season will see us back in the Premier Division for the first time since 2012. How do you see that going?
JP: Next season will be tough but I’m looking forward to it. When you win, everything is more manageable and fun. Next season you’ve got to expect to lose a few games against better and stronger opponents but that sort of experience while help not just my development but the players’ too. Dom has said he wants me to stay on and although this season has meant lots of commitment on my part, I’d love to carry it on.
MW: We’ll be in our own home next season, of course. How much of a difference do you think that will make to the team?
JP: It’s going to be massive for us. I can’t wait! It looks incredible and will be so much easier for all of us, especially training and being able to settle into a regular routine. I’ve only been associated with Horsham since July but can see how much it means to everyone at the club. I’ve read up about what the’ve been through in the last ten years and it’s been a roller-coaster journey from Queen Street to Worthing, YM and then Lancing, and its incredible that the fans come down to see us every week under those circumstances. The fans in the play-off final were unbelievable. A few of my mates came down and they said they stood with the Horsham ‘Ultras’ and had a great laugh. They were vocal all through the match and crowds like that at the new ground would mean so much to the boys and give us all such a lift. I really can’t wait!
MW: And what next for Jimmy Punter?
JP: Well I finish Uni around 20th May and then I have a long break. I’ll do the odd bit of youth coaching over the summer but I want to take a holiday first. I definitely need a break, to recharge the batteries, and come back with the same enthusiasm I had this season. You’ve only got to look at Dom’s reaction at the end of the play-off final, how happy and relieved he was. He has worked so hard for that, constantly putting out fires on a daily basis, constantly thinking of what needs to be done, looking at videos of the opposition, talking to players and coaches, thinking about training. I talk to him pretty much every day about all sorts of different things and although he loves his football, everyone has earned the chance to put their feet up for a bit.
And so say all of us!
Pictured: ‘The Management’ (L-R) Andy McCarthy, Adam Westwood, Dom Di Paola, Jimmy Punter, Steph Apps