Hand: We want to win at Wembley for ourselves... and grandad Dave

Mitch Hand has yet to turn 30, but he is a football manager who speaks about the sport and his team with the wisdom and thought of someone who’s been around as long as Roy Hodgson.

On Sunday he will do something that plenty of bosses never get the chance to do – lead his team out at Wembley. And you get the sense that not only is he going to savour every last second, he is going to make sure everyone around him – and that includes his family (more about them later) as well as his players – will do too.

Hand is 29 and has been at the club since he was 14, bar a couple of brief spells at other clubs. Like his fellow joint manager George Gaskin he lives about a minute’s walk from the ground.

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And in his relatively short time as a manager he has already tasted a massive low – something that will make him appreciate the high of Sunday all the more keenly.

Danny and Mitch Hand with the SCFL trophy and a shirt that's a tribute to their grandad Dave

“Littlehampton’s my home town. I went to Connaught and Angmering schools and I was with Littlehampton Town when I was 14. Ady Baker brought me in after I’d played for teams like Felpham Colts and Wick Dynamos. At 15 I played for Town in friendlies and as soon as I was 16 he got me playing for the reserves.”

Hand, a left-back, had spells with Worthing United and Hastings United but home was where the heart was and he was soon back at The Sportsfield. It wasn’t too long before he started to help out on the management side and in 2018 the chairman asked him to be interim boss. They were bottom of the county premier when he took over and he could not stave off relegation.

"What happened then, and what I learned, has shaped the success we have now. You have to learn to cope with losing. You can’t fully enjoy managing a successful team unless you’ve managed one that failed. The bad times make the good times better.

"It was my lowest point in football as it meant so much to me.”

When Mark Bennett returned as boss he asked Hand to be player/assistant manager. Things were going well and Town would have gone back up in 2019-20 – until Covid cut the season short. After two frustrating stop-start seasons Bennett stepped down and Hand says Town ‘sort of expected’ him and Gaskin, who’d also been assisting, to become joint bosses.

They were confident they’d have a good season – but who could have imagined one that would end in them winning the league title and promotion to the Isthmian south east, and reaching the Vase final and two other cup finals (one of which they have already won)?

"We weren’t sure we’d keep the squad together. There were a few that could have gone to higher levels. We said ‘give us a month’. The selling point was the way we wanted to play. We told them if we won 5-4 every week we’d be happy. It was attacking, front-foot, play to score the next goal. And from the start it just clicked.

"Now we’ve scored 200 goals! It’s amazing. Joe Benn’s got 59, George 47, Tom Biggs 20 – so many have chipped in. The league was always the priority. We felt we could win it and we have, but to do so well in the cups has been something else."

It was in the FA Cup that the Golds started to make people beyond their own fans sit up and take notice. They beat Isthmian side Sittingbourne then had a huge crowd for an amazing 5-4 loss to Whitehawk.

Then came the Vase. Hand said: “The Vase had always been treated as a day out but I don’t think that’s logical. You’re only playing teams from the same level so you have a chance."

Golds beat Moneyfields 3-2, Deal 2-1 away from home and Sheppey 1-0 but lost 5-0 in round four at Athletic Newham. After being reinstated as Newham had fielded an ineligible player, it was home ties all the way as Brockenhurst were beaten 4-1 on penalties after a 3-3 draw, North Shields lost 1-0 and then Loughborough Students were blown away 4-0 in the semi.

Hand’s approach to the idea of playing at Wembley has been to ignore it until it became a reality. “Before the semi-final it didn’t exist. We were not in a Wembley final, it was not ours to lose. It’s like a fruit machine jackpot is not yours just because you’re putting £1 in it hoping.

"But now we know we are going. Funnily enough it was when I heard BT Sport were showing it live it really sank in with me. We’ll have 7,000 fans there and we’re going there to win it. We’re confident we can win it. Winning at Wembley will be very different to losing there. We don’t just want to think ‘let’s have a great day out’ and lose.

"It’s a once-in-a-lifetime day from everyone connected with Littlehampton Town and of course we’re all looking forward to it. We just want the day to come now.”

Picking the starting XI and seven subs will be difficult. It means six of the squad of 24 will play no part. "That’s what I’m losing most sleep over,” Hand said. “It will be hard but all the lads are as good as gold and know they can’t all play. I’ll find it quite hard myself just managing and not playing! Maybe I’ll name myself on the bench!

"All the players have got family and friends coming. Lee Garnham has got a coachload of people to himself going – mad when you think not long ago the whole club didn’t have a coachload for away games. Our younger players probably think this is normal. They’ll be wanting to go to Wembley every couple of years!”

We mentioned Hand’s family and they are important to him. His partner Lusardi and 17-month-old son Harrison will be at Wembley – as will, like many local extended families, the rest of the Hand clan.

In all that particular family’s thoughts will be Hand’s grandfather, Dave Novell. He was a stalwart of the club – their biggest fan, some said – but passed away at the start of this season.

His widow Carol still goes and Hand was anxious to find his nan as soon as the semi-final was won.

"I hope he’ll be up there looking down on it all. He’ll be in all our thoughts,” he added. “He’d have loved every minute of the day.”

Hand’s brother Danny is on the coaching staff, dad Chris is close to the club while mum Jane is a fan too. Hand said: “She ferried me all over Sussex from when I was five to 16 for all sorts of matches, training and tournaments.”

GAME BY GAME

It’s a classic football manager’s cliche – taking it game by game. But in the FA Vase, Mitch Hand is happy to say that’s what he’s done – even when Golds were knocked out!

Golds beat Moneyfields 3-2, Deal 2-1 away from home and Sheppey 1-0 – each result quite notable in itself – before being hammered 5-0 in round four at Athletic Newham.

"We started setting up to win those ties rather than just having a day out. But at Newham we were well beaten. It was the first time we’d taken quite a number of away fans and we took our eye off the ball,” he said.

So that was that. Only, it wasn’t. Newham were punished for having played an ineligible player and were thrown out of the Vase, Golds were back in with a home fifth round tie with Brockenhurst to come.

"When we were reinstated people began to talk about how many rounds were left before the final,” Hand recalled. "We had four or five players missing against Brockenhurst but others stepped up – that was when the wider squad showed their true worth.

"It finished 3-3, after we’d been 3-1 up, and we won 4-1 on penalties. We were drawn at home to North Shields in the last right and that was the game I was most confident for. It was our most dominant performance to date – we must have had 70 per cent possession – though we only won 1-0.

"We were at home again in the semis and against Loughborough we told the guys to go out to score first, go out to win it. We scored in the first minute and never looked back. We’ve kept on producing our best performances in our biggest games.”

WINNING THE TITLE

Whatever happens at Wembley, Littlehampton Town will be able to look back on 2021-22 as the season they confirmed their place in the highest league division in their history.

The Vase final will come a full month after a 2-0 win over Bexhill United clinched the Southern Combination premier division title.

And by then their points tally and guaranteed top two finish had already sealed promotion to non-league step four – so they’ll line up in the Isthmian south-east division for 2022-23 alongside the likes of Chichester City, Lancing, Haywards Heath and Burgess Hill.

It’s a source of great pride to Hand and he can’t wait to see what little old Littlehampton make of the Isthmian League. Perhaps it’s more a case of what the Isthmian League will make of the Marigolds and their fervent, slightly crazy fans.

Hand said: “It’s got to be my proudest moment – taking my hometown club to their highest level. It means the world to everyone at the club. And everyone is looking forward to what we know will be quite a challenge in the Isthmian League.”

Hand said it was an extremely well-run operation that had never spent beyond its means. Ups and downs in the SCFL taught club bosses much about how to succeed without breaking the bank, and that’s what they’ll continue to do next season – hopefully with the majority of this season’s heroes still on board the Good Ship Golds.

"The league was the be=all and end-all for us when the season started,” Hand said. “For us to win it and pip Saltdean with local lads who are on a pittance compared to some other clubs is amazing.”