- Tim Parks
Big interview: Sam Habergham on FA Cup run with Lincoln, Wembley & journey from Norwich to Brisbane
He’s an interesting man, is Sam Habergham.
A key player in the dynamic Lincoln City side of 2016-17 - the first non League team to reach the FA Cup quarter finals since 1914 - he has been on the radar of the Stones equally dynamic management team for several seasons.
And with Stuart Maynard good pals with the Cowley brothers (the brains behind that remarkable Lincoln side) the Wealdstone boss was confident he could land the strong and influential Habergham one day.
“Yes, there are a lot of similarities between Stuart and Matty Saunders and Danny and Nicky Cowley: the same energy and ideas,” said the 30-year- old defender.
“The main difference is that here at Wealdstone we can’t get the players out on the pitch enough, being part time. Which makes the information and tactics that they manage to drum into the players that much more remarkable”.
Asked if he was finding that transition to being a part time player difficult, he said: “Well I try to look after myself and see it as a full-time job. Part-time is just a name on a piece of paper, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see myself as a national League player and I’m still determined to get back into the Football League."
Sam has a business studies degree with a book-keeping element and he’s been doing some work for a friend of his partner Chloe who has a beauty business. It’s all very different from football but he likes that otherness of the business world.
“My life has settled down a bit,” says the six-footer who began his career at the Norwich City academy. "I was brought up in Great Ellingham in Norfolk, and after travelling around to play for Tamworth, Braintree, Lincoln, Grimsby and then Peninsula Power in Australia I was staying back at my parents this summer while my fiancée Chloe was also back locally at her parents.
“I was travelling to the Stones matches and training from Norfolk, three hours each way! But now we’ve moved to Beaconsfield, much handier, and we’ve even got a baby on the way in November.”
So what’s the story behind Sam’s rather circuitous route from Norwich to Brisbane?
Well, I was at Carrow Road from the age of seven until 17 when I signed a two-year pro contract. They had back-to-back promotions up from League One to the Premier League so it was a settled and successful team. I was in the squad but it was obvious that they weren’t going to change much.
“I was released at 19 and very keen to play men's football, so I signed for Tamworth in the Conference. We only finished about 16th in the league but it wasn’t a bad side and we had an FA Cup run to the 3rd round and a game at Everton where we lost 2-0."
He then switched to then-National League Braintree for four years, firstly under Alan Devonshire. The Cowleys were then promoted to manage ‘The Iron’ after their success at Concord Rangers - and very nearly steered the unfashionable Essex side into League Two before they were beaten in the play-offs.
Their exploits caught the eye of Lincoln City, a BELT mired in the National League, and when the Danny and Nicky were lured up to Sincil Bank they quickly put in an offer to bring along their steady left back Sam.
“The next two years were probably the best of my career,” he says. “We were good and well organised, with Matt Rhead a good focal point up front but we also had some clever technical players. I remember we had 2,500 in for the first home game, which the club were quite pleased about, but then within a month we had a 10,000 full house every week! We just kept winning and the confidence and momentum increased."
The Imps ended the season as National League champions, but it is the FA Cup run for which they will be most remembered.
“We beat Guiseley, then Altrincham in the first round proper, then Oldham (who were then in League One) in round two before drawing with Ipswich in the third round and winning the replay” said Sam, warming to the theme.
“Then we beat Brighton who were the Championship leaders, in the fourth round. That was amazing enough but we then went to Premier league Burnley and won with a goal from Sean Raggett in the last minute."
Sam reckons he had 21 assists for goals that season - many from corner kicks - and it was his precise far-post delivery, nodded back for Raggett to score that won the game.
Lincoln were now treading where no non League club had been in over 100 years, but the quarter-final draw was unkind in handing a trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal.
It was a 60,000 full house and the plucky Imps held out until Theo Walcott’s 44th minute shot was deflected past the keeper by Sam as he stretched to block. And the Gunners added four more in a one-sided second half.
“We then had a great first season in League Two, reaching the play-off semi final but losing to Exeter - and also reaching The Checkatrade Trophy final at Wembley," said Sam.
“I suffered a bad knee injury just before the play-offs, though that was just after we had enjoyed Lincoln’s first ever appearance at Wembley… the Imps had 35,000 fans there and we beat Shrewsbury 1-0.”
And did he provide the assist for that goal?
“Yes! Well, a semi-assist as my corner led to a header that was saved before Elliot WhiteHouse put it away."
From the glory of Wembley to long-term knee injury… that must have been the toughest couple of years of his career.
“It was. We worked it out that there were 1,000 days between my last game for Lincoln, and my next one for Grimsby Town. You might think that signing for their hated rivals would have been difficult but the City fans were really good about it.. they knew what I’d
been through in those injury years."
It was a short stay for just a few months at Blundell Park, just 19 games as Grimsby were headed for relegation, and Sam had to face up to the fact that he might not find another EFL club.
“Danny Cowley asked me down to train with Portsmouth but I thought ‘if I’m not going to play in the League I’ll try something different… and a former coach at Lincoln was in charge of Peninsula Power in the Australian Queensland League and asked me over.
“We spent four months there, half the season and it was quite an experience. Hard to compare with anything in the UK as soccer is not the No.1 sport there and there are lots of Asian players and other nationalities… it was athletic and technical at the same time."
There is a National League that encompasses the whole country, and three regional leagues below that with Peninsula Power in the Queensland League, mostly comprising clubs based around Brisbane.
“Despite being the second level in Australia we had reached the quarter finals of the all-Australia Cup. Maybe if they win it I’ll get a medal!”
But now he’s putting his ability and experience to good use for the Stones, playing mostly in his favoured left-back position.
“As a youngster at Norwich, and in Australia I played on the left of a back three but here I like to be able to push forward… we’ve got a young and hungry squad and it’s great to see how brave and confident they are on the ball, just passing it and passing it. Some of the football against Oldham was incredible!”
Stuart and Matt said that Sam’s signing was as important for his know-how as much as his ability, and that showed as the Stones played out an often frantic last half hour at Boundary Park.
“I always try to help out the younger players and I’ve done all my coaching badges, so I’ve got a lot of knowledge to pass on. I’m really looking forward to it."
*This article first and exclusively appeared in the multi-award winning match day programme. Make sure you pick up a copy at the next home game against Torquay United on Saturday, September 17.
* All pictures by Darren Campbell