Outside the 3500-capacity AGP Arena in the modest suburban town of Billericay, Essex, a 100-foot-long, 20-foot-high mural depicts Glenn Tamplin’s dream. It begins with the Mayflower setting sail for the New World, jumps ahead somewhat to the formation of Billericay Town FC in 1880, and quickly addresses the club’s modest, amateur-level successes during the 1970s.
And then God speaks. Specifically, He speaks to Tamplin, who is lying in bed—asleep, shirtless, tattoos snaking up his arms and over his chest. Above him are the hands of the Almighty, and thought clouds drift from the millionaire’s head: “Build a new stadium…” “Win trophies…” “Get promotion to professional leagues…” “Selfless…” “Honesty…” This is the new dawn—a club destined for glory. At the far end, Tamplin appears again, this time awake and alive and seemingly roaring in ecstasy. He’s wearing Billericay blue, holding a can of spray paint, writing a message to his people: “To all at BTFC… Please support us and make my dreams and your dreams come true.”
Everything changed for Billericay Town in December 2016 when Tamplin became the club’s owner. Brash, fit, coiffed, never afraid to flaunt his wealth and forever a syllable away from saying something outlandish, he proved excellent fodder for the ravenous British tabloid press. He promised to turn Billericay, a then-anonymous seventh-tier soccer team, into a well-respected, professional operation.
His ambition fit the locale. Essex, a mostly working class county immediately north-east of London, has long been seen—by Londoners in particular—as unrefined and gaudy. It is hard-nosed and hard-working and touched by poverty in parts but, in the English imagination, it is primarily about New Money, thick cockney accents, potentially shady deals, nights out on double vodka-Red Bulls, lads, trophy wives with long and ambitiously painted nails, brawls outside nightclubs called Evoke and Fiction, and ten-day holidays on the Costa del Sol. For the past eight years, it has been synonymous with The Only Way Is Essex, a reality TV show pitched as the nation’s response to Jersey Shore.
On the surface, Tamplin adheres to that stereotype beautifully. Born and brought up in Dagenham, East London, a few miles from the Essex border, he didn’t have much as a kid. He found out at age 13 that the man who he thought was his father was in fact his stepdad. His real father was, Tamplin said recently, a “tall man, with muscles and tattoos, everyone running around his needs.” Two weeks after their first meeting, his father decided that he wanted nothing more to do with the boy.
Tamplin was a talented footballer who played for Leyton Orient as a schoolboy, but they let him go—another blow. He went to work for Rainham Steel at 16 and rose up through the company as a salesman, then started his own company, AGP Steel, out of his back yard with a £50,000 loan. As Tamplin would have it, relentless hard work and a can-do attitude turned AGP into a multi-million-pound business, and that’s all there is to it.
It’s not quite so simple. In an interview with The Sun last year, Tamplin said: “I have never sold a gram of gear in my life—nor have I done anything illegal intentionally,” which is a strange thing to say unprompted. Mark Murphy of twohundredpercent looked into Tamplin’s backstory last year and found holes in the finances, none of which are filled in by his often brash and dismissive tweets. The gray areas are best described by Tamplin himself in an episode of Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men, a comically bad 2008 documentary series that aired in the UK. Dyer speaks to Tamplin at a daytime party thrown by the notorious gangster and armed robber Vic Dark. “It’s like being in an episode of The Sopranos,” Dyer narrates. “They all seem to love Vic, but they’ve never been on the wrong end of him or his gun.”
Tamplin is quite open about their relationship in the brief clip. “It’s funny, really,” he says. “Since I’ve been out with him [Dark], everybody pays me on time[...] I just make a phone call and the checks are in the post. When I met Vic, the business was doing seven or eight million turnover. It’s doing about 20 million now. And you don’t do that sort of [turnover] without people like his name behind you. So although he ain’t got any involvement in the business, if anyone ever tries to knock me—just mention his name, that’s enough.”
Tamplin, then, is a man who gets what he wants. Despite looking at a few other nearby clubs before settling on Billericay, he was clearly intent on achieving those “dreams” on the wall when he did turn up. He brought in well-known ex-Premier League players like Jamie O’Hara, Paul Konchesky, and Jermaine Pennant to play for the club. A few months later, disappointed that his £2 million investment hadn’t bought immediate promotion to the sixth tier, Tamplin appointed himself head coach and promised to fire himself if he couldn’t take the team up. He did work on the stadium, putting up that mural, building a brand new bar for the fans, and redecorating the dressing rooms to depict roaring lions on the walls, floor-to-ceiling. “My changing room’s a one off,” he wrote on Twitter when rival fans poked fun at the new decor. “Crack on all you sheep, lions don’t lose sleep over sheep’s opinions.” A video circulated online that showed Tamplin and his players listening to R Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest” before a match, a new ritual. Nothing about any of this was quiet.
But on a bitterly cold Tuesday night in March, shortly before Billericay are due to kick off a top-of-the-table clash against Dulwich Hamlet at the AGP, Tamplin can’t talk to me. His press officer, Nicky—who works as the club’s official photographer, too—has tried everything, but Tamplin isn’t in the mood. He’s been unwell lately, and a dreadfully poor run of form in both the league and cup hasn’t helped. Just last week, in fact, he fired himself as head coach after a 5-2 loss at Wealdstone. Rumours swirled that he’d asked his players to forfeit a week’s wages and, when the majority refused, Tamplin gave up. Whatever happened, he reinstated himself two days later. “We as a club have made a unanimous decision that Glenn Tamplin will see the club through as manager until the end of this current season,” the statement read, though it was difficult to imagine anyone but Tamplin speaking as the club, unanimously. Tonight, Tamplin arrived at the AGP two hours before kick-off, and immediately took himself to the lion-laden locker rooms to give his players a stern team-talk. Nicky says it lasted for well over an hour.
It didn’t work. Dulwich were backed by an impressive away following for this level of football on a night so cold in a town this far east of London and left as 3-1 winners. Billericay were slower to every 50-50 challenge; their defense seemed to panic at the first sign of danger; Dulwich’s 18-year-old goalkeeper played out of his skin and the ‘Ricay frontline ran out of ideas as the game trudged along. Throughout all this, Tamplin stood in the dugout wearing a watch that appears to cost more than most fans’ monthly earnings, hollering at the referee and bellowing at his players. Harry Wheeler, the 29-year-old co-head coach who most fans agree makes most of the team’s important tactical decisions, paced around his technical area in Tamplin’s shadow, frustrated.
After the game, I stand at the spacious and shiny new bar that overlooks the pitch—it’s called The Worlds Greatest Bar, no apostrophe—drinking a Guinness with some pleased Dulwich supporters. Nicky calls me. “I daren’t even speak to Glenn after a loss like that,” he says. So I walk back out through the parking lot in the dark, past Glenn Tamplin’s dream in reverse.
In the Isthmian League, football often matters less than off-field absurdity. Dulwich Hamlet, for example, are in such a perilous financial situation that the Mayor of London has had to comment on their misfortune. Ex-England captain Rio Ferdinand has tried to buy the club from the American investment company that’s effectively holding the club ransom. It’s a mess, and beating Billericay doesn’t so much as begin to sort things out. Even if Dulwich usurp Billericay at the top of the table and gain promotion as champions this year, they may have no stadium to play in when the new season starts. Their players might not get paid. They might cease to exist entirely. Chaos reigns. Over-ambitious, ostentatious owners aren’t a new thing here either—ask fans of AFC Hornchurch or Grays Athletic about the damage they can cause.
Plenty of Billericay fans fear the worst then, despite all this new wealth. Tamplin has bankrolled Billericay Town thus far, but he’s hardly the most stable man in the game. If he’s willing to sack and then rehire himself in the space of two days, maybe he’ll just walk away from the club altogether in a fit of pique. “Make my dreams and your dreams come true,” the mural reads, in that order. What if Tamplin wakes up?
And then there are the headlines. Since the turn of the year, Tamplin has been in the tabloids for two separate and separately bizarre incidents. The Sun claimed in January that he had driven to Jamie O’Hara’s house with £2,000 worth of wages, in cash. The report claimed that O’Hara was on holiday, so Tamplin handed the money to the midfielder’s 25-year-old fiance, Elizabeth-Jayne Tierney, and joked: “You can do so much better than him.” Tamplin is a born-again Christian with a wife and a kid, and Tierney was engaged to one of his employees. It was not a great look.
Then, a couple of weeks later, the same paper reported that Tamplin was involved in a row with former Billericay under-16 defender Elliot Kebbie over a cancelled contract. In short, The Sun claimed, Kebbie refused to walk away from a £4,000-per-month contract in exchange for a £5,000 pay-off, so Tamplin texted the player to say that he “did not want to get gangsters involved.”
Strangely and uncharacteristically, Tamplin stayed quiet through all of this: no anti-media bluster, no forthright denials, not so much as a pissed-off tweet. So I’m relieved when Nicky calls me that Friday with some good news. Glenn, he says, would be happy to talk to me on Saturday afternoon at the AGP before Billericay take on Staines Town in a league game. “If you get him before the game, he’ll be in a good mood,” Nicky assures me.
“It’s a fucking nightmare,” Tamplin shouts into his cell phone as he steps into his office, past the stool on which I’m perched. Today’s game hasn’t officially been called off yet, but the pitch at the AGP has turned into a bog after two days of non-stop rain, and Tamplin has decided that there’s no chance of play. No game today means that Billericay’s already congested fixture list gets busier still; a congested fixture list makes Billericay’s task of getting promoted to the National League South that much harder; the possibility of not making it to the National League South—of failing—cannot enter Tamplin’s head.
Nothing can quite prepare a person for Glenn Tamplin’s office. The sparkly, graffiti lettering on the door reads: “GAFFA’S ROOM.” Inside, the walls are a softly spray-painted jungle, lions and stone angels standing mane-to-wing. The light of the Lord streams down from the skies, illuminating inspirational quotes: “I thought about quitting until I realised who was watching,” “Successful people are 100% convinced that they are masters of their own destiny, they’re not creatures of circumstance. They create circumstance if the circumstances around them suck they change them [sic?]” A mess of blood and feathers is painted on the table to my right next to another rousing sentiment: “Winners are losers who got up one more time than they failed.” There’s an eagle staring proudly at my knees.
Tamplin sits down, finishes his call, and offers me his large, inked hand. He has two Refresher bars—a chewy, sour English candy—to his right, unopened. He stuffs half of one into his mouth as we begin our conversation, and we talk about team spirit. “It’s funny, because when we beat teams, we go in the changing room, we just keep it to ourselves, we don’t go banging on their doors,” he says, chewing. “We don’t go rubbing it in their noses. But every team, for some reason, when they beat us want to bang on our doors, rub it in our noses, make out that they’ve won the league and we’ve thrown it away.”
Why is that?
“I really don’t know,” he says. “They say the hype, but all I’ve done is bought a football club and tried to make it the best I can. Why teams feel that they have to abuse us when they beat us, I don’t know.”
He means it. Tamplin is fearless in conversation, staring me dead in the eye, his thick cockney accent rolling out in a fast-moving stream of throaty vowels. But he’s quite clearly pained, too—he feels he’s been wronged. The situation with Jamie O’Hara, for example, has a very simple explanation. Tamplin and his wife went to O’Hara’s house to deliver those wages, he says. And it was a cheque, not an enveloped stuffed full of cash. “It would have caused me problems indoors with my wife, but my wife was with me so she knows it’s rubbish! There’s stuff like that that does affect the players, because it’s lies that come out in the press and the press make the lies up and then they deliver the lies.” (O’Hara’s management team did not respond to repeated quests for comment on the matter. O’Hara did, however, appear on the popular English TV show Soccer: AM last Saturday morning, before a ‘Ricay game that afternoon. He openly celebrated when they announced on-air that the game had been called off.)
As for the suggestion that Tamplin stood down after his players refused to take a pay cut? Also nonsense, he says. “If you don’t do your week’s work, you don’t get your wages. I would never stop anyone taking their wages. But you need to look at yourself in the mirror and see if you deserve your wages.” It was the team, he says, who implored him to come back. “The players came to me and said, ‘Listen, as much as we didn’t think we did, we like you pressuring us, we like you pushing us, we like you driving us,” Tamplin says, and then goes on. “’You’re inspirational to us. We need you. Please don’t leave us now, Gaffa.’ I literally was begged by the players not to leave. I want to leave. I wanted to leave.”
It’s all a little Trumpian, but so is Tamplin. He rose up to do his part when he’d rather have been enjoying his fortune; he did this For the People, despite the media’s attempts to besmirch his good name; he found himself in a job for which he was comically underqualified. Maybe that’s on Tamplin’s mind when he says that, if this were America, he’d have “a job at the top,” rather than increased scrutiny from the taxman. “They just don’t like winners in this country, do they? They don’t like people that do well.”
Tamplin snaps another half off a Refresher bar and gores it between his teeth. He talks about his dreams. “It’s no good just being a football club,” he says before pointing towards one of the stone angels. “It’s got to be more. I’m a believer—you can see all the stuff around you. I’m here to change people’s lives as well.”
And suddenly, here in the middle of the jungle, it’s difficult to see Glenn Tamplin—a man in an office chair painted to camouflage itself into reeds—as anything more or less than a scarred man desperate to fill a void. He turned to God eight years ago at a psychiatric ward—building AGP into a multimillion-pound company had burned him out, he tells me. “I wanted to take my life,” he says with the same confidence that he talked about today’s game being postponed. “I was depressed. I couldn’t get myself out of my bed. I didn’t want to be around. Some pastors would come into the psychiatric ward once a week and try and teach you faith. That pulled me out.”
He goes on, and I sit still enough that I won’t startle him out of the thought. He rushes through the crux of his point without even noticing: “I’d been looking for a dad all my life, and never had one,” he says. “Then all of a sudden I realized that the Lord’s my father. So my father’s there, he’s present. I’m his son, and every day I was pleasing my father and pleasing myself and pleasing my family.”
He’ll never leave the club, he says. Stepping down as manager is different to leaving this all behind, to abdicating responsibility. “There’s different stuff that’s going on,” he says of the situation in the dressing room. “So, when I talk, I’m almost like a father figure, like a psychiatric. So what happens is, I’m a really big influence on them.”
Nicky steps in, and I walk out of the Gaffa’s Room. Outside, the referee officially calls the game off, and an announcement comes over the PA. The players will stay around at the bar to take pictures with the few hundred fans who have already turned up. Half of the team is already there, watching the Manchester United-Liverpool game on the overhead televisions. A couple of kids in blue and white Billericay scarves stand nearby, too shy to say anything to their heroes. Tamplin stays in his office for now, but he insists that his door’s always open to anyone who needs him.
Alex Robert Ross is a writer who spends most of his time in London. He’s currently a Contributing Editor at Noisey, VICE’s music vertical. You can follow him on Twitter.