There’s no doubting Pat Suraci’s fondness for Petersfield. He and Joe Lea may have been at the club as co-managers for less than a season, but the success they enjoyed made an indelible mark on the duo.
They were looking forward to building on promotion to the Wessex League Premier – and another cup run, after reaching the Wessex League Cup final – when the call came from Southern League Gosport Borough.
And to the two of them, Gosport are not just another club.
“Joe and I joined Gosport in 2016-17 – I had just turned 18 and been playing in the second division in Belgium and Joe was playing for Yeovil in League 2,” said Pat.
“They were struggling at the time, a couple of years after their FA Trophy final at Wembley, and were in the Conference South.
“We played for Gosport for five or six years and then we created the centre of excellence, the under-23, under-18 and college programme– the club had none of that.
“We created that when I was 19 and Joe was 20 – we were coaching players not far from our own age. In the under-23s, they were older than us.
“Coaching wasn’t something I had thought about until I was in Belgium and on my own. I was living with a host but in a room on my own and sat there thinking was this really what I wanted to do. We trained for two hours and then did nothing for the rest of the day, and I was left thinking whether there were other opportunities.
“My brother is coach – he’s head of coaching at Bournemouth – and he’s a big inspiration for me. I spoke to him and said I liked what he was doing and I was thinking of getting into it too.
“I started coaching alongside my playing to start with, to earn a bit of extra money. Then 18 months ago I dislocated my knee at a training game – funnily enough, I was right wing and up against Joe at left-back. I decided not to take him on because I didn’t want to embarrass him, turned and got my leg stuck in the ground and popped my knee out.
“The pain was excruciating and I felt I didn’t want to keep playing – I wasn’t enjoying it, to be honest. I thought I’d concentrate on coaching and see how I felt, and now a year and a half down the line nothing has given me the same kind of feelings as coaching.
“I have my B licence and I’m going for my A licence – I’m in no rush, it’s not an easy badge to get and Joe and I would be among the youngest to achieve it.”
Pat and Joe had approached The Rams when the managerial hot seat became available.
“We went to Iain McInnes, the Gosport chairman, and Shaun Gale, who was the manager at the time, and said we wanted a new challenge.
“We had started the centre of excellence but we wanted to try something new and thought men’s football was the next step for us.
“We met Petersfield and told them what we could offer – our values, our beliefs and our vision for the club. They had survived some financial difficulties and had been fighting relegation for a few years, and we felt we could change that around.
“We had been told they had gone up a couple of divisions but had spent so much on players they ended up having no money.
“Even last year they were still paying off a lot of things.
“We were going in fresh – we weren’t asking for any money, we had new ideas and they got on board with it very quickly.
“Joe and I put everything into it and the guys at Petersfield quickly saw that.
“We started getting the results two or three months in, once we had stamped our style on things.
“The players weren’t playing for money, so we had to make sure they were playing for enjoyment, that we created the right environment, and make the players feel important.
“We wanted the players to look forward to training and being with a good, positive group – if we could give them that, they would be willing to come along and play for nothing.
“The culture and environment is vital at any level – if you can get that right, and people want to be there, then more often than not you’ll be successful whether you have money or not.”
The duo now need to see the same culture at Gosport.
“Without money at Petersfield, everyone there is for the love of the game. At Gosport, there have been players who have gone for the money and not for the right reasons,” said Pat.
“We need to address that and get a culture where people want to play for Gosport because they want to improve and want to do well.
“The chairman is trying to stamp out the reputation that Gosport is where you can get a bit of money and that doesn’t usually lead to the right motives.
“Gosport finished 17th last season and this year we will have less money, so logically we should be getting relegated...
“But that won’t happen. We will be looking to stabilise the club and that probably means a mid-table finish – 12th and above would be a successful season.
“We need to stamp our style and then build on that the year after. But we said that at Petersfield – the first season should have been one of transition, and we ended up getting promoted. Football is very unpredictable.
“We want to take the club to better things but Joe and I have ambitions to go far in the game. We believe that because we put so much work into it.
“We have targets but I never look too far ahead and try to live in the moment. If you do that, and put whatever you can into what you are doing now, then what will be will be. You’ll end up where you are supposed to be.”
Pat and Joe also took another former Petersfield manager, Mark Summerhill, with them to Privett Park.
“There’s always so much to do as managers but Mark, who had been at Petersfield for years, took lots of the work away from us – he was like having a third manager,” said Pat.
“He wasn’t involved too much with the football and training, but he helped us with everything else and gave us advice and sorted out anything we needed.
“We brought him over with us to Gosport because he was a big part of our success last season – we definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without him.”
Other Wessex League clubs had noticed the job the managers were doing at Love Lane, and some were preparing to try to lure them away. But they would have received short shrift.
“If any other Wessex League club had come in – and there were a few who wanted to speak to us– I don’t think it would have been worth it for us,” said Pat.
“But given that it was Gosport – it had to be a special job to have taken us away from Petersfield.
“Whenever the Gosport job had come up, it was one Joe and I would have been interested in because it’s a club who are close to us.
“I have lived in Gosport for most of my life and we are very grateful to the chairman for the opportunity.
“It will be a tough job. The club have under-achieved for a number of years and a lot of managers have come in and not been able to change that.
“We need to have our own style, to give the club an identity. People will get to know how Gosport play, what we stand for and what our values are.
“It’s a competitive league. Sholing have just come up from the league below and have signed Jake Hesketh, who was playing in the Premier League a few years ago.
“The money some clubs pay players is astonishing and we will be competing with that.
“The style will be similar to that at Petersfield – an attractive style of football, playing in a controlled manner, and one I think the fans will be excited by.
“I always got excited when Petersfield played because I always felt we were going to score and I think the fans will feel the same.
“We want a team who want to fight and will be aggressive and intense when they don’t have the ball. We want players who want to play for us. Joe and I spend a lot of time doing this and if that’s not reciprocated, they won’t play.
“The players should want to work hard, should want to do well for themselves and for the club. I think the club have lacked that intensity, the players who really want to be out there to fight, to work and show a real will to win.
“We are not worried about being managers who will be younger than many of the players. We like to give players autonomy – some may see that as a weakness, but they will have their say no matter what age we are.
“We will be very open – we will set up an environment where the players can thrive and really enjoy it. If they don’t come on board with that, they probably won’t fit in with what we are doing.
“We’ll work with everyone but if they don’t want to come with us on the journey, then we will be ruthless – we will bring in people who will.
“We will give everyone an opportunity, but we have ways we like to work. But if players have other ideas, we’re open to that. As long as we are pulling in the same direction, we’re happy with that.”
Two of Petersfield’s stars from last season, Zak Sharp and Alex Barsa, have followed the managers.
“Zak was the fans’ player of the season last year and has been excellent for us,” said Pat.
“Alex has been at Gosport before and scored 18 goals for us last season.
“I appreciate it leaves Petersfield with a couple of important players to replace but I’m sure they will be fine.
“I know Connor Hoare well. I’ll help him as much as I can, but between him and the guys he has brought in, they will be fine.
“There’s a nice link between the two clubs and we have already spoken about some players we might send over to them.
“We also have links with Bournemouth too and have spoken about some under-18s and under-23s as potential loans, as they could add something to our squad.
“At this level, it’s very much about who you know, and having played at this level, worked at Bournemouth and know people at Portsmouth, we have some contacts we can draw upon to help us out.
“I want Connor and the people in Petersfield to do well. I hope they can stay in the Wessex Prem and push on and I’m sure they can.
“I know it will be hard, losing two managers and someone like Mark, but Connor has his own ideas. They will be fine. They have made some good signings and Connor is a real football man and has some good ideas.
“I think they’ll have a good season and establish themselves in the Wessex Premier and push on from there. We’ll be keeping a close eye on how they are doing.
“We have a pre-season friendly on July 8 at Love Lane. I’m not saying we’re taking it seriously but if we’re losing, we’ll try to get the game called off...”