The Big Interview – Sean Benton

The Essex Spartans’ fifth-place finish at the end of the 2015 season is not reflective of a job well done by the team and off-field volunteers, says Head Coach Seán Benton.

The Essex Spartans failed to improve on last year’s 4-6 result with a 3-6-1 season, but after the most extensive recruitment drive in the club’s history and a thriving committee of seven active members, Benton commends the progress made by the club in the last 12 months as ‘outstanding’.

“We’re completely on track with the 5-year plan I put in place two years ago, when I first became Head Coach,” he said.

“Our final record really doesn’t show the progress that we have made, and that progress has been consistent right across the organisation. The team is in a much better place than it was a year ago, and we were involved in some very close games that we were unfortunate to come out the wrong end of.

“Of course I would have been happier if we had made the playoffs, but I am really, really pleased with the improvements we have made as a whole.”

The Essex Spartans held four free ‘Come and Try’ sessions across Essex before Christmas, which was instrumental to their development and expansion this year.

“One of the things I really wanted to do was become much more pro-active in the recruitment process, and utilise the untapped resource of the East London border,” he explained.

“The ‘Come and Try’ in Dagenham was a horrendous day with torrential rain, but the players that turned up that day are still with us now and were absolutely invaluable to us this season.”

Those rookies have fitted in along with the vets in black and gold seamlessly this year; something that, along with a thriving Academy structure, Seán Benton believes has kept the whole team on fighting form.

“It’s very clear to see the dividends that a strong Academy can pay to a senior team,” he explained. “Having a whole ‘package’ organisation is important to me and great teams have great academies that feed into them.

“On top of that, I’ve been extremely pleased with the new players we’ve brought in.

“I know some of them haven’t played as much as they would have liked, but with American football it’s so important to learn the game, the skills and the techniques involved, and what you’ll see on the field and how to react to it.

“In year 2, year 3 and onwards they will play a much bigger role on the field and off of it.”

The main focus of the club is certainly not endless acquisition, however, as Benton explained:

“For me, the most important thing by far is retention.

“We’ve had around a 67% retention rate every year and I want to keep building on that. Sustainability is massively important to me; what we’re trying to do more than anything is make players feel wanted, needed, respected and know that we genuinely care about them as people.

“It’s really not a case of, thanks for showing up today for the game, now I don’t care about you at all until next weekend or next season. I can honestly say – and I know the players may not all feel that I show it all the time! – but I do genuinely care about every single player on that team.

“When they’re hurt, it hurts me, and I know that all the Spartans coaches feel that way.”

The standout performers of the league this year were undoubtedly Suffolk-based Bury Saints, who achieved a 10-0 record in 2015 including a 71-point win over local rivals Ipswich Cardinals on the final day of the regular season.

So – how did they do it?

“Bury are completely unlike any team in our division,” said Benton.

“They’re 8 miles from Lakenheath and Mildenhall, two major US military bases, and 70% of their roster are American servicemen. That’s not to say that being American guarantees you’ll be good at football, but what they do have as servicemen is strong discipline and in a lot of cases, a really good grounding in football from their youth.

“They are respectful, really helpful to us in terms of game film and stuff like that – it’s a huge shame they probably won’t be in our division next year!”

Emotions have been high all season for the Spartans, but ‘undisciplined’ isn’t a word Seán Benton would use to describe his team.

“I’ve only had to get properly drill-sergeant on them once this year,” he joked – “that’s not so bad!”

With the season now at an end, there’s nowhere for the team to look but forwards – and in typical Spartan fashion, there’s still a war to fight.

“We’re a very young team with a long way to go,” said Benton.

“But things have changed enormously for the better – despite what the league table looks like – and that’s the best outcome I could have asked for.”

The Essex Spartans will begin recruitment later this year, and anyone interested in joining the organisation as a player, coach or volunteer is welcome to get in touch.