Cheltenham Town

Without leaving the UK, Rakish Bingham's career has seen him well over 400 miles from home at times, and never anywhere close to his east London roots. The year of dramatic and unwelcome change that 2020 was ultimately brought the 27-year-old forward back to base, with a move to relatively nearby Ebbsfleet United later materialising for this season.

There has never been a campaign in modern times that has looked quite so skewed, with the fact that the National League South is approaching mid-January with teams having played 10-16 league games illustrating just that. Despite the disruption and limitations, ex-Wigan Athletic prospect Bingham is firmly enjoying what he signed up for back in September.

As well as insight into life under Fleet's German manager Dennis Kutrieb, he reflects in this conversation on a club career spent both north and south of the border, recalls valuable pointers from the manager of the world’s number-one-ranked team, shares his own international hopes, and plenty more...

 

Firstly Rakish, we'll mention the team, but to begin with your own personal assessment, how happy have you been so far with your season? Where does it sit within what you set yourself going into it?

It’s been a fairly okay start to the season. Within my standards, I’d probably have myself a little bit more ahead than where I am now, but in joining Ebbsfleet, there’s so many new players and such a new squad, I think I can’t be too harsh on myself. It’s been difficult at times with COVID, in terms of momentum and games, but nevertheless, I’m happy. I’ve still got a lot to improve on and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season. I just wanna get games going now.

It feels like there have been some smart decisions made in putting this team together. As a set of players and staff, what has been the overall feeling this season? A lot of things are right but just looking for some of those final pieces to come together? (Fleet are 11th but have games in hand on six of the teams above)

Yeah, in terms of our work ethic as a team, I think we work extremely hard on a day-to-day basis. We train full-time but it’s really not a jolly-up, every day’s a shift being put in. We put the work in, and usually when you put the work in, you reap the rewards. I think we’ve been unlucky at times this season in games; we’ve played well or probably had a lot of possession, and it’s not fallen for us. I think it’s small margins, where we’re at, at the minute. It’s easy to be overly critical. Like I said, it’s a new squad, so it does take time to gel, and obviously the manager’s ideas and what he’s trying to put across. I think we’ve got to grips with that now, it’s been four or five months and we know him better, he knows us better as players. It’s not a time to be too down on ourselves, it’s still early, still 12 games into the season, so there’s so many games left. We all expect highly of ourselves as individuals and as a squad, but at the same time, you’ve got to be realistic. There’s room for improvement and I think there’s a lot more to come from us, definitely.

To what extent have you sat down with the manager this season and talked one-on-one about what he wants from you, about your current progress etc.?

He’s come in and he’s been brilliant, to be fair. I’ve had two or three conversations where I’ve sat down with him, and he’s just checked on my wellbeing and asked ‘how are you finding it, how are you mentally, how’s things at home? How have you settled in this team, are you enjoying yourself?’ and stuff like that. All the lads, he’s had conversations with. I think he trusts in us as a team and individuals; he’s said many times he’s chosen this squad of players. He came in, he looked through each and every one of us as individuals, and he said ‘I want him, I want him,’ so he’s hand-picked basically who he wants to be in this team and this club. He puts a lot of trust in us on the pitch to go forth with the plan he sets us out to do, and I think it’s great to have a manager that believes in you. On a personal note, he puts big belief into me, and it’s nice to have, because you go out on the field and you’ve got no qualms. It’s one less thing to worry about, going out and thinking ‘oh, is the gaffer having me?’ He really does let you know your importance in the team. He just wants me to work hard, as always, and there’s been times this season where maybe the goal hasn’t fallen for me, and I’ve played a very good game and I’ve worked hard, but he’s openly said ‘I’ve got no doubt, Raks will start banging them in’. It’s nice to have a manager that believes in you like that.

In terms of the key things he emphasises to you as a team each game, what would you nail that down to, what's his style?

The bare minimum in his words would be ‘give 110 per cent when you step foot over the line’. Obviously, he gives us our tactics, depending on who we’re playing and what we’ve been set out to do, and we’ve got different styles, different patterns that we work on through the week. I’d say to sum it up, it’s ‘give 110 per cent, encourage each other when things aren’t going right on the pitch, and have belief really’. Go out and give your all, because there’s many people, especially with this COVID situation, who’d wish to be in our position, where we still have football at this moment in time.

With the restrictions, I’m sure the dressing-room environment for any club isn't quite the same this season, but for characters in the Ebbsfleet team, are there any standouts so far?

I don’t wanna make it sound clichéd but we have got a good group of lads, we all pull through together. I think now we’re in a place where we fully back each other. We’ve got our skipper Lee Martin, Josh Payne who’s vice-captain, I try to put in a bit myself. Everyone has a positive input, tries to be encouraging. I know it’s difficult because we’ve got a big squad but I don’t think there’s any egos, any bad energy. So it’s hard to pinpoint one specific person who pulls us together.

Taking it all the way back, where is home for you, in terms of growing up or maybe where you still live? What was football to you as a kid, was there somewhere you always went and played with friends?

Yeah, right now, I’m home; home is east London, Manor Park. Born and raised in east London and I travel to football from home now. I used to play out in the park from six/seven years old until I signed for Wigan at 16/17. We used to play in a cage and we used to play street football, whether we’d put our jackets down as a post or use a street lamp. Whatever chance I had to play football, I played football. My mum said when I first started walking, the first thing I went for was a balloon to kick it! I always had a football by my feet, going to the park. It’s nice to come back now after all these years being away. Since I went to Wigan, I’ve never really come home, I’ve always been up north or away from London, whether that be Scotland, Wigan, Doncaster, Cheltenham. It’s nice to be back and to feel that enjoyment again, that love.

Which team did you, or do you, support?

Arsenal; still an Arsenal fan now. They definitely do my head in but I’m a loyal Gunner!

Leaving Dundee United last year and coming home, in a year like 2020 as well, did you have the stress of moving from Scotland back down south to a new place, or did you already have somewhere? These things we don't tend to consider that footballers go through like everyone else!

I had somewhere to come back to, luckily enough. I’ve come back to my family home, but it was a nightmare, because I got told by Dundee United I could go back home, because we weren’t able to train. I didn’t bring all my stuff back with me, though, before I got told I wasn’t staying there, so I had to go back up, and you can imagine how long that drive is. It was a difficult year last year but I’m sure everyone went through similar sorts of things.

Moving up north as a teenager to join Wigan, just as a living experience firstly, what was the set-up and how did you find it all?

Yeah, I stayed in Wigan. I went there as a 16/17-year-old, so I wasn’t driving at the time, and I was staying in digs, two different homes. It was different for me, living with another family and settling in, but I always wanted to be a professional footballer and I was just hungry. It didn’t matter what it took, I was willing to do whatever, because I was so focused. I’m happy I did it because it’s taught me a lot, and I think it stood me in good stead to be the person I am today, let alone player.

In that time at the club, out of the first-team managers who were there - Roberto Martínez, Owen Coyle, Uwe Rösler - which did you most get to interact with? Did any of them make you feel like you were in their overall thoughts and they were keeping an eye on your progress?

Roberto Martínez was the manager when I went there and for the majority of the time I was there, until the last year. I’d say I had most engagement with him, and I remember going up to train with the first team, because I was doing really well with the youth team. I remember I was so excited, wanting to get the ball, full of energy, rushing around, out of breath, and we were doing one-v-ones against the defenders to get a shot off on goal. I was going a hundred miles an hour and (Martínez) pulled me to the side and said ‘Rakish, with your pace and ability, I want you to slow the defender down and then change your speed.’ It was something so simple but I literally got the ball the next three times, took on all three defenders and got a shot and scored. I remember him saying afterwards ‘see, I told you, and you’re doing this to international defenders.’ That was one of the first encounters I had with him and that stuck with me. Owen Coyle was a little bit different, because Martínez had left, and I’d not long ago signed a new deal, my first professional contract. Owen Coyle was good with me, he really did like me. He took me out to Ohio for the pre-season tour to America. He was brilliant, it was just the case that we had so many forwards in the first team and he couldn’t really see me breaking in that season, as much as I wanted to. He sent me out on loan (to Falkirk) and that was another good experience for me; probably didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but it was a great experience to go to Scotland, a new country, new environment. I picked up an injury when I was there and I was in my last year, so I came back and Owen Coyle wasn’t the manager, it was Uwe Rösler. That was it, that was my time at Wigan.

In your time in the game so far, where has felt like you at your happiest, the most complete spell?

When I first signed at Wigan, and being there the three years, I was very happy, because I’d come from street football, if you like. Going into a professional environment, I soaked in everything, I was like a sponge. I’d say I’ve enjoyed near enough everywhere I’ve been. Hamilton was a good spell because it was the first time, other than Wigan, I’d been anywhere for more than a year. I loved my life at Hamilton when I was up there, it felt like home. Other than then, I’d say now is probably the happiest I’ve been, because I’m back home, I’m content, I’m in a good environment, the lads are good. It’s only like 30 minutes up the road from me, so I’m making up for missed-out times with my family that I haven’t been able to have. Having my family so close now, it’s a better mindset, because I’m not coming home after football to an empty house. Whether I’ve had a good game, bad game, I can speak to my family, so I’d say now is probably the happiest I’ve been.

From a manager, are you someone who thrives off encouragement and just being given pointers to help you along, like we mentioned with Martínez? Or if someone has a go at you, can that also work? And which manager(s) has understood you best so far?

I think every manager’s got their own style, and I’m pretty adaptable. I’ve never really had a manager who’s full-on ‘old-school’ and just shouting, I’ve never had that approach. I had a short stint at Doncaster, and Darren Moore for me, his attention to detail, he made me view football totally differently. It was almost like being at a Premier League club, how they trained, how they applied themselves. His attention to detail with analysis, with my game and what he wants from me, that was a big eye-opener. It was like ‘wow, is this what football’s about and what it can be like?’ That’s probably the first time I felt that since Wigan and it was amazing. Having a manager that puts his trust in me, I’ve had that at most clubs, and I’ve got it now. I think having a manager who backs you regardless, that for me is big, because all strikers go through spells, and to still have the backing is priceless. It definitely helps for me and I think most strikers would agree. This manager at Ebbsfleet, he gives me that, and I’ve had that in the past as well.

You said you’ve pretty much enjoyed everywhere you’ve been, but has there been a spell that stands out as the most challenging?

I’d probably say Doncaster, because it was my first spell in League One and I only had a three-month contract, so I had three months to prove myself. It wasn’t somewhere I felt out of place, and I’m grateful for Darren Moore and Doncaster for giving me that opportunity, because it taught me a lot. That spell was probably my most challenging, and I’d also say at Hamilton when we stayed up in the (Scottish Premiership) play-offs (by beating Dundee United in May 2017). You’ve got one game in order to stay in the league and that’s pressure. We came out on top and that’s one of the things I’ll remember the most from Hamilton; the joy on everyone’s face to remain in the league was priceless.

Have there been any teammates in particular who you've felt that extra connection and understanding with on the pitch?

One I’d say, Ali Crawford; he’s at Bolton now and he was at Hamilton with me. Me and him had a great understanding on the pitch. Greg Docherty as well at Hamilton; he’s at Hull City now. I remember there were some stats of how many assists he had in that season and I think most of them were for me! Mickel Miller who’s at Rotherham in the Championship. When I first went to Mansfield as well, there was Matt Rhead up front, so it was big and little when we played together! He did all the back-to-goal work and I can remember him assisting quite a lot of my goals, so that was my first proper first-team understanding.

What about any big characters who instantly spring to mind from previous clubs?

Darian MacKinnon; I think everyone at Hamilton would agree he’s a cannon! You’d come in from training and your shoes or your clothes are hanging from the ceiling. You’re in training and one minute he can be like that and joking, the next he can be flying into tackles and very serious. I’d say him definitely, one of the wildest characters I’ve seen in football. Great lad to have on your team because he’ll run through brick walls for you.

Have you ever had to sing when you've joined a new team, and if so, which song(s)?

Oh, plenty of times. My go-to song has been ‘Three Little Birds’, Bob Marley. I sang that at Ebbsfleet as well, so I put on quite a good show for these boys!

That's always a popular one and a wise choice for initiations because it gets the audience joining in and can kill that painful silence! But on the subject of choosing Bob Marley, is it correct Jamaican is also your heritage?

Yeah, my mum’s Jamaican, and my father was Jamaican as well. That’s my heritage, I’ve always grown up eating Caribbean food, and having that whole culture.

Has anyone from the Jamaica Football Federation ever contacted you to check on your interest in representing Jamaica? Is it something you’d want to do?

Nobody’s ever mentioned it but it’d definitely be something I’d love to do, I’d love to play for Jamaica. It would make my mum and my family extremely proud, so I’d love that.

You’ve been on Twitter sparingly in recent years, is that a conscious effort to separate yourself from it and maybe the negative aspects? Or more so just lost interest in using it?

I had Instagram and deactivated it; it’s still there for when I activate it again. My Twitter I don’t use either any more, I don’t even have the app on my phone. I used to engage quite a bit with fans, and I had a bit of an experience when I was younger with Twitter, when it probably wasn’t going too well with my football. I’ve had some abuse and some racist as well. People can be very ignorant on there, they don’t know how it may affect you on the other end. I feel like I’m in control of my emotions a lot more now I’m not on there. It’s nothing against fans, because obviously not everyone’s bad on there, it’s just something I don’t use at this moment in time. Who knows? I’ll probably be back on there one day.

Finally, family's a given, but whenever you're not training or playing, what else gives you enjoyment, relaxes you, even inspires you in your life?

I’m a football head, so when I come home, I’ll always tune into the games on TV, whether it’s Premier League, Championship, Scottish. I always play FIFA as well, so if anyone wants a game, they can get it! I’m hardcore when it comes to FIFA. If I’ve not had the best day, whatever it is, play a bit of PlayStation, whether it’s FIFA, Call of Duty, anything like that. It takes my mind away from things, so I’d say that’s my downtime.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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