Battling Borough Beaten at Braintree
The Sports returned empty-handed from Essex on Saturday...
.....edged out 3-2 by new joint leaders Braintree Town in an exciting National South encounter.
At least it wasn't 7-0. Borough fans will long remember, with a shudder, the doomed FA Cup trip to Essex twelve months ago, when their hopeful heroes collapsed to their heaviest ever defeat as a senior club. This time, a closely fought contest could genuinely have gone either way.
"Yes, I'd say we were worth a point," commented Howell afterwards. "Neither side ever got clear water, and in the end we were undone by two set pieces and a penalty. That's a story we have heard before this season, but Braintree were big and quick and hard to contain, and we stood up pretty well."
"I was pleased with the front two. Shaun Okojie showed appetite and was a real handful, and Lloyd Dawes had a good hour even though he is not quite back to his full fitness. With Yemi and JT also in the frame after injuries, and young Tyler Pearson knocking on the door, we have excellent striking options now."
Braintree Town is a homely, welcoming club. The Ironmongery Stadium, tucked behind the housing estate, may win few prizes for architecture but it serves the purpose. And it is a club with a big heart. The Iron family on Saturday were grieving for the loss - at 11am on that very day - of four-year-old cancer victim Jacob Jones. They had loved him like their own child, and back in May he led out the club's youth side at a National League Wembley final. Now, four minutes into the match, the stadium echoed to a minute's applause for Jacob, and grown men were tearful. Some things are more important than football.
The Iron have surprised many observers since their relegation in the summer. Brad Quinton's rebuilt side now sits joint top of National South, on a simple enough formula of pace and physical size. Saturday's starting eleven had half a dozen six-footers (with a couple more giant substitutes joining the fray later). Their kit suppliers haven't exactly covered the team in glory with a neon-orange strip that breaks new ground in garishness, but at least you could see them in the gathering December gloom.
Early minutes were quite even, marked by two useful McCallum crosses, two Braintree corners, and also by two snapping fouls on Sergio Torres in midfield. But on 13minutes the Sports surprised their hosts with an opportunist goal. Mark Smith's huge free kick found Dawes, whose control and persistence confused three defenders before slipping a low ball into Okojie for a simple finish at the front post.
With the hornets' nest duly kicked, the home team now swarmed forward, several times stretching the Borough defence to the limit. The lively Ronan Michael-Percil, racing on to a sweeping crossfield pass from Crook, drew a strong save from Smith and then popped the rebound over, and then left-back Ricky Gabriel also shot too high from a corner.
And it was from another flag-kick that the Iron equalised just after the half-hour. Drage headed the floated kick clear, but only to the edge of the box, where Phil Roberts drilled in a fizzing low shot. The ball took a slight deflection through a pack of players and Smith got a hand to the ball but could not keep it out.
In the minutes to half-time, the action careered back and forth but with no change to the 1-1. Michael-Percil's flying run and shot was smartly saved by Smith and the follow-up was given offside, and then at the other end Okojie was powering clear until Joe Ellul stopped him with an immaculate recovering tackle - the tackle of the season for this reporter, at least.
If the first half had been fun, the next 45 minutes were to prove riveting. The teams continued to trade blows until, on the hour mark, the Iron actually landed one. A sliding tackle by Dawes earned what first seemed a harsh yellow card, although video replays showed the challenge was rash and the referee's decision quite correct.
But the free-kick that followed was more controversial. As Billy Crook launched it from wide left, striker Roberts stood blatantly offside by several yards, and in Smith's field of vision. It is an increasingly common set-piece tactic and Borough themselves have used it. But as Ellul headed the ball back across the goalmouth, Roberts - now played onside - was allowed to nudge it in from close range to put Braintree ahead.
Referee Aji Ajibola is widely respected as one of the best in non-League. He runs the game intelligently, communicates brilliantly and his judgement is rarely flawed. But if Aji was correct on his reading of this one, then perhaps the referees' courses and conferences need to push passive and active offsides back to the top of their agendas. Either way, the Sports lost out.
The match had grown and grown, from entertaining to genuinely compelling. But as we entered the final quarter, it took a dramatic double swerve. On 75 minutes, Kane Wills smartly recycled a free-kick from wide right midfield, Okojie brilliantly rose higher even than the mountainous defenders closing him in and nodded the ball down to Kiran Khinda-John. And - proving again that inside every big centre-back lurks a deadly striker - Kiran pounced, expertly struck his shot back across the wrong-footed keeper and found the bottom left corner for 2-2. Oh joy.
But within a minute of the restart Braintree were back in front. A swiftly taken free kick on halfway caught Borough flat, and as Michael-Percil raced away, but still well wide of goal and unlikely to find a shot on target, Drage mindlessly brought down the Iron forward. It was the most needless penalty of the season, gratefully despatched by Crook to restore the lead. Oh woe.
The minutes drained away, and with them Borough's hopes of a merited point. Then, into stoppage time, substitute Yemi Odubade burst clear, cut in on goal with the keeper to beat, and went to ground under the grappling attentions of a Braintree defender. Penalty? "Anywhere else on the pitch, any other minute of the game, that's a definite foul, no question," was the rueful comment of one of the Borough coaching staff afterwards. But - at that minute and in that critical position - Mr Ajibola took the cautious view and denied the Sports their final hope of a result. A pointless trip home, but not the poorest performance.