Question of the Week
Will Paul Hurst stay at Grimsby?
|We are Town!|
By: Andrew Doherty
LAST week I found a crumpled map with directions to Braintree FC. Today I was going to find out whether I was going to need it again. It was impossible to imagine not regaining our place in League 2, having got this far.
Yet there have been times when we've looked like a team struggling to avoid relegation while most of the time we've proved why we're here today. This included two notable victories over Barnet but unfortunately we're not playing Barnet. We're playing Bristol Rovers, who had the better of us in our league games and looked both tight and sharp in their play-off semi-finals.
"In a sense, I hope they do well", I overheard a Rovers supporter say as a mixture of fans took the tube to Wembley. I knew what he meant. I have nothing against Bristol Rovers. In fact, Lincoln apart, there's no-one I've not liked in the Conference, or National League as it's about to become. The group of Rovers supporters reminisced about their teams of old, as we would do, and praised the organisation and quality of their present team. One of them suggested that their best approach would be to frustrate us, as happens when we're at home. This is where we have been vulnerable. But today is a different day – "Vanarama's Big Day Out", goes the hype.
Supporters mingled happily but tension was in the air. This is Northampton, play-off final 1998, not the fun finals against Bournemouth, MK Dons and Wrexham when nothing was at stake. This is a game of magnitude. This could be our passport to Portsmouth and Stevenage. Bizarrely the smooth talking announcer who sounded like he should be introducing classical music or antique collections, warned us about getting over excited. I'm sorry but I get excited about watching us play Dartford and yes, that probably puts me in the "needing psychiatric treatment" basket.
Once inside the stadium, the mood changed. Looking at the vastness of the Wembley arena is surreal and the bass sound is pumped up like, no doubt, the heartbeats of the players. 47,029 spectators greeted the entrance of the players. The formalities were over and done with quickly – no Abiding with Anybody and all that old nonsense, thank goodness – and we were ready. Town were at full strength, lining up with:
McKeown – Magnay, Nsiala, Pearson, Robertson – Mackreth, Disley, Brown, Arnold – John-Lewis, Palmer.
First half. After a couple of meaningless exchanges, Town had the first attack on 3 minutes. Arnold burst through the middle and shot. Puddy parried, John-Lewis muscled his way in and at the second attempt drilled home his shot. Unbelievable! Town 1, Rovers 0. So much for frustrating us. Rovers looked nervous and conceded a corner. There was a nasty incident on 6 minutes when McKeown got kicked in the head following a challenge but fortunately was ok. Then McKeown came to the rescue on 10, pushing Taylor wide as he advanced. Brown ran clear on 17 minutes and played a short pass to John-Lewis whose shot was saved. Nsiala headed over the bar from Brown's corner. Brown put Palmer clear a minute later and Palmer's chip was handled outside the area by the advancing Puddy, who was booked. Town were dominating play. This was Brown's stage, as he looked for options to break open the Rovers' defence. Meanwhile Pearson was immense in Town's defence. Arnold broke away after a Rovers corner on 23 minutes, and Puddy just managed to clear the ball after a nervous back pass. All the noise was coming from the Town fans. The players were responding with determination, and Mackreth picked up a loose ball in midfield and started a move. Rovers came back and on 28 minutes Nsiala sliced a cross over the Town bar. The defence was packed for the corner but as the long ball came in, Palmer missed it, allowing Harrison a clear left footed shot from 6 yards which he drilled into the net. Town 1, Rovers 1. Town continued to play with purpose and Magnay and Mackreth linked up well. Then Nsiala slipped on 35 minutes, allowing Taylor through. Taylor slipped the ball past McKeown and collapsed in a heap, to the great merriment of Town's supporters. The referee was on the spot and booked Taylor for diving. Magnay was booked for fouling Taylor but redeemed the situation with a great block, and then was penalised again for pulling Harrison back. But Town kept Rovers out and caused them problems, with Mackreth and Brown attempting to set up chances. At half time, it was Town 1, Rovers 1.
This was a physical contest but the referee was allowing the game to flow. Town were playing good football, however a couple of defensive errors were giving cause for concern as Rovers looked dangerous in attack. Brown, Mackreth and Pearson were excellent for Town with others needing to step up but overall the performance was encouraging and we were making Rovers work.
Second half. Town continued to play controlled football, and Pearson was tripped while trying to dribble his way through a group of Rovers players. Robertson's free-kick earned a corner after a ballooned clearance. John-Lewis had an attempt blocked and was putting Rovers under constant pressure with his tireless pressure, but his partnership with Palmer wasn't working as Palmer was either behind him or playing over- or underhit passes. John-Lewis's determination was causing problems and confusion, and on 50 minutes just failed to link up with Arnold who since the explosive start had been quiet. On 53 minutes, Nsiala stopped a Rovers attack with a perfectly timed tackle and accurate pass to start a Town attack. Town were playing with composure. Palmer tried a one-two with Arnold but was pushed off the ball. There was a worrying moment when Nsiala, who had put in some outstanding defending work, was injured, but he managed to run off the injury. A knocked-on header from Palmer on 65 minutes found Disley whose pressure resulted in a Town corner. Pittman replaced Palmer on 70 minutes. Just after this, Robertson went down injured and was replaced by Parslow, who went to right back with Magnay switching to the left. Rovers won a free-kick 35 yards out after an Nsiala push but Pearson cleared. Town were keeping their shape, and Pittman was looking to link up with John-Lewis. Disley sent in a floated cross to John-Lewis but as so often it too high for John-Lewis to control it and react rapidly. After a short stoppage on 77 minutes and a Rovers substitution after Harrison had cramp, the game continued. John-Lewis looked tired out after all the running he'd done. Taylor had a chance for Rovers on 84 minutes. His shot was blocked by the ubiquitous Magnay. Pittman and then Brown lost possession, allowing Rovers to break but Town's defence remained strong. Town started an intricate passing move on 87 minutes and it looked to be fizzling out before Disley found the impressive Parslow on the right. Parslow's low cross evaded everyone. A minute later, John-Lewis's one-two with Pittman inside the Rovers box was foiled when Pittman would done better to turn and try a shot at this stage of the game. Blissett ran clear for Rovers but was undone by another magnificent tackle from Nsiala. Four minutes were added, and in this period a great tackle and chip by Magnay found Pittman who was unable to convert. After 90 minutes, the score was Town 1, Rovers 1.
Extra Time: Town quickly won a corner but Puddy gathered Nsiala's header. Disley then orchestrated a spell of sustained passing but damp squip time came as Mackreth's final cross was poor and Puddy gathered it comfortably. Town kept possession, while preserving their shape and energy. Arnold added some life to the attack momentarily before Clay replaced Brown on 98 minutes. On 102 minutes Pittman broke up a Rovers offensive and set off but again Town couldn't penetrate Rovers's resilient defence. Taylor had a shot for Rovers on 104 minutes from 20 yards but skewed it wide.
The players of both sides looked visibly fatigued as the second half of extra time began, but John-Lewis found the energy from somewhere to run, only to see possession lost in midfield. Otherwise it was like watching a game in slow motion. The gargantuan Nsiala cut out another attack, then Arnold won the ball and gave Pittman a chance, but he was pushed out wide and there was no-one inside to help him. Town had a lucky escape when the unmarked Lines headed over after a long free-kick from the right. Blissett then broke but Town's defence was co-ordinated and won a free-kick for offside. On 115 minutes, Disley, who was running the game from midfield, found Clay who burst up the left and found Pittman. For once, Pittman had a good angle but his shot was cleared off the line by a weary defender. Mackreth's corner was wasteful. Both sides continued to play, even at this late stage, and Magnay conceded a corner with a header after a long throw. With a minute, Rovers changed goalkeepers in readiness for the inevitable penalty shoot-out. At 120 minutes, the score was Town1, Rovers 1.
Penalty Shoot-Out. Rovers scored with the first penalty at the Town supporters end. Disley scored his with ease, making it 1-1. Rovers scored again, then John-Lewis scored up with the middle with Mildenhall almost getting a hand to it. 2-2. After another easily scored penalty, Pittman stepped up. His left footed shot was spooned over the top. Rovers 3, Town 2. Rovers scored easily, and Clay responded so at 4-3 to Rovers, it was up to Mansell to score and win the game. His penalty soared into the top left corner, making it 5 – 3 and wining the game for Bristol Rovers.
Gutted, bitter, disappointed, fed up? I'm not bitter. Ultimately we didn't score for 117 minutes. We were as good if not better than Rovers but that's not to take anything away from them. Equally we can't blame the referee who I thought was excellent, allowing a physical game to flow and being in the right place at the right time to make the right decisions. We have only ourselves to blame.
Frankly, how we lost the game is irrelevant compared to the fact that we did. We aimed to play patient possession football and we largely did that, except that in doing so we could have been more incisive, especially in extra time when we had superior movement and were marginally less tired than their players. Individually I thought Magnay and John-Lewis were heroes. John-Lewis received poor service from the midfield and little support from Palmer while running himself into the ground. Brown had an excellent first half but faded, Nsiala was outstanding after a moderate first period, and Pearson was a rock as usual. Overall, we stuck to the plan and played possession football but it wasn't enough.
So, the Conference calls us once again. I'd better keep hold of that map of Braintree.
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