The media love a bit of pre-season football flux. Managerial comings and goings, transfer rumours, speculation over whether Yaya Toure got a decent birthday cake- all of this fills column inches during the period when there is no actual football, maintaining the interest in our national game in the manner of a tabloid gossip columnist.
At the lower end of the football spectrum, however, uncertainty simply causes supporter palpitations. If Manchester United, for example, failed to capture Paul Pogba they’d still have Zlatan Ibrahimovic. If Manchester City couldn’t sign John Stones they’d still have Vincent Kompany. If Arsenal failed to sign anyone at all then absolutely nobody would be surprised. But in the bottom two divisions of the football league, and in the National League, players tend to be on short term contracts. When a season ends, supporters look at their team and wonder how many of them will still be there in August, and hope against hope that their favourites will remain. Imagine, then, the summer just experienced by supporters of Braintree Town. A third place finish and play-off defeat was beyond their wildest dreams. That it was followed by the departure of their management team and the dismantling of the squad- to the extent that only three players from last season remain- was the stuff of their worse nightmares. And yet…a visit to the Avanti Stadium on Saturday demonstrated quite clearly that, despite their disappointment, life goes on very much as it did before.
“We never win in the playoff’s anyway. I’ve been watching for fourteen years and that’s the third time we’ve chucked it away. Nobody expected anything different.” Chucked it away may be a little strong, but the chap in the orange shirt with the large ice cream (much of which seemed to be melting onto his jeans) wasn’t entirely wrong. Last season could easily have seen The Iron promoted to the Football League, as they returned to Cressing Road with a goal advantage over Grimsby Town for the second leg of their play off semi final. One hundred and twenty minutes later and it was all over, and within almost no time at all manager Danny Cowley and almost half the first team had decamped to Lincoln City. Yet the queue at the ice cream van, stationed by the corner flag, demonstrated remarkably little bitterness. “We didn’t want them to go, but it’s full time football, innit?”
Former Welling United and Ebsfleet United manager Jamie Day had been brought in to start the rebuilding process, and he’d responded by signing so many players he’d be forgiven for forgetting their names- or at least he would be if so many of them hadn’t previously turned out for Welling. The majority of his squad were rather youthful, though he’d added experience by bringing in Jon Ashton, Lee Barnard and Jack Midson, the first two from League Two Crawley Town, the latter from National League rivals Eastleigh. They’d started the season with two draws, away to newly promoted North Ferriby United and, most recently, at home to Eastleigh.
The supporters of their opponents, Macclesfield Town, seemed to be afflicted with an unreasonable level of optimism. Perhaps they’d spent too long in the pub? That said, their bonhomie was almost understandable. After four years in the National League since relegation they finally looked as if they might just have a team to challenge for promotion, manager John Askey having held much of his squad together and strengthened. The signings of Ollie Norburn, funded by the supporters via the Silkmen Campaign Fund, and the return of Jack Mackreth, that Shakespearian spelling mistake, after a spell with Grimsby Town, gave the side a more attacking verve to supplement their defensive solidity.
It was expected that Norburn would not be overly popular amongst the Braintree faithful. Last February, whilst playing for Guiseley, he scored a goal that was later viewed and debated across the country, lobbing the ball over the Braintree keeper after it had been put out of play in order that an injured player receive treatment. Any home ire evaporated, however, when the teams were announced. Norburn had picked up a knock to his foot during a scoring debut against Torquay, had played whilst injured during the narrow and perhaps unlucky defeat against York, and had been rested today as a precaution. A rather convenient precaution, but, we were later assured by Askey, a necessary one.
The sun shone, the supporters crowded into the neat and well equipped clubhouse to finish their beer, and the PA Announcer entertained us with a collection of hits from the 1980’s, before bringing us into the following decade with a truly awful cover version of the New Order/England World Cup Squad effort ‘World in Motion.’ Why anybody would think to cover this in the first place remained unexplained. At the back of the ‘grandstand’ the level of bird excrement, rust and cobwebs suggested that the last time the place was spruced up John Barnes was still trying to ‘hold and give,’ and ‘do it at the right time.’ Sadly, and on the evidence of the next ninety six minutes or so, Braintree had failed to take his advice on how to ‘get round the back.’
In the fifth minute, and shortly after Sim Akinola had walloped a 22 yard Braintree free kick directly into the face of Macclesfield’s Paul Lewis, a long diagonal ball from Silkmen right back- and captain- Andy Halls was headed on by Jack Sampson, allowing Kinglsey James to earn a corner. A minute later another diagonal ball, and another Sampson header, led to a volley from Danny Whitaker which curled just wide. The pattern of the game had been set. Macclesfield relied greatly on the long pass, regularly but not exclusively from Hills, towards the head of either Sampson or Chris Holroyd.
That is not to say that the away side were one-dimensional. They also proved more than capable of attacking down the flanks, using the speed of Kingsley James and Danny Rowe, supplemented with overlapping left back Mitch Hancox. It was a foray such as this which ended with them taking the lead.
The breakthrough came in the eleventh minute. Rowe, feted by the away supporters throughout, received the ball out by the right touchline, cut into the box and fired expertly across Jamie Butler into the net. Braintree were unable to get to grips with the game, and further Macclesfield chances came and went. Braintree centre back Ian Gayle sent a bullet defensive header towards his own net, forcing Butler to tip over, Whitaker and Holroyd shot just wide, Butler saved another Holroyd shot low to his left, and somehow an unmarked James headed wide of the right hand post with the entire goal gaping ahead of him. Eventually Macclesfield made their pressure count, as in the 32nd minute Holroyd slipped unnoticed between keeper and defender to meet a Sampson cross and flick the ball beautifully past Butler for two.
Braintree, with perhaps the exception of Sim Akinola who seemed to be trying to win the match on his own, couldn’t get a foothold in the game. Indeed it was the 43rd minute before the home side troubled former Whitehawk keeper Craig Ross, with Jack Midson and then Akinola forcing a double save. The first half ended with the Silkmen two goals to the good, and it could easily have been more.
The Iron started the second period brightly, Akinola shrugging off the attentions of two defenders before firing a shot which Ross tipped around the post. However this was something of a false dawn, and whilst the home side worked hard to get back into the game Macclesfield didn’t look unduly troubled, with only the pace of Akinola looking likely to force an opening. The home supporters seemed almost resigned to defeat, only becoming roused when two challenges on Akinola went unpunished. They may have had reason to be grumpy.
On 74 minutes Macclesfield scored the best goal of the game. Sampson was 25 yards out when he received the ball, and controlled it expertly before gently lofting it into the top corner, capping an all-round display which deservedly saw him named man of the match.
Braintree did get a goal back with nine minutes to go, when Lee Barnard expertly fired home a penalty after a Mitch Hancox handball. The yellow card this earned Hancox cost him dearly eight minutes later, as he picked up a second for a foul on Barnard. The fourth official indicated five added minutes, and suddenly, finally, the home fans became animated. Four minutes into the five Akinola, who really deserved some reward for his efforts, fired a shot which Ross saved expertly to his left, conceding a corner. Braintree poured forward, and keeper Butler was on the half way line doubling as last defender when the ball was cleared to Kingsley James, who charged towards the home goal. Butler made a clumsy challenge just inside his own half and was shown a red card, to the ire of a number of home supporters who felt it should, somehow, have been a yellow, pointing to the defenders rushing back. What they seemed to miss was that, once past Butler, James would have had the opportunity to fire into an empty net before any of those defenders would have been able to intervene.
After the match, Iron manager Jamie Day was disappointed rather than despondent, and he was undoubtedly correct in his assessment, although the body language of his players, warming down after the game, suggested he’d need to pick them up- and quickly. “During the first half Macclesfield were better in every department, and although we gave them more of a battle after the break it was too little too late. But we’re still a new side, we haven’t done too badly over three games, and I’m sure we’ll get a response.”
Macclesfield manager John Askey was, understandably, a great deal happier than his Braintree counterpart, although had no intention of getting carried away. “We scored three good goals and played some good football, but we need to be more ruthless at both ends and improve our defending at set pieces. That said, we’ll go into Tuesday nights game with confidence. “
As the game petered to a close, the away supporters started up a rather tuneless version of Hey Jude. But it’s Jamie Day who will need to take a sad side and make it better.
Published on in National.