The Bucks were more Ebenezer Scrooge than Jacob Marley in this goalless draw, going some way towards exorcising the ghosts of recent Christmas past in the process.
With four changes to the team that surrendered 5-0 to Leamington just four days earlier, Cowan set the Bucks formation in a way that allowed the hosts to have plenty of possession and territory, but which put two banks of four players between the Seals and Matt Yates in the Bucks goal. As a result, the defence rarely had to shout “he’s behind you”, and when the Seals did break through Yates was equal to all they could offer.
The contest did share some characteristics with a seasonal pantomime; the home crowd, who given the Bucks recent form must have felt this was three points for the taking, were all too ready to cast Cowan’s men as the villains, feeling their tactics were not in the spirit of goodwill to all men. The Bucks were far from welcome visitors in red, and they received cards aplenty, six in total, and had Ryan Barnett end the game in the dressing room for a second booking late in the game that saw him dismissed.
Chester also felt aggrieved that Akwasi Asante was shown an 81st minute yellow card for simulation, rather than being awarded a penalty when he appeared to be felled by a prone Shane Sutton. The Bucks skipper, making his first start since September because of injury, was a colossus in their defensive effort, but when Asante’s smart turn left him on the deck it seemed a goal was finally about to arrive. Asante then went to ground, with Chester players and fans united in their belief he had been fouled. Referee John Matthews replied “Oh no, he wasn’t”, and the Bucks survived.
The annoyance of the home crowd was understandable. They had seen their side gifted the majority of the game’s attacking opportunities almost from the off, but the under-performing Seals just couldn’t find a route through the massed ranks of Cowan’s team. Sutton, sent off in this fixture last season, marshalled the back line alongside Theo Streete, and with Ross White also restored to the defence and Ellis Deeney returning after suspension the Bucks had a much more solid look. The defensive discipline began at the front of the team, with Matty Stenson alone up front but committing wholeheartedly to the cause, bustling and chasing all afternoon.
Chester frequently played out through defence and set up just inside the Bucks half, but the visitors held firm. Opportunities for the Bucks were few, but Stenson fashioned one for himself when he used all his raw physicality to burst through, perhaps taking one touch too many and allowing Danny Livesey to block his shot when he looked set to score.
Chester built some first-half pressure, and Yates saved superbly when initially wrong-footed by a deflected Asante shot, presented to him by George Glendon’s short free-kick. Yates then pushed a loose ball clear from his six-yard box as a Chester player lurked, whilst a free-kick late in the half for Telford was put over Griffiths cross-bar by Brendon Daniels.
The second half had a similar pattern. The Bucks weren’t going to be shifted from their game plan easily, and Chester replaced the largely ineffective Anthony Dudley with George Waring as they sought to break through. It was he who fluffed his lines on the game’s best opportunity on 69 minutes, when the Bucks defence was finally sprung; Waring, however, could only hit the outside of the post, his shot beating Yates’ dive to his right.
Chester frustration grew, and several wayward efforts on goal had the home fans sensing it perhaps wasn’t to be their day. Yates, in his best performance in a Bucks shirt, again denied Asante, equal to his low shot, following which came the Sutton/Asante penalty controversy.
In the first of five minutes of added time, the Bucks were reduced to ten men when Barnett’s second booking, for a foul on Elton Ngwatala, compounded his earlier caution for dissent. The blow only seemed to stiffen the Bucks resolve, as players placed themselves in the way of everything Chester could muster to bring home their hardest-earned point of the campaign.
AFC Telford United: Yates, Birch, White, Deeney, Sutton (c), Streete, Barnett, Walker, Stenson (Williams 82), McQuilkin (Dinanga 82), Daniels.
Unused substitutes: Lilly, Calder, Knights.
Cautions: Deeney, Streete, Birch, Sutton.
Dismissals: Barnett (two bookings).
Chester FC: Griffiths, K.Roberts, Taylor (Morgan 63), G.Roberts (c), Livesey, Grand, Jackson, Glendon, Asante, Dudley (Waring 63), Ngwatala.
Unused substitutes: Stopforth, Hughes, Elliott.
Referee: John Matthews.
Assistants: Reece Davies, David Constable.