Losing to the only team with a 100% record in the division might be partially excusable, but what concerned manager Paul Carden was that his team, in his words, “folded”. The teams weren’t a million miles apart in the early stages, but the gulf widened as the game progressed, showing just how much improvement is needed if the Bucks are to become contenders.
The Linnets, relegated from Step 1 last season, have remained a full-time outfit, and they looked capable of bouncing back at the first attempt on this showing. Their full-time status means they are operating on a different level to Carden’s team, and their control over the outcome grew tighter and tighter until the Bucks had to yield. Defeat would have been galling enough, but Carden’s team contributed to their own downfall with errors that the Linnets punished ruthlessly.
Carden made three changes to his starting eleven, restoring the creativity of Sam McLintock in midfield and dropping both full-backs, Jordan Piggott and Matty Carson. Josh Dugmore and Brendon Daniels replaced them, and although both are more attack-minded, they were deployed as part of a four-man defence. Jason Oswell and Byron Moore remained absent through injury, and Carl Baker started wide on the right-hand side of midfield.
Although only a few months away from his 40th birthday, Baker remains capable of pulling strings, and in 3rd minute he created a superb opening. Collecting the ball from Nate Blissett’s hold-up play, Baker’s low through ball split the Linnets defence and Devarn Green raced onto the ball; Green shot hard and low to keeper Paul Jones’ right and it took fingertips at full stretch from Jones to turn the ball inches wide of the far post.
That moment was to remain the Bucks clearest opening as the game went through a vibrant opening 20 minutes or so. Both sides looked keen to take the initiative, but neither exerted the control to do so, meaning the game switched from end to end.
Green seized his opportunities to run at the away side’s defence, and tall central defender Adam Crowther seemed particularly ill at ease facing Green’s pace and willingness to run with the ball. The Bucks went close again after 16 minutes when Prince Ekpolo jumped at the near post to nod a bouncing ball towards goal, one which Jones paddled away around his post.
Green then brought another save from Jones, latching onto the ball 15 yards from goal and seeing the ball bounce up off Jones’ chest and possibly even his chin before he grabbed it safely.
Having seen off the Bucks best efforts, King’s Lynn, prompted by the excellent Michael Clunan in midfield, began to slowly take a grip of matters. Clunan himself drove a free-kick into the defensive wall, half-volleying the return ball straight at Bucks keeper Luke Pilling, after Brendon Daniels had been penalised somewhat mystifyingly.
Pilling and skipper Matty Brown then almost got into trouble as a ball bounced between them, and Brown had to take control to smack the ball away to relative safety. The Linnets were starting to test the Bucks without creating any clear openings, but in the closing moments of the half they almost made the breakthrough.
Daniels escaped censure when the ball bounced up his body and several Linnets players claimed handball, and although the ball was cleared an apparently rattled Daniels soon became the game’s first booking.
As the game ticked into first-half injury time, a ball in from the left evaded everyone but the dangerous Jordan Ponticelli; he didn’t make the truest of contacts, but the ball may have been creeping into the far corner after beating Pilling until Brown made sure it didn’t, thundering the ball away from danger.
The Linnets had been gaining momentum, and they showed no signs of letting that slip as they took control of matters in the second period.
The Bucks started the half positively, Blissett just unable to reach a cross with his head and Green resuming his personal duel with Crowther. The visitors responded and a Bucks defender had to put a header over his own crossbar to prevent Gold Omotayo making contact first. From the resulting corner, Omotayo thumped a header wide, but the signs were ominous.
Pilling, who seemed uncertain with the ball at his feet all afternoon, kept the pressure on his side with a poor kick, and had to redeem himself with a terrific save, diving to his left to prevent Theo Widdrington, son of the Linnets manager Tommy, from striking a shot across him, high into the top corner.
It wasn’t one-way traffic, and McLintock almost caught Jones out when striking a first-time shot from a low ball in from the right. The willowy midfielder might even have had more time than he imagined, but chose to take on Jones and arching the ball up, down, and just wide of Jones’ right post.
The deadlock was about to be broken, however; on 62 minutes, a Brown clearance came off his own player, Liam Nolan, and rebounded to Ponticelli. Had his own man played the pass Ponticelli would have been offside, but Nolan’s touch played him on, and he took advantage gloriously, striking a curling shot across Pilling and into the far side of the net. Referee Neil Pratt confirmed to his assistant, who had raised his flag, that the ball had come off a Bucks player, and the goal stood.
The Bucks almost responded immediately, and it was Nolan who almost got redemption when he met a Daniels free-kick and his header, perhaps with help from Jones, smacked off the crossbar, Harry Flowers wildly smashing the rebound over the bar.
Alas, that’s where it started to go more badly wrong for the Bucks, and on 70 minutes Ponticelli sealed it. Brown’s clearing header hit his own player from Aaron Jones cross and Ponticelli snapped up the loose ball to smash in from close range.
Carden responded with a triple substitution, bringing on Matty Carson, Josh Waite and Louis Baker, the latter replacing his father, Carl.
Carden remarked after the game that where his substitutes were all fairly young and inexperienced, Linnets boss Widdrington was able to bring on more experienced players, a comment on both the injuries in the Bucks ranks and the Linnets superior quality.
Even with that youthful injection, the Bucks appeared to lose heart at that point, and defender Tyler Denton added a third on 77 minutes when he poked home a loose ball from a dangerous in-swinging corner the Bucks failed to clear,
Three goals might have flattered the Linnets, but 4-0 certainly did, and the nature of the final goal was a kick in the teeth. On 87 minutes skipper Michael Clunan added a fourth, and it was a head in hands moment for Pilling, as his kick clear under pressure from Zain Walker went straight to Clunan, and he lofted a chip into the empty net from 25 yards.
The noisy Linnets away contingent celebrated with abandon, whereas some Bucks fans had already abandoned ship, feeling that the contest was over well before Clunan’s clincher.
The Bucks won’t face opponents of Lynn’s calibre every week, but merely consoling themselves of that and hoping for better may not help some of Carden’s team avoid being dropped as their manager seeks to prevent a mini-slump become something more concerning.
Referee: Neil Pratt.
Assistants: Joel Buckle, Jordan Brooks.
Telford: (4-2-3-1) Pilling, Dugmore, Daniels (Carson 72), Brown, Flowers, Nolan (L. Baker 72), McLintock, Ekpolo, C. Baker (Waite 72), Green, Blissett.
Subs not used: Piggott, Evans.
Cautioned: Daniels, Brown.
King’s Lynn Town: (4-4-2): P. Jones, A. Jones, Denton (Charles 90), Crowther, Coulson, Scott, Widdrington, Hargreaves, Clunan, Omatayo (Walker 84), Ponticelli (Stephens 84).
Subs not used: Fleming, Keller.
Scorers: Ponticelli (62, 70), Denton (77), Clunan (87).