But for a fateful strike of the ball from twelve yards by Devarn Green, the Bucks may well have returned from the Lancashire coast with maximum reward; however, when Southport keeper Cam Mason beat away Green’s penalty kick with just over 10 minutes remaining of the game, you sensed that the stalemate was well and truly baked in on what was a warm August Bank Holiday afternoon.
Had they taken the victory, the Bucks performance would have fitted manager Paul Carden’s own description of his team’s start to the season prior to last weekend; solid but unspectacular. Alas, a 4-0 home defeat against King’s Lynn had suggested that even the solidity was missing, but after making his expectations of them clear to his team this week, the Bucks looked much more resilient, albeit Southport’s lack of cutting edge made Carden’s team look positively menacing by comparison.
A goalless draw doesn’t completely answer the questions which some Bucks fans have been asking over the early weeks of the season. Much will be made of the failure to score once again; Carden’s search for a potential solution to that problem edged closer over the weekend, and can’t come soon enough.
Injury to last season’s top scorer Jason Oswell has left the Bucks reliant on Nate Blissett, but the summer signing isn’t playing in the way Carden had planned to use him, and recent arrival Josh Waite, just 18 years old, is seen as one for the future rather than the here and now.
A strike rate of just two goals in five matches won’t worry anyone other than the Bucks themselves, so the news that Oswell’s recovery appears to be on track, plus the potential of a new arrival, may help to allay supporters’ fears.
What had likely concerned Carden more heading into this game was his team’s defending. Even with more cutting edge, the Bucks would be unlikely to win many games were they to continue defending in the way that had seen them concede six times in their previous two games.
Playing a back four, Carden recalled Jordan Piggott and Brad Bood as his full-backs, wither side of captain Matty Brown and Harry Flowers in the centre. Byron Moore was fit to return after a groin injury flared up, and Robbie Evans was also recalled in the centre of midfield, in place of Prince Ekpolo.
The early stages of the game were punctuated by injury stoppages, and with both sides looking rather tentative in their approach. That changed in the 12th minute, when Evans chose to pass to Moore rather than take on a shot; Moore’s touch took him around home custodian Mason, but Moore was forced wide and the narrowing angle meant he could only hit the side netting.
The home support wasn’t happy with referee John Mulligan, feeling he was not allowing enough of the physical side of the game, apart from when their own side were on the receiving end.
On 25 minutes, Sam McLintock found a bit of space and moved the ball on to Blissett, who in turn found Evans. The midfielder did get a shot away, but his effort was weak, possibly because of a challenge being made as he struck the ball, and Mason saved easily.
Southport responded, but the next goal attempt was another from the visitors. Moore was enjoying a lively return to the side and having switched flanks with the subdued Green he beat his full-back, got into the box and then spotted Liam Nolan around the ‘D’ of the penalty area. Nolan strode onto the ball and struck it hard but not quite true, the ball arrowing over the angle of post and bar to Mason’s left.
Moore was soon involved again, when his indecision meant the ball dropped between him and a defender before being cleared, and from the resulting break, Southport’s Jordan Archer took on Flowers, just about getting the better of him but then dragging his low shot wide of Pilling’s right post.
Southport took some encouragement from that, and in the closing 10-15 minutes of the half they had a succession of corners and dangerous attacking throw-ins, delivered by the trebuchet-like prowess of defender Charlie Oliver. Brown and Flowers manned the ramparts and repelled the missiles that rained in, Brown even taking a blow to the back of the head from his own keeper Pilling as he came out to punch clear.
Half Time: Southport 0-0 AFC Telford United
The second half saw the battle of will, but perhaps rather less skill, continue. Oliver was the first man into the referee’s notebook, for a foul on Bood, and how Mr Mulligan saw no offence by either player when Blissett and Port skipper Adam Anson grappled WWE-style is anyone’s guess.
Anson was soon to the rescue when his side gave up midfield possession to Evans’ tenacity; as Evans played a good-looking through ball to Green, Anson slid in from the side to deny Green a chance to run in on goal against his former team.
Very slowly, the Bucks appeared to be gaining the upper hand. Brown and Flowers had all but nullified Archer’s threat, and further forward Moore’s awareness and industry started to pay more dividends. Green too began to flicker into life, beating his man to win a corner on the left, one which Flowers met with his head, only to see Mason right behind his downward effort.
A rare call to action saw Pilling take a dangerous cross as he arched backwards with Connor Woods lurking dangerously. Mason was the busier keeper and was behind McLintock’s mistimed shot from the edge of the box, firing the ball back towards goal after a header clear.
Brad Bood had few chances to get forward but did so to good effect to find Blissett; however, the forward’s shot from 20 yards was charged down. Carden made a double substitution, and Carl Baker got a warm round of applause in recognition of his service to Southport earlier in his career. Kobe Jae Chong was also introduced, and showed signs of trying to spring the home defence, although his intentions didn’t align with his teammates on more than one occasion.
In the 79th minute came the game’s defining moment. The Bucks looked to have lost an opportunity when a cross from the left was overhit, but when the ball was headed back towards the centre from the right of the penalty area, Moore stole in ahead of a Port defender who clipped his ankle and sent him tumbling.
Green had not shone on his return to Haig Avenue, having been a Southport player before his form for them earned him a move into the EFL with Scunthorpe United. He shaped to take the penalty in his own rather languid style, chose to go to Mason’s right and was deflated when Mason made the same choice. The ball was at a comfortable height for the keeper, and he beat the ball away to safety.
The Bucks had one more opportunity when substitute Brendon Daniels was given the chance to test mason from a free-kick wide on the left, but he struck the ball too close to the keeper.
The game ended fractiously, with bookings for Flowers and the hosts’ Michael Carberry, a real terrier at left-back, after they got involved in an altercation following a late Southport corner that Matty Brown took no chances with.
As goalless draws go this was far from the worst, and Carden’s disappointment at only taking a single point was probably justifiable. They hadn’t quite done enough, but they’d done more than Liam Watson’s team to win the game, and now will be keen to ensure they take their improvement into Monday’s home game with Buxton.
Referee: John Mulligan.
Assistants: Emily Carney, Jonathan Chadwick.
Attendance: 806 (77 from Telford).
Telford: (4-2-3-1) Pilling, Piggott, Bood, Brown (c), Flowers, Nolan, Evans (Daniels 84), McLintock (baker 71), Moore, Green, Blissett (Chong 71).
Subs not used: Waite, Ekpolo.
Cautioned: Brown, Flowers.
Southport: Mason, Oliver, Carberry, Anson (c), Evans (Doyle 66), Quansah, Munro, Bainbridge, Vassallo, Woods, Archer.
Subs not used: Lusiama, McMillan, Hmami, Watson.
Cautioned: Carberry, Oliver.