The Bucks remain dangerously close to the foot of the fledgling Vanarama National League North table, and although nothing was ever won by the end of September, a dismal start usually requires a resetting of goals and a redrawing of plans.
Bucks manager Paul Carden had spoken of the need to try and do things differently, and had taken his team to Market Drayton on Tuesday evening for a behind closed doors friendly match, in a bid to get Chasetown out of their system quickly.
That appeared to have worked, but this game came a bit too quickly for some Bucks fans to have forgotten that match, and the attendance figure dipped below 1,000. Given the challenging economic climate, it’s understandable that some people were weighing up the benefits against the costs.
The team had a different look, with five changes to the team that started the FA Cup calamity against Chasetown a week earlier. Harry Flowers, whose form has been a cause for concern, was dropped to the bench and Carden reverted to a back four. He also restored the more defensively minded midfield trio of Liam Nolan, Robbie Evans and Prince Ekpolo to the side.
That meant there was certainly more bite in the centre of the park, although probably at the expense of creativity, a choice probably sums up the Bucks current dilemma; they are often failing to get the balance right between being solid and taking the kind of risks that create more scoring opportunities.
Carden had warned against his side being too open and pushing for too much too soon, contending that grinding your way into games and wearing the opposition down would keep them in games for longer. They started this game positively, albeit conscious of Carden’s warning; they had more possession and enjoyed more territorial advantage over Boston, but without seriously testing visiting keeper Rhys Davies.
The Bucks positivity earned them both corners and some free-kick opportunities in attacking positions, and captain Matty Brown was usually the target. Davies did have to flap away a Brad Bood cross that was dropping tantalisingly just under his crossbar, and from the resulting corner Robbie Evans couldn’t find the target with a shot from around the edge of the penalty area.
The Bucks next attack ended with the ball in Davies’ gloves, but with his captain Luke Shiels down injured, and he was soon to limp out of the game, replaced by Jean-Leroy Belehouan. Shiels is a real figurehead for the Pilgrims, and his absence should have encouraged the Bucks that things were being tilted their way.
Ekpolo was playing in a more advanced position for the Bucks, busily involved in trying to turn over possession and create in the Boston half, whilst Liam Nolan, who tends to rely on reading the game, was hurtling into challenges.
Boston was largely reduced to counter-attacking; Jordan Crawford hooked a hugely speculative shot over the roof of the stand when released by a quick clearance from his defence, and the Bucks the had Nate Blissett booked as his desire to have an impact resulted in him doing so literally. Blissett thundered into Ben Pollock, his 6ft 5in frame tipping the scales in his favour in a 50/50 challenge, and he was booked.
Soon after, Blissett was spoken to again by referee Richard Aspinall, who was frustratingly inconsistent for most of the afternoon. Pollock was in the wars again, as Blissett’s attempt to get his head onto a hanging cross from the left put Pollock into the net, the Pilgrims player just getting his head to the ball first to clear.
Brown claimed a handball when he headed a corner back across goal from the far post, but didn’t get the decision, and as the Bucks impetus dropped a little, the Pilgrims started to make more progress.
Nolan had to help out Bood when Keenan Ferguson’s clever touch got him past the young left-back and into the box, and then Jake Wright did have the ball in the net when he controlled a cross that dropped over Brown’s head, the forward nudging the ball past the onrushing Luke Pilling but already flagged offside.
Ekpolo then drilled a shot wide after making some space, but the Bucks were about to be disrupted. Right-back George Burroughs, on loan from Coventry City, was the victim of a collision with his own player, Nolan, as they both went for the same header, and Burroughs was laid out on the turf. He eventually walked from the field to the dressing room with his nose plugged to stem the flow of blood from a broken nose, and was replaced by Flowers.
Boston almost took advantage of the reshuffle in injury time; Jake Wright darted into the box and tumbled, perhaps looking for a penalty, and Pilling had to be alert to turn a shot over the crossbar as the ball ran loose.
Half Time: AFC Telford United 0-0 Boston United
After a half-time soaking of the pitch by a heavy shower of rain, the Bucks again tried to be positive from the off. Ekpolo gave Devarn Green an option as the pair ran from midfield and although Ekpolo got the ball under his feet a little he still forced a save from Davies. Green then did likewise when the Bucks got a quick ball out from defence after a Pilgrims free-kick, but his effort as he was forced wide was blocked.
Wright almost capitalised on a horrible moment for Pilling in the 52nd minute; Boston returned a Pilling goal-kick back into the Bucks half and as Wright raced onto the ball Pilling slipped on the edge of his area. He’d just about recovered as Wright, driven wide, put his shot across the face of goal, but Wright had been flagged offside, to the relief of the home crowd.
Blissett turned a low shot into the arms of Davies as the ball ran to him in the Pilgrims’ penalty area, but the breakthrough was about to arrive for the visitors.
Jordan Piggott was ruled to have fouled Boston midfielder Scott Pollock just at the left corner of the penalty area. Pollock took the kick, whipped in towards Pilling’s near post, and as Piggott tried to head the ball away from in front of his keeper, he only succeeded in getting a glancing touch that changed the ball’s flight, Pilling beaten by the touch as the ball rippled the net high above him.
A goal down, undeservedly, the Bucks needed to respond, but what followed ultimately put the nail in their coffin. In the 60th minute, Crawford’s tricky footwork left Brown on the floor and enabled him to cross. Bood beat Jaanai Gordon to the header but the ball dropped back towards his own goal; Bood’s error was then compounded by hesitation between Flowers and Pilling, and Scott Pollock darted in to head the ball past Pilling for the softest of goals.
What did the Bucks have left? They found something, and in the 63rd minute Jamie Allen, still getting up to speed, got behind the Pilgrims defence and was dragged to the floor by a defender. Referee Aspinall signalled a clear penalty kick and Nolan took the responsibility, thundering the ball in hard and straight down the middle. It was the Bucks’ first successful spot-kick conversion in three games this season.
The Bucks were lifted, as were the crowd, and within a minute or so Davies denied Green with a low save from close range when a cross from the left dropped kindly into the six-yard box. Evans got forward but lacked composure when his shot, aimed inside the near post, flew high and wide, and then Green shot too high when he swivelled onto Brown’s header from a free-kick into the box.
The more creative Sam McLintock replaced Evans for the final 15 minutes, and half-chances continued to flow but were exactly that; half-chances. Green headed wide, too far from goal to pose a serious threat, and Davies then had to block as a Boston clearance rebounded into the path of Blissett, forced to stretch to reach the ball and unable to really connect positively.
Flowers almost atoned for his error when his header from a corner bounced up and almost over Davies, the ball touched onto the face of the crossbar, and when the ball was returned to the danger area a near-post header ended up just going over the bar, Davies again perhaps just getting a touch.
Green blazed a shot wide when a cross might have been a better option, Piggott had a low shot blocked when up for a late corner, Green lifting the loose ball over the bar. A Bood cross was flailed away by Davies to Ekpolo, who couldn’t return the ball towards the unguarded net from an angle, and McLintock had a fierce 15 yard shot blocked after being set up by Green, but the ball wouldn’t drop the Bucks way as Boston defended stoutly, riding their luck a little at times, and they claimed an away victory they couldn’t truly be said to have warranted.
As for the Bucks, the fans right to demand effort as a minimum; that perhaps hasn’t been in evidence enough recently, and Carden himself had questioned his team’s heart. They had responded with a performance that had plenty, but winning games isn’t solely about what’s in your heart, but also what’s in your head. The Bucks wanted this victory, but didn’t truly know how to get it.
The dilemma for Paul Carden is that in sticking to the same style he would appear to some as inflexible and dogmatic; if he changes and tries shuffling his pack that can likewise give the impression of a man who doesn’t yet know his best team. The manager has been in the game long enough to know that you can’t please everyone. Trying to get everyone on your side is a battle you can’t win; unfortunately, the Bucks currently can’t win where it matters, and the longer that continues, the less time Carden will be allowed in the battle to retain hearts and minds, whether on the terraces, in the dressing room or in the boardroom.
Referee: Richard Aspinall.
Assistants: Jack Shepherd, Luis Griffiths.
Telford: (4-4-2) Pilling, Burroughs (Flowers 45), Bood, Brown, Piggott, Nolan (Moore 85), Evans (McLintock 75), Ekpolo, Green, Allen, Blissett.
Subs not used: Daniels, Chong.
Boston United: Davies, Brown, Ferguson, Shiels (Belehouan 15), B.Pollock, S.Pollock, Mills, Atkinson (Gordon 59), Crawford (Abbott 85), Leesley, Wright.
Subs not used: Myles, Obiero.
Scorers: Crawford (57), S.Pollock (60