All photos: Nicky Hayes
In a tightly contested game, Billericay Town went down 2-0 at the AGP to League Leaders, Torquay United. The Gulls had to rely on two late goals in the last 11 minutes of the match from substitute Kalvin Lumbombo-Kalala and top scorer, Jamie Reid, to secure victory. A tense encounter with few clear-cut chances, the visitors showed their quality with two clinical finishes whilst the Blues can content themselves with a solid performance against a full-time side that look certainties for promotion.
Jake Robinson returns for Billericay
The warm welcome extended by the supporters to the return of star striker, Jake Robinson, back from his Maidstone sojourn, was contrasted by the chill wind that blew through the AGP on match-day. A keenly anticipated match by both sets of supporters, the Devonian contingent came in numbers to ensure a bumper crowd for the game of the day in the National South League. With BT Sport cameras in attendance for the highlights show, blustery conditions would frustrate the football purists and ensure that the fixture reflected two evenly matched sides and tight defences keeping chances at a premium with fluent passing football difficult to achieve.
In a tactical switch, Billericay changed their starting formation to 3-5-2 from 4-2-3-1 used in previous matches. With manager Harry Wheeler noted for his willingness to adapt his line-up to opponents, and evolving match situations, the three at the back alignment was familiar and has worked well when utilised. Changes in personnel were limited with full-back Lloyd Doyley dropping down to the bench to accommodate the incoming Kieron Cadogan as right wing-back. With leading scorer, Adam Coombes, cutting a sorry figure as he walked ruefully back to the changing rooms after a failed fitness test on his knee pre-kick off, Robinson came in to the starting X1.
With Torquay much improved since the arrival of experienced league manager, Gary Johnson, in mid-September 2018, it was no surprise to see the Gulls line up in his favoured 4-4-2 set-up. With the Tuesday home match versus Chelmsford City cancelled at the last minute, the Devon side included only one change from the line-up that had surprisingly lost 1-2 at home versus bottom club, Weston-super-Mare. Either in acknowledgement of his injury time winner in the last away match at East Thurrock, or perhaps to sprinkle a little bit of stardust in the land of TOWIE and the minor celebrity, winger Ruari Keating – nephew of ex-Boyzone singer, Ronan Keating – started in place of Lumbombo-Kalala. Life certainly proved to be something of a rollercoaster for young Ruari who started brightly but was subbed late on.
With Wheeler re-igniting Billericay after his return to the manager’s role in Essex, the match-up had an air of the meeting of the non-league “special ones” as Johnson’s track record since his arrival at Plainmoor in September 2018 is impeccable. Testament to the success of the Gulls boss is a top of the table position after an incredible run of 20 wins and just 4 defeats in 29 matches. Fuelled by a frenzy of 83 goals in 29 matches, including 42 strikes from the Reid and Saikhou Jenneh partnership, Torquay have the most feared front two in the division. Undoubtedly under-achieving as the only full-time side in the National South, the almost instant turnaround has been marked after Johnson inherited a side that languished in 14th. Despite just 3 wins in 9 matches and a meagre 39 strikes in 46 matches under previous manager, Gary Owers, the new incumbent’s immediate assertion that he could win the league inspired confidence and the backing of owner, Clarke Osborne.
With the wind behind them, the visitors started strongly immediately troubling the Billericay back-line with a lofted ball into the penalty area that hung in the air. Back-pedalling to cover the on-rushing Reid, Blues centre-back, Charlie Wassmer, intervened to concede an early corner. Moments later, the other half of Torquay’s potent partnership up-front, Janneh, had his first shot on goal that cleared the crossbar. Thereafter, the game settled into a stalemate with swirling wind conditions hampering the flow of the match with both sides guilty of poor final balls meaning clear chances were few and far between. Whilst never outplayed in a first half that was competitive but only moderately entertaining, the sum total of Billericay’s threat in the opening twenty minutes consisted of a corner that was ultimately cleared.
For those seeking a frisson of excitement, Connor Lemonheigh-Evans whipped in a 23rd minute corner that passed across the Billericay six yard box but eluded everybody. The energetic Asa Hall, anchoring the Gulls midfield, provided one of many clever passes into Reid who, on 27 minutes, saw his shot blocked by Wassmer. Light on attacking content, Billericay’s defensive organisation was impressive with inspirational captain, Jake Howells, busy co-ordinating resistance and forming a very secure tandem in central midfield alongside Blues stalwart, Danny Waldren. Although rapid counters have been a feature of Torquay’s play this season, Blues would not be caught out in a similar manner to pre-Xmas failings, rotating defensive duties and holding firm whenever the Gulls broke quickly after turning around possession.
Jake Howells puts in another solid display
Joe Kizzi has been a standout performer for the Blues this campaign and he would have a strong impact in the remainder of the first half. Adapting impeccably to a new role in the back three, his timely intervention as the last line of defence to tackle Reid when through on 34 minutes probably stopped the striker from adding to his bulging goal tally. That Reid was booked for a foul on the Billericay defensive lynchpin in the action summed up the Torquay-born striker’s frustration. With Torquay starting to get the upper hand as the half progressed, Kizzi was called into action on 38 minutes, making a vital challenge on Janneh when well positioned to shoot.
Joe Kizzi penalty appeal turned down
The returning Robinson struggled manfully to get into the game but was let down by a paucity of service and, often isolated, linkage with striker partner, Ross Lafayette, understandably appears to be still a work in progress. The ex-Torquay man, who made 22 league appearances on loan for the Devon side in 2011, did fashion a chance on his own, however, for the Blues only shot on goal in the opening period. Cutting in from the wing, after being supported by a clever overlapping run from Cadogan that opened up space, Robinson’s swerving shot was on target but held at head height by Torquay goalkeeper, Shaun MacDonald. For Robinson, who notched his first goal within 10 minutes of his debut for the Gulls in January 2011, and featured in a League 2 play-off final for the club, there would be no scoring return.
Finishing strongly, the final moments of the first half would provide a significant talking point as a Howells free-kick for Billericay was dropped by MacDonald. Seizing upon the mistake, Kizzi failed to connect at his first attempt but had no opportunity to try again as he was quickly felled by Hall in the area. Home claims for a penalty went unheeded by the referee.
After the break, Billericay were the stronger side and took the initiative immediately as Jamar Loza, in the unfamiliar role of left wing-back, broke forward to force an early corner. With the wind in their favour, passes that had gone astray in the first period started to fall into place as the home threat mounted. Waldren headed narrowly wide from a corner, arriving at the far post. On 57 minutes, Cadogan managed a rare shot on goal, which was easily fielded by MacDonald. As the Blues exerted more pressure, the Gulls were forced into a number of fouls to restore order and conceded free-kicks in dangerous positions. First, on 63 minutes, a curled effort by Waldren over the wall did not exert MacDonald and, a moment later, a very ambitious Howells effort from distance flew over the bar.
Jamar Loza on the ball
With Billericay asking serious questions of the league leaders, Johnson’s double substitution for the visitors on 69 minutes proved to be a turning point in the match. Entering the fray, Lumbombo-Kalala and Ryan Dickson took their respective positions on the right and left hand flanks in place of departing Bristol City loanee, Jake Andrews, and Keating. With Andrews, Torquay were able to benefit from his passing range, ability to switch play, and a willingness to cut inside and support the midfield in central areas. Lumbombo-Kalala was altogether a different solution, operating as a more traditional winger that seeks to beat his man. Immediately, Billericay rearguard was put under pressure and, in the final 20 minutes, the momentum of the match swung towards Torquay.
Clear chances started to be fashioned by the free-scoring visitors with a 71st minute Lemonheigh-Evans drive from 18 yards taking a slight deflection that saw Alan Julian make a superb diving save to his right. Just one minute later, a well-struck set piece from the right hand side by Dickson evaded the Billericay defence as he shaped to shoot but crossed instead. Finding Hall sliding in at the back post, the Gulls skipper could only divert the ball the wrong side of the post.
Lumbombo-Kalala earns the plaudits for the opening goal
Torquay’s vital break-through would come in the 79th minute as Liam Davis advanced on Torquay’s left hand side. The ball was then worked from left to right across the width of the Billericay penalty area via Reid and Hall who found Lumbombo-Kalala. In space, the French winger took his time and drove a precise, low finish into the far bottom corner beyond Julian. With celebrations still hanging in the air, the Devon side added a second on 82 minutes as Janneh served Reid on the left hand side of the penalty area. A measured right footed shot curled into the corner of the net beat the Billericay goalkeeper, earning Reid, who only converted to operating as a central striker this season, his 26th goal of the season.
Jamie Reid celebrates his goal
With the match lost, there was still time for Billericay to absorb more bad news as commanding defender, Wassmer, received a straight red card after a tussle with Janneh. Since his arrival at the club, the defender has been instrumental in reinforcing the Blues back-line and has been outstanding since his debut. His loss for three matches will be keenly felt and offers an opportunity for new central defensive arrival from St.Mirren, Cole Kpekwa, who joined on Friday. Fully match fit, Kpekwa will integrate the squad immediately and is available for selection for the away fixture against Slough Town next Saturday.
Wassmer and Jenneh share their thoughts on the game
After a bright start under Wheeler, two defeats in a row are disappointing but the only poor performance was at bogey side, East Thurrock. Against Torquay, the Blues matched up well for 70 minutes, coming unstuck partly due to superior fitness levels of full-time players. Defensive solidity and team structure are much improved with the main issue in the match being a lack of quality in the final third. Leading scorer Coombes was an unfortunate late absence and midfield creativity relies largely on Sam Deering, who was not fit to start. With Robinson back, goal threat should be reinforced and players at the club are sufficiently skilled to get the play-off target back on track. Now in 7th position, winning at Slough Town looks vital to maintain confidence and the current five points cushion over closest chasers, Wealdstone.
1. Alan Julian 2. Joe Kizzi 3. Michee Efete 4. Jake Howells 5. Charlie Wassmer 6. Alfie Potter (16. Sam Deering, ’67) 7. Kieron Cadogan 8. Danny Waldren (14. Jamie O’Hara, ’83) 9. Jake Robinson 10. Ross Lafayette (12. Moses Emmanuel, ’76) 11. Jamar Loza
Subs Not Used: 15. Lloyd Doyley 17. Paul Rooney
Red Card: ’87 Wassmer
1.Shaun MacDonald 2. Ben Wynter 3. Liam Davis 7. Ruari Keating (20. Calvin Lumbombo-Kalala ’69) 8. Asa Hall 10. Saikou Janneh 11. Connor Lemonheigh-Evans 15. Jean-Yves Niate 17. Kyle Cameron 18. Jake Andrews (16. Ryan Dickson, ’69) 19. Jamie Reid (14. Frank Vincent, ’89)
Subs Not Used: 12. George Burton, GK 13. Olaf Koszela 16. Ryan Dickson
Goals: ’79 Lumbombo-Kalala ’82 Reid