Billericay Town ensured their participation in Monday’s Fourth Round Qualifying draw for the FA Cup with this impressive 4-2 win versus fellow National South side, Bath City.
Having fallen behind to a deflected Adam Mann strike, the Blues roared back through a Joe Raynes own goal and strikes from Jake Robinson and Jordan Parkes. After Ryan Brunt reduced arrears for the Romans, Robinson made it safe with yet another of his late home strikes.
After a stultifying draw with the Romans in the League back in early September, one could almost be forgiven for wanting to sit this re-match out. That so many did not is testament to the strong support for the club where every fan through the turnstiles is vital in the current financial environment.
That the contest was the complete antithesis to that stale 4-3-3 match-up is also testament to the new mentality that has been injected into the football.
New broom Jamie O’Hara appears to have swept away past conservatism, bringing in a brand of playing that is both entertaining and, to date, successful. The strut to Billericay’s game has returned as ambition, quality, and, where required, resolve and character were abundant qualities on show against Bath.
At last, the team seems to have an identity, a way of playing. The handbrake on the side has been released and the engine is purring. Players seem energised and have fully bought into this new found era of ambition and enterprise.
With “on the pitch” issues looking to be firmly under control, the squaring of the circle is still to be done with “off the pitch” still subject to some uncertainty. In football, unfortunately, rarely are the two running harmoniously in tandem. In papal terms, we still await the white smoke from the New Lodge sanctum on the appointment of a new owner.
With “continuing discussions with a local consortium”, the club stated last Thursday that there are “a few minor items to close out and hopes for an announcement in the coming days”. The new sponsorship on the Surrey Steel stand by Essex-based Blackstone Kitchens bodes well.
Billericay made one change to the side that had performed well in the home draw last week against Dorking. After a period on the bench, Jordan Parkes came into midfield, replacing Jack Paxman, who dropped to the bench. With no defensive reinforcements arriving, Ronnie Henry and Doug Loft continued as the two centre-backs.
O’Hara fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation. The creative Deering, and attack-minded Parkes, in the holding roles an indication of his ambition to take the game to Bath. This was a sensible, but not defensive, set-up.
Bath City also made a single change to the side that had lost narrowly away at Hemel Hempstead. Two players, at contrasting points in their careers, switched places. In came 17 year old winger, Sam Pearson. An exciting prospect, and recent starter for Wales U-19’s, he is on loan from Bristol City. Making way, 34 year old striker, Andy Watkins, entering his seventh season with the Romans, and scorer of over 50 goals for City.
Manager, Jerry Gill fielded what looked a 4-4-1-1 rather than the usual 4-3-3 line -up. Brunt led the line, with Mann stationed just behind in support, with Pearson and Ross Stearn patrolling wide areas.
The home side started strongly and could have scored twice in the first five minutes. Robinson, guilty of rare profligacy, would atone later in the match. First, a free kick from Parkes wide on the right was cleverly cut back.
In space, Robinson fired hurriedly over. Moments later, played in by Deering, the striker raced clear for a one-on-one with Bath goalkeeper, Ryan Clarke. Uncharacteristically, the finish was a poor one, dragged wide of the far post.
Despite the bright start from the Blues, it was the visitors that drew first blood on 11 minutes. A fine cross-field pass from Stearn picked out Pearson on the opposite wing. The youngster feigned to cut back and went around the outside of Billericay left-back, Arjanit Krasniqi.
His pinpoint cross was cleverly dummied by Brunt, leaving it to his team-mate, Adam Mann. With defensive cover, Ben Nunn, seeking to intervene, Mann’s header took a touch off him and looped up over Julian and above Deering on the line into the net.
Unperturbed by falling behind, Billericay continued to showcase their passing game with Parkes in particular revelling in his new found freedom. The equaliser was the sort of goal that O’Hara’s brand of football is set up to promote.
It stemmed from Krasniqi who, at fault for not stopping the cross on the first goal, redeemed himself. His superb cross-field ball set winger Ody Alfa away on the right wing. Cutting inside, the QPR loanee played an exquisite ball that cut like a rapier through the Bath City defence, finding the run of Parkes.
Close to the by-line, the ex-Hemel midfielder fired a vicious centre towards goal in search of the waiting Robinson who had nipped in front of his marker, Alex Hartridge. Intervening to prevent the cross meeting its intended target, Bath right-back Raynes could do little besides turn the ball into his own net for a 17th minute equaliser.
The swift leveller calmed the nerves of the crowd and showed that the finish could be applied to smart build-up play.
With Billericay short on central defenders, the loss of stand-in centre-half, Loft, on the half hour had potential to disrupt the best laid plans. A solution was found.
On came Louis Ramsay into the right-back berth while Nunn moved across from the flank to partner Henry. Continuing his recent spate of strong performances, Nunn filled in admirably in his new role.
Henry’s display was also an impressive one with the skipper seemingly assuming personal responsibility for ensuring any high balls were met by a Billericay head. More than once, he would dart ahead of much taller attacking players to clear any identified danger.
Having given an indication of his talent against Dorking, Billericay’s Alfa was a revelation in this match. A true thorn in the side of the Bath defence, he was a vital attacking outlet. Cleverly dropping to collect possession, and spinning to utilise his pace, he regularly threatened.
Served by Darren Oldaker, after Henry had won the ball in midfield, a twisting, turning Alfa worked space to send an effort that demanded a diving save from Clarke.
Alfa’s counter-attacking potential was amply illustrated after a Ramsay pass was intercepted in midfield by Bath. A swift ball to Mann ending with his shot on goal blocked by a home defender.
Turning defence swiftly into attack, Blues countered at pace through Alfa who sped through towards goal. Halted by a questionable tackle, adjudged to be only worthy of a corner, the ensuing set-piece would lead to the Blues taking the lead on 38 minutes.
It was somewhat ironic, and perhaps a salutary lesson that there is no substitute for quality, that the breakthrough should come through a Robinson header. With it, memories of that ill-conceived, fruitless, relentless, long ball pummelling in September of Bath City’s giant centre-back’s in search of a Matt Rhead headed goal was confined to the dark ages.
Instead, 5ft 10 ins Robinson’s clever movement, allied with superb Krasniqi delivery, ended with a glanced header at the near post, which saw the ball deposited into the far corner of the net.
With confidence coursing through the team, Billericay upped the pressure with Henry making a passable impersonation of legendary sweeper, Matthias Sammer, as he advanced once more into midfield with the ball.
Finding Alfa, who brings direct threat as well as offering an outlet, the winger forced Clarke to save once again with a fierce shot. Parkes followed up with another drive that was on target but was deflected away by Mann’s head.
Bath’s most dangerous player, Pearson, had seen his possession limited. Nonetheless, when he was able to become involved, he was a threat and had the confidence to beat Krasniqi. Gliding past the left-back, he whistled in a cross that was just too high for the onrushing Brunt in a warning to the Blues that the defensive height issue could be exploited.
Noting the warning, Billericay seized the initiative by scoring the third just before half-time. A fine through ball found Parkes with plenty still to do on the left-hand side. Revelling in his return to the starting line-up, he took the ball first around the Bath defensive cover before neatly evading the onrushing goal-keeper.
Driven across to a tight angle, Parkes had the presence of mind to switch the ball to his weaker right foot. Opening the angle, he drove home past the defender on the line.
Blues kept the pressure on after the break with Alfa going close after beating two men and seeing his effort hacked off the line by Hartridge. Parkes, on the follow-up, smashed a shot against the post. Oldacre, less influential than against Basildon on his debut, next forced Bower into an error allowing Moses Emmanuel to pick up possession and send a curling strike towards the far corner.
Clarke, who had a good game for Bath, dived to push away. The resulting corner again demanded alertness from the Bath goalkeeper as he made an even better stop from Henry’s flicked volley towards the bottom corner.
With Bath, having been restricted mainly to shots from distance, Gill sent on Watkins for Stearn on 68 minutes to try to find a solution. Taking his place on the left wing, the substitute had an immediate impact, breaking dangerously several times on the flank.
It was to be one such run, ended illegally, that resulted in the free-kick, which saw the visitors grab a lifeline.
Connor Riley-Lowe’s fiercely struck 71st minute set piece deceived Billericay goal-keeper, Alan Julian, rebounding off his chest and back into the danger zone. Striker, Brunt, reacted quickest to poke home on the line.
Billericay reacted with a substitution of their own sending on Paxman for the tiring Oldaker. With memories of two goal leads being lost in recent weeks away at Oxford City and at home versus Dorking Wanderers, many wondered whether history would repeat itself.
But for Nunn and Henry, it may well have done as Tom Smith’s close-range strike was first blocked on the line by the stand-in centre-back while a second effort was cleared by Henry.
The arrival of Paxman helped Billericay to settle as the midfielder sought to take responsibility for the ball and build the counters that O’Hara had identified as the best way of ensuring that there would be no redemption for the opposition.
The final 10 minutes were not without scary moments for the home fans as a match of defence and counter developed. Robinson for Billericay and Mann for the visitors traded shots on goal.
With Robinson left on the pitch, rather than his late Dorking exit, keeping a potent threat to occupy the Bath back-line, the threat of another home strike was always there. And it so proved, as a slide rule Paxman pass in added time sent Emmanuel clear on goal.
Foiled by the diving Clarke, Robinson picked up the loose ball ahead of Hartridge and had the simple task of firing the ball into an empty net to secure passage into the next round of the Cup.
A fine win over the West Country side shows tangible progress on the playing front. The contrast with the September game was stark with Billericay a completely different side in philosophy, if not personnel, since that match.
There are, of course, a few areas of concern with central defensive cover, in Harry Redknapp parlance, down to the “bare bones”. More direct sides may seek to exploit this weakness to a greater extent than either Dorking or Bath City.
For now, it is refreshing to attend matches and feel entertained by a team committed to playing football the right way and clearly learning each week.
Identifying issues that had allowed Dorking to secure an unlikely point, the team did not make the same mistakes, hitting Bath on the break as they attacked and managing to kill off the match on the day.
Next up will be a demanding test at Slough, who after a slow start are now 6th in the National South table. Ranked top on form over the past six fixtures, with five wins and one draw, joint management team Jon Underwood and Neil Baker were crowned Managers of the Month.
Let’s hope the traditional curse of that accolade strikes again for a Blues win.
Leigh @beakster99 Man of the Match: Ody Alfa
“An all-action display, offering both an effective attacking outlet wide and a direct threat. Ody tormented the Bath defence, testing Clarke with fierce drives on several occasions, and always available for the counter to take the pressure off his side in the closing stages.”
Billericay Town (4-2-3-1)
1Alan Julian; 2. Ben Nunn; 3. Arjanit Krasniqi; 5. Ronnie Henry; 6. Sam Deering (4. Alfie Potter, ’84); 7. Moses Emmanuel; 8. Doug Loft (17. Louis Ramsay, ’29) 9. Jake Robinson; 10. Darren Oldaker (16. Jack Paxman, ’72); 11. Ody Alfa. Subs Not Used: 4. Jamie O’Hara; 13. Emmanuel Agboola; 14. Acea Laurent; 15. Samuel Egole; 20. Jamie Reynolds.
Goals: ’17 Raynes, OG; ’38 and ‘90+3 Robinson; ’45 Parkes.
Bath City (4-4-1-1)
1 Ryan Clarke; 2. Joe Raynes; 3. Connor Riley-Lowe; 4. Tom Smith; 7. Adam Mann; 10. Ryan Brunt; 11. Ross Stearn (8. Andy Watkins, ’68); 14. Matt Bower; 15. Sam Pearson; 17. Tom Richards (16. Jordan Simpson, ’56) ; 18. Alex Hartridge Subs Not Used:
Goals: ’11 Mann; ’71 Brunt.