Billericay claimed a point against Havant & Waterlooville in the battle to secure their league status. Unbeaten in five matches, Shaquile Coulthirst’s third strike in three games put the Essex side in front at New Lodge before Tommy Wright levelled for the visitors.
Whilst the Blues calamitous first half to the season still ensures that the club sit bottom of the rankings, current form tells a different story. Having accumulated seven points in the previous five games, there are tangible signs of improvement. After a pick-up in performance levels from late November, the desired results are finally starting to come.
Rewards have been garnered against the top sides in the division. A daunting post-Christmas fixture list expected to consign a failing team to its miserable fate has done nothing of the sort. Draws against Ebbsfleet, and Maidstone, currently second and third in the League, and a victory last week versus fourth placed Oxford City, confirm the revival.
If Billericay have now wrestled themselves a chance of redemption, there remains much to do as improved form has inspired other struggling clubs to up their game. Victories for Braintree and Tonbridge in mid-week demonstrate that survival is a moving target. Level on points with their fellow Essex side, the boys from Cressing Road have three games in hand.
It has taken time for manager, Jody Brown, to get the blend right since his appointment in early October. The brief elation from a winning start against Slough soon subsided as seven consecutive league defeats had the panic button being pushed by most observers. Any mess of the size Brown encountered would take time to fix and that has proved to be the case.
The Essex side have now evolved into an outfit that are hard to beat and playing sufficiently well to look like mid-table could have been achieved if the season had started at Christmas. New players have arrived to raise the level of the team. Those that have remained are revitalised, particularly in defensive areas. Goal threat is still lacking. If Coulthirst is not the final resolution of this issue, the value of his recent goals is significant to current results.
Havant, already at an advantage due to their full-time status, and without a match since their home defeat to Dorking on January 2nd, provided yet another stern test for the Blues.
Two former Billericay players, defender, Paul Rooney, and midfielder, Billy Clifford now in the opposition first team squad were unavailable due to a mixture of injury and suspension.
Billericay made one enforced change with midfielder, Sam Skeffington, in this week on loan from Bromley for the season replacing Josh Smile, recalled to parent club, Maidenhead United. Havant provided a debut to centre-back, Guy Hollis, recently acquired from Slough Town. An experienced defender, he is noted for one of the longest throws in the league.
Havant, benefiting from their extended break, started stronger with the physical presence of the two target men, Alex Wall and Scott Rendell, to the fore. Almost immediately, home right-back Tariq Hinds required the physio after an aerial battle. Soon after, a Hollis long throw, which boomed into the penalty box, demanded a Marvel Ekpiteta clearance.
The visitors’ first opportunity came down the left side. Wing back Joe Newton ventured into the penalty area to send a low drive skimming marginally wide of Rhys Lovett’s far post. The Blues, dangerous on the counter, were able to call on the incisive passing of Jack Munns. But for a tight offside call Coulthirst was almost threaded through the visiting rearguard.
Dagenham born, Munns, 28, elected man of the match, is improving with every game and exerted his creative influence in the face of a hard-working midfield. Arriving from Boreham Wood last November, the midfielder had not played regularly over the previous year. With regular games, he is now starting to show the talent that saw him spend nine years at Spurs and play a full part in Cheltenham’s successful promotion season to League Two in 2015/16.
Combining well with, Femi Akinwande, offering an outlet on both flanks, and striker, Coulthirst, Munns was at the heart of the home side’s best moves. An exceptional ball to find the centre-forward in the opposition penalty area deserved more than a weak finish. Munns’ combination with debutant, Skeffington, released Josh Wright to fire over from range.
With debutant Hollis succumbing to a knee injury mid-way through the opening period, Havant were forced into an early substitution and re-shuffle. On came nine goal striker, Tommy Wright, with Nicky Bailey dropping back to form part of the back three. With Wright held back from the starting line-up by manager, Paul Doswell, due to a troublesome ankle injury, the involvement of the lively frontman served to strengthen the Hampshire side.
Havant’s encouraging start was supported by outstanding performer, right wing-back, Josh Passley. He linked well with left sided attacking midfielder, Jake Andrews, and made the most of the space afforded to him down Billericay’s left side. Sending over five crosses in a busy first half, his best effort saw Rendell head firmly over the bar.
Pressure down the Havant right flank yielded a promising free kick. On loan from national League side, Torquay United, Andrews has claimed supremacy on set-pieces. It must have felt familiar for Lovett. Producing a carbon copy of his save from an Oxford City free-kick the week end before, he dived to his left to keep out Andrews’ effort as it curled over the wall.
Havant impressed with pinpoint passing and clever diagonals. Comfortable initiating regular switches of play to either flank, with Jamie Collins a key instigator, the visitors probed the Essex side for weakness. Billericay, more adept at stifling danger on their left side after Brown altered shape, still needed Michael Chambers to head clear Oscar Gobern’s centre.
A flurry of Havant corners saw Nicky Bailey fire a good chance over from eight yards after a Joe Oastler header back towards him had provided the opportunity. With the balance of chances clearly in favour of the visitors, there was still time for Wright to arrow a fine effort from distance narrowly wide.
Billericay subbed on winger Bagasan Graham, replacing Skeffington in a tactical switch at half-time. With a 4-3-3 line-up, part of the plan was to force back the effective Passley as an attacking force. This worked to some extent. Even if the Havant defender’s frequency of cross was reduced after the break, he still threatened on several occasions.
The second half was far more evenly balanced with the Blues carving out several good chances. Munns shot from distance, sending an instinctive volley whistling marginally over the bar. In response, the indefatigable Passley advanced down the right and sent in a tempting cross to which the onrushing Wall could not quite apply the finishing touch.
Excitement levels ramped up as Blues full back Hinds sped past his opponent to earn Akinwande a shooting chance that was not taken. Munns wriggled free to find space to shoot but could only curl agonisingly wide of the far post. Wright replied for Havant with an incredible drive from distance that beat Lovett only to rattle the base of the near post.
With twenty minutes remaining, Billericay took the lead. It started with a weaving run from Akinwande who had taken advantage of the breakdown of a Havant incursion to find space behind Newton. His cross was cleared by Bailey straight to Munns who fired in a low shot. Worner could only divert to the predatory Coulthirst who swept home from close range.
It only took eight minutes for Havant to earn a deserved equaliser. An Oastler cross from the right sailed over its intended target in the penalty area but was picked up by Newton on the opposite flank. Hinds looked to be impeded as he sought to stop the cross to no avail. In the centre Wright expertly volleyed home from twelve yards as the ball bounced in front of him.
In the dying moments of the game, Havant had a chance to break Billericay hearts but 17 years old substitute, Harry Jewitt-White, could not convert a headed chance from a corner. That would have been cruel and even both managers indicated afterwards that a point was fair.
***Billericay Man of the Match: Jack Munns***
Goal: ’70 Coulthirst (Assist: Munns)
1 Rhys Lovett; 2. Toby Stevenson; 5. Marvel Ekpiteta; 6. Michael Chambers; 7. Henry Ochieng; 9. Shaquille Coulthirst (14. Anderson Pinto, ‘90+2); 10. Jack Munns (8. Tom Stagg, ‘90+3); 11. Femi Akinwande; 14. Sam Skeffington (17. Bagasan Graham, ’46); 18. Tariq Hinds; 44. Josh Wright. Subs Not Used: 3. Aaron Ekumah, 12. Denilson Carvalho.
Havant & Waterlooville
Goal: ’78 Wright (Assist: Newton)
1 Ross Worner; 2. Josh Passley; 4. Joe Oastler; 9. Alex Wall (21. James Roberts, ’75); 14. Joe Newton; 15. Guy Hollis (20. Tommy Wright, ’22); 16. Jamie Collins; 18. Oscar Gobern; 19. Scott Rendell; 23. Nicky Bailey; 35. Jake Andrews (30. Harry Jewitt-White, ’79). Subs Not Used: 12. Benny Read; 26. Leon Baker-Neto.