Billericay Town continued their run of fine form with a vital point at Havant. Coming from behind twice, first half strikes from Dylan Gavin and Femi Akinwande were enough to cancel out earlier efforts from home strikers Stefan Payne and Manny Duku. The positive result saw the Blues leapfrog Welling United to move off the foot of the table on goal difference.
The Essex side’s presence in a match-up of National South teams top of the form league bears witness to the transformation undertaken in recent months. Once adrift at the bottom of the rankings by five points, a turbo-charged Blues have powered themselves back into contention with a series of disciplined displays. Three straight wins had preceded the trip to the South Coast.
Watching Billericay now is a world away from what had been served up before Christmas. Taking over in mid-October, the new management team inherited a mammoth task. An inadequate squad was over-hauled and, in mid-season, a new team was recruited. With a rock-bottom side, destination Essex was a tough place to sell to all but the most committed player.
But they came to accept the challenge, and only Michael Chambers, on any short-list of merit for player of the season, remains from the side that started the campaign. It took time to improve. As the team was assembled, the losses accumulated. From late October until early December, a losing seven game sequence sparked alarm as progress in performance yielded no reward.
It is a different story now after straight wins over Hungerford, St. Albans, and Oxford City. Whilst points are on the board, the code was not cracked this month. Current results are the product of good recruitment, hard work on the training ground, building of a new culture, and always believing. The job is not done but no one sees the Blues as a struggling team anymore.
Havant manager, Paul Doswell, is aware of the upturn in fortunes at Billericay. Generous in praise of Jody Brown’s team after a draw in January at New Lodge, he was fully prepared for a tough contest. In his pre-match comments, he even went as far to suggest that, had the season started last week, the Blues would be top half material. Kind words but that’s for another day.
For the matter at hand, Billericay did not disappoint in an evenly matched encounter, almost snatching the lead in the opening minute. An early mishit shot from central midfielder, Henry Ochieng, turned into an incisive pass beyond the Havant defence. A prowling, Niko Muir, saw the opportunity but, to his frustration, he could not quite make up the ground to connect.
Three minutes later, Havant responded with a clever switch of play as Payne initially advanced down the left. Transferring the ball inside to Jake McCarthy, the midfielder swiftly fed Benny Read. A worthy deputy for the injured Josh Passley, the right-back swung in a cross that target man, Alex Wall, swiped at but could not gain sufficient contact to divert.
Blues skipper, Chambers, so reliable at the back, has also been impressive in forward areas. Leading scorer, with six league goals, he would have added to his tally but for the linesman’s flag. A superbly directed header into the far corner, from Greg Halford’s floated delivery, provided another reminder of Billericay’s progress and development of set piece prowess.
Havant took the lead on 19 minutes as Payne bundled home from close range. The cross from the impressive home right winger, Manny Duku, was as good as the finish. Turning over possession at the by-line, his instant centre evaded the Blues defensive line and left Payne with the simple task of nodding the ball past Oualah.
In a competitive opening, the Blues midfield worked hard to shut down the opposition. A tigerish Krasniqi, quick to challenge Newton as he pushed forward, epitomised the fighting spirit instilled in the team. Josh Wright, always available to offer a passing solution, and clever in his quick switches of play to the flank, added direction from central midfield.
The 25th minute equaliser came after Ochieng found Krasniqi on the right. He benefited from the space freed up by Akinwande’s clever burst wide. With the Havant defence distracted by the decoy run, Krasniqi arrowed his pass towards Gavin. The Charlton loanee needed just two touches as he controlled and buried his finish past home goalkeeper, Ross Worner.
Two of Havant’s formidable front three soon combined to restore the advantage on 37 minutes. Wall’s centre from the left found Duku on the penalty spot. Faced with Chambers, and behind him, Marvel Ekpiteta, he twisted inside and out to try to fashion a fraction of space. Nudging the ball to his left, he found a chink of weakness and rifled a low shot into the bottom corner.
Despite trailing, Billericay played with assurance, keeping possession for spells to probe for any breach in the home defence. The leveller, in first half added time, was initiated by the combative Krasniqi. Dispossessing Payne, he surged forward to find Muir. His pass inside found Akinwande and the striker drove home the goal of the game via an impressive, rising strike.
The Hampshire outfit attacked strongly after the break and made full use of Payne’s long throw capabilities. Forcing the Essex visitors into a period of defending, Wright soon fired narrowly wide through a crowd of bodies. A flighted ball into the penalty area followed, forcing centre back Ekpiteta to intervene in front of his goalkeeper with a flying clearance.
Havant’s Wright seemed to gain in prominence after the break and soon created a fantastic opportunity. He intercepted a headed clearance and burst past his marker into the penalty area. Driving wide to avoid the converging defence, he found Wall to his right. With the angle against him, the striker lashed a powerful shot narrowly over the bar.
Sensing that Wright was causing problems, Havant sought to capitalise by sending on ex-Billericay defensive midfielder, Paul Rooney in place of Alex Wall. This allowed Wright to be moved further forward into a pure attacking role. Read almost validated the change with a superb centre that Wright will count himself unlucky not to have quite reached.
With the visitors resistant to relentless pressure, home boss, Doswell, shuffled the pack again to find a breakthrough. Sending on, Guy Hollis, for Read, the addition of an extra centre-back modified the team shape to a 3-4-3 formation. Firmly in the ascendancy, Billy Clifford’s powerful volley brought a magnificent one-handed save from Oualah as he diverted the drive for a corner.
Billericay made a tactical adjustment of their own by withdrawing Muir. Aaron Ekumah entered in his palce to bolster the midfield as he has done in recent weeks. Switching to a 4-4-2, Akinwande was moved further forward into a front two. He soon drew a yellow card for Newton as the defender had to bring him down to deny a fast break into yards of space.
In a tense finish, Havant almost secured a grandstand finish as defender, Joe Oastler rose above the visiting defence to meet Wright’s free-kick. Oualah saved the best save till last with an outstanding dive to his left to push the effort away and secure the point for the Blues. It was no more than the Essex side had deserved after a performance that belied their lowly status.
Havant & Waterlooville FC 2 Billericay Town 2
Havant & Waterlooville
1 Ross Worner; 4. Joe Oastler; 5. Ben Shroll; 7. Jake McCarthy; 9. Alex Wall (8. Paul Rooney, ’61); 10. Billy Clifford (21. James Roberts ’82); 12. Benny Read (15. Guy Hollis, ’65); 14. Joe Newton; 20. Tommy Wright; 27. Manny Duku; 45. Stefan Payne.
Subs Not Used: 19. Scott Rendell; 35. Jake Andrews.
Goals: ’19: Payne (Assist: Duku); ’37: Duku (Wall).
1 Zaki Oualah; 5. Marvel Ekpiteta; 6. Michael Chambers; 7. Henry Ochieng; 11. Femi Akinwande; 12. Kresh Krasniqi; 14. Greg Halford; 15. Niko Muir (3. Aaron Ekumah, ’82); 17. Bagasan Graham (18. Tariq Hinds, ’60); 21. Dylan Gavin (16. Antony Jeffrey, ’90); 44. Josh Wright. Subs Not Used: 10. Jack Munns; 19. Anderson Pinto.
Goals: ’25 Gavin (Krasniqi); ‘45+2 Akinwande (Muir)