TOWN’S UPWARD PROGRESS CONTINUES AS CARL ADAMS COMPLETES FIVE YEARS IN THE HOT SEAT

THE STORY OF  THE  2016/17  SEASON

It cannot often happen that finishing 19th in the league table is a reason for celebration, but for Town at the end of the2015/16 campaign it most certainly was as it meant that they had overturned the bookmakers’ odds which had them as relegation favourites and survived their debut season in the Southern League Premier Division.

In truth Carl Adams’ side had never really looked like candidates for the drop after a decent first half of the season, although a run of one point from seven games late on caused a few flutters as Bedworth staged a bit of a rally, but ultimately all was well as Town ended six points clear of the bottom four.

And having earned a second season at Premier Division level the Town boss was determined to build on that achievement and avoid the dreaded Second Season Syndrome as he set about reshaping his squad.   Among the regulars from the previous campaign who did not return were Anthony Charles, Tyrone Fagan, Mark Magee, Michael McGrath, Aaron Moses-Garvey, Alex Price, Jack Roberts,  Aaron Stringfellow and Marcel Simpson.

But what probably concerned Town fans most was the prospect of doing without  Andy Kemp who took everyone by surprise by announcing that he was hanging up his gloves.  The hugely popular keeper had been voted Supporters Player of the Year in each of his three seasons at the DCS and his reliability had been key in Town retaining their Premier Division status.

Carl Adams handed ex-Leamington stopper Niall Cooper the unenviable task of succeeding Kemp as Town’s No 1, and other players brought into his revamped squad included Warren Brooks, Jordan Cullinane-Liburd, Barry Fitzharris, Will Grocott and Mike Taylor.

The squad was also boosted by the return after season’s absence of Solihull Moors loanee Trey Brathwaite, and more significantly of stalwart defender Guy Clark.   Guy had been Man of the Match in the historic play-off final against Larkhall Athletic but then underwent surgery on a foot problem which meant that he had not pulled on a Town shirt since.

There was also an important off the field change with Gary Moran stepping down from his Assistant Manager role  –  although soon to resurface as Manager at Rugby Town   –   and being replaced by Liam O’Neill.

The usual crop of pre-season friendlies were arranged and Town posted some impressive  results including a 7-0 demolition of Coventry Sphinx, a 7-3 romp at Evesham and a 4-0 drubbing of Stourbridge before ending their pre-season going down 2-1 at eventual F A Vase semi finalists Bromsgrove Sporting..

August

So with Carl Adams pronouncing himself satisfied with how the preparations had gone Town were all set for their season opener at newly promoted St Ives Town on what seemed an incredibly early starting date of August 6th.

With the summer at its hottest and the game punctuated by drinks breaks Town returned from Cambridgeshire with a hard earned points thanks to Mike Taylor’s late equaliser, but then suffered a reality check four days later when Redditch United were convincing 4-2 winners at the DCS in which the only bright spot was Richard Gregory marking his 100th Town appearance with his 67th goal.

Two further draws followed against relegated but still full time Basingstoke at home and then Slough away (at Beaconsfield)  before they secured their first win of the campaign when two long range thunderbolts from Jamie Sheldon propelled them to a 3-2 DCS success over Hitchin Town.

And that was followed with what was to be their best away result of the season as with thunder and lightning rolling around in Northamptonshire they left ambitious  Kettering shell shocked as they ran out 3-0 winners with Sheldon hitting another long range effort on his 100th Town appearance.

Against his former club Will Grocott showed what an asset he was going to be in Town’s midfield with a Man of the Match performance leaving a number of Kettering supporters to wonder how on earth he had been allowed to move to Town as he bossed proceedings from start to finish.

Two days later Leamington inflicted a second home defeat of the season on Carl Adams’ side in a Bank Holiday Monday local derby which  seldom gave Town’s biggest home crowd of the season much to shout about, but a return of nine points from seven games had provided Town with a solid if unspectacular start to their second season at Premier Division level.

Even so the squad was already evolving.   Taylor opted to move to Redditch after only three matches although he made a swift U-turn  a few weeks later, while Emmitt Delfouneso fell out of favour after being substituted at half time during the Hitchin game and moved on to Highgate before he also returned for the closing weeks of the campaign..

But of more significance were two arrivals who were to become key members of Town’s squad as the season developed.

Dan Summerfield had been part of Merthyr’s Division 1 South & West title winning team when Town were promoted through the play offs but had now moved to the Midlands to study at Birmingham University and not surprisingly he was quickly snapped up when Carl Adams was alerted to his availability.

And James Fry also linked up with Town having left Leamington for a spell abroad after the end of last season.

Summerfield made his debut with a Man of the Match performance at Slough and Fry at Kettering, and both were virtual ever presents from then on.

September

Having made a decent start to their League campaign Town would have been hopeful of F A Cup progress with the draw for the First Qualifying Round handing them an away tie at Northern Counties East League side AFC Mansfield.

But Town and the F A Cup are totally out of love with each other at the moment, and for the fifth year running they exited at the first available opportunity.   And for those supporters who made the trip to deepest Nottinghamshire it was painful watching as Town had a free kick a few yards outside the Mansfield penalty area with the match tightly poised at 1-1 and the game heading towards its closing minutes.

But the free kick was hit straight into the wall and Mansfield immediately broke away to score the winner leaving Carl Adams distraught as there seemed to be no end to his F A Cup woes.

So it was back to League action the following weekend for a trip to Dorchester with Town’s line-up including Dior Angus for the first time since limping off in one of the pre-season friendlies.   All seemed to be going well after half an hour with Town leading 2-1, but then Angus got himself involved in an off-the-ball incident and was sent off.

Dorchester grabbed an equaliser early in the second half, but Town’s ten men held out for a well deserved  point.

Four days later it was a frustrating trip to the Valleys when the match at Merthyr was abandoned at half time due to floodlight failure.  However it could have been worse as Town were 1-0 down at the time, and when the match was replayed in late November Town came away with a valuable point after a 1-1 draw.

Their F A Cup disaster at Mansfield meant that they had a rearranged fixture the next weekend with a home game against Frome Town who had also made an early exit from the most famous of all cup competitions.

It was the only game of the day in the Southern League Premier Division, and Town turned on the style with an emphatic 3-0 win.

But it all went wrong when Weymouth arrived at the DCS seven days later.  Jean Kalenda made his Town debut, but against what Carl Adams described afterwards as “the best side we have played this season”  his side were never in it after Weymouth went two up inside the opening 20 minutes eventually going on to win 5-0.

And to add to the general feeling of despair Richard Gregory was sent off late on after apparently kicking out at an opponent to complete a thoroughly miserable afternoon.

October

 So Town were probably glad to see the back of September, but October was interesting to say the least as Town played no less than nine matches, advancing in two cups, somehow staying in another, winning three matches in succession for the only time in the season and reaching their highest League position of the campaign after the third of their six League matches.

It all began with a second trip to St Ives to face groundsharers Cambridge City.  Liam Francis returned to the side here after a brief loan spell at Coleshill as Town picked up a point from an undistinguished goal-less draw.

Next up was a Southern League Cup tie at Redditch where Carl Adams put out a side based on last term’s Youth team.  The Reds also rested a number of their usual first teamers, and when they went 3-1 up a minute into the second half it looked as if Town were heading for another early cup exit, but their youngsters would have none of it and in a stirring comeback they reduced the deficit and then equalised before substitute Ben Ellicott fired home the winner with just a couple of minutes left.

It was back to League action the following weekend with a comfortable 2-0 home win over  Dunstable but there was more frustration for Carl Adams soon after as defender Jordan Culliane-Liburd was lured back to Redditch United.

But his departure was barely noticed as four days later Town won 2-1 at Cirencester for a third win in a week

And having won five and drawn five of their 13 League games so far with only three defeats  –  all at home  –  Town had accumulated 20 points which propelled them to the heady heights of ninth spot in the table.

That however was as good as it was going to get, and it marked a real turning point in Town’s season.

In retrospect Town’s next two fixtures   –  away at Chippenham and then a midweek home game against Merthyr  –  were real toughies as Chippenham were to finish as Champions and Merthyr qualified for the Play Offs.

At least in both games Carl Adams was able to field the same starting line-up as against Cirencester, but  Chippenham won more comfortably then the 2-1 scoreline suggested while Merthyr sent Town to their fourth DCS defeat of the season repeating their 3-0 margin of last year.

A DCS draw against Kings Lynn followed in which Barry Fitzharris became the third Town player to be red carded this season before Town’s attention switched from League to Cups and from Southern League to Northern League opposition as they ended the month with an away Birmingham Senior Cup tie at Stourbridge and a home F A Trophy tie against Grantham.

Town had reached the Semi finals of the Birmingham Senior Cup last season, and Carl Adams was clearly looking for a repeat this time round  as he named  a near full strength side for the trip to Amblecote where second half strike from Jamie Sheldon saw Town safely through.

But it was a lot harder  against Grantham  with the  Northern League side two up at half time and seemingly cruising into the next round until Jamie Sheldon pulled one back with another of his long range “specials” with eight minutes to go followed by Richard Gregory pouncing to net an unlikely equaliser in the last of seven added minutes right at the end.

November

 So November started with a replay at Grantham who were never going to let Town off the hook again.  One up inside twenty minutes Grantham eventually powered to a 4-0 win but a major talking point afterwards among the travelling Town supporters was the behaviour of Richard Gregory.

Appointed captain by Carl Adams at the start of the season the striker didn’t take kindly to being substituted on the hour mark and stormed off leaving the captain’s armband in the centre circle as he did so.   Whether this was the beginning of the end of his time with Town is anyone’s guess, but he didn’t captain Town again being immediately replaced by James Fry.

With Chesham United still involved in the F A Cup Town now had a free weekend before their fourth cup tie in a row when they took on Leamington in the Second Round of the League Cup.

Mike Taylor had returned from Redditch to make his second Town debut of the season in this match, and whether the Brakes were really interested in progressing in this competition or not didn’t concern the crowd at the DCS as Town were three up by the half hour mark on their way to a thumping 4-0 victory.

Then it was back to League action, and worryingly Town began to find points hard to come by.

Cambridge City managed a 3-3 draw at the DCS after Town had gone two up inside the opening quarter of an hour, and that was followed by 2-1 defeats away at Basingstoke and at home to Slough with Town leading in both games but unable to hold on.

The Slough game was also significant in terms of Town’s squad as it featured the debut from the subs bench of Ben Stephens who had been snapped up by Carl Adams from Kettering while it was also the last appearance for Jamie Sheldon who switched to Hednesford  before ending the season at Chasetown.

The last Saturday of the month should have seen St Ives come to the DCS in the reverse of the season’s opening day fixture, but the Saints were still in the F A Trophy and instead Town took the opportunity to arrange their outstanding game at Merthyr which at least avoided another midweek evening trip to South Wales.

For the fourth game in a row Town took the lead and although Merthyr hit back to equalise it was a bit of a moral victory for Town as it was the first time ever they had avoided defeat at Penydarren Park.

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Four days Town returned to Redditch for a League game and this time the roles were reversed with the Reds leading at half time but Town battling back with Edwin Ahenkorah grabbing an 89th minute leveller, but it meant that Town had only taken four points from eight games since the win at Cirencester.

December

 The new month started  with the short trip down the M40 to Banbury for the first League game between the two clubs since the era of the West Midlands League some 50 years ago, and yet again Town let a winning position slip away.

Ben Stephens fired them ahead on the hour mark and shortly after Simeon Tulloch missed an absolute sitter make it 2-0 and surely put the result beyond doubt with Banbury then making the most of their escape to equalise through a Guy Clark own goal and then take all three points with a fluke winner in added time.

But of more concern to Town supporters that afternoon were the rumours swirling round that Richard Gregory had been approached by big spending near neighbours Leamington with their worries being given added substance by Carl Adams choosing to relegate the striker to the subs bench and then not bring him on at all.

So there was certainly an intriguing sub plot for the midweek Birmingham Senior Cup tie with Coventry City when Gregory was again on the bench. Ahenkorah gave Town a half time lead before making way for Gregory at the break and true to form it only took Gregory six minutes to make it 2-0 as Town repeated last season’s success over the Sky Blues in this competition.

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It was to prove to be the 78th and last of Gregory’s goals in a Town shirt as in spite of impassioned pleas from the DCS faithful and  Gregory’s own insistence that he loved the club he had gone by the weekend and  turned out for Leamington at Frome  instead.

However the furore surrounding Gregory was to a large extent overshadowed by a Man of the Match performance from last season’s youth team hotshot Charlie Faulkner.   To the consternation of many supporters the popular Faulkner had been sent to help out Gary Moran at Rugby Town while Car Adams had brought in loan players from outside notably Edji Mbunga and Donnell Benjamin  both of whom had made minimal impact.

But such was Faulkner’s impression against Coventry that he was to become a regular member of the Town squad until going back to Rugby in early March.

Between now and Christmas Town had three home games against sides struggling near the bottom of the table  with Carl Adams naturally hoping for a decent points haul to push Town nearer to mid-table security.

St Neots were first up and it was Town’s first game without Gregory, so what the departed striker would think when he learned the result can only be imagined as Town hit five goals for the first and only time of the season with Edwin Ahenkorah bagging a hat-trick.

Carl Adams had brought in the experienced Justin Marsden to replace Gregory, but two players who headed to the exit door were Trey Brathwaite and Warren Brooks.  Neither had been able to hold down a place in the starting line-up and both were sent out on loan to Rugby Town.

It was said that this arrangement was for a short period to enable them to have “game time” but neither would  return to the DCS.

The St Neots game marked the halfway point of the League campaign, and even after those three points Town had slipped to 17th spot in the table.

In essence there were now heading a mini league of eight clubs which didn’t change much until Town’s late season flourish, with four of them being destined for the eventual relegation places.

But the optimism after the St Neots result didn’t last long as Hayes and Yeading hung on for a goal-less draw followed by Town needing an added time equaliser from Justin Marsden to salvage a share the points with Kings Langley in another game in which they had taken an early lead.

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So it was with some trepidation that the Town faithful headed to Leamington on Boxing Day to face the table topping Brakes and a reunion with their previous hero Gregory.

In front of a bumper crowd of  805 Town fell behind to a Kieren Westwood own goal  –  although desperately claimed by Gregory  –  and then had Simeon Tulloch red carded all before half time.

But clearly fired up after the break they turned in probably their best 45 minutes of the entire campaign as they overwhelmed the disbelieving Brakes and their vocal supporters with Westwood hitting a late leveller which had to be a contender for Goal of the Season  –  or of any other season for that matter.

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It was a draw that felt like a win and was a great way to end 2016.

January

 Town could hardly have wished for more accommodating opponents to start the New Year than rock bottom Cinderford Town and a Mike Taylor hat-trick propelled them to a comfortable win, but there was a downside as immediately after the game Liam O’Neill announced that he had accepted a full time post at Nuneaton Town.

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A narrow 1-0 defeat at Hitchin Town followed before Town travelled to Division 1 South and West Bishops Cleeve for a Third Round League Cup tie.

With a number pf Premier Division clubs already out Carl Adams has targeted this competition as a possible  chance of silverware this season, and when Edwin Ahenkorah fired Town into the lead from the penalty spot early in the second half  everything seemed to be going to plan only for Bishops Cleeve to hit a late equaliser and then go through via a penalty shoot-out  leaving Town to wonder what might have been.

But Town recovered from this disappointment to pick up crucial points from two challenging away matches at Weymouth and Chesham before ending the month with three defeats each of which was demoralising in its own right.

St Ives won 3-2 at the DCS after Town were 2-1 ahead with only a minute of normal time to go and they were then well beaten at Frome before they met Leamington for a fourth time this season in a Birmingham Senior Cup Quarter Final tie.

A Simeon Tulloch strike halfway through the first half looked as if it was going to be the decider before the Brakes scored two late headed goals in as many minutes from identical right wing corners  to end Town’s hopes of cup success for another season.

February

 The month could hardly have started off worse as it opened with a home fixture against struggling Cirencester Town which also marked Guy Clark’s 100th appearance.  The Centurions arrived having taken only two points from their previous 11 games but a scrambled late goal gave them a welcome win as Town turned in a desperate effort with their overall winless run extending to eight.

And as if that was not bad enough two days later the classy Kieren Westwood moved to Stourbridge with Carl Adams voicing his anger in the Herald at what he termed “player disloyalty.”

In the circumstances it was probably just as well that the next weekend’s game at Dunstable fell victim to a frozen pitch as it gave everyone ten days breathing space before Town journeyed to Biggleswade for a not to be forgotten midweek night match.

By then James Hancocks  –  son of Bobby  –  had arrived on loan from Kidderrminster Harriers to take over Westwood’s left back spot along with midfielder George Forsyth, but Town looked to be on course for another defeat when they fell behind to a freak own goal from the unfortunate Jean Kalenda with a quarter of an hour to go.

But in an amazing turnaround two corners in three minutes led to Mike Taylor bundling in an equaliser followed by Liam Francis heading the winner to give Town a welcome three points.

That however was not the main story of the evening as the return journey became a nightmare of epic proportions thanks to the A1 being closed for roadworks and the diversion being totally unsuitable for the usual overnight convoy of HGV’s plus the Town coach.

Eventually the coach arrived back at the DCS with its clock showing 1.46 am and driver Paul still had to take the coach back to its garage before he arrived home at 4.30 !!

After those exertions Town at least had two home matches to finish off the month with both resulting in 1-0 scorelines.

Chippenham were on their way to the title but needed a late penalty to overcome a gritty Town performance, while it was Town who came out on top in a similarly close game a week later as Jamie Spencer’s first goal for the club enabled them to completer a quickfire double over Biggleswade.

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The six points gained from the Biggleswade fixtures took Town’s seasonal total to 41, but having reached 20 from 13 games  after their win at Cirencester back in October it had taken them 23 games  –  in other words half a season   –  to accumulate the next 21 with those 23 outings producing only 4 wins accompanied by 9 draws and 10 losses aptly illustrating what a difficult winter it had been.

Nevertheless they were now ten points clear of the bottom four with only ten games left to play and had surely already done enough to guarantee a third season at Premier Division level.

March

Edwin Ahenkorah had limped off at Chesham but after missing seven matches returned for the trip to King’s Lynn.    His return prompted Carl Adams to release Charlie Faulkner back to Rugby Town for the rest of the season much to the dismay of the majority of Town supporters, and Guy Clark was also lent to Rugby for that weekend, but Town then suffered two late withdrawals from Taylor and Spencer meaning that they ended up having to travel to Norfolk with only two fit substitutes and a dismal performance saw them slip to a 2-0 defeat.

Chesham were the visitors to the DCS the following weekend when once again Town could  not hold on to a lead as they drew for the fifteenth time this season, and after another below par effort at Dunstable four days later  resulted in another 2-0 away loss there were one or two nervous looks towards the bottom four with Carl Adams saying that two more wins were still needed to ensure Premier Division survival.

And his side responded in the best possible manner by upping their performance levels on their first ever visit to Kings Langley coming away with a thoroughly deserved 3-1 win to reach the crucial 45 point mark.

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Near neighbours Banbury were next up and arrived at the DCS chasing a play off spot and on a run of five successive wins.   But in the lead-up to the game Carl Adams had returned to Kidderminster Harriers to take the hugely experienced defender Wayne Thomas on loan for the rest of the campaign, and that proved to be another example of the Town boss’s Midas touch with Thomas making all the difference as Town turned in one of their best performances of the season to record back-to-back League wins for the first time since early October.

Not only did the 2-0 scoreline dent Banbury’s play off hopes but for Town it effectively ended any relegation fears meaning that they could head into the last month of the season knowing that they could now look upwards and forwards rather than backwards and downwards.

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April

 Of Town’s remaining five matches four were against teams below them in the table and thus offered Carl Adams’ side the opportunity of finishing the season with a bit of a flourish,.

First up was a trip to St Neots which saw Town escape with a draw thanks to Jamie Spencer’s late equaliser on an afternoon best remembered for the Saints almost scoring with just the second kick of the game with Niall Cooper having to be alert enough to tip over Shane Hill’s audacious effort from inside the centre circle.

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But maybe of more significance at St Neots was the debut appearance in the Town dug-out of Ross Thorpe who had been recruited by Carl Adams as a  replacement for  Liam O’Neill.

Town then had a rare Friday fixture  –  their first since 1994 other than on a Boxing Day   –  on their second visit of the season to Beaconsfield.  This time it was to face Hayes and Yeading with Town coming back from going behind early on to win 2-1 with the three points taking their seasonal total past last term’s figure of 50 with three games still to play.

By now Redditch and Dunstable had been reeled in as Town reached the heady heights of 15th and they approached the Easter weekend with the prospect of completing seasonal doubles over Carl Adams’ old side Kettering Town and basement boys Cinderford Town.

The Saturday game against the Poppies went according to plan with Town following their best away win of the season at Latimer Park back in August with their best home performance and a 4-1 scoreline which had the Town boss purring with pride.

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Disappointingly a much depleted side with no fit outfield substitutes available couldn’t pull off the “ double double” on Easter Monday.  Although they were leading 1-0 they weren’t looking particularly comfortable when a bad injury to a Cinderford player with twenty minutes to go led to the game being suspended for 25 minutes, and when play resumed it was Cinderford who seized the initiative to storm back  to a 2-1 success ending Town’s unbeaten five game run.

But they still went into their final game against Dorchester knowing that they were guaranteed a 15th  place finish and that if other results went their way it could be 13th.

Dorchester though had suffered a slump in form which meant that they arrived at the DCS still needing a point to be absolutely safe, and so it was never going to be a typical end-of-season stroll with noting at stake.

Instead it was an uninspiring affair until the closing stages when it all became feisty and frantic.   A Town mistake gifted the Magpies an 80th minute lead only for Dan Summerfield to equalise with a minute left which meant that Dorchester were still one Town goal away from disaster.

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Deep into added time the tension levels were rising by the second.  Simeon Tulloch got involved in a touchline altercation with a Dorchester player and was sent off and then Town had a more than reasonable penalty appeal waved away before the final whistle signalled safety for Dorchester and the end of another memorable Town campaign.

And the point gained took their seasonal total to 56 and was enough to take them above St Ives into 14th spot to complete Carl Adams’ quite sensational record of improving Town’s finishing position in each of his five seasons in charge.

So although there were a few hiccups in mid-winter the season overall was another one of more positive progress measured in terms of six more points than last year and a move up the table of five places.

Only the champions Chippenham Town completed the double over Town as Carl Adams’ side took at least one point from every other team in the Division proving that on their day they could more than hold their own at this level.

Will Grocott proved to be the stand-out player throughout the season missing only four of Town’s 55 matches, and unsurprisingly he swept the board at the end-of-season presentations winning the Supporters, Stratford Herald, Players and Manager’s Player of the Year awards.

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In paying tribute to Will at the Presentation Evening Carl said that he was not just the best player but also the most consistent, and surely all regular Town watchers would echo those comments.

And looking ahead to season number six as Town boss Carl Adams has already intimated that his predominantly young squad is not in need of the same radical overhaul as last summer, insisting that the lessons learned this season will make them stronger and more streetwise  next time round.

He does however have to recruit a new keeper as Niall Cooper is understood to be moving away, but as long as he can hold on to the majority of the current squad  –  which he certainly hopes to do  –  then he expects to only be looking for two or three additions.

No doubt Town fans would like to see the return of Wayne Thomas who made such an impact in his five game loan spell, but if not him then maybe an equivalent to add their vital extra bit of know-how at the back.

So for Town to maintain their  upward momentum the next logical step is to aim for a top ten finish, and beyond that who knows ?

But with Carl Adams’ inspired touch showing no signs of fading anything is possible and more exciting times will hopefully lie ahead for Town and their supporters when it all kicks off again in August..

Review compiled by Bryan Hale