BEN MAKES THE HEADLINES AS CARL MAKES IT TO 300
THE STORY OF THE 2017/18 SEASON
The end of the previous season had marked five years under the Midas touch management of Carl Adams which included two promotions and had seen an improvement in Town’s finishing position each time.
So the initial target for the new campaign which would be their third at Non League Step 3 (Premier Division) level was to better last term’s 56 points and 14th place, but before a ball was kicked it was known that this would be season with a difference.
It had been announced that a new Midlands/Central Division at Step 3 was to be introduced for the 2018/19 campaign, and as part of that change only one team would be relegated from the current Premier Division at the season’s end.
Town would obviously be destined for that new Division as long as they avoided that bottom spot, and so to a large extent they could look forward to the new campaign with a lot less pressure than in their previous two at this level knowing that unless there was a total disaster they would retain their Step 3 status for a fourth consecutive year.
But as always during the summer there were to be changes in the squad. Keeper Niall Cooper who had acquitted himself with particular credit as the replacement for the legendary Andy Kemp indicated that he was moving further away and would therefore be looking to play elsewhere, while other players who ultimately did not return included the combative midfielder Barry Fitzharris, striker Jamie Spencer, the Kidderminster Harriers loanee George Forsyth and Wayne Thomas who had made such a difference to Town’s defence in the closing weeks.
Another departure was the popular physio Joe Perkins who stunned everyone by announcing that he couldn’t devote the necessary time to the role due to his increasing teaching commitments.
And there was also the eventual non-appearance of Town’s longest serving player Simeon Tulloch. Sent off in the closing minutes of the final match of the last campaign he was due to start the new term with a lengthy suspension, but he was also suffering from a longstanding knee problem, and after one or two false dawns he ended up missing the whole season.
So as even though the majority of his squad were staying Carl Adams had some recruiting to do, but at least there was some instant good news as last season’s multiple award winning midfielder Will Grocott signed a new contract.
Adams then turned to newly relegated Rugby Town to solve his goalkeeping and physio problems by bringing in Louis Connor and Jordan Taylor while Gary Moran was also added to Town’s backroom staff after leaving the Butlin Road hot seat although work commitments were soon to curtail his involvement.
The Town boss followed up with a notable coup by persuading ex-Town Youth graduate Andy Gallinagh to return after a glittering career with Cheltenham Town among others, while another returnee was the imposing central defender Loyiso Recci and other arrivals were left back Lee Thomas, striker Jazz Luckie and midfielders Eli Bako and George Washbourne.
But disappointingly there was an instant setback for ex-Town youth player Washbourne as he hobbled off in the pre-season friendly at Alvechurch and was eventually ruled out for the entire campaign.
Almost uniquely there were to be no more additions with the squad remaining virtually unchanged throughout the season. Only 24 players were used compared with 40 last season with eight of those making five or less appearances as Carl Adams relied on a core squad of 16.
A positive from this situation was that the team spirit wasn’t disrupted by different players coming in and out, but it meant that there was little competition for places in the starting line-up, and it also led to the subs bench often being short in numbers as injuries and suspensions cropped up during the season which obviously limited Carl Adams’ options when tactical changes were needed during the course of a game.
There were off field changes as well. With DCS relocating to Banbury a new Stadium sponsor was needed with local media app company MoodChimp stepping in to take over, while a new website using the Pitchero platform was also introduced.
The usual selection of pre-season friendlies were arranged with the final one doubling as an Open Day with free admission to launch the newly titled MoodChimp Stadium after which Carl Adams pronounced himself happy with how the preparations had gone as he looked forward to Town’s third term as a Premier Division club.
The opening League fixture saw Town travel to newly promoted Royston and Ben Stephens was quick to set the pattern for the coming months as he headed in the campaign’s first goal in only the fifth minute on his way to becoming the team’s leading scorer at the season’s end.
Another less happy pattern was also set as Loyiso Recci was red carded late on to become the first of eight Town sendings off as their disciplinary record which also included an eventual total of 117 yellow cards was to come under close scrutiny as the season progressed.
But Town hung on to come away with a 2-1 win and followed up with home draws against Merthyr and St Neots before some curious fixture scheduling saw them having to visit Weymouth on August Bank Holiday Saturday.
In spite of the inevitable traffic hold-ups on the M5 resulting in a five hour journey Town put in a spirted performance and a Charlie Evans strike first half strike looked to have secured the points until the heartbreak of a Weymouth equaliser deep into added time.
And conceding similarly late goals was to become a regular and costly feature of Town’s performances right up to the last minute of the season’s final game.
Back at the Mood Chimp on Bank Holiday Monday Town played out a goal-less stalemate with local rivals Redditch to end August unbeaten after their first five games and looking reassuringly solid with both Gallinagh and Thomas settling in particularly well at the back.
In spite of his unprecedented League success during his five years as Town boss Carl Adams had yet to win an F A Cup tie, but as he put it he at last “got that monkey off his back” when Newcastle Town visited the MoodChimp for a First Qualifying Round match.
Town supporters would recall the goal laden encounters with the Staffordshire side a few years back when a 5-5 draw at Newcastle was followed by a 6-2 Town win in the replay, but it was far more straightforward this time round as Town eased through with a 4-0 scoreline.
And having got off the mark in the F A Cup Carl Adams promptly repeated his achievement a fortnight later when Redditch United were swept aside as Town won 4-1 to equal their best ever run in the Competition by reaching the Third Qualifying Round.
In between those Cup games though Town had come face to face with reality in the League with away fixtures against two of the Premier Division’s big guns in Kings Lynn Town and title favourites Hereford.
Both games were effectively over at half time with the Linnets three up by then on their way to a 4-1 win, while at a wet and windy Edgar Street the Bulls inspired by ex-Town midfielder Michael McGrath surged to a 4-0 interval lead and an eventual 5-2 success.
The Hereford game turned out to be the 114th and final Town appearance of the popular defender Guy Clark who switched to Bromsgrove Sporting where he was soon to be joined by ex-Town striker Richard Gregory following his departure from Stafford Rangers as the Sporting soared away to the Midland League Premier Division Championship (the MFA in old money).
And it also went into the Town record books as for the first time ever for a Town match crowd segregation applied with the Hereford announcer broadcasting over the tannoy that the total attendance was 2005 which included 26 in the away supporters enclosure !!
Having seen off Redditch after those two chastening experiences Town’s next League game saw them face opposition from the from the other end of the table as newly relegated Gosport Borough arrived at the MoodChimp looking for their first point of the season and departed still doing as two early strikes were enough to secure Town’s first League win since the season’s opening day.
A midweek home defeat to a combative Chesham side followed which was hardly ideal preparation for Town’s next F A Cup adventure which saw them and a sizeable contingent of supporters make the long journey to Scarborough on the last day of the month.
Although Scarborough were only in Division One North of the Northern Premier League and therefore one level lower than Town in the Non League Pyramid Town seemed to be really up against it playing on Scarborough’s brand new 3G pitch in front a near 1200 partisan crowd.
But after a hectic opening 25 minutes Town were leading 2-1 and with no further goals Town were hanging on grimly to what would have been a history making result until Scarborough equalised in the third minute of added time.
Carl Adams would doubtless have taken a draw before kick off, but his side had come agonisingly close to a famous win, and hopes were understandably high that they would be able to finish go one better in the Tuesday evening replay back at the MoodChimp.
The replay attracted the biggest crowd so far this season of 498 and they were to witness an extraordinary evening of cup football which had everything and more.
The draw for the Fourth Qualifying Round had taken place the day before handing the winners a home tie against another NPL Division North side Hyde United, and what this meant for Town was that if they could win two games at the MoodChimp against lower ranked opposition they would create history by reaching the First Round proper with the prospect of facing Coventry City or Walsall and the like.
Surely Town would never have a better chance of the financial jackpot that such a tie would bring but it was not to be.
Maybe the omens were not good from the start as Scarborough were held up in traffic on the M42 resulting in the kick off being put back 15 minutes to 8 o’clock although at half time the dream was still very much alive with Town ahead through Jazz Luckie’s 26th minute strike.
But Scarborough equalised midway through the second half sending the tie into extra time.
Almost immediately there was another delay as referee Josh Smith pulled up feelingly and was unable to continue with the senior assistant Richard Walker taking over and Town supporter Justin Keaney having his moment of fame by filling in as replacement linesman.
It was still 1-1 at the end of the first extra time period, but then Scarborough introduced substitute James Cadman and he promptly turned the tie on its head hitting two goals in three minutes with Scarborough adding a fourth right at the end to give the final scoreline a totally distorted look.
And by then the time was approaching 10.45 pm as the bemused spectators headed home with those returning to Scarborough at least having something to cheer about until their arrival in the early hours of Wednesday.
Town though were left in shock, and seemingly hadn’t recovered by the following weekend when they were brushed aside 4-0 at Hitchin with “statto” Rod Abrahams recording only three goal attempts all game with not a single one on target.
A busy month continued with a midweek home tie against Solihull Moors in the Birmingham Senior Cup. The Moors were originally drawn as the home team but offered to switch the game to the MoodChimp, and as a further indication of the diminishing importance of this competition no matchday programme was issued.
The Moors did at least field a fairly strong line-up including Oladafo Afolayan who was soon to be snapped up by West Ham, and it was all square at 1-1 after 90 minutes when the tie went straight to a penalty shootout which the Moors won 5-4.
Then it was back to serious League business the following weekend. The defeat at Hitchin had dropped Town to 19th in the table with only two wins and ten points from their ten games, so the visit of struggling Dunstable who were on five points and only had Gosport below them was something of a “must win” fixture.
But Mike Taylor who went into the game yet to get off the mark this season suddenly rediscovered where the back of the net was blowing Dunstable away with an 18 minute first hat-trick as Town romped to a 5-1 win which effectively eliminated any prospect of them finishing in then sole relegation spot.
Next up was a visit to local rivals Evesham United in the Southern League Cup which was now known as the BigFreeBet Cup, and just as the Scarborough replay it was another cup tie in which anything and everything seemed to happen.
Both sides fielded less than full strength line-ups as the evening got off to a crazy start with five goals in the opening 18 minutes by which time Town were leading 3-2.
Shortly after the floodlights went out and the ground was in darkness for a quarter of an hour, but when they returned so did the avalanche of goals. Three minutes after half time Jazz Luckie completed his hat trick to put Town 5-2 up only for two Evesham goals to promptly put them back into the game at 5-4.
With under ten minutes to go they then squandered a great chance to level at 5-5 after which Town added two more for good measure including a fourth from Luckie to make the final score a scarcely believable 7-4.
No wonder it was queried by the League when Evesham phone the result through !!
Then it was back to the League with a hard fought home draw against Royston and the seemingly inevitable defeat on Merthyr’s 3G pitch before October finished as it had begun with Cup action at the MoodChimp and near neighbours Bedworth United being the visitors for a First Qualifying Round F A Trophy tie.
This time though it was all very straightforward as Town eased through with Bedworth’s goal deep into added time to make the final score 2-1 giving the impression that the game was a lot closer than it really was.
Returning to League action Town’s inconsistent form continued with a midweek 3-0 defeat at Frome followed by a comfortable home win against Bishops Stortford before five days which would effectively define their season.
Already being out of the F A and Birmingham Senior Cups they were left with the Southern League Cup and the F A Trophy and as luck would have it the next round of both those competitions were scheduled for the same week.
Thus Carl Adams was faced with a tricky situation. Should he send a full strength side to Redditch for the midweek League Cup tie and risk injury to key players or should he concentrate on the following Saturday’s F A Trophy trip to Lancaster City where decent prize money was on offer and the possibility of more if Town won through ?
In the end he went for the latter option allowing the Reds to come out on top for the only time in four meetings during the season with the likes of James Fry, Andy Gallinagh and Will Grocott all sitting this one out to wait for the jaunt up the M6.
But disappointingly the gamble didn’t come off as Town turned in what Carl Adams later described as their worst 45 minutes of the season to go in at half time 3-0 down with Lancaster cruising through the second half to a comfortable success.
Seldom has Carl Adams trudged off a pitch at the end of a game more dejected than he did here knowing that after two Cup exits in quick succession Town only had League games left to look forward to with virtually six months of the season still to go.
His demeanour didn’t improve a week later when Town went down 2-1 at Tiverton conceding two late goals after Ben Stephens had fired them into a fifth minute lead, but reflecting afterwards he pointed to the next two fixtures at home to St Ives and Kings Langley who were both below Town in the table as being games which could kick start Town’s season.
And he also set a target of a top ten finish which he believed was well within the capabilities of his squad.
But even he was taken aback at how Town’s fortunes suddenly took a turn for the better.
Both Kings Langley and St Ives were brushed aside 3-1 and 3-0 respectively, but few could have foreseen that Town would make it three wins on the trot as a tremendous performance earned them a 3-1 success at highflying Chesham.
It was their first away League win since the opening day of the season at Royston and taking nine points in eight days hoisted them up to 15th spot in the table.
The following Saturday only an added time Farnborough equaliser prevented Town extending their winning run to four so they were in good heart to set off for the daunting prospect of a Monday evening match at Dorchester – a round trip of near enough 300 miles.
But it was all worth it as Loyiso Recci’s late winner took Town’s points haul to thirteen from five games.
There was a bit of a reality check at Kettering where Carl Adams’ old club emphasised their promotion hopes with a comfortable win before Town completed their pre-Christmas fixtures with a narrow home win over Biggleswade and a creditable draw at Slough where yet another in the unending sequence of late goals cocceded denied them all three points.
But two first half strikes from Ben Stephens propelled Town to a comfortable 2-0 win at Redditch on Boxing Day which meant that Town finished 2017 in the dizzy heights of 10th spot with 37 points from 25 games and on target to meet Carl Adams’ ambitions in that respect.
And another positive was that due to Edwin Ahenkorah’s prolonged injury absence Ben Stephens had been moved forward to partner Mike Taylor up front, and they had immediately gelled into a potent partnership which saw them score 10 of the 11 goals netted by Town during December with Recci’s winner at Dorchester being the odd one out.
That though was as good as it was going to get as Town ran into a difficult fixture schedule which wouldn’t see them win again until the second week of February.
Town kicked off 2018 with a typically feisty New Year’s Day clash against Banbury United which the Puritans nicked with a late winner, and it was yet another added time strike which cost Town two points the following weekend when St Neots bundled in a late leveller after Justin Marsden had had what appeared to be a perfectly good goal which would have put Town two up mysteriously ruled out for offside.
And next up was the midweek visit to the MoodChimp of eventual champions Hereford whose sizeable following swelled the crowd to the season’s biggest of 707.
Giving as good as they got Town went in at half time still level but that prolific marksman John Mills struck twice in a minute on the hour mark – the first from the penalty spot – and in spite of then having a player red carded the Bulls saw the game out to extend their unbeaten away record in League matches to a mind boggling 52.
The challenging sequence of fixtures continued with the visit of play-off bound Weymouth and Town battling away to a repeat of their draw down in Dorset back in August with Carl Adams proudly referring to “another great effort from my lads as we followed up our tremendous performance against Hereford in midweek with another one here against one of the heavyweights in this Division.”
The weather then intervened with the midweek away fixture at Basingstoke being waterlogged off – although not before Town had made the fruitless journey down to Hampshire – with the following Saturday’s home game against Hitchin also being called off.
So Town had gone a fortnight without a game when they travelled down to Kings Langley where they turned in a strangely lethargic performance to lose 2-0 and find themselves slipping back to 14th spot and seven points behind tenth placed Banbury.
By now Ben Stephens’ scoring streak had been attracting attention from elsewhere. An early approach from Banbury was quickly rebuffed and an enquiry from Coventry City never really materialised, but Ipswich Town took him on trial as he played two matches for their Under 23 side which was followed later by a similar stint at Birmingham City.
And it was Stephens who netted the 18th goal of his headline grabbing campaign against Frome although Town’s winless streak was extended to six as the combative Somerset side went home with all three points after another frustrating afternoon for the Town faithful at the MoodChimp.
But Carl Adams had always maintained that February’s fixtures would be kinder and his view was borne out as Town eked out successive away wins at the Division’s two bottom clubs Dunstable and Gosport either side of a home win over Dorchester and a narrow defeat in the rearranged midweek visit to Basingstoke.
In retrospect the Dorchester result was more significant than it seemed at the time as surely not even the most pessimistic Town supporter would have thought that those three points were to be the last home points gained by Town this season.
Scarcely believably though that was what would happen.
But in spite of that upturn in results Town were still in 14th although now within two points of the top ten only for their momentum to be halted as the Beast from the East and Storm Ella from Portugal played havoc with everyone’s fixture schedules.
The rearranged Hitchin game followed by the home game against Tiverton and the away game at St Ives all fell victim to the weather as Town went three weeks without kicking a ball in anger.
At last Town were able to return to action on Saturday March 17th when promotion chasing Kettering Town who had also had three weeks off showed their class as they eased to a 4-0 success.
And four days later Carl Adams was left incredulous as Tiverton returned to Devon with all three points after an evening when Town had 24 goal attempts compared to Tivvy’s eight with Tivvy’s teenage debutant keeper proving virtually unbeatable.
But Town came good the following weekend at Farnborough when Will Grocott and Ben Stephens both scored twice as Town surged to a 4-1 half time lead before comfortably seeing the game out as Farnborough ran out of ideas in spite of their manager suggesting afterwards in an astonishing interview that they were the better side.
The win at Farnborough moved Town up to 51 points and 13th spot in the table meaning that they still had eight games left in which to reach their target of 57 (or better), but two further MoodChimp defeats going down narrowly to Hitchin and then being outclassed by Kings Lynn meant that since their weather enforced break they had lost four out of five and the target of a top ten finish was now beyond reach
Another overnight deluge washed out Easter Monday’s trip to Banbury so Town’s first fixture in the closing month of the season was at home to Slough Town thus making it five home games out of six. Three of them had been against play off contenders, and Slough’s 1-0 win meant that all five of those MoodChimp fixtures had been lost.
The Banbury game was quickly rearranged for the following Thursday and it turned out to be a personal nightmare for Louis Connor who was red carded inside the opening quarter of an hour after hauling down a Banbury forward in the penalty area.
Jimmy Fry took over in goal and his first task was to retrieve the ball from the back of the net as the Puritans eased to a 4-0 win. Two days later Town were on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline at Biggleswade, but a third successive away defeat in just six days which would have meant an overall losing run of six was averted with their biggest win of the season in a bizarre game at St Ives.
Both sides scored in the first three minutes and as the goals continued to fly in Town led 5-2 at half time with Ben Stephens adding Town’s sixth in the second half.
So with two games to go Town were back in 14th place with little prospect of finishing higher but had now reached 54 points and thus needed one more win to achieve the 57 point target.
But in the season’s final game at the MoodChimp Basingstoke stole the points with Town succumbing to yet another added time goal as they ended their home programme with six defeats in a row and ten in all.
The End of Season Presentation Evening was held after the Basingstoke game with Ben Stephens collecting the Manager’s, Players’ and Supporters’ Awards plus the Leading Scorer Trophy after his stellar season, while the admirably versatile and consistent Dan Summerfield took the Stratford Herald Award.
Even so quite a lot depended on Town’s last game of the season away at Bishops Stortford, and depending on the results of the other teams clustered around them Town could finish anywhere between 14th and 18th.
As an added bit of spice it was also Carl Adams’ 300th match as Town boss, and heading into four minutes added time it looked as if it was going to be an occasion to celebrate.
Town were leading 1-0 after Ben Stephens had notched his 25th goal of the season in the first half meaning that he had top and tailed Town’s season by scoring their opening goal back in August at Royston and now their final one here.
But in the third of those four extra minutes Stortford nicked an equaliser as Town’s added time jinx struck yet again and so it was only one point gained instead of three which meant a finishing position of 15th instead of 14th and a final points total of 55 instead of 57.
After it was all over Rod Abrahams calculated that all those late goals had cost Town no less than 15 points over the course of the season.
What a difference they would have made to the finishing position !!
So disappointingly Town’s season had gradually petered out. From the start of 2018 to the Beast from the East interruption they won just 3 out of 10 games picking up 11 points, and after the Beast had done its worst they won only 2 of their remaining 11 games collecting just 7 points, so that their overall record from Boxing Day onwards was 5 wins and 18 points from 21 games.
In reality much of the focus disappeared after the Cup exits at Redditch and Lancaster in early November which had left them with little to play for from then on other than Carl Adams’ optimistic top ten finish target.
As the season unfolded the Town boss frequently referred to the resources and playing budgets of other clubs in the Division, and while Hereford were obviously a one-off in terms of crowd numbers it was surely no coincidence that the four teams to make the promotion play offs were the four best supported teams after Hereford in the Premier Division Attendance Table.
And on that basis it could be argued that Town over-achieved with their 15th place finish comparing well with their 19th spot in the Attendance Table.
Certainly Carl Adams feels that even if this season didn’t represent positive progress on paper with Town finishing one place lower than last time with one point less it did so in reality since in his opinion the Premier Division was far more competitive this time round.
But the playing budget developed into a big talking point late on when it emerged that it had been reduced around the turn of the year after which the team’s form declined.
Whether or not this was a coincidence the budget limitations also meant that Carl Adams was frustrated in his attempts to bring in any reinforcements to freshen up the squad in the last couple of months.
And looking ahead it will surely not be any easier in the new Central Division next time round when Town will once again come up against old rivals such as Barwell, Coalville, Rushall and Stourbridge who look certain to be transferred from the Northern Premier League.
Away from the playing side there have been rumours of the Club attracting new investors, but nothing definite has yet been announced.
So one way or another there will be plenty for Town supporters to mull over until it all kicks off again next August.
Every summer inevitably bring changes, but this time they may well be more significant and wide ranging than usual.
Review compiled by Bryan Hale