FOREST GREEN ROVERS 4 BILLERICAY TOWN 0
Blues Exit FA Cup with defeat at Forest Green.
Written by Leigh @beakster99 for Phoenix FM
Billericay Town met their match in Gloucestershire, suffering a 4-0 loss in the FA Cup first round tie at the hands of League two leaders, Forest Green.
A seven-minute salvo of goals from Matt Stevens, Joseph Mills, and Jack Aitchison just before the break were decisive. A deflected Liam Shephard effort completed the scoring for the home side in the second half.
It had taken a hard-fought replay victory in the previous round over National League, Sutton United, garnering national headlines, to come this far.
Within the steely grip of Cup fever, the Billericay contingent mobilised itself for the next stage of the adventure. Entering uncharted plant-based territory, three coach loads of Essex-domiciled omnivores headed west.
Expectations were realistic as lady luck had not smiled at Billericay after the pairing in the draw with Forest Green. It was to be perhaps the toughest opposition that the club could have faced.
The away day saw the Billericay Town Supporters Society (BTSS) spring into action once more as their organisational skills brought together over 300 Blues fans to pack out the North Stand of the New Lawn Stadium.
The Billericay faithful remained in fine voice, dominating their surroundings, and never stopped encouraging their team.
Buoyed by the honesty, enthusiasm, and, importantly for all, realism at the fan’s forum put across by the new co-owners on Thursday evening, this was a day to be enjoyed.
The future could wait with any that attended offering thanks for an end to the uncertainty that had clouded the future rather than proffer complaints.
In the meantime, there was a match to be won or, as ultimately proved to be the case, an occasion to compete courageously against full-time opposition and give the fans something of which to be proud. Job done.
With the New Lawn Stadium greener by the hour after a morning of heavy rain, supplanted by afternoon drizzle, it all nearly ended before it had begun.
Mindful of the postponement of Forest Green’s last home fixture, it was easy to fear the worst. Thankfully, after a nervous lunch-time of soy protein and puff pastry, the pitch was deemed playable by the officials.
Manager Jamie O’Hara, known to sip the occasional post-match Budweiser, which is incidentally a fully vegan-compliant brew, made one change to the 4-2-3-1 line-up that started the League match at Maidstone United. In came Ben Nunn, switching flanks to cover as left-back, replacing Arjanit Krasniqi.
Enjoying the benefit of an overnight local hotel stay, and use of plush training facilities at nearby Barnwood, the Blues had prepared well for the challenge ahead.
With recent sacrifices made by a band of players that have renegotiated contracts in recent weeks, the training camp and big cup occasion was just reward for their efforts to help the club in its hour of need. Days of mercenaries at the Blues are gone.
If Billericay thought that the home coach, Mark Cooper, would field an under-strength side to give minutes to fringe players, they were to be disappointed. This was no leasing cup line-up with 16-year-old debutants as had been the case at Coventry City.
Affording the visitors from two leagues below a high degree of respect, only a single change was made. This left the Blues facing practically the team that won the tight derby at Cheltenham Town to go to the summit of league two.
Having operated with three at the back for most of the season, the defeat at Exeter City had prompted the start of a re-think and, having lined up 4-2-3-1 in the previous match, Cooper went with this formation against Billericay.
Bringing in striker, Aaron Collins, left-sided wide-man, Elliott Frear, a Forest Green veteran and recent returnee after leaving Motherwell, dropped to the bench.
Forest Green started strongly, immediately imposing their passing game and moving the ball well across the width of the pitch. With Billericay’s first touch being a clearance from skipper, Ronnie Henry, the signs were there that the non-league side were in for a tough afternoon.
Celtic loanee, Aitchison, located just behind the main striker, was soon to the fore. A series of clever runs from deep, and willingness to bear left to support Mills on the flank, his pace, movement, and link-up play warranted the close attention of the Billericay defence.
Youngest ever scorer for the Glasgow side back, at the tender age of 16 years and 17 days, the striker has profited from Cooper’s tactical innovation to turn him into a deeper lying No.10.
Still only 19, Aitchison is now enjoying the best spell of his career in Gloucestershire after scoring on his debut versus Cambridge United.
Saturday 9 November 2019
1. Alan Julian
2. Louis Ramsay
3. Bun Nunn
5. Ronnie Henry (C)
6. Sam Deering
8. Doug Loft
9. Jake Robinson
10. Jack Paxman
11. Odysseus Alfa
12. Themis Kefelas
14. Alfie Potter
4. Jamie O’Hara
7. Moses Emmanuel (Paxman)
13. Emmanuel Agboola
16. Acea Laurent
18. Harry Phillips (Alfa)
19. Arjanit Krasniqi
20. Jamie Reynolds (Deering)
1,419 (302 away fans)
National League South
New Lodge, Billericay
Tuesday 12 November 2019
National League South
Champion Hill, Dulwich
Saturday 16 November 2019
F.A. Trophy Third Qualifying Round
Saturday 23 November 2019
With Forest Green willing to shoot on sight, an early long-range effort from Collins, and drive from Shephard, served warning that the home side did not necessarily have to penetrate the protective blanket of Blues defenders that were quick to close down final third incursions.
Clearly anticipating that the higher ranked team, noted for its attractive football, would likely dominate possession, the visitors did not panic.
Sticking to their task of maintaining a cohesive shape, tracking the Green players’ movement, and trying to play swiftly on the counter-attack when possible, Billericay settled into a pattern of organised resistance.
Throughout the match, the Gloucestershire side threatened down the right flank. The partnership between full-back, Dominic Bernard, and right-sided midfielder, Shepherd was particularly effective.
With Shepherd pushing forward at every opportunity, the first sign of danger from this source was provided on the quarter hour.
Loitering with intent, Bernard seized his chance to work the overload as Forest Green attacked from the left. With the ball cleverly worked across the pitch, only the quick thinking of Billericay’s Nunn stopped the full back shooting on goal.
Covering both players at the back post, the defender’s last-ditch challenge found its mark at the cost of a corner.
With the home side establishing a stranglehold on midfield through the formidable axis of former Chelmsford captain, Carl Winchester, and ex-Ebbsfleet player, Ebou Adams, further chances came.
A mistake from Nunn, as his throw in was intercepted in midfield and moved swiftly forward to Collins, almost opened the door.
The striker advanced towards his target but sent a 17th minute drive just wide of the far post to the relief of the visiting right-back.
Scenting weakness, Forest Green continued to pour forward creating a flurry of chances. Billericay held firm with alert defensive play from Doug Loft. It would take good work from Collins, who intelligently dropped into midfield to provide options for the short pass.
He pulled wide to fashion a chance for Mills by means of a side-footed pass inside from the right. Well placed, 20 yards out, the home skipper fizzed a venomous strike narrowly wide.
The marauding Shepherd was next to try his luck. Served by Aitchison, his strike was deflected over as Blues centre-back Themis Kefalas stretched to block his effort.
Extending his contract this week at QPR until the end of the season, the loanee U-23 player has slotted in well to the Billericay defence alongside Henry and delivered a mature performance.
Forest Green would be denied no longer, scoring from the resultant set-piece in the 38th minute. A short corner routine between Mills and Collins on the left ended with an inviting far post cross.
Benefiting from the freedom of the six-yard box, Matt Stevens, plying his trade on loan at Slough Town in the National South last season, headed home past goal-keeper Alan Julian. On a lean spell, his fifth goal of the season was his first since 5thOctober.
Unfortunately for Billericay, the phrase related to the bus that “you wait ages for one and three turn up at once” proved to be prophetic as a further double blow was delivered on the whistle.
First, Adams received the ball in midfield and switched play to the left with a searching forward ball for the galloping Mills. In space, he took aim and hit a powerful cross cum shot that arrowed into the Billericay net, somehow evading Julian at his near post.
In added time, it got worse as the League side’s attacking potential down the right flank was fully unleashed.
Bernard picked up possession deep in his own territory and fed Shepherd before launching a lung bursting run forward towards the final third of the pitch.
Spotting an unattended Aitchison in the centre of the penalty area, his quick pass saw the Scottish forward slot a right foot shot past Julian for Forest Green’s third, and effectively killer, goal.
Concerns that the score had the potential to get a lot worse for Billericay were dispelled by a more even second half.
Having seen the stats record 78% possession for Forest Green in the first half, the balance was restored to a more palatable 65% over the whole fixture.
Encouragement for the Essex team’s noisy band of supporters was provided by Sam Deering as a promising build-up ended with the Blues first shot on target at Joe Wollacott.
Despite the cushion provided by three goals, the home side showed no sign of being satisfied. Relentless circulation of the ball continued to maintain possession and control the match.
With Billericay working overtime to hold the League side at bay, Aitchison was soon denied after another Collins cut-back saw a powerful shot blocked by Henry.
It was not until the 64th minute that the Greens would have their final break-through. Picking the ball up from Frear on the left, a recently arrived substitute, a strike from Shephard was heavily deflected off Loft.
Wrong-footing Julian, the ball spiralled up off the Billericay midfielder and finished in the net. With the original shot on target, the strike was credited to the Forest Green full-back who registered his second goal of the season.
As the match progressed, Billericay chances started to flow. First, Jake Robinson claimed a penalty after a coming together with Wollacott. This was waved away by the referee.
On 73 minutes, Moses Emmanuel, on at half-time for Jack Paxman, carved out a chance. Wriggling free in the 12-yard box, he cut inside to rifle a shot off that was finger-tipped over the bar by the Forest Green goalkeeper.
For a moment, the Blues thought that they had a goal to send the supporters home with a consolation. Robinson’s short-range effort brought brief cheers in the North stand as he struck home after a Deering shot had rebounded off Wollacott’s chest and back into play.
Unlike at Whaddon Road, when a similar spillage by the goalkeeper had seen Cheltenham pull back a late goal to ensure a nervy finish, Robinson’s strike was ruled out for offside.
A late long-range Robinson shot safely gathered by Wollacott and the departure of Frear with what looked a bad injury after a sliding challenge were the final points of interest.
With all substitutes utilised, Forest Green played out the final six minutes with ten men. As the whistle blew on Billericay’s cup run, all can take heart that progress was halted by a fine side that fully merits its place in the 2nd round draw on Monday night.
Billericay now look to Tuesday night and the clash with another table-topping side, Wealdstone. With Stones boss, Dean Brennan, and his management team, returning to New Lodge where they once managed, there will be extra spice added to the game.
Expected to field a number of former Billericay Town players, notably the in-form striker, Ross Lafayette, the quest for points is likely to be prioritised over any perceived rivalry between the side.
Billericay Man of the Match: Doug Loft
“A energetic, non-stop performance, Loft competed well against a powerful midfield, dropped back to support the defensive intervening with a series of blocks and tackles. Left everything on the pitch.”