Bridlington Town 2
Retford United 2
THE disappointment at the final whistle was obvious - but Bridlington Town didn’t forfeit the title here. Bizarrely, they lost it on the opening day of the season, not on their final day.
And the man who got their season off to a bad start, also played a big part in ensuring the end didn’t go to plan either.
At Maltby Main on day one, Lee Mellon opened the scoring for the home team. Town went on to lose 3-2 in South Yorkshire, and the last-minute winner, and the two points dropped, came back to haunt the Seasiders.
Fast forward nine months and Mellon, now a Retford player, emerged as a half-time substitute to bolster the Badgers’ midfield and play a key role in a sturdy second half rearguard action which meant Bridlington rarely looked like finding a winner.
It could have been worse. Retford looked like pulling off the ultimate smash-and-grab raid, but Billy Logan’s 90th minute equaliser meant the visitors would not have the cruel pleasure of lifting the league title on their nearest rivals’ turf.
Bridlington had 16 corners to Retford’s four and 26 shots compared to seven - but the visitors scored from two of their three efforts on target.
The Seasiders certainly fought hard, Logan’s goal clinched the 34th point they have rescued from losing positions this season.
But the three points dropped at Maltby, who only escaped relegation in their final game, and two more which were surrended meekly at bottom club Selby, who only just amassed enough points for a driving ban, were where the title was decided.
Town settled well early on, in the knowledge that only a win was good enough. Once Craig Palmer had made a smart block in the first 60 seconds as Carl Snowden swivelled, they looked the better team.
Craig Hogg’s first sniff of goal was extinguished by keeper Jason Fisher, who also dealt with a long range effort from James Bennett. At the other end Mark Wilberforce comfortably dealt with Ricky Chambers’ dipping shot.
Then on 14 minutes, the breakthrough came. Tom Fleming’s shot was deflected over the bar and from Ash Allanson’s corner, Craig Hogg beat Fisher to the cross and headed in at the near post.
Already looking composed, the goal settled Brid even further. Hogg’s shot from the edge of the area was tipped over by Fisher, Allanson was off target with another attempt and Fleming was chasing all over the pitch and bossing midfield.
But Brid couldn’t get the crucial goal and were made to pay on the half-hour mark. Strikers Carl Snowden and Karl Slack linked up well and the ball was played out to the right flank. Adam Colton’s shot was blocked by Frank Belt, but the ball bounced back to the winger and he squared to Carl Snowden who clinically swept the ball into the far corner.
The pendulum had swung and for the rest of the half, it was the team in yellow who looked more in control.
That is not to say Brid were overwhelmed by their task. Fleming made a powerful run into the area but his drive skimmed the side netting, while Hogg twice went close to doubling his tally.
Firstly, his free kick was deflected on to the roof of the net, and then he latched on to a quick throw-in and almost lobbed Fisher, who dived backwards to recover well.
Josh Greening kicked thin air when Hogg sent him clear, and Hoggwas denied by a good save from Fisher after bennett’s great through ball, but the linesman’s flag was up anyway.
Half time arrived with the destination of the winners’ medals no clearer, but there was one significant development. Mellon, a huge figure, came on to replace Adam Scott in midfield. Retford were happy with what they had and their gameplan was to hold on to it.
They packed the centre of midfield, kept two banks of four behind the ball and were content to show why the had the best defensive record in the division.
Could Town break them down? Hogg tried, taking the ball round Fisher out wide but he was unable to engineer a chance. then his cross was cut out before it could reach Greening.
Roles were reversed soon afterwards as Greening did well to win the ball back near the corner flag but Rob Austin made a vital interception as Hogg was lurking on the six yard line.
Having soaked up 20 minutes of pressure, Retford struck swiftly and clinically. Having shown little attacking interest since half time, suddenly Colton cut Bridlington’s defence open with a precise pass, and Karl Slack beat Wilberforce to the ball, nipped round him and tapped into an open net.
Cue wild celebrations. Bridlington had a habit of getting out of jail from two goals down this season, now they needed two goals in 25 minutes against a very, very good team.
They almost needed three in 20 minutes. Warren Hatfield had the ball in the net from a corner but referee Tony Peart had seen either a push on Wilberforce or a handball. It looked harsh, a big reprieve for the Seasiders.
On game Logan and Robbie Hawkes for Bennett and Chris Jenkinson, who had been excellent in defence. Logan could have scored with his first touch but Danny Hayes made a great block. Retford always seemed to have somebody in the right place at the right time. It was not a coincidence, it was the sign of a well-drilled unit.
Greening glanced a header wide, Logan dragged a shot off target and Hogg produced a tame effort straight at the keeper. Time was running out.
With 10 minutes left, matters should have been finalised. A long ball out defence found sub Carl Haslam. He cut inside Palmer but got too flashy, trying to chip Wilberforce when there was no need to show off. The ball drifted wide, it wasn’t yet finished.
Mitch Cook urged his side on, kicking every ball and contesting every tackle from the sidelines.
Town forced a series of corner after corner in the last 10 minutes, and Fisher was looking like the most nervous man in the ground.
From their 15th flag kick, keeper Wilberforce sprinted forward to join the attack. The ball floated over his head but fell to Billy Logan at the back post and he smashed a shot which hit Chambers in the face on the line and bounced into the net.
All 11 of Logan’s league goals have been in the second half and eight had been in the last eight minutes of games.
This time though, there was no time to celebrate, a draw was only likely to delay the inevitable for a few days.
A long free kick should have sailed through to Fisher but he inexplicably dropped the ball at Greening’s feet and it was scrambled away for corner, which came to nothing.
Who knows where the six minutes of injury time came from but it gave Town a chance. That chance fell to Hawkes who forced a decent save from Fisher at his near post, although the shot was heading the wrong side of the post.
It was an enthralling game, packed with drama, but you would struggle to find anyone who thought Bridlington deserved to win. They dominated possession, but could not unlock an excellent defence early enough in the second half. Had they scored 10 minutes earlier, Retford could have been rattled.
But perhaps the most telling feature was that Bridlington’s best players were their defenders, when they needed their more creative players to be at their very best.
Who knows what happens now? Retford are due to face Thackley at home on Tuesday in their final match of the season. A win gives them the title.
Will Retford take promotion? Will Bridlington be offered the place? Retford looked like the type of team Bridlington will have to outwit most weeks in the Evostik League. It will be no easy task.
But that is for the future. In the meantime, credit to Mitch Cook and his team for an entertaining season, with far more highs than lows.
But the shadow of that August day at Maltby Main will always hang over this campaign.