Going to second-placed Cheltenham looking to extend our seven game unbeaten run was always going to be a tough test, given that our hosts had been knocked out in the play-offs by Northampton last season and for most of this campaign they have been in and around the automatic promotions spots. The fact that coming into the match they had won just three of their previous seven games including surprising losses to Mansfield and Barrow and a draw at Grimsby, should have fooled no one, this is a team that might be functional in approach but one that will more than likely be plying its trade in the third tier next season.
Ahead of the game a lot of the pre-match discussion centred on Ben Tozer’s ridiculously long throw that had caused havoc at home to fellow promotion hopefuls Tranmere Rovers the previous week, directly or indirectly having an involvement in 3 of their 4 goals. For Orient’s part they were going to have to stand firm at the back in the face of such a potential aerial assault. Thankfully for the O’s Dan Happe was fit enough to retake his place in our rear-guard, as we were going to need all the height back there that we could muster.
Our only other change to the line-up saw Hector replace Ouss Cissé who hadn’t recovered from the knock that saw him come off at half-time against Walsall on Easter Monday. The lack of significant rotation in terms of personnel another suggestion that Jobi seems to have settled on his first-choice squad through to the end of the season.
Right from the start of proceedings at the rather intriguingly named Jonny Rocks Stadium (apparently they’re chauffeurs rather disappointingly!), the hosts made their approach abundantly clear: they were going to lay siege to Orient’s penalty area through long balls and Tozer’s menacing delivery from the touchlines. We were only five minutes in before we were treated to the first of these: a high looping ball that caught the wind and caused Vigs to turn the ball over his crossbar, in theory their corners were likely to be less dangerous than throws in our half!
For all their pressure pinning us back, Cheltenham were wasteful with the relatively few chances that they created, as we didn’t so much stand firm as hang on and try to weather the storm. We survived for half an hour until Vigs somewhat rashly clattered into Andy Williams (readers of a certain vintage insert your own joke about the American crooner of the 60’s playing for the opposition!) in our area after another long ball over the top and referee Bramall, quite rightly it has to be said, pointed to the spot. Thomas calmly slotted the spot-kick away for 1-0, a lead that we could hardly argue wasn’t deserved even if we were slightly unfortunate in the way it came about.
The second half followed largely the same pattern as most of the first, with us not under too much pressure but struggling to establish ourselves from an attacking point of view. Once again it seemed as if the front four were cut off from the rest of the team and we struggled creatively.
We can all understand that Jobi has prioritised trying to make us harder to beat, but as so often happens when a manager or coach is trying to shore up the defence, we seem to have lost something going forward. It is a point that Peter Kitchen made in his regular column in the Yellow Advertiser, saying: “We are playing a system that might make us look more solid defensively, but doesn’t offer the team enough going forward.” Equally if we think back to the late autumn of 2017, when Justin took over from Steve Davis, that stunning 4-1 win over Sutton United aside, there were a few games where stabilising the defence meant we lacked cutting edge at the top end of the team.
We did fashion a very decent chance ten minutes into the second half when Dan Kemp’s in-swinging free kick found Wilko’s head only for Griffiths in their goal to turn it over the bar. That was about all we did muster by means of a threat however. On the face of it losing by a single goal, and a penalty at that, to a side that put themselves top of the table with that win is far from a disgrace but it did impact on our play-off aspirations.
Going into Tuesday night’s game at Harrogate we sat in twelfth place, four points off the coveted seventh spot. By no means an insurmountable gap but one that to be overcome would most likely require us picking up maximum points from our remaining six matches. Harrogate Town sitting in 17th place and having not won since early March looked like a perfect opportunity to start the hoped-for late promotion surge.
Ahead of the match, the pictures of Wetherby Road resplendent in the evening sunshine sparked a pang of sadness amongst Mrs Football Nerd and I in thinking back to a different time and a different world when a trip to North Yorkshire and a few pints at the local hostelries, even if it had to be outside, would have made for a superb awayday. (Note to selves: assuming Harrogate stay up and dependent on the fixture list, hopefully next season may provide the opportunity to put that right!).
Once again Jobi’s changes to the line-up were minimal with him bringing himself in for Joe Widdowson and Brophy dropping back to left-back and Tunji Akinola replacing Jamie Turley, whose first half performance at Cheltenham was shaky to say the least. It did of course mean a switch back to the 4-3-3 shape that the manager feels is more suited when he plays.
It gives me no joy to admit it, given that Orient twice went into the lead only to be pegged back by the hosts each time, but it was actually a very watchable and intriguing game of football. So much better than some of our recent attritional matches.
We very nearly opened the scoring early on when Dan Happe just couldn’t get to a wicked in-swinging free kick from Dan Kemp. It may have taken him a little while to start making his mark in the team, but Kemp’s deliveries offer real quality and we need to find a way of exploiting them more effectively. That chance and a couple of decent opportunities wasted by Harrogate aside neither team was able to fashion too much of a threat in the first half and I found myself reflecting on that lack of creativity and the spark that seems to have gone missing from our play.
I needn’t have feared too much however as immediately after the break Wilko set off on a charge from halfway before cutting inside and firing a shot that the keeper, Belshaw, probably should have done better with but that found its way into the back of the net for 1-0. It was encouraging for us to try something different in attack rather than the sideways and backwards passing that we have seen so often recently, and even if the keeper should have done better it reaped dividends.
We could and probably should have doubled our lead moments later when Wilko
Set up Craig Clay only for the captain to see his shot blocked by a scramble of defensive bodies. It was however Harrogate that found the net next when we simply let Dan Jones wander unmarked into our penalty area and onto a Thomson free kick that he nodded home from close range, maybe he didn’t have enough time to react but I for one wondered if Vigs could have been stronger?
However just five minutes later we were back in the lead when Thomson headed a ball weakly towards his keeper only for DJ to steal in, as he has done so often, get to the ball first and slot it home. An encouraging response but alas it wasn’t to be enough. First Dan Happe brought Muldoon down in the box and the referee pointed to the spot for the second penalty conceded in two matches. Unlike Thomas’ effort on Saturday for Cheltenham Muldoon’s attempt was closer to Vigouroux and at a comfortable height for our keeper to push away. Then no more than a minute later Hall sent McPake through and somehow his scuffed shot found its way through our defenders and past Vigouroux for an equalizer.
There was a very late header from DJ that went straight into the waiting arms of Belshaw and with that went any chance of the 3 points. As always, settling for a draw after leading, twice in this case, is a bitter pill to swallow but this also felt very much like the end of our play-off aspirations for this season.
Qualification for the play-offs always felt like something of a long shot after the poor run of form earlier in the year, but now even with the gap still just four points there are three teams between us and the coveted seventh spot, all of whom have a game in hand which may make it a dream too far with just five games remaining. Although the final two of those matches are against Carlisle and Salford two of the teams in our way, so perhaps we shouldn’t write Jobi and the boys off just yet, as a famous man once said: “Football is a funny old game”, and you just never know what might happen!
Up the O’s!