By Ron Fosker
CAMBRIDGE UNITED 1
BRAINTREE TOWN 0
Blue Square Bet Premier
TWO steps forward, two steps back.
After their excellent wins over Southport and Forest Green, Braintree lost the second of their two successive games against their near neighbours to drop back into the relegation zone.
This was a more combative effort than their surrender on Boxing Day and in many ways was a mirror image.
On that occasion they matched their opponents up to about the hour mark before drifting into oblivion.
This time it was the opening period that was the problem.
They started as if they were still at the previous night’s Hogmanay celebrations.
While the home side sprayed the ball around constructively, Iron could not find first gear, let along second, third or fourth.
They were so slow to the ball that they gave away numerous fouls through attempting to play the ball when it had already headed off on its passage.
Sam Habergham and Kenny Davis were booked – as were Matt Paine and Sean Marks in the second half.
But it could have been almost any of them.
It was their good fortune in this period that Cambridge could not find the penetration to match their possession.
The closest they came was when Danny Naisbitt had to tip over a long shot from Andy Pugh.
But as the crowd sat back waiting for goals, Iron at last found their rhythm.
For the final 20 minutes or so of the first half they showed renewed zest and began to string a few passes together.
They continued in that vein after the break, with the introduction of James Mulley giving them added invention and speed.
Unexpectedly left on the bench in favour of Ryan Watts, Mulley came on for the injured Habergham four minutes into the second half.
Watts moved back to left back and Mulley set about ensuring that right-back Kevin Roberts had some work to do.
For the first half hour of the second period, Braintree looked the more likely scorers.
Paine had a shot charged down, Dan Holman shot wide after a neat turn and Marks ended a smart Braintree move with a shot off balance.
But they could not get the breakthrough and instead the decisive goal came at the other end.
And as on Boxing Day it was Michael Gash, on loan at the Amlin Stadium earlier in the season, who was responsible.
He picked up the ball after Liam Hughes had worked his way past Ryan Peters and smashed in a drive that Naisbitt got a hand to but could not keep out.
Iron almost equalised within two minutes when Mulley laid the ball back to Holman but the striker was caught in possession and the chance was lost.
It was Dean Wells who came closest when his strong header at the far post had to be pushed round by Craig Ross.
There were appeals for handball in the penalty area in the dying minutes, but the referee was not persuaded and the final attacking flurries came to nothing.
Braintree: Naisbitt; Peters, Wells, Massey, Habergham (Mulley 49); Daley, Paine, Davis (Sparkes 84), Watts; Marks, Holman.