Unless the coronavirus pandemic takes a totally unexpected turn, Braintree Town’s 2019-20 season is over. Ron Fosker takes a look back at how it unfolded

Braintree Town’s season may have been unique in many ways, but it has a number of uncanny parallels with the 2003-04 season.

Then, as now, the team finished second from bottom.

Then, as now, they had four managers during the season.

Then, as now, they used more than 50 players.

Then only two players who started the first match featured in the last one. This year none of the players who started the first match were with the club at the end.

And in an ironic piece of symmetry, at the end of the 2004 season, the board turned to George Borg, whose return to the club in November, first as assistant to Jake Hutchings and then in his own right, completed the circle.

The uniqueness of the season, of course, is that it didn’t finish. And in many ways all those connected with the club may have wished it had finished earlier than it did.

Having spent some weeks in the play-off places in the heady days of September, they gradually made their way down the table until they reached the relegation places following their defeat at the hands of bottom team Hungerford for the second time this season on February 22.

Hope was raised after an excellent win over second-placed Bath the following week but a last-minute defeat at Billericay and a very disappointing home defeat by St Albans that had Borg expressing his displeasure in no uncertain terms returned them to the bottom two, where they will stay.

Hungerford had a big part to play in Iron’s season. Not only did that second defeat send them into the relegation places, but their decline could be traced back to their first meeting, a 3-0 home defeat that was followed by the departure of manager Glen Driver.

It remains unclear what led to Driver’s decision to quit. He offered the club’s lack of finance as an excuse but he was aware of that when he joined.

A more likely reason is that he had not realised the enormity of the task he had taken on and after a run of only one point in four matches, plus an embarrassing FA Cup defeat at Isthmian League Enfield, he had lost confidence in his ability to lead the side.

What had become clear was that the players Driver had recruited were not in the same class as those that Brad Quinton had put together after the club’s last relegation from the premier division two years earlier when he, like Driver, had effectively lost the whole squad from the previous season.

Two fringe players stayed then. Just Alfie Cerulli, an academy graduate, remained this time – and it was good to see him getting some starts towards the end of the season.

But Quinton was able to get hold of some quality signings: Jon Muleba, Marc Okoye and Ricky Gabriel at the back, Billy Crook, Ben Wyatt and Luke Allen in midfield. Despite their earlier successes, this year’s crop never carried the same conviction.

The writing was on the wall when Adam Mills and Femi Akinwande, their most dangerous forwards, left within weeks of each other in November and were never adequately replaced.

When Driver left, Hutchings and fellow defender Josh Urquhart prepared the team for the next match as joint caretaker managers.

Then Hutchings was given the job on a permanent basis – at 23 surely one of the youngest managers in the league’s history.

Aware of the burden that placed on his young shoulders, the club wisely persuaded George Borg, who had led the team to the Ryman League title in 2006 and Conference South play-offs the following year, to provide back-up from the bench.

To no one’s surprise Hutchings found the burden too great and after three defeats, 6-2 at Welling, 2-1 at home to Southern League Yate Town in the F A Trophy and 4-0 at home to Hampton and Richmond, resigned as both manager and player.

Borg was left to pick up the pieces. But the old magic was not there. Only one point was gained over the next seven matches, including a double defeat over Christmas at the hands of neighbours Chelmsford City, a grievous blow to supporters’ pride.

Up to that point, in the 12 league matches where the teams had faced each other since Chelmsford moved over from the Southern League to the Isthmian League in 2004-05, Braintree had lost only once.

It was towards the end of that one-point run that Borg turned to his contacts in the Football League and brought in loan signings from the likes of Norwich, Southend and Wycombe plus two from Stevenage, courtesy of Alex Revell, one of Iron’s favourite sons, now assistant manager at the Hertfordshire club.

The likes of Liam Smyth, Jack Smith and Jacob Gardner-Smith livened things up a little but not enough.

There were a number of encouraging performances, notably a defeat to fourth-paced Slough, where they deserved at least a point, and a draw with Weymouth, who finished third, where they deserved to win.

But only one win, an out-of-the-blue success at Oxford City, in 15 matches – from November 16 up to the win against Bath on February 29 - told its own story.

Thus it was that Braintree were due to be relegated back into the Isthmian League for the first time since 2006.

Then the coronavirus took over. Subject to appeals, it has been agreed that steps 3-6 of the non-league pyramid will be expunged and there will be no relegation from step 2

And that has produced the final and most welcome link to 2004. In that year too, Braintree finished second from bottom but were not relegated.

Then it was because the Conference introduced divisions north and south, taking away the top end of the Isthmian premier division.

This time the almighty upheaval in normal life has handed Braintree Town an unexpected lifeline.