IT may not sound much, but finishing 17th in the National League South will go down as Braintree Town’s best season since the heady days of the play-off win in 2018, writes RON FOSKER.

Since then they have been relegated from the premier division and twice saved from relegation back to the Isthmian League they left 16 years ago by the intervention of the Covid pandemic.

Relegation looked to be the fate awaiting them this season when they sank to the bottom of the table in October after seven consecutive league defeats plus an FA Cup exit at the hands of Billericay.

Eight defeats in a row was enough to see off George Borg last season, but Ryan Maxwell survived and gradually pulled the team up by their bootstraps, slowly and not very prettily, but ruggedly and eventually successfully.

Just what decided Maxwell and chairman Lee Harding to agree ‘mutually’ that a change of manager was needed will presumably remain behind closed doors, but the inconsistency summed up by the final two matches, an excellent win at promotion-chasing Dartford followed by a home defeat by already-relegated Billericay, must have been a factor, together with the lack of invention in the playing style and an indecisiveness over team selection.

The final two matches were something of a microcosm of the season, which often went in blocks of good performances followed by bad.

It was often the same team, or very close to it, that shone and then drizzled, rising to the occasion against the good teams and disappointing against the lower end of the table.

A creditable draw at Chippenham, who finished seventh, ended the run of defeats and then a win against Tonbridge were just about enough to save the manager his job.

A mini revival was followed by a morale-sapping 3-0 defeat to closest rivals Chelmsford on Boxing Day but then came an excellent performance at home to Dartford where hearts were broken with a stoppage-time free kick equaliser.

After a defeat at Dorking, the team remained unbeaten for seven matches – three wins and four draws – followed by a series of mixed results, including three defeats in a row just when things were looking promising and finally the up and down of Dartford and Billericay.

Criticism of the unvarying use of the long ball was well founded as was the manager’s apparent unwillingness to trust his more artistic players.

Ezra Ikebuasi, possibly the most skilful full-back at the club since Sam Habergham, was mysteriously frozen out and Gio Crichlow, the most inventive of his forward line, was never certain to make the starting line-up until well into the season.

A total of 53 players turned out in competitive matches as Maxwell struggled to find the right blend.

What he never found was a reliable goal scorer. Iron’s total of 38 goals – below one per match – was the lowest in the division.

Femi Akinwande often looked the part but never entirely convinced and left for Billericay in December, while the returning Tom Derry, excellent in the air, lasted only nine matches.

Adam Morgan, Chaynie Burgin and Dejon Noel-Williams were all given a try in the No.9 shirt but were found wanting, and Maxwell decided to put his trust in Luke Holness, despite a lack of inches that did not suit the long ball game.

At the back, though, Iron performed solidly, with Kyran Clements, the supporters’ player of the year, and Luke Pennell, who made the most appearances, often holding everything together, so much so that they conceded only one goal more than the teams in second and third places.

It is a solid platform for the next manager to build on – if the key players can be persuaded to stay.

Not only does the club have a limited budget, it also had the lowest attendance figure in the division, which at 364 was lower than 27 teams in the four divisions of the Isthmian League.

With such limited money coming through the gate there may not be enough to prevent richer clubs tempting many of the team to move on.

As always, Iron fans will be keeping a close watch on the news pages and social media to see if the close season will be like most close seasons of recent years and see an almost complete turn-round of players.