Braintree Town mid-season review - by Ron Fosker

THE Vanarama National League South table on Christmas Day was something of a collector’s item.

Five teams stood level at the top on 39 points.

If not unique, such an alignment must be in the upper reaches of rarity.

The following day’s results were fairly typical.

On the day that Braintree drew at home with Chelmsford, second-placed Havant and Waterlooville and fifth-place Hampton and Richmond also drew – and leaders Dartford would have joined them but for a last-minute goal at Welling.

It was an illustration of what has been clear most of the season, that there is no outstanding team in the division.

Certainly no Manchester City, but no Salford City either.

The leaders of the National League’s north division enjoyed their Christmas on 50 points, six better off than second-placed Harrogate, and 11 better off than the top of the south division.

The south division has, in effect, offered a challenge to any team to put together a decent run.

And that is almost any team in the top half.

As well as those five teams on 39 points, the next three were on 36, one of whom had a match in hand.

If things continue as they are, any team that can string together a solid series of results could soon find themselves clear of the chasing pack.

Could that team be Braintree?

Why not?

Well, a tighter defence would be a start.

While they are the division’s second highest scorers, they have the highest goals-against tally among the top eight.

They also need to avoid carelessness, like the under-hit pass that led to Truro’s only goal in the 1-1 draw in November.

But that has to be set against some occasionally exhilarating midfield play and thrusting forward runs like the exchange between Phil Roberts and Roman Michael-Percil that led to the first goal against Chelmsford on Boxing Day.

Or the move involving Billy Crook, Roberts and Karl Oliyide for the first home goal of the season against Dartford.

That sort of skill, together with the determination they have shown on a number of occasions to come back from losing positions, as in all three of their matches over the Christmas period - in marked contrast to some past years - has led supporters to realise that they might after all not be the relegation fodder that many had expected.

They have already twice matched Dartford, the pre-season favourites, third last year and a club with an average attendance of 944 - 356 higher than Braintree - as well as Chelmsford, fourth last year and an average attendance just below Dartford’s.

It had not looked promising.

The whole of last season’s relegated team had left, together with manager Hakan Hayrettin.

Almost without exception, supporters on social media called for the return of Iron stalwart Brad Quinton, the club’s record appearance holder, who had been sharpening his managerial talons at Enfield.

The club’s board were of the same mind but both they and Quinton made it clear at the outset that with a reduced budget, options were limited.

Patience, they urged, would be required.

That did not induce optimism with fans only too aware that double relegations, particularly of teams playing above their expected station as Braintree with their meagre attendances undoubtedly had been, were not uncommon.

Altrincham had just proved that by finishing bottom of the north division a year after coming down from the premier division – and a similar fate is clearly awaiting North Ferriby, well adrift at the bottom of the north division this year.

That it has not worked out like that is a bonus.

That the team is vying for honours is a double bonus.

That they are doing so playing attractive football is a treble bonus.

It is one of the game’s ironies that the team under Alan Devonshire, one of the most cultured midfield players of his generation, were much criticised around the grounds, and at Cressing Road, for their route-one long-ball game, whereas Brad Quinton, with his reputation as a hard-man midfield destroyer, has produced a side that like to play football.

Quinton’s reputation in fact is an unfair one.

He could certainly mix it when the going got tough but, particularly in his later years, he was also the one who would put his foot on the ball and look to play the telling pass along the ground.

And that is what his team have been doing this season.

It can be frustrating when the ball is passed constantly around among defenders, or when a promising move is blocked and the ball is passed backwards. But that is part of the mindset: do not give the ball away cheaply, look for the right pass, even if it means hanging around for a bit.

And when it evolves into the kind of moves described above, it can be explosive. There have been many more where both the excellent ball control that nearly all the team appear to possess – killing a pass made at speed to feet has been a hallmark – and the speed of movement, particularly of the likes of Roberts and Michael-Percil, have led to goals, or at least goalscoring opportunities.

Roberts has been the main source of goals and was at one point the division’s leading scorer.

He went through something of a dry spell but came back in Alastair Cook style with a double against Eastbourne, followed by his classy strike against Chelmsford on Boxing Day.

Part of his barren time can be explained by Quinton’s decision to put him out wide for a few matches, an example of the manager’s continuing search for the right line-up.

With a small but talented squad, Quinton has made sure that most of them get some game time and rarely plays the same team twice, nor the same format, switching from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, to 5-3-2 and more recently to 4-1-2-1-2, with Christian Frimpong taking on the ball-winning role that Matt Paine used to play so effectively and Michael-Percil in the hole behind the front two.

The main question for the second half of the season is whether the brilliance can outnumber the bungles, the fluency make up for the fallibility.

As Quinton has frequently pointed out, this is a young squad, learning on the job and too much should not be expected too soon.

They only need a few more points to be clear of relegation worries.

Anything else will be the icing on a pretty nourishing cake.