NON-LEAGUE FOOTBALL: Lee Clarke strikes late on as new-look St Neots refuse to pass up an opportunity to claim a vital victory
- Credit: Archant
A lot has changed at St Neots Town in a relatively short space of time. The teamsheet and approach today were proof of that.
Just seven weeks after the resignation of David Batch as manager, only five of the many players he signed during his year at the Saints helm featured in a starting XI which now prides itself on slick passing rather than lengthy launches.
It’s a method which certainly seems to be bearing fruit with a performance that was pleasing on the eye backed up by three vital Southern League Premier Division points courtesy of a solitary late goal that sank Paulton Rovers at the Premier Plus Stadium.
The dramatic winner, which arrived with just three minutes to go, was product of new and old as two recent additions combined to tee up a man brought in by Batch 13 months ago.
Peter Clark’s exquisite pass released Cambridge United loanee Jordan Brown down the right. The substitute delivered a cross-shot which fell perfectly for Lee Clarke, who had no trouble in converting from point-blank range.
The breakthrough came during a thrilling conclusion to what had been a largely cagey contest – something entirely understandable given the need for points for a home side nine points above the drop-zone and visitors seven points away from escaping it.
“They are three very well-received points,” said director of football Iain Parr, who directed operations from the dugout with interim boss Andy Davies otherwise engaged at the races.
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“Paulton might be in the relegation zone, but they had some strong players as most sides tend to in this league.
“They were worthy opponents, but we edged the possession and chances, and deserved the goal when it arrived.
“It is a victory which gives us something to build on for the rest of the season. There has been a lot of chopping and changing lately with players going out and others coming in, but we now have the group of lads we want to work with going forward.”
Danny Burns, a second loanee from Cambridge United, is the latest arrival at St Neots. His debut included an important block from a Leon Jeanne shot that had goalkeeper Alex Archer beaten in the second half.
Chances were at a premium for the opening three-quarters of the game with Saints – and striker Drew Roberts in particular - having the best of them.
Roberts did everything but score after 17 minutes, turning past a defender and steering a low shot against a post. His next attempt lacked the power or direction to beat Paulton goalkeeper Ben John after he had been released by a smart Josh Dawkin pass.
Saints did gradually up the ante in the second period following the introduction of the classy Remy Gordon, a wideman whose season has been a virtual write-off due to a broken leg and subsequent niggles.
He laid a deep Ben Burton cross into the path of Clark only for a goalbound shot to be bravely blocked by a defender. Gordon also took the resulting corner and picked out Tom Ward at the back post only for the defender to fail to get a telling connection.
Clarke then swapped passes with Gordon before forcing visiting goalkeeper Ben John into a finger-tip save. The flag-kick that followed again sparked danger as captain/assistant boss Adam Tann could only hit the frame of John with a free header.
It was then Gordon’s turn for frustration in front of goal as his effort was saved by the trailing legs of John and Saints’ own shot-stopper Archer, had to be at his best seconds later when denying Jordan Ricketts as Rovers broke quickly.
Darren Mullings then lashed another Paulton opportunity high and wide before Saints finally succeeding in putting the ball in the net courtesy of Clarke being in the right place at the right time on his return from an injury layoff.
It was just reward for a team whos tuck to their new footballing principles and opted to unlock the visiting defence with precision and guile.
“There are some good lads at this club who want to get on the ball and play,” continued Parr.
“There is a fine line between playing good football and overplaying. We were guilty of the latter on a few occasions during this game, but it is something we will improve on.
“We also have plenty of pace as was evident after we introduced Remy and Jordan from the bench. It was a bit of a gamble to put them on as we needed the game to get a bit more stretched for them to be really effective, but it worked.”
Saints rise into 18th position in the Premier Division standings, but their safety remains far from assured.
However, the ability to collect results against other sides in the bottom half of the table (10 points from a possible 12 since Batch’s exit) should ensure they’re not sucked down into danger.