THE F A CUP PROVIDES THE HIGHLIGHTS IN ANOTHER CAMPAIGN OF LEAGUE DISAPPOINTMENT
A REVIEW OF THE 2011/12 SEASON
Town's officials, players and supporters were still celebrating their success in lifting the Polymac Services League Cup.at Walsall's Bank's Stadium to end the 2010/11 campaign on a triumphant note when Morton Titterton declared that "preparations for the new season start here".
And he meant it.
Apart from picking up that trophy in his first managerial term he had also seen his side display Championship winning from over the second half of their MFA campaign with only three defeats in 27 League outings from which they had taken an impressive 58 points. No wonder the inevitable pre-season optimism had more than the usual confidence and substance behind it this time round.
Determined to ensure that there would be no repeat of the shambolic pre-season presided over by Rod Brown 12 months previously he immediately set about completing his playing squad,. Those that he wanted to keep were persuaded to stay - notably Sam Alsop who was targeted by amongst others Rod Brown at Stourport Swifts - but he also had to deal with the loss of two key members of the Cup winning team, with the classy left back Tom James being snapped up on a professional contract by Watford and pacy wide man Rob Thompson-Brown returning to Kidderminster Harriers.
A goalkeeper was another priority. Nine different keepers had featured in the previous season, and a confident and consistent stopper was a necessity if Town were to progress.
The usual programme of pre-season friendlies was arranged beginning with an away fixture at Leamington and concluding with the visit to the DCS of another Southern Premier League side in Stourbridge, and in spite of the inevitable mixed results a strong looking line-up seemed to be taking shape.
Tom Cross from Corby Town had arrived in goal, with the experienced Adam Cooper adding quality to the centre of the defence and Jamie Coleman being given the opportunity to take over from James at left back, while newcomers to midfield and attack were Ricky Baker, Nick Pollard and Josh Blake - all experienced players at MFA level or above.
And Town fans had the ideal opportunity to see how their new look side would fare in a competitive match before the League programme started because Town - as League Cup winners - took on last season's champions Coalville Town in the traditional MFA curtain raiser for the Joe McGorian Cup.
Neither side could manage a goal on a baking hot afternoon but in the deciding penalty shootout it was Cross who emerged as Town's hero by not only saving a Coalville spot kick but taking and scoring one as well to give Town the boost of a trophy winning start.
But as soon as the League season began everything - as usual - went wrong. For the second season running Town's opening fixture was at home to a newly promoted side, and Heather St Johns followed the example of Dunkirk 12 months previously by heading home with all three points. Amazingly this was the sixth season in a row that Town had failed to win their opening game.
A midweek 4-2 success at Studley seemed to have got Town back on track, but the following weekend they crashed 3-1 at Tividale - another promoted side - and to add to their woes both Adam Cooper and Sam Alsop were sent off.
And their disappointing start continued as a DCS win against Alvechurch was followed by a home defeat to Atherstone Town - in which the popular midfielder Mark Faulds clocked up his 250th Town appearance - which meant that after five matches their record of two wins and three losses was identical to that of the previous season under Rod Brown.
A fourth defeat soon followed as Rocester took advantage of a missed penalty by Pollard and a sending-off for Karl Fellows, before the August League fixtures were concluded two days later with a DCS draw against Coventry Sphinx on Bank Holiday Monday.
So from their first seven League games Town had taken only seven points, and were already in the lower reaches of the League table where they were destined to remain until a late flourish lifted them into the top half in April,
But while everyone was despondent about League form the F A Cup was providing a welcome respite. Nuneaton Griff had been brushed aside 7-0 in the Extra Preliminary Round in mid-August, and the first weekend in September Town edged past Coventry Sphinx 2-1 to set up a First Qualifying Round trip to Newcastle Town.
By now Coleman had been found wanting at left back and replaced by Baker, while after the Rocester game Richard Morris had taken over in goal from Cross, but it was Morton Titterton's next signing who was to make an immediate impact.
Between the Coventry Sphinx and Newcastle Town Cup games Town visited Kirby Muxloe in the League, and Ben Mackey came on as a second half substitute. A goalscoring favourite at Leamington as well as being the youngest ever scorer at first team level for Coventry City Mackey was endeavouring to recover full fitness after a broken ankle, and he soon added to his legendary status with Town.
He was in the starting line-up at Newcastle a week later, and no-one who was at that game is ever likely to forget it. Town took an early two goal lead only for an Anthony Malbon double to level the scores before Town responded to lead 3-2 at the interval.
In worsening conditions Town were battered throughout the second half with Malbon - who was soon to be snapped up by Kidderminster Harriers - hitting another three with his fifth goal of the game in the final minute of normal time giving Newcastle a seemingly unassailable 5-3 lead.
But Mackey pulled one back in the first minute of added time, and to the unrestrained delight of the travelling Town faithful Stuart Herlihy swept in the impossible equaliser with just seconds remaining.
And the fairy tale continued in the replay as a Mackey hat-trick propelled Town to a 4-0 half time lead. Mackey then added two more after the break to equal Malbon's five goal haul in the first game and his place in Town folklore was firmly established.
Next up for Town was an F A Vase tie with Southam United which Town made rather heavy weather of before winning 2-0, but it was back to the F A Cup the following weekend when Town pulled off one of the best results ever when coming from behind to see off the once mighty Stafford Rangers 4-2.
Trailing 1-0 at the break Morton Titterton sent on Josh Blake as Mackey;s strike partner and it was an inspired move as Town turned the game on its head to deservedly reach the Third Qualifying Round for only the third time ever - all during the last eight seasons.
A side comprising mainly of fringe players then exited the Birmingham Senior Cup as a late penalty gave Redditch United a 1-0 win before Town returned to League action after a four week break with a comfortable win over Coleshill Town.
So Morton Titterton's side travelled to Kings Lynn for the next Round of the F A Cup intent on making history by reaching the Fourth Qualifying Round for the first time ever. A typical piece of Mackey magic gave Town a 1-0 half time lead but in a pulsating second half the teams were locked together at 2-2 until a scrambled late goal sent the Linnets through.
That proved to be Adam Cooper's last game as he departed to take up the Assistant Manager's role at Bedworth United, but even without him Town were confident of making further F A Vase progress a week later when Racing Club Warwick were the visitors to the DCS.
But this was an afternoon which developed into a total embarrassment. Town missed chance after chance as they dominated the opening half hour and then pressed the self destruct button as in the closing three minutes of the half they allowed the Racers to score twice - the second a penalty - and also had Stuart Herlihy sent off.
Putting in an abject second half display Town never looked like getting back into the game, and two more Racers goals only added to Town's humiliation.
Suddenly they were out of three Cups, and with a defat at Dunkirk and a DCS draw with Causeway United in the next two League outings emphasising that this was once again not going to be Town's year in the MFA it was only the Polymac Services League Cup which now offered any realistic hope of silverware this time round.
And disconcertingly - after having a bye in the first Round - their opponents in the Second Round were Westfields who they had beaten in the Semi Final last season and who were now at the top of the MFA table, but Town knuckled down to display all the commitment which had been absent against Racing Club Warwick to give their hopes of retaining the trophy a real boost with a 3-2 success.
That win seemed to do wonders for Town's onfidence, and they won their next three League games against Kirby Muxloe, Bridgnorth Town and rock bottom Willenhall Town.
Suddenly the impossible dream of heading towards the top of the table was revived, but a trip to Coventry Sphinx brought everyone back to reality. By now Sphinx had replaced Westfields in top spot and inside a quarter of an hour they had raced into a two goal lead eventually winning 3-1.
Town recovered to slam six past Studley in their next outing, but their remaining three games before Christmas brought home draws against Tipton Town and Gresley either side of a depressing defeat at Heather St Johns, and any thoughts of promotion were now well and truly over.
All this time the squad was undergoing constant change. Nick Pollard and Tom Cross had both followed Adam Cooper to Bedworth, while after the Kirby Muxloe game Ben Mackey moved on to Evesham United, and Josh Blake's final appearance before switching to Daventry Town was against Tipton Town.
Coming in the opposite direction was accomplished defender Dan Parker, who made his debut against Gresley and was then an ever present for the rest of the campaign, and striker Joe Wright who had played for Town under Lennie Derby and was now back in England after a spell in the USA.
But it was in midfield where Town's resources were really stretched. Sam Alsop was by far their most creative player until he strained a ligament in the warm-up before the Southam Vase tie which was to keep him out for 15 matches. He reappeared as a substitute against Heather St Johns and played against Gresley - and scored both Town goals - before going off with an even more serious ligament problem on Boxing Day at Highgate which ruled him out for the rest of the campaign.
There is no doubt that his absence had a major impact on Town's performances.
Craig Attwood had joined as his replacement and instantly looked the part but made only four appearances commencing with the game at Dunkirk before also being out injured until then moving on, but it was not all bad news as Michael Hayden returned after an injury absence stretching back to last season.
Due to a combination of poor weather and fixture rescheduling Town had only one game in the four weeks following the Gresley encounter which was the Boxing Day trip to Highgate United. In a tempestuous clash Andy Grtegory was red carded and - as already mentioned - Sam Alsop's season came to a premature end as Town edged to a narrow 2-1 win.
When the League programme resumed a DCS win over Rocester which featured Stuart Herlihy's second sending off of the season was followed by two away draws at Loughborough University and Heath Hayes.
Neither were particularly classic encounters but they were far better than Town's next outing at home to struggling Bridgnorth Town. This was almost "Racing Club Warwick" revisited as Town put in a performance which Morton Titterton was honest enough to admit was "unacceptable". Richard Morris became the seventh Town player to be sent off this season as the Shropshire took full advantage of Town's shortcomings to clinch a welcome 2-1 success.
The only bright spot around this time was the emergence of several players from Town's burgeoning youth system. Nathan Edgington - until his switch to Highgate in March - and Joss Holford from previous year's Youth teams were pretty much regular members of the squad, and were joined by keeper Sam Brady, left back Jordan Ward and striker Jamie Molyneux from the current table topping side.
The arrival of a spell of Arctic weather at the end of January meant Town were then inactive for two and a half weeks with the "frozen off" games including the Polymac Services League Cup quarter final at Studley which was still just about keeping Town's season alive.
When the weather relented Tividale - who may well have had at least one eye on their forthcoming F A Vase tie - were brushed aside at the DCS, but title challenging Westfields showed how far Town were from being a genuinely top side with a comfortable 2-0 success which was Town's fourth home defeat of the season
A draw at Causeway followed before three games which between them effectively ended Town's season. The first was a daunting trip to eventual Champions Gresley - including a introduction to Elvis - which featured a first start for Youth team keeper Sam Brady in place of the suspended Morris, but Brady's performance was the only bright spot in a dreadful game which the home side eventually struggled to win 2-0.
Next up was the delayed Cup clash at Studley. Morris was back and it was all looking good for Town as they reached the closing stages leading 1-0 through Stuart Herlihy but in a game changing last six minutes the Bees scored twice to progress into the semi finals. Everyone connected with Town was left devastated and Studley's over raucous post match celebrations made for a sour end to the evening.
Four days later Town's woes continued as they lost at Al;vechurch - wih Joe Wright now playing for the Lye Meadow club - in a game notable for an injury to Joss Holford which led to a 40 minute suspension in play while an ambulance was called - fortunately the injury was not as serious as first feared and Holford was back playing four weeks later.
However this game also marked the last appearances of Nathan Edgington, Danny Haynes and Martin Thompson as Morton Titterton introduced James Travis for an extended run up front with Molyneux now making regular appearances from the subs bench.
Fortunately the fixture schedule came up with rock bottom Willenhall Town for the next game which gave Town a comfortable 3-0 morale booster and they followed up with wins at Atherstone and Coleshill. The latter game gave Town a first look at 19 year old Chris Lait who was easily Coleshill's best player and a fortnight later he was making his Town debut at Westfields.
In between Town had lost again at the DCS with Dunkirk taking the points but had recovered to beat Boldmere in a rare Thursday evening home fixture.
Most Town supporters were apprehensive about the trip to Westfields, but Town dug deep to put in a hugely spirited display which looked like earning them a well merited draw until a controversial refereeing decision five minutes from time led to Westfields grabbing the winner. Morris collected his second red card of the year for giving the referee the benefit of his opinion while Coach Paul Eden was banished from the dug-out and Michael Hayden was red carded after the final whistle as the afternoon ended in recriminations all round.
"The best side didn't win this game" lamented Morton Titterton afterwards and it was hard not to agree that Town had been very hard done by.
A week later - on Easter Sarturday - Town couldn't cope with the silky skills of the Loughborough University students as they lost at the DCS for the sixth time, but with Lait now settling in impressively - and being seen as a replacement for the much missed Sam Alsop - and Tom Dyke coming in at right back Town ended their season with a flourish winning five of their last six beginning with four on the bounce against Highgate, Ellesmere, Tipton and Heath Hayes..
Disappointingly though the one they didn.t win was their final home game when relegation threatened Ellesmere arrived with a much changed team from ten days previously. With Town turning in a lifeless display Ellesmere were deserving winners as the season at the DCS ended in a deafening silence.
Town then wound it all up with a win at Boldmere to end in 8th place in the table - a fair few places higher than had seemed likely for most of the campaign.
The F A Cup had provided the season's best moments with the two games against Newcastle Town and the euphoric win at Stafford Rangers, while the low point had to be the F A Vase debacle against Racing Club Warwick.
But it's the League which is always the most important, and once again it provided only frustration. With no outstanding team this time - and certainly none of the calibre of past Champions such as Chasetown, Leamington or Barwell - this was definitely an opportunity missed.
It's all very well to finish strongly - and Town seem to be expert at that - but the need is to begin positively and have a decent middle as well because a strong finish would then really mean something.
That has to be Town's aim when the new term kicks off in August - but how many times in the last few years have we said that ?
Review compiled by Bryan Hale