It was another disappointing night for the Ravens on Saturday as they succumbed to their fourth straight loss since the turn of the year in what was a bitty, stop and start affair against fellow strugglers Squires Gate at the Bowl.
The visitors were well worth their victory however, albeit somewhat flattered by the 4-1 scoreline, and the Ravens were to be further plagued by another spate of injuries during the contest.
Pre game, hopes were high for an uplift in fortunes. Manager Paul Jones was bolstered with the return to the squad of Sean Doyle and Michael Williams. The original plan to start Doyle on the bench was scuppered early Saturday morning however, following Furo Davies withdrawal, and the returning Man on Fire was promoted to the starting eleven.
Also, in from the start was Ravens’ inspirational captain Frank Jones. After three appearances from the bench in recent weeks, Jones was starting his first game for the club since the opening day of the 2021/22 season and replaced Tom Creer at the head of a midfield three, while the remainder of the side was unchanged from the previous week.
Squires Gate came into the game one place below the hosts having struggled of late to find any positive results and had not won a league match since early November. However, if the Blues lacked confidence, they certainly didn’t show it and they started the game on the front foot forcing a first minute (although somewhat dubious) corner which the Ravens initially defended well, but couldn’t clear sufficiently, ultimately giving away a free kick on the right-hand side of the penalty area.
Again, the hosts failed to clear the set piece and a loose ball dropped onto the edge of the box for Squires Gate’s Nathan Cliffe to swivel and drive a right foot shot across goal beyond Wilkinson in the host’s goal for an early lead.
The response from the Ravens was positive however and they were unlucky not to equalise immediately when Whitley’s far post header from Crooks left wing cross was miraculously cleared off the line.
For ten minutes the Ravens kept the visitor penned in their own half, but the Blues settled again and forced Wilkinson into two fine saves away to his left. Then on the quarter hour mark, out of nothing, a bit of magic was created from the Ravens very own Magician, Ste Whitley.
Pouncing on a loose Squires Gate pass five yards inside his own half, Whitley turned, checked, and noting the position of the visitor’s goalkeeper proceeded to hit a superbly shot effort over the latter’s head which nestled nicely in the back of the net for the equaliser. David Beckham would have been proud of it.
At this point the Raven’s faithful probably expected the hosts to gain the upper hand but it was the visitors who continued to look the more dangerous. Firstly through a quick counter attack which again Wilkinson saved away to his left. Then, following another failure to sufficiently clear another set piece (although the Ravens players were adamant that Garvey was fouled) Squires Gate recycled the ball quickly to the right flank and caught the hosts all out of shape. The ensuing pin point cross was expertly headed home by Callum Sandle to put the Blues ahead once more.
Just minutes later it was 3-1. The Ravens attempts to play offside failed and the visitors pounced quickly and following a neat exchange of passes, Cliffe scored his second goal of the game.
Following Whitley’s goal, the Ravens had been poor in possession, often giving the ball away cheaply and the visitors had proved ruthless, but despite being two goals behind, the hosts re-galvanised and came back to life. Now Jacob Crook was playing decent balls into the willing runs of Doyle. Eoghain Sherrard started to terrorise the visiting left back with his pace, and on 33 minutes Jones very nearly pulled a goal back, stealing in at the back post to meet Crooks expert left wing centre but smashed a ferocious shot just wide of the far post.
Just two minutes later however, any momentum the hosts were building was cruelly curtailed. Talismanic striker, Doyle chased another through ball into the left side channel …only to pull up and slump to the ground in pain. A quick check from the Ravens’ physio proved Doyle couldn’t continue and he was replaced by Tom Creer. It has been a nightmare season for Sean. Making his first appearance since the opening day, it was brutal luck to again be hurt so soon into his comeback.
Five minutes later and more injury woes for a returning player. Ryan Burns, making just his second appearance of the season fell to the ground in agony as he changed direction to cover a ball in behind. He was replaced by Jack McVey.
While the first half hour of the contest had been relatively exciting, the last 15 minutes of the half, was blighted by stoppages not just through Doyle and Burns’ injuries but through some fussy refereeing which unfortunately slowed the flow of what had been an open game to that point.
At half time, Manager, Jones made his third substitution, this being a tactical change as Kyle Watson replaced Ronan McDonnell in the midfield.
The hosts started the second period on the front foot, and with Frank Jones now being the spearhead up front in replacement of Doyle the Ravens were a little better in possession and they bossed the first twenty minutes of the period in which the visitors struggled to get out of their half.
Three times Jones caused mayhem in the visiting back line with his direct running causing the Squires Gate defence to frequently back pedal. On one occasion breaking through, he seemed to be barged off the ball for what looked like a sure penalty but the referee waved it away. On another occasion Jones chased down a long ball with a Blues defender, beating his opponent to the ball on the edge of the box only for his toe poke to just go wide of the right-hand post. In between, Jones had seen his back post header from Sherrard’s superb cross go just over the bar.
When Alex Maitland’s header from Whitley’s corner again sailed just over on the hour, it seemed only a matter of time before the Ravens would cut the deficit. However, the game thereafter reverted to a similar vain of the last 15 minutes of the opening period and was blighted with stoppage after stoppage and any flow the hosts had built up was lost, and the team struggled to replicate the same intensity as the opening moments of the half.
There were some half promising forays down either flanks, but clear cut chances were now proving hard to create, although a quick Whitley break with a quarter of an hour remaining resulted in a corner, which subsequently caused some mayhem in the Blues’ defence before Maitland fired just wide of the left hand post.
Thereafter, however, the game continued to be afflicted by stoppages and delays. There were a couple of flare ups between both sets of players which resulted in a spate of yellow cards on both sides, and in the final minute of regulation time, a red card for Squires Gate’s Bartram-Conway.
To add insult to Raven’s injury the visitors scored a fourth goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time after Ryan Moore (excellent throughout) pounced on some indecision at the back to notch a fourth goal for his team.
So a fourth home defeat on the bounce for the Ravens. In the aftermath Manager, Paul Jones despite being unhappy with some elements of the performance and reaction of the players to some decisions, remained relatively upbeat.
“We need to be good enough to not let decisions affect us, and today we let decisions affect us. We need to be better than that.
“(However) We’ll get out of this by sticking together and working hard together as a group. If we start acting like victims and think the world is against us, then we’ll have no chance. We have to believe and work hard and deliver more consistently. We have to go again, and keep that belief and stick together. (I’ve no doubt) it’ll click we just need to (remain) patient.”
Wilkinson – Clark (Kelly), Maitland, Burns (McVey) – Sherrard, McDonnell (Watson), Garvey (Williams), Crook – Whitley, Jones – Doyle (Creer).