In arguably the most incredible game in living memory at Church Road and certainly the most incident packed United game ever, after 103 minutes of pulsating football, honours were even as Braintree Town's promotion hopes were dented.
There was little sign of any of the mayhem to come in the first quarter of the match, a period in which Braintree dominated, obviously eager for three vital points. Alessio De Angelis was on hand to save high to his left from Chris Sullivan's shot after Lee Burns had found him in space and James Hawes was inches wide with a long range shot after Nevin Saroya had half cleared Bradley Quinton's corner.
A Quinton free kick a minute later deflected off Toby Little and just wide of the goal and Steve Perkins was positioned well to block Adrian Deane's goalbound effort. As Sullivan again shot just wide having found a lot of space to run into on the right hand side, it seemed only a matter of time before Braintree would score.
It seemed certain in the 23rd minute, when the first bizarre incident formed the catalyst for the rest of the game's mayhem. Burns dispossessed Danny Allen-Page and managed to skip past De Angelis but was losing control of the ball under duress from Allen-Page. Sullivan took over to seemingly score into an empty net but contrived to smash the ball against the underside of the cross bar. De Angelis caught the rebound but as he attempted a quick clearance, Allen-Page, seemingly annoyed not to get a free kick from the build up swung his arm out and connected with the ball whilst standing in the penalty area. This went unnoticed by referee Oleksandr Saliy who despite vehement penalty protests from several Braintree players, waved play on.
Immediately, play switched to the opposite penalty area, where Staforde Palmer was clean through on goal only to be felled by Ian Cousins to concede a penalty. Many expected a red card for a professional foul but Mr Saliy deemed the award of the penalty enough punishment. Palmer converted the penalty kick himself, low to Nicky Morgan's left.
A minute after that, Will Hendry fouled Quinton who threw a punch in anger and connected with Hendry's face. For the second time in two minutes, many expected Mr Saliy to produce a red card, this time for Quinton but instead he chose to book Hendry for the challenge and Quinton for unsporting behaviour.
These judgements were to have a profound effect on the rest of the game. After Palmer had tested Morgan with a strongly hit 20 yard volley which the tall keeper did well to get down to, Adam Thompson tripped Andy Porter in the penalty area after Burns had been tackled by Saroya and it was Quinton who was to convert the resulting penalty, sending De Angelis the wrong way.
Kieran Knight went in search of the lead once again and was just wide with a wicked curling effort just past the post, and Palmer again brought a diving save out of Morgan. Knight soon got his goal, as in first half stoppage time, he collected Will Hendry's corner via Ram Marwa's lay off to fire into the top corner.
It took just three minutes of the second half to elapse before another controversial incident was to affect the game. Saroya seemed to be pushed whilst attempting to head a long cross clear and when Mr Saliy blew to stop the game most were expecting a United free kick. Instead he gave a Braintree penalty for a handball despite no appeals from any Braintree players, fans or officials. After lengthy protests, Quinton was able to step up and score his second penalty.
It wasn't long before one of the goals of the season lit up the game. From fully 30 yards, Knight smashed the ball into the goal at pace to restore United's lead.
On the hour, with the wind, rain and sleet unrelenting, slide tackles were coming thick and fast. United thought they'd got a free kick for a foul on Hendry but play was waved on. Immediately, Perkins appeared to be knocked off the ball and again play was waved on until Peter Collins slid in and committed a foul which he was booked for, despite further appeals from several United players about the two preceding challenges.
Allen-Page got forward to good effect on 64 minutes and fired a shot just across the face of goal and Morgan again saved from Palmer as United had their best spell of the game. Garry Haylock gave a debut to youth team graduate Ollie Fayed, on for Toby Little and United pressed for a fourth goal strongly. Braintree showed their frustration and several players reacted angrily towards Fayed for a mistimed challenge which he was booked for.
However, all the wind was to be taken out of their sails when for another in a long line of sliding tackles, Peter Collins was again penalised and booked and therefore sent off. Six minutes later, Mr Saliy produced a second yellow card to Fayed. On the edge of the penalty area, Fayed appeared to lose his footing and caught Richard Jolly. Despite ongoing protests from several United players, Mr Saliy's mind was made up to reduce the home side to nine men.
Braintree thought they had nine minutes to turn their fortunes around and piled on the pressure. Jolly smashed the resulting free kick against the post and his one-two with Hawes almost created the equaliser, but he shot straight at De Angelis.
Two minutes into injury time, the pressure of having two extra players told. A left wing cross from Cousins caused confusion in the United box and the ball squirmed out to the edge of the box where Ryan Moran ran in and smacked the ball through the crowd into the top corner of the net.
At this point, United were obviously struggling to hold onto their point, only they didn't realise just how long they'd have to hold out for. In the seventh minute of stoppage time, Jolly crossed to the far post where Hawes was waiting and his sharp turn allowed him enough room in the six yard box. He seemed certain to score but De Angelis pulled off a remarkable block to deny him and the ball was scrambled clear. Two minutes after that, with Braintree piling players forward, they were very nearly caught on the break twice. First, Will Hendry galloped clear only to be thwarted by the advancing Morgan. Then, Joel Ledgister turned the last man and zeroed in towards goal on a diagonal from the left touch line. His pass to Hendry was precise, but Morgan did brilliantly to keep his effort out. Still there was time for Braintree to go close again. A Jolly cross was flicked on by Hawes to the back post where Moran seemed certain to score but his header just cleared the cross bar.
And yet in the twelfth minute of stoppage time, United broke again through Saroya, Ledgister and Allen-Page, this time Saroya was left with the task of scoring but his header under pressure failed to test Morgan.
In the fourteenth minute of stoppage time, the game was finally ended amidst chaotic scenes as everyone attempted to unravel just what they had witnessed. Kieran Knight was the man of the match for our matchday sponsors, Scales & Son Grab Hire.
Report by Nick Bell. Photos by Ray Peploe.
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