They huffed. And they puffed. But the Knaphill wall did not come down.
A little under a year ago, Jersey Bulls were comprehensively beaten by Balham in a midweek contest, after which boss Gary Freeman acknowledged his side weren’t quite ready for promotion. He said next year would be different.
And after a third straight league game without a win – this tetchy draw at Knaphill following hot on the heels of a loss against Banstead and a draw at Horley – this Wednesday’s trip to Balham represents an ideal, and perhaps final, opportunity for the Islanders to keep their season alive.
At Redding Way, the Bulls could not outmanoeuvre a defence with the best home defensive record in the division. Jamie Daltrey’s side showed their nous – and experience of the ‘dark arts’ – to claim a seventh clean sheet of the season.
There were half chances for Sammy Henia-Kamau, Lorne Bickley and Jonny Le Quesne in an arm-wrestle of a first half, before a late rally saw Adam Trotter finally force a save out of Jos Barker.
Both sides showed a little more adventure in the final third after the interval, Jay Giles having an effort scrambled off the line, but despite the endeavour and willing there was precious little for a frustrated Lorne Bickley to feed on.
Freeman remains optimistic that his side will be able to reel in second-placed Badshot Lea and claim the only play-off spot on offer, but he tempered it with a note of realism – and a need to win in south London this week.
‘Knaphill are well known for their organisation and stubbornness and we learned when they came to our place [a 1-0 defeat at Springfield in November] that if you give them something to hang on to, they make life very difficult for you,’ said Freeman.
‘We were happy to stay tight in the first quarter and then have a go, though we never really looked like we’d get that goal. Speaking to their management team, they were more than happy to sit in and frustrate and we couldn’t unlock that back door.
‘I think Wednesday represents an opportunity, though. Balham are more of a footballing side and they’ll come out and have a go. And that will suit us, especially our wide players, who want to attack space. That’s not to knock Knaphill’s game plan today, because we need to be able to play against all sorts of styles in this league.’
As the season heads into its final furlong, Freeman was full of praise for current leaders Raynes Park – ‘they’re on a roll and they’ll take some catching now’ – though he remained positive in his belief that Badshot are still within range.
‘I’ve said all along that the teams in the promotion mix would drop points and I still feel that will happen. Maybe less so with Raynes Park, given the form they’re in, but we still have 30 points to play for and there’ll be more ups and downs between now and April.
‘Realistically, we know we have to start winning quickly and consistently to have a chance and Balham is an opportunity for us. It’ll be very tough – I think they’ve not been beaten in the league since October – but we’ve got an incentive and no one in this group will stop throwing everything at it until that final game.’