Braintree Town secure National League play-off clash with Grimsby with victory over Altrincham
Braintree Town were always in control in front of the BT Sport cameras, as they cruised to a 3-0 win over Altrincham to set up a National League play-off semi-final clash with Grimsby Town.
Danny Cowley’s side went into the televised game needing just a point to secure their spot in the post-season, but two first-half goals from Michael Cheek and a second-half effort from Mitch Brundle saw them ease to a victory which ensured the part-timers finish third in the table.
The result also relegated Altrincham, who were beaten into submission by a Braintree side who never looked like letting the occasion get to them, and now enter the play-offs in red hot form and full of confidence.
While Cheek and Brundle found the net, Simeon Akinola was Braintree’s star man as he had a hand in two goals and was a constant threat throughout, with his silky skill and quick feet too much for the Altrincham defence to handle.
Kenny Davis was Braintree’s dominant force in midfield while the backline never looked under serious pressure, with full-backs Sean Long and Sam Habergham able to get forward on a regular basis.
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Prior to Saturday’s game manager Cowley called for his players to show the watching audience just what his side are capable of and why a team of part-timers are firmly in the race for promotion to the Football League. They certainly granted his wish.
Despite only needing a point to make sure of their play-off place, Braintree’s intention to take all three was evident in the early minutes of the game, as Mark Phillips headed an early free-kick wide before Matt Paine fired an effort over the top.
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Altrincham failed to settle as Braintree gave them little time on the ball and hurried them into making bad decisions, but Josh Ginnelly did manage to get an early effort away which was easy for Tom King to save.
As Braintree began to turn the screw, Davis had a goal-bound effort blocked but it wasn’t long before the hosts were ahead.
With 16 minutes on the clock, Akinola, so often Braintree’s biggest threat, wriggled into the penalty area but could only drag his shot across the goal, but the ball fell perfectly for Cheek who had the easy job of tapping home his 14th of the season.
Cressing Road was rocking, with the Iron well on their way to the play-offs, and it was nearly 2-0 as Habergham’s free-kick was punched up in the air by keeper Tim Deasy, with Brundle only able to head the rebound across the face of goal.
Davis then showed his skill as he dragged the ball past defender Jake Moult, leaving him on the floor, before firing his shot just wide at a stage where results elsewhere had the Iron fourth and set to face Dover over two legs.
Akinola came close to getting the goal his performance certainly deserved as his effort was deflected over the top, but the second goal was soon to arrive courtesy of Cheek.
The hard work came wide on the right through Brundle, as he checked back before clipping in a cross with his left foot, which Cheek guided home past Deasy to send the home fans wild.
There were contrasting emotions at the break as Braintree went in at half-time knowing they had one foot in the play-offs, while results elsewhere meant Altrincham’s already slim hopes of staying up were as good as gone.
Despite being well in control the hosts refused to take their foot off the gas and came out firing in the second period, with Akinola again in the thick of things, before Brundle could only guide Habergham’s cross wide of the post.
As news of Tranmere taking the lead over Grimsby filtered around the ground, Braintree were now up to third, and it was nearly 3-0 as Habergham continued his run into the box following good hold-up play from Cheek, but could only shoot straight at Deasy.
Despite the game being as good as done, Paine was still throwing himself into tackles and, after Braintree won the ball back, goal number three arrived as Akinola skipped to the byline before pulling back for Brundle to slot home.
Akinola kept pushing as he weaved his way through three Altrincham defenders before not quite connecting with an attempted through-ball to substitute Sean Marks, before Scott Leather hammered a rare effort over for the visitors.
As Cowley began to remove his key men from the game in preparation for a big week of play-off football, replacement Taylor Miles fired wide just before the final whistle blew.
The Braintree players were given a huge ovation at the end of the game, but there was a real sense around the ground that this was just the start of things to come.
At the final whistle fans, players and staff alike gathered in front of the Cressing Road Stand for the end-of-season awards presentation, with Paine winning supporters’ player of the year and Phillips and Habergham sharing the players’ player award.
Cowley was delighted to be able to share the moment with the fans.
“It unfolded in front of the fans just as I wanted it to,” he said.
“Last season had kind of fizzled out back then with Alan (Devonshire) having left with two games to go and it was important to do it properly this time.
“It was important to thank the fans because they may be small in number, but they are big in heart and our ground was rocking in that game.”
The Iron now travel to Blundell Park on Thursday night for the first leg of their semi-final clash with Grimsby, with the return at Cressing Road on Sunday.
Forest Green face Dover in the other semi.