Frome held their nerve to draw 1-1 and take a critical point at champions AFC Totton, one that keeps the BA11 side in with a chance of play-off football with a game to go. Despite conceding an early goal and being reduced to ten men in the first half, the Robins kept themselves in the game and capitalised when a handball in the box saw them awarded a penalty with a few minutes on the clock. Lewis Graham put away the spot-kick with ease to bring Frome level and allow the support to ponder what might be for another few days yet.
This fixture was finally played at the third time of asking and no biblical meteorology materialised in this last week of the 22/23 season. In contrast to Frome’s winter form prior to the weather-affected abandonments, the last few weeks have been mesmerising watching. It was four wins in four matches since Good Friday and an outside chance of finishing in fifth. Against the odds, this Frome side had found an uncanny knack of stringing victories together at the most opportune moment, but a visit to the Stags on the night that the title-winners would be presented with the Southern League Division South trophy was the toughest ask of all. Lewis Graham, one of the most recent recruits to this threadbare side, came in for the injured Rigg, the only change made to the team that put in such a professional performance in the victory over Paulton.
No doubt the work of the ‘thousands’ of fans, there was a tribalistic, cauldron-like atmosphere at Snows Park, one which amped up after an early misread by captain Sam Teale. The skipper made a rare error when he attempted to head back to Kyle Phillips, but, instead, the ball fell into the path of Scott Rendell. The striker nipped in and put the ball past the keeper, the nightmare start for the visitors.
Other than the defensive error, Frome looked eager to play, winning corners and testing the young keeper, Mack Allan, with fizzing shots. Teale went close with a diving header from a corner before Owen Humphries scurried in from the right and lasered a shot onto the crossbar. A high-intensity start against a robust side and the indefatigable Robins were having to run on fumes. The adverse circumstances did not improve when Jono Davies emerged from an innocuous slide tackle on a Totton player, on account of whose writhing on the turf the referee deemed fit to award Frome’s lynchpin a red card. The remainder of the half was a test, the Frome players doing well to combat Totton’s physicality and their ease in possession. The Stags tried repeatedly to extend their lead through Thomas Wright and Marcus Day. Kyle Phillips made an impressive double save from Charlie Davis’ probing free-kick into the box.
The Robins trailed at the break and, as expected, the going had been tough in Hampshire. Saturday had seen Totton wrap up what has been an unfaltering procession to the title as they beat Exmouth. The home side have been imperious all season, losing just three games in the league and just once since August. Two of those were to second-placed Sholing and the other to Hamworthy in third. To call them a heavy hitter at this level plays their ability down and the challenge of returning with points was significant. The hope for Frome fans was that the celebratory lash and hangover from the weekend and a Southampton Senior Cup Final tomorrow would be enough to shift their thoughts away from the Robin’s visit.
Totton began the second half in much the same way they had ended the first. The champions did push to double their lead but never over-exerted themselves, failing to get out of third gear. Frome, on the other hand, defended with commitment and single-mindedness. Alongside the usual suspects at the back, Jack Witcombe, whose form since returning from injury in February has been outstanding, was involved in at least two pivotal last-gasp blocks.
The arrival of the replacements restored some attacking thrust to the Robins. Ben Starr and Alex Monks‘ arrival gave Frome the edge in possession after the hour mark, the former’s cross looping over Allan in goal and finding the crossbar. Laurent Davis-Wilson was not to be forgotten this season, the hulking striker’s entry with ten minutes left providing another target alongside to Sam Meakes.
A free-kick just inside Frome’s half was assigned to Phillips, whose delivery into the box was handled by a Totton defender and a penalty awarded. A lengthy delay ensued as a Totton player sportingly plonked himself down on the edge of the area and received spurious treatment. But nothing could distract Lewis Graham, the ball in his hand as soon as the whistle blew for the offence. The Warminster Town dual registration was unmoved by the antics, his stone-cold despatch to the right of Allan drawing the Robins level.
Parity had sucked the life out of the majority of those in the stadium, while the congregation of Robins sang their songs. The Totton players were clearly unhappy by the late plot twist, their presentation impending, and took control of proceedings all of a sudden, flexing their attacking brawn. Phillips had to hang on to shots in the box and it was all hands on deck for Frome as Danny Greaves bellowed orders to his side. Sam Teale led from the front, executing a crucial tackle on Marcus Day before Adam Tomasso headed Charlie Davis’ free-kick over the bar and the final whistle was blown.
Evesham’s 3-0 thumping of Bristol Manor Farm yesterday evening and Bashley’s goalless draw with Westbury this evening mean little has changed for Frome - they remain at the mercy of their rivals’ results falling favourably The BA11 support will watch the outcome of Evesham’s visit to Willand Rovers tomorrow evening before the prayers begin for victory at Tavistock in Saturday’s finale. The permutations are mind-bending, but that this squad have given themselves the smallest chance is testament to the steely mentality and perseverance, once again on show when all seemed lost in the first half. Though praise of this new-found determination has been repeated countless times over the past few weeks, whatever the state of play ends up being just before 5 p.m. on Saturday, it has been quite the run of games, a worthy denouement of which to be inordinately proud.
Match report and live updates by Zeb Baker-Smith