Updated: Mar 19
Frome Town received a reality check after they fell to defeat at the hands of league leaders Sholing. On a mild afternoon at Badgers Hill, clinical attacking plays and first-half goals from Jono Davies and Joe O’Loughlin looked to have the laid foundations for a statement victory, but injuries, fatigue and a rudderless second-half performance from the Robins saw Sholing score the three goals needed to maintain their lead at the top.
Danny Greaves has had cause to discuss his injury concerns continually this season, a persistent headache with which he and his squad have had to deal. Ever since Matt Smith’s departure from the pitch minutes into the opening game of the season, a plague of hamstring issues and ligament damage has haunted this squad. The gaffer’s hand was forced as the reliable midfielder Alex Monks missed this game with injury while James Ollis and Ben Withey were not deemed fit to start. The absence of senior players gave an opportunity for those returning to the lineup, but the threadbare state of this squad is becoming increasingly worrying. Injuries aside, a feel-good factor among the Frome faithful had been building over the last few weeks in light of some encouraging displays. The performance away at Wimborne will have given the players a considerable boost. Though they rode their luck early on in the second half, the fact that the Robins had overcome adversity had been mightily encouraging.
The absence of players who had been key in that victory appeared not to faze the starters. Though Sholing appeared to have scored in the first few minutes, their free-kick headed in only for the linesman’s flag to be raised for offside, it was the returning Jono Davies who drew the first blood in the contest. The playmaker’s cut into the box allowed him to whip a shot in and off the post into the bottom right hand corner. Many of Frome’s most memorable results this season have been built on fast starts such as today’s and midfielder Owen Humphries found himself one-on-one with Gosney in the Sholing goal a couple of times but was ultimately unable to test the keeper.
Sholing looked timid when facing up to Davies, Rusher and Humphries’ intricate runs in attack, but it was Joe O’Loughlin, fresh from his call-up to represent the English Universities side, who added another after twenty minutes, his second in consecutive games. The midfielder collected Davies’ chip and a touch bought him past the defender and into the box, his shot, low and to the left, struck too well to give the keeper a chance. On the ropes and retreating into their shells, the visitors resorted to witless challenges and, at times, Frome were drawn into the theatrics and handbags that ensued. Overall though, it had been another encouraging half for the home side, another display of clinical finishing and joie de vivre in attack as the sun shone.
A half-time lead secured, but could the Robins topple the league leaders from their perch? Despite their impressive season, questions have been raised whether Sholing had run out of steam. It has been a tricky March for the Southampton-based side who had gone winless in the last month. Their local rivals, Totton, though they have a few games in hand, have narrowed the gap at the top to just three points. Form aside, the Boatmen posed a significant challenge, having been defeated four times this season in what has been an ultra-competitive division, in which only the top four sides have a loss tally still in single figures.
The title at stake, Sholing were not going to just roll over in submission. Five minutes into the second half, a needless challenge from Conrad Essilfie-Conduah led to a Bradley Targett free-kick on the right. Whether meant as a delivery or a shot, an early feint of a run left Phillips wrong-footed, the ball missing all and sundry and bouncing in at the far post.
It was soon apparent that Frome had lost the impetus of the first half. Another forced substitution at the break, another victim to the dreaded hamstring tear, this time Reece Rusher taken off for Ben Withey. Frome toiled in their efforts to slow down play and avoid panic. But the signs of fatigue were obvious and a makeshift midfield including defenders Jago Thompson-Roberts and O’Loughlin lacked the tools to subdue Sholing. The set-piece has been a cause for concern and, on the hour’s mark, Lee Wort bundled the ball in amid chaos in the box for the equaliser.
If Rusher’s injury had been a blow, Sam Teale’s departure from the field was fatal. Thompson-Roberts’ return to the backline triggered a miscommunication. The teenage defender’s pass back to Phillips was a gift to Wort whose shot forced its way beneath the oncoming keeper. The damage had been done, Sholing too savvy to relinquish their current grip on this division, and there was little chance for Frome to find a way back into the match.
If the prospect of play-off football was shining faintly in the build-up to this tie, it has been dimmed today. The list of the wounded continues to grow and is unrivalled. The players’ application over the last few weeks should not be questioned and (should the numbers be mustered!) the Robins have a fantastic opportunity to show the best version of themselves and make a statement ahead of Bath City’s much-anticipated visit on Tuesday in the Somerset Premier Cup semi-final.
Match report and live updates by Zeb Baker-Smith