Frome Town lost a thrilling 4-3 encounter to Tavistock and, heartbreakingly, fell short of fifth-spot and an opportunity for promotion after results went against them elsewhere in the division. Both sides required victory and an extraordinary period of fifteen minutes in the first half reflected this do-or-die attitude. Goals from Sam Meakes, Jono Davies and Alex Monks meant the Robins were always within touching distance. However, a shock 3-2 win for Evesham over champions AFC Totton meant that the result was ultimately inconsequential and an Alex Battle winner consigned the BA11 side to an eighth-placed finish.
The final act in this the last day of an electrifying 22/23 season saw Frome still in the hunt. In what could be considered the clash of the weekend in the division, both teams had a shot of making the cut if they could get a win. Swarms of Frome fans had made the long journey to West Devon more in hope than expectation, but the numbers suggested there was clear belief. For this date with destiny, Danny Greaves made a couple of changes to the line-up that so admirably fought to gain a crucial point at Totton. Penalty hero Lewis Graham retained his place in the defence and Alex Monks was deemed fit enough to start from the offset in place of Mitch McCann.
It was just over two weeks ago prior to the Good Friday clash at Slimbridge that the ‘r-word’ was being used by the more cautious of the fans. Since then Frome had gone unbeaten in five, four of those victories as well as a precious draw in the champion’s backyard, and had hardly been in better form this season. The tense final moments in midweek had given the BA11 fanbase the sense that destiny was behind them and no doubt that was the conviction of the fifty or sixty Frome fans in the stadium as Sam Teale led his side out in their blue kit.
One could be forgiven then for feeling deflated after the first ten minutes, the scrappy and disjointed nature of the opening exchanges an anticlimax after the anxieties of the build-up. But when Jono Davies and Owen Humphries manoeuvred the attack down the left, the latter’s dink into the box missing Zak Drew and staying out of reach of a recovering defender, striker Sam Meakes made sure he was there, taking his time before slotting the ball into the corner.
The chants of ‘We are the Dodge’ had barely erupted when the home side equalised in style on the fifteen- minute mark, Eddie Harrison striding through Frome’s half and leisurely letting a shot fly from outside the box past a diving Phillips. Just six minutes later, Harrison turned provider, his dash down the right allowing him to cross accurately and Tom Burns to finish, leaving behind Witcombe after the wing-back slipped on the sodden turf.
The Lambs’ third was struck by Liam Prynn soon after, the top scorer in the division this season and scourge of many a defence including Frome’s against whom he scored four goals in November. Tavistock’s quick free kick found the Frome back line napping and the striker found no difficulty in slotting the ball home. Three down, it seemed that this final game, Frome’s seventh in April, was one too many for the visitors, but Jono Davies was not to be outdone, his turn-and-shot curling in and clipping the post before the ball dropped into the back of the net to restore the Robins’ hopes.
The defence were all at sea and the midfield run uncharacteristically ragged, handing opportunities to Tavistock’s attacking unit. Harrison was given space to run the ball into the box and the opportunity to attempt a repeat at his opener, nobody willing to dispossess him. Prynn once more had the ball in the net but the offside flag was raised, one of several throughout the afternoon. A late first-half substitution saw Owen Humphries replaced by top-scorer James Ollis after a clash of heads, the striker forcing a save as the whistle blew for the break.
Tavistock could hardly have entered the contest in poorer shape, winning just one of their last six league games. The Lambs had conceded seven in their last two outings and were hope that such leaky defending was merely late-season nerves as they aimed finish in the top-five. Our hosts had occupied the play-off positions for most of the season, but now, sitting on 55 points just one ahead of Frome, results having deserted them, a win was similarly pivotal to their hopes of going up in successive seasons. Both sets of supporters at Langsford Park today kept more than an eye on results elsewhere. The Robins needed a victory over the Lambs, but also required champions Totton to beat Evesham and Bashley to drop points at Paulton Rovers.
These permutations at half-time were irrelevant though with the Robins trailing. Just as Danny Greaves had said in the midweek, today was about Frome delivering on what they could control, a similar performance and work-rate to those they had shown in recent weeks and this would have been reiterated at half-time. His side’s tails were up as play resumed, Ollis tapping the ball into the net after Witcombe’s fine build-up and Monks’s devilish cross before the flag-happy linesman adjudged the striker to have been offside. As the rain pounded down, Frome hammered at Tavistock’s door, though the Lambs looked dangerous on the counter-attack.
Tavistock’s Alex Battle found a clear entry point into the box, but Kyle Phillips saved well with his knees. His clearance out to Drew allowed the forward to run the ball into the Lambs’ territory and win a corner. Amid a crowded box, Alex Monks headed in at the front post, gathering up the ball to go again. The Robins’ equaliser had been deserved but, against the run of play, Tavistock soon went ahead, their fourth a deflected goal from Battle and a bitter knock to Frome’s play-off dreams as the defenders’ stunned heads fell.
Replacement Reece Rusher, on his surprise return from a hamstring injury in March, had more crosses in his cameo than any player in blue had for the duration, one divine delivery met by a near-miss as Meakes slid in at the back post. Frome lacked late inspiration for the most part, faced by staunch defending from their hosts. Oak in goal looked for a second to have punched the ball inexplicably into his own net, and it was that mirage of an equaliser that will haunt the fantasists among the fans. Paulton’s injury-time winner at home to Bashley added to these wildest of dreams, but ten-men Evesham’s second-half comeback and late winner mean the ‘other’ Robins will be the recipients of the final play-off semi-final spot.
In contrast to Tuesday’s elated applause of the travelling fans, there was a distinct sense of what-might-have-been, a wistful air as the players acknowledged those who had made the long trip down to Devon. Despite our joyous disbelief at an extraordinary comeback or an unlikely last-minute winner, all of those freak moments that make no comprehendible sense, we forget that football is a game that repeatedly complies to what is expected and, when something is too good to be true, it often is. The subconscious debates that Frome fans will have had with themselves over the last few days can be put to rest now. The narrow defeats near-misses and dropped points, Rusher’s hitting the bar against Bashley, the two-goal lead over Larkhall at home squandered, those incidents will haunt Frome fans over the summer break. But the last couple of months, those consecutive victories, Davies’ winner and subsequent supporter love-in on Easter Monday, Graham’s penalty and the salvage job to spoil the Totton party, moments when players have stuck their hands up and demonstrated the required dedication and determination, those will be the touchstones when the Robins go again.
Match report and live updates by Zeb Baker-Smith