The new Southern League Premier Division season may be just around the corner but Leamington keeper Tony Breeden can still remember the conclusion to the last one vividly, writes Paul Okey.
Brakes looked all set to bounce back to the Conference North at the first attempt when they led hosts Hungerford 1-0 at half-time of their play-off final at Bulpit Lane.
However, a leggy second-half display from the visitors saw them penned back for lengthy spells, with goals from Stefan Brown and Mike Jones condemning them to a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat.
“It was horrible,” said Breeden who had scored a penalty in the dramatic semi-final shootout win at Redditch.
“But I don’t think it was a case of one game too far.
“In the first half I barely remember touching the ball.
“We got the goal and at half-time sat in the changing room we said it was exactly what we came for.
“In the second half they played their hand. The pitch was like a beach and we were constantly slipping over – I think I slipped over ten times.
“They are used to playing on that pitch and they bombarded us.
“They are a good side – the one side we didn’t want to play away from home.
“Looking at it, though, eight or nine of our players had never played in a play-off final before.
“The first half we played the occasion and maybe we burned ourselves out.
“Hopefully, this year we can skip the play-offs and go up automatically.
“But if we have to go through the play-offs again we’ve now got the experience.”
Brakes’ run to the play-offs followed a topsy-turvy campaign which had seen them leading the table as late as November before a poor run of form left them down in 11th, nine points adrift of the top five towards the end of January.
And while Breeden dismisses the assertion that Brakes over-achieved in the first few months of the campaign, he feels that with five new signings and the bulk of last season’s squad retained, the club is better equipped to sustain a title challenge this time around.
“Robbie Thompson-Brown has been excellent in pre-season and Darren Pond is class with his touch and movement.
“It’s something that we lacked last season.
“We had a good start, with Ben Mackey on fire.
“But this season we have a bit more guile and a bit more steel.
“Last season, if Ben Mackey didn’t score you wondered where the goals where coming from.
“This season we are a bit more balanced. Lots more people can chip in with goals.”
Despite Brakes’ lack of attacking threat – only three five sides scored fewer in the division last term and three of them were relegated – the defence remained resolute with just 38 goals conceded in their 46 matches.
That resilience saw Breeden named in Pitchero’s Divisional Team of the Year alongside left-back Connor Gudger, with the 28-year-old also named Brakes Players’ Player of the Year and in the running for the Reusch Non-League Goalkeeper of the Year.
However, Breeden said the individual accolades are scant consolation for missing out on the Conference North.
“I don’t care as long as we get promoted.
“I don’t set targets.
“I was nominated for Non-League goalkeeper of the year last season but I didn’t care – it was nonsense.
“Well, not nonsense, it was an honour obviously, but our job was to go up and we didn’t do that.”
However, despite the lingering disappointment of defeat at Hungerford and a host of admirers higher up the Pyramid, Breeden says there was never any danger of him jumping ship.
“A few people were on the phone but as soon as the season finished I went around to Paul’s house and said I didn’t want to go anywhere.
“I’m happy at Leamington, I love playing for them and I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”