Ten-man Brakes in stunning fightback at home to Darlington
The loss of star striker Matty Stenson was quickly forgotten as ten-man Leamington staged a stirring fightback to earn a well-deserved point at home to Darlington on Saturday, writes Paul Okey.
Brakes even had a gilt-edged chance to make it 3-2 courtesy of Callum Gittings but the second half had already entered the realms of fantasy for the home fans and Jon Maddison was off his line quickly to deny the midfielder.
The home side could count themselves unfortunate to be two down at the break having matched their visitors in an absorbing first half played out in persistent rain.
That they were down to ten men, was not such bad luck, however, Anthony Dwyer receiving a straight red for a reckless challenge which left Simon Ainge writhing on the turf.
The striker, in his first audition to fill the boots of Stenson, had done well to battle his way out of a tricky spot on the right flank but his eagerness to regain possession after it ran free was his undoing, with referee Tom Parsons in no doubt Dwyer should go.
The home side were already trailing 2-0 at this juncture and, with the Quakers breaking with menace, even against 11 men, the second half looked a damage limitation exercise at best.
However, with Colby Bishop announcing his return from long-term injury with a penalty and Jack Edwards firing home from close range, Brakes picked up a point which felt like three at the final whistle.
With Jamie Hood away in Spain, Jack Lane returned to the heart of the Leamington defence, with Dwyer tasked with the lone frontman role following Stenson’s switch to Solihull Moors.
An open start to the game had seen a Josef Wheatley free-kick parried away by Tony Breeden in the home goal and a looping Edwards header cleared for a corner by the retreating Terence Galbraith as it made for the far post.
The visitors took the lead 18 minutes in following a swift break. Luke Trotman slipped the ball inside to Harvey Saunders and, after Breeden got down well to save his shot, Ainge clinically dispatched the loose ball.
Ainge dragged a shot the wrong side of the post before Edwards was presented with a clear-cut chance to level.
Kieran Dunbar’s cut-back was diverted into his path and with time and space to pick his spot, he could only fire straight at the prone bodies of Maddison and a defender.
Breeden was called on to make a smart save from Jordan Nicholson, while at the other end, Dwyer fired well wide from distance.
Dwyer was then picked out well by Dunbar but despite getting a good contact on his header, it flashed just the wrong side of the near post with Maddison beaten.
Brakes were struggling to cope with the pace of Darlington’s counter-attacks and it was from this source that the visitors doubled their lead in the 32nd minute. Stephen Thompson led the break and James Mace’s slip saw him make contact with the ball with his hand as he hit the turf. However, before the referee was forced to make a decision, Saunders swept the ball home.
Dwyer’s sending-off added to the sense of despondency among home fans and it could have got worse as half-time approached, Nicholson ballooning the ball over after Tom Elliot had unselfishly squared to him in the box and the Quakers then wasting a four on two break.
Bishop emerged for the second half in place of Ahmed Obeng and although the game remained evenly matched, there was a sense of inevitability about the outcome.
Thompson was twice off target for the visitors who were then denied a third by a superb save from Breeden who flung himself low down to his right to keep out a firm header from Nicholson.
Bishops shot well wide for Brakes, while a Gudger corner glanced off the head of Edwards and harmlessly out of play.
Lane then recovered well to block Ainge’s shot with his body after his initial mistake had presented the striker with a shooting opportunity.
Reece Flanagan and James Bowen were introduced on the hour in place of Gudger and Joe Clarke. However, it looked more of a nod to Tuesday’s game at home to Kidderminster rather than an effort to get anything from Saturday.
Nevertheless, after Wheatley had flashed a shot just wide for Darlington, the home side were handed a lifeline.
Thompson was penalised after the ball rolled up his arm and Bishop marked his return by sending Maddison the wrong way from the spot.
Flanagan then almost produced a stunning equaliser, reacting quickly to snap up possession in the centre circle and sending an audacious effort over the head of an out-of-position Maddison only to see it drift wide of the far post.
Brakes were back on terns in the 72nd minute, however, Edwards pouncing to fire home from close range after the visitors had failed to deal with a Bowen corner.
With plenty of time remaining, Darlington regrouped and Gittings was forced into a desperate clearance off the line, while Junior English was in well to block a goalbound shot.
Neat interplay between Bishop and Gittings just inside the Darlington box looked to have sent the latter clear to make it 3-2 but Maddison raced off his line to get a vital touch to the dinked finish.
Thoughts of a home win were then locked away in a drawer marked fanciful as Darlington pressed in the closing stages.
Ainge twice had strong appeals for a penalty turned down after being dragged back in the box, his determination to get a shot away probably counting against him on both occasions.
Thompson then forced his way into the box, only to drag his eventual shot wide of the target as Brakes arrested their slide down the table in the most uplifting of fashions.
Brakes: Tony Breeden, Junior English, Connor Gudger (James Bowen, 60), Joe Clarke (Reece Flanagan, 60), James Mace, Jack Lane, Kieran Dunbar, Callum Gittings, Anthony Dwyer, Jack Edwards, Ahmed Obeng (Colby Bishop, 46).Subs not used: Connor Taylor, Tom James.
Darlington: Jon Maddison, Luke Trotman, Tom Elliot (David Syers, 60), Josef Wheatley, Liam Hughes, Terence Galbraith, Alex Henshall (Jonathan Burn, 71) Jordan Nicholson, Simon Ainge, Harvey Saunders, Stephen Thompson. Subs not used: Mitchell Glover, Cameron Hall, Sanny Lingthep.