By Ian Dunnett
In the first competitive game since December 8th, Hertford turned in a rusty display on Saturday, forfeiting a two goal lead in the second half to slip to a 3-3 home draw with Chelmsford 2nds.
Hertford had an experienced looking side with only one junior squad member in their ranks. Mike Branford came for the absent James Rollins, and Ben Van Rooyen replaced Ewen MacPherson up front for only his third appearance of the season.
The Christmas break had obviously been well spent by both sets of players and with neither side able to show much quality in the opening exchanges.
It was a Chelmsford mistake that led to the first goal, as a defender didn’t get enough height on his intended aerial, with Scott Apps intercepting it on it’s way up. Apps played the ball infield to find the run of van Rooyen, who was forced to turn his back to goal by a recovering defender, but managed to get a shot away on the turn, with the ball nestling in the bottom corner beyond the keeper’s right foot. Despite 23 goals last season, this was van Rooyen’s first of the current campaign.
Hertford were buoyed by the goal and began to apply some pressure. Darren Norman could have doubled the advantage on two occasions. After good interplay by his strike partners he was afforded plenty of space at the top of the circle, but on both occasions his swing didn't make a good connection.
The hosts were made to pay for their lack of sharpness when Chelmsford drew level before half time. Hertford lost the ball trying to play their way out of defence, leaving a striker free at the top of the D to pick his spot and fire beyond the left hand of Tom Smith in the Hertford net.
The hosts reasserted themselves after half time, changing their defensive shape to neutralise the Essex outfit's wide players and playing the ball with a little more pace, patience and precision.
The focus and tactical switches paid dividends as Hertford scored two without reply. Industriousness by Adrian Fileczki and Ian Dunnett down the Hertford right fed Scott Apps at the top of the circle. Afforded too much space, Apps continued his goal-scoring run, clipping a deliciously dipping shot into the bottom corner.
With Chelmsford still reeling, and with a slice of good fortune, Hertford struck again. Nick Downer fed Apps in midfield, and despite the striker's best attempts to play a one-two with the player-coach the ball twice came back to him off Chelmsford defenders. Finding himself now inside the D, Apps notched up a brace with a solid flick onto the backboard for his 26th of the season.
van Rooyen could have extended the lead five minutes later, when jinking his way in from the left, inexplicably putting his shot straight at the keeper, and then the South African turned provider, setting Norman in the clear, but he was forced too wide by the on-rushing keeper and couldn't find an angle for his shot.
With only 15 minutes to play, Hertford lapsed in concentration and allowed their opponents back into the game. A quick exchange of passes on the left of the Hertford D created room for a cross which somehow evaded Smith's left boot and Simon Halfacre at centre back, leaving an unmarked forward to tap home to make it 3-2.
The best move of the game should have sealed it for Hertford moments later. Slick passing tore the Chelmsford defence open, resulting in Apps playing a first time ball to Arthur Twyning. The youngster let the ball run across his body to take the goalie out of the equation, but with most of his team-mates trotting back to the the halfway line thinking they had already scored, Twyning somehow got the ball caught in the hook of his stick, reverse-flicking his effort across the goalface and wide of the far post.
With most of the team still looking at the sky in disbelief, Chlemsford struck again to level the tie. A fast break down the left and cross to the back post found an attacker. Jamie O'Sullivan seemed to have won possession but was unable to clear, with the shot on target rising over Smith's shoulder as he slid out.
Hertford sacrificed a defender in search of a winner and had the best of the chances in the final minutes. Apps had a drag-flicked effort stopped by the post man, and scrambled away, and in the dying seconds a lung-busting drive down the right side and cross by Fileczki, somehow squirmed under the stick of Dunnett.
The Stags were seemingly not the only ones feeling the effects of several weeks off, as rivals Bedford and East London also dropped points.
Now in third place Hertford will be looking to get back to winning ways at Blueharts this weekend, who they beat 7-2 in the corresponding fixture earlier in the season.
Hertford - Tom Smith; Elliot Barling, Simon Halfacre, Ben Tootell, Mike Branford; Ian Dunnett, Nick Downer, Adrian Fileczki; Arthur Twyning, Scott Apps, Darren Norman. Subs: Jamie O’Sullivan, Ben Van Rooyen.