by Richard Brook
A season that promised, and indeed deserved so much more ended in Play-Off Final heartbreak for Rugby Town, in the bank holiday sun, at their Butlin Road ground, on Monday. On the day, it was visitors Biggleswade Town that secured promotion to the Evo-Stik Southern League Premier Division, from Division One Central, running out 3-1 winners by virtue of a late brace scored by Paul Barnes.
The first half was a dour, goalless affair that felt as though the nerves and the determination not to make the crucial error, typical of a one-off game with so much at stake, might spoil the contest. There were few talking points in this opening 45 minutes although either side could have snatched the important first goal, as each of the teams went within a whisker of opening the scoring.
Rugby shaded the opening exchanges and might have led through a couple of early half chances. Indeed it was the home side who issued the first serious threat, just after the quarter of an hour mark. The hosts’ corner was only half-cleared by the Biggleswade defence, to Lewis McBride outside the penalty area. McBride took the ball neatly on his chest and unleashed a powerful volley that left Biggleswade keeper Michael McEntegart grasping at thin air. To the home fans disappointment the ball crashed against the bar, rebounding to safety.
The visitors responded in kind with an effort from distance of their own ten minutes later. Rugby’s defence this time clearing to an opponent, in the shape of Biggleswade’s Craig Daniel whose powerful effort stung the palms of home keeper Dave Bevan, as he sprang to his right to push the effort for a corner.
After the break the pattern of play was resumed the game desperately needed a goal if it was to become a spectacle for the bumper 1,126 crowd that had descended on Butlin Road, to be read in the context of Rugby’s previous highest attendance of the season being 358.
The goal finally came, in some style, just before the hour. David Kolodynski, whose movement off the ball was impressive all afternoon, was finally released in behind the Biggleswade back-line. Kolodynski remained cool as he executed a sublime, angled chip to beat the on-rushing McEntegart and find the unguarded net.
Biggleswade’s response was almost immediate firstly McBride had to be alert to clear off the line to preserve Rugby’s lead, then five minutes after going behind Biggleswade levelled from the penalty spot. Barnes sprint into the box was met by what seemed a fair challenge from McBride. The referee did not appear unduly concerned but the assistant referee, who was well placed, awarded the spot kick. Rugby’s players were incensed but Lee Allinson was unfazed and confidently converted the opportunity.
The decision to award the penalty really seemed to affect the mindset of the home side as Biggleswade’s confidence grew, with the visitors failing to convert a couple of half chances, although Rugby always remained in the picture.
The decisive blow was finally struck five minutes before full time. Joel Mason knocked down a cross for Barnes to fire home and send Biggleswade’s travelling support into raptures. Inevitably Rugby were forced to the leave gaps at the back, and there was still time for Biggleswade to exploit this to extend their lead. Exploit it they did as a cross from the left found Barnes on hand, at the far post, to make the score 3-1. The score flattered the visitors if the result did not.
The result and accompanying failure to secure promotion seems scant reward, for the season Rugby Town have had, under the guidance of manager Dave Stringer. Rugby have eclipsed a number of club records during the course of a highly impressive season including most league wins of which they achieved 31, 11 of these were consecutive, accumulating a club record points tally of 96 along the way. The points total out-strips the play-off final victors by eleven. In addition Rugby scored 103 league goals which is another record for the Warwickshire club. Rugby finished second in the table, which allowed them home advantage both in their play off fixtures, but they came very close to winning the division.
The club finished a mere three points behind champions Burnham, who also won 31 matches. The club’s strike partnership of Seb Lake-Gaskin and David Kolodynski have been both lethal and creative, with these players topping both the goal-scoring and assist charts for the club. Lake-Gaskin accumulated 19 goals and 18 assists in 45 appearances and Kolodynski totalled 34 goals and laid on 12 for other scorers in 38 games prior to Monday’s match.
Amidst the immediate and acute disappointment of play-off final defeat, Rugby Town can surely approach the future with confidence to be drawn from this season’s achievements. Ahead of Monday’s final the club tweeted that it was Rugby’s biggest match for 20 years. If the club build on their successes this season and can keep hold of the squad they have, there is no reason to believe that the club cannot emulate or surpass accomplishments in 2013/14.