Bognor’s bosses have challenged their players to overcome setbacks caused by injuries and referees to claim an against-the-odds play-off spot.
The Rocks slipped back down to eighth when they lost 3-2 at home to Tonbridge on Saturday in a game decided by a controversial – and very soft – penalty. But they are up to fourth again today after an excellent 2-1 win at Merstham.
Ahead of the trip to Merstham, manager Jack Pearce and Robbie Blake both pinpointed poor refereeing decisions and team changes brought on by a stream of injuries as reasons for the team’s inconsistent form.
But both said neither of those factors was an excuse for bad defending and inconsistent results – and stressed it was down to the players to keep up the promotion fight.
Bognor are the Bostik premier’s top-scoring team with 60 goals from 29 matches. But it’s their conceding of 42 goals that’s held them back from cementing a top-five spot.
Against Tonbridge, the Rocks conceded after 21 seconds then led through goals by Brad Lethbridge and Jimmy Muitt. But Tonbridge hit back to level – then won it for a slight push in the back on an Angels player by Joe Tomlinson in the second half.
Pearce was upset with the penalty award that led to Tonbridge winning. He said it might be technically correct to give a foul for an arm in the back but added: “In reality if that’s how you judge a penalty then I would argue that every corner would result in a penalty or a free-kick. It’s a soft penalty but it’s a major decision that didn’t go for us.
“In the second half I don’t think Dan Lincoln had a save to make and it all rested on a referee’s decision.
“We didn’t play well. We got two very good goals early but we’ve had four home games now where we’ve done okay but the defending has been criminal.
“That’s 41 goals we have conceded. The hardest thing in football is scoring goals and if you’re conceding goals it makes your job very difficult. We concede too many soft goals and it’s been going on for five months.”
Bognor have had six different centre-halves injured this season – three of whom are still out – and Pearce admitted: “It doesn’t help having the number of centre-halves we’ve had to use. You don’t get consistency when you’re chopping and changing the centre of your defence.
Pearce said the division remained very open and felt up to eight or nine clubs wouldf be vying for the final couple of play-off spots. But he added: “Until we sort our defending out we won’t be in the hat.
“It will be a major help with Calvin Davies and Keaton Wood coming back from injury but we might have played too many games by then.”
Coach Blake was fuming over the Tonbridge spot-kick: “I’d probably say in 25 years in football that’s the worst penalty decision I’ve ever seen. But I don’t think we can blame the referee for our performance.
“We’ve put ourselves in really good positions to stabilise the play-off push but every time we’ve done that we have been beaten.
“Some of the players have to be applauded because they’ve played every single minute and not had a break, because of the injuries we’ve had.
“But we’re coming up short. You can’t tell me Tonbridge are a better football team than us. But they were more physical and they had more men.”
Blake highlighted the lack of communication in defence that led to the Rocks conceding after 21 seconds and said the two Rocks goals and the fact they suffered no new injuries were the only positives to take from Saturday.
He said it felt like every step forward with a victory was followed by one back like the Tonbridge result.
“We could have put ourselves six points clear of Tonbridge with a win, but we keep conceding abysmal goals and nothing’s changing,” Blake said.
“We’ve not had a settled back pair and our right-back is injured. We’ve put Harvey Whyte at right-back but without him in midfield we are a weaker team.”
Defenders Wood and Davies could be back in the side around the end of February – in time for the visit of Worhing on March 2. Bu t winger Mason Walsh (hip) and striker Jimmy Wild (knee) are not likely to return soon.
Young midfielder Liam Brady made his Bognor debut as a substitute and Blake felt he acquitted himself well, and challenged him.
Bognor entertain 16th-placed Hornchurch on Saturday - with all eyes on whether they can follow up an away win with something similar at home.