In a highly competitive game between two teams who have rarely lost in recent months, it was Tring Athletic who emerged 1-0 winners at Second Meadow courtesy of a debut goal from young centre half David O’Connor.
The result ends United’s nine match unbeaten run in the SSML Premier, which stretched back to early November, and sees them drop below their opponents in the table and into 13th.
Although the result was ultimately disappointing, the performance won’t be unduly concerning for Head Coach Cristian Colás and his coaching team with the accomplished display of the visitors the more prevalent factor in deciding Saturday’s contest.
It was the home side who did the early pressing with powerful winger Lucas Joyce reaching the byline on the left hand side before his tame cut back failed to pick out a teammate.
Athletic were restricted to limited possession by their hosts and were lacking precision in their passing as they seeked to break out of their own half.
They produced their first effort of the game when the lively Kieran Turner saw his volleyed shot go wide after a punched clearance by Michael Johnson in the United goal presented him with the opportunity to strike. Turner was involved again moments later as he fired a shot low straight into the gloves of the grateful Johnson.
The away side continued to look dangerous and Sam Joliffe came closest to breaking the deadlock when he latched onto a free kick from the right hand side, only to side foot his shot wide of the far post.
Following that mild spell of pressure United were given a reprieve when Mohammed Hashim found space on the edge of the area before whipping his shot over the bar. They couldn’t build on that chance ,however, as a combination of misplaced passing and ponderous decision making saw Colás’ men struggle to use the ball effectively and create openings.
But they almost found a route to goal when Nick Elliot’s free kick came tantalisingly close to beating Athletic keeper Matt Evans, only for the woodwork to deny him a third goal of the season before the defender cleared. The resulting corner bounced of a few heads in the area before trickling out for another corner on the opposite side, which was sent into the side netting.
The visitors responded with a moment of genuine quality as top scorer Chris Vardy delivered an exquisite cross with the outside of his boot to the back post where Turner was waiting to head home, but for a superb save as Johnson tipped the ball over the bar.
That glorious chance for Athletic preceded a period of domination for the home side with Joyce using his pace and trickery to full effect once again as he powered his way to the byline before seeing his cross intercepted. It was the final ball that appeared to be hampering their progress as some neat build-up play culminated in Cookman being put in behind the stern Athletic defence, but the cross failed to locate a red and blue shirt- not for the first time today. The pressure continued to mount and Elliot almost provided an assist for Adam Drakulić when his cross was met by the diminutive winger, who couldn’t quite leap high enough to get his head over the ball.
The pressure exerted by United waned as halftime approached with the visitors creating a couple of chances and perhaps had the right to feel aggrieved after not receiving a penalty when Nyasha Sagwete challenged Luke Dunstan in the area, before Turner scuffed a shot harmlessly wide. Prior to that Turner had yet another opportunity when he found space in the area following a well constructed counter attack, but he dragged his shot wide of the far post.
Athletic altered their tactics slightly in the second period as they adopted a more direct, pragmatic style in a bid to secure victory. Their style may have been adapted but the most prominent facet of the game remained the same as Turner continued to be left frustrated in front of goal as his placed effort veered just wide of the post.
Enrique de Lucas then entered the fray in place of Elliot, who hadn’t had his usual influence on proceedings. The former Chelsea player rarely features for the first team so it’s always a treat for the United supporters when the experienced ex-pro takes to the hallowed turf of Second Meadow.
There was a lingering sense that the game needed a goal to spark it into life with both teams lacking in creativity, although the visitors were marginally on top. Quique’s first notable contribution was a crafted ball into Joyce on the left wing, but his cross was wayward and was symptomatic of a game lacking in quality at this point. Another alteration to the United midfield then came as Hashim made way for Charlie Evans-Critchley.
The decisive moment in the match followed shortly after as O’Connor met a cross from the left hand side before nodding past the stranded Johnson in the United goal.
The hosts were evidently concerned that their unbeaten run was at threat with the increase in urgency and tempo in their play palpable after O’Connor broke the deadlock.
Joyce was replaced by Tom Bryant as United took control of the game in the closing stages. Bryant almost made the perfect impact when Drakulić floated a sumptuous cross towards the back post, which Bryant couldn’t capitalise on as he volleyed over.
The away side now appeared to be content with their one goal lead and were continuing to defend stoutly, restricting their opponents to minimal openings right up until the final whistle.
A thoroughly frustrating loss for the boys as their surge up the league table is halted for now, but every great run has to come to an end at some point and when a team executes a game plan as masterfully as the visitors did it can be difficult to negotiate.
The response made by Colás’ side will be now be crucial as if they can harness the performance levels of recent weeks ahead of another tough sequence of matches, they can quickly overcome the disappointment of last Saturday’s result. Starting at Hertford Town this Saturday, KO 3pm.