Town made to wait for title by Braintree
Howells 62 (pen), Wall 65
Wells 16, Mulley 21, Isaac 56
The Town’s hopes of celebrating a return to the Football League were dashed as 10-man Braintree secured victory at a stunned Kenilworth Road.
With 10,000 Hatters fans inside the ground for the first time 20 years, the Town needed just a victory to be crowned champions but the visitors – themselves chasing promotion – raced into a two-goal lead with two efforts in the space for five first half minutes.
Firstly, on 16 minutes Dean Wells rose highest in the Town penalty area from Daniel Sparkes’ left-wing corner to nod the visitors in front.
And before the Kenilworth Road crowd could get their breath back the Iron doubled their lead when Brett Holman scampered down the left and crossed for James Mulley to nudge a finish beyond Mark Tyler.
Two goals down the Town were handed a lifeline on the half-hour mark when visiting goalkeeper Nik Hamann was sent-off for hauling Paul Benson to the floor after the striker had raced clear and rounded the Iron keeper.
Up until the stopper’s dismissal the Town had not forced a meaningful chance but the Hatters did come close on 36 minutes when Steve McNulty surged up-field, played a one-two with Benson but then fired a well-hit effort narrowly over the crossbar.
Braintree were not sitting back on their lead despite their numerical disadvantage and Fraser Franks and McNulty had to be alert in their own penalty area to thwart the dangerous Jordan Cox on two occasions in as many minutes as half-time approached.
The Town upped the ante as the break loomed, with Matt Robinson close with a first-time volley that substitute keeper Nathan McDonald did well to hang on to.
After a poor first half the Hatters began the second much better, and came within a whisker of reducing the deficit when Benson’s shot from a Robinson cross was deflected onto the crossbar.
The Town were pushing for a way back into the game at one end but their afternoon took a further turn for the worse on 56 minutes when Braintree surged three goals clear when Chez Isaac raced through on goal and finished well past an exposed Tyler.
With work to do, John Still introduced Alex Wall and Pelly Ruddock from the substitutes’ bench on the hour and within two minutes the Town did halve the Braintree lead. Right-back Ryan Peters’ handball presented Jake Howells with the opportunity to bring the Town back into the game, and he kept his nerve to send Hamann the wrong way for his eighth goal of the season.
All of a sudden, and backed by the passionate home faithful, it was all the Town, and four minutes later it was 3-2. Howells raced clear but failed to get control of the ball. He did, though, poke the ball into Wall’s path and the striker lofted a shot over McDonald and into an empty net from the edge of the box.
On 72 minutes the crowd were on their feet again but saw the Hatters strike the woodwork for the second time of the match when Mark Cullen’s low shot bounced off the outside of the post after Wall had bulldozered his way through the Braintree backline.
The Hatters were pushing forward at every opportunity in their desperation for an equaliser. Cameron McGeehan saw a goal-bound shot blocked on 76 minutes but time started to run down as the Town ran out of puff.
Good work between Wall and Ruddock saw the latter fire a shot inches over the crossbar with five minutes left before Scott Griffiths’ ambitious effort also narrowly cleared the bar with a minute left on the clock.
With McNulty now in attack as the Hatters threw the dice, Braintree were threatening on the break but failed to test Tyler despite a number of counter attacks.
At the other end, in six minutes of stoppage time, Wall poleaxed a Braintree defender with a venomous shot but that was the last chance as the Hatters’ dreams of a title celebration were put well on ice by the visitors.
Town: Tyler; Henry, Griffiths, McNulty, Franks; Lawless (sub Rooney 14 (sub Ruddock 60), McGeehan, Robinson (sub Wall 60), Howells; Benson, Cullen. Subs not used: Shaw, Justham.
Attendance: 10,020, including 96 from Braintree.