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Football: Boro play their Cards right

NOT even the grip of winter could stop Boro tightening their own stranglehold at the top of the Southern Premier.

Hard work on the pitch by all and sundry did the trick, as first Boro's band of volunteers cleared snow from the Cherrywood turf and then the side made it all worthwhile - just - after weathering Clevedon's comeback to secure their 15th win from 19 league games this season. Nic Ciardini's late tap-in clinched the 2-1 win and the points.

Steve King's side now lead by as many as 11 points, with games in hand over second-placed Brackley. Only Cambridge City (12 point backs, also after 19 games) and Nuneaton (17 points back, with three games in hand) appear to have any chance of putting Boro under pressure.

The thick snow that had settled on the pitch over the previous ten days had been laboriously piled to the side, only for a thaw and heavy rain to put the game under threat of postponement from a waterlogged pitch.

Yes, it was squelchy and the ball stuck a little on the surface but the game rightly went ahead; the money spent on the Cherrywood playing surface last summer looks to have been a sound investment.

Especially as far as Boro were concerned, once Ciardini secured a tough win, stealing a march on the teams in the squabbling pack, whose games were all postponed.

This was a tight game and one Boro will be relieved to have won. Clevedon may be struggling against relegation but, on this evidence, they have enough to survive.

While their equalising goal, with 17 minutes to go, was outrageously fortunate, they pushed Boro all the way. Steve King's side had far more chances but they were not at their best, frustrated by the heavy conditions and Clevedon's sound tactics.

As before at Cherrywood Road this season, Boro were faced with opponents happy to sit back and then spring forward on the counterattack. Clevedon played their cards well and were neat and tidy going forward, too, but ultimately Boro's own 'Cards' had the final say.

Ciardini has now scored in consecutive games - Boro's last game was the 3-0 win over Hemel Hempstead on New Year's Day - and it is fitting reward for his enterprising play from left-back. Testament to his fine form is that Sacha Opinel, signed by King in the summer, was expected to be the first-choice left-back this season, but he is having to settle for the right-back berth.

Opinel was a trifle fortunate to stay on the pitch in this game; booked following a foul just 40 seconds in, he appeared to be given a final warning later in the half but then escaped with a third foul late on, before King judiciously took him off.

Ciardini started and finished the winning move, converting substitute Anthony Thomas' low cross. That Boro can call on a player as potent as Thomas from the bench sets them apart from the other teams in the league.

The squad is not big but it is full of high quality. When Bradley Bubb and Dean McDonald had quiet games - despite earning and scoring respectively the penalty that gave Boro the lead early in the second half - King was able to turn to Thomas to add impetus up front.

"Thomo has come on and played a part," said King. "And Nic did well. It was reward for him pushing forward.

"Overall, I am pleased with the resilience we showed. It was a tough and tiring game. We looked leggy out there - the ball was heavy and the pitch was sticky. They put nine players behind the ball and had just one up front, hoping to hit us on the counter. We had to break them down and it was tough.

"But we dug the three points out and they are more valuable ones towards the total we are aiming for. We are well-placed and gathering momentum. But there is still an awful long way to go in the season."

Clevedon, prompted by the impressive Craig Loxton, weaved the prettier patterns in a difficult first half, in which both sides struggled to adapt to the conditions.

But Boro had far more chances. Kezie Ibe had a shot deflected wide of goal, after being set up by a gem of a pass from Daryl McMahon. McDonald twice cut in dangerously from the left and shot just wide but his contributions were sporadic and he struggled to influence the game from a wide position.

Bubb wasted Boro's best chance of the half, blazing over from close range, but it was Clevedon who forced the best save. Stuart Robinson - Nicky Morgan has returned to Braintree - saved well with his foot from Loxton's low shot, after excellent play from first Chris Hartland and then Pete Sheppard.

King moved McDonald more central after the break and Boro were immediately more potent. Soon the deadlock was broken; Bubb was clearly tripped in the area and McDonald's penalty was perfect - his 18th goal of the season.

From there, Boro should have closed the game out. But, while Ibe, McMahon and Ciardini all went close, they could not secure the decisive goal. That profligacy was punished when Ellis Wilmot's speculative, feeble shot took a huge deflection, wrong-footed Robinson, and trickled in off the post.

Briefly, Clevedon threatened to score again, on the break, as Boro struggled to find their verve; even the normally immaculate Gary Holloway was guilty of some sloppy play and Robinson, in goal, dealt well with a couple of testing crosses.

But Boro roused themselves for a final fling and it is that determination, fitness and finishing power that has them head and shoulders above their rivals. Thomas did well to keep the ball in play and his low cross left tiring Clevedon stuck in the mud. The unmarked Ciardini had a simple task to finish off the move and, indeed, Ibe should have made the scoreline more emphatic in the dying seconds.

That would have been harsh on Clevedon but Boro did just about merit the win. Their intrepid 'snowmen' who cleared the pitch certainly deserved the reward of victory and there is little evidence that Boro's promotion hopes will melt away, as they did last season.

"Everybody who has helped this week to get the pitch playable, they were fantastic," said King. "The chairman was here every day, working 10-12 hours. For an owner to be doing that, it speaks volumes.

"As for the game, I thought we could have made life easier for ourselves and made it 2-0, before the wicked deflection for their goal. We are not going to create loads of chances in every game but I thought we had enough today to make it more comfortable.

"But yet again we have shown the resilience to win a run of games on the bounce. I don't think many other teams in the league can do that. It is what sets us apart. Now we need to keep on grinding out those wins."

Farnborough: Stuart Robinson, Opinel (Doyle 88), Ciardini, Steve Robinson, Smith, Holloway, King, McDonald (Thomas 81), Ibe, Bubb (Hopkinson 86), McMahon. Not used: Wormull, Price.
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About Oscar Henry

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