THURLOW NUNN LEAGUE PREMIER DIVISION: Mildenhall Town 1 Saffron Walden Town 2
Each season, there invariably comes a point where the eventual title-winners will stutter for a period of time.
Points will be dropped in fixtures that appeared to be a banker three points, while usually reliable players make uncharacteristic errors that are punished.
And if Dean Greygoose’s Mildenhall are to be crowned the Premier Division champions come the end of April, then this is certainly the moment in which their charge spluttered for a spell.
Up until Christmas, the Recreation Way-based side hardly put a foot wrong, losing just once on their way to opening up a lead at the top that teetered around the 20-point mark for a while.
However, 2017 has been far less fruitful, with three league defeats already suffered — the most recent of which, on Saturday, saw 11th-placed Saffron Walden head back across the Essex border with a 2-1 victory in tow.
There are undoubtedly some mitigating circumstances for the slump — captain and centre-back Luke Butcher’s absence with a broken jaw being the headline of those — but it also up the other end of the pitch where Greygoose will be gravely concerned.
He watched on as his team rarely troubled a solid Walden rearguard until the introduction of striker Chris Bacon, who has been sidelined of late with elbow and knee injuries.
A looping header saw the experienced frontman take his goal tally for the season to 11, but by then Mildenhall were already two goals behind and just seconds remained on the referee’s watch.
After the makeshift defence of David Cooper, Ryan Baxter, Jacob Brown and Adam Sartini impressed while keeping a clean sheet at Kirkley & Pakefield in the League Challenge Cup during the week, Greygoose opted to keep faith with that quartet for Walden’s visit.
But, with just 10 minutes played, that backline was breached by a high ball over the top.
Richard Chadwick, who had a very brief spell at Mildenhall last term, raced clear and showed good composure to lob Josh Pope in the home goal.
It was 2-0 seven minutes later as Mildenhall afforded Craig Calver too much space 25 yards from goal and they were duly punished when his strike deflected into the top corner off Jacob Brown.
James Crane spurned a golden chance to add a third Walden goal in the 27th minute, before Greygoose attempted to plug his leaky defence by sending Rob Ruddy on in place of Baxter.
Mildenhall’s one chance of note in the first half was carved out by Dan Brown, but the frontman dragged his low shot wide of the target from the edge of the box.
The hosts had plenty of possession after the restart, but it was not until the 64th-minute introduction of Bacon that they started to ask questions of Walden goalkeeper Lee Pacey and those in front of him.
Within 60 seconds of his arrival, Bacon’s header sent Spriggs clean through, only for Walden’s Jamie Solkhon to get back and snuff out the danger.
As the game wore on, both Bacon and Spriggs were denied by clearances off the line in quick succession, while up the other end Pope had to be at his acrobatic best to deny Calver, Crane and substitute Oliver Borley.
The game’s third goal eventually went the way of Mildenhall in the fourth minute of stoppage time when Bacon headed inside the far post after being picked out by Sartini’s cross.
And there was still enough time left for Mildenhall to force one final corner, which brought forward goalkeeper Pope as the table-toppers sought an unlikely point.
But Spriggs’ delivery went straight out of play, which went a long way to summing up the leaders’ current frustration.
Mildenhall now head to Great Yarmouth Town next Saturday 10 points clear of Felixstowe & Walton United in second, with The Seasiders boasting two games in hand.
Third-placed Newmarket Town are 14 points behind having played the same games, while Gorleston in fourth are 15 adrift, but the Norfolk side have played six games less than Greygoose’s charges.
Mildenhall are also yet to face Gorleston this campaign, with their first meeting penned in for March 11 at Rec Way.
Mildenhall: Pope, Cooper, J Brown, Baxter (Ruddy 33), Sartini, Simpson, Hilton (Clift 58), Green, Spriggs, D Brown (Bacon 64), Melanson
Journal Match of the Match: J Brown