THURLOW NUNN LEAGUE
Ely City 0
Saffron Walden Town 0
Upon their return to the Premier Division 12 months ago, Ely City looked out of their depth.
Granted, their opponents that evening were eventual champions Mildenhall Town, but the hosting Robins barely laid a glove on their visitors in a 2-0 defeat.
Yet, to their credit, Ely went on to finish in a very respectable 13th place and while they failed to take maximum points from Tuesday night’s season-opener, it was an encounter that provided further evidence of their progress over the last year.
Brady Stone’s charges had some bright patches against a team that have finished in the top 10 in each of the last two campaigns, creating good chances in both halves.
Ultimately, they had to settle for a share of the spoils at the newly-named Ellgia Stadium, but it was a performance that nonetheless pleased the manager.
“When we played Mildenhall last season, I thought we could be in for a long season like we had when we were relegated (in 2014/15),” said Stone.
“But, as last year went on we learned a lot and that has continued.
“We have some great experience in the squad with the likes of Jamie Alsop and Sam Reed — the younger lads listen to them and they learn.
“In 12 months, nights like this show how far we have come.
“We did not win the game, but Walden are a good side — they will finish in the top 10 again this season.
“We will take that. It is a point on the board and we are up and running.”
While the hosts will feel they carved out enough openings to take all three points, visiting Walden will have travelled back over the Essex border with the same opinion.
In fact, it was The Bloods that spurned the best opportunity of the night in just the ninth minute.
Ely goalkeeper Harry Reynolds was unable to hold James Crane’s speculative shot from distance, which seemingly presented Charlie Portway with a tap-in.
But, from just six yards out, the Walden centre-forward somehow turned the rebound against the crossbar.
Three minutes later Ely captain Alsop lofted a perfectly-weighted pass into Craig Neal’s path, sending the winger one-on-one with Walden goalkeeper Neil O’Sullivan.
The former Bury Town shot-stopper won that duel, though, and moments later he showed good reflexes to turn over Alex Theobald’s rising near-post effort.
New signing Ryan Williams was next to test O’Sullivan with a half-volley after Walden centre-back Julian Simon-Parson had misjudged the flight of the ball, while up the other end Reynolds twice denied Crane, who also saw an intended cross strike the base of the post.
The away team came out of the traps brightly at the start of the second half, but it was testament to the stubbornness shown by the Ely rearguard — led expertly by Tom Williams — that Reynolds remained largely underworked.
Ten minutes after the restart Graham Turner headed Ronnie Ledwith’s long throw on to the roof of the Ely net, while Crane’s 63rd-minute swerving 30-yarder had the Walden bench on their feet, only for the ball to drift just wide.
With his side on the back foot, Stone made a triple substitution in the 69th minute, throwing on the experience of Reed alongside youngsters Tom Thurlbourn and Lewis Hook.
And, it was two of the substitutes that combined to almost hand Ely the victory in the dying embers.
Cutting in from the left flank, Thurlbourn delayed his pass long enough for Reed to dart between Walden’s central defensive pairing.
However, O’Sullivan — not for the first time — was alert to the danger and he managed to divert Reed’s low shot beyond the post with an outstretched hand.
Another chance fell Reed’s way as the curtain-raiser ticked into stoppage time, but with the angle against him, the frontman drilled into the side netting.
Ely: Reynolds, Jeffrey, Alsop, Griffin, T Williams, Sewell, Heap (Hook 69), Walter, R Williams (Reed 69), Theobald, Neal (Thurlbourn 69)
Journal Man of the Match - Tom Williams: When Ely came under pressure — particularly during the second half — their number five was a towering presence in the heart of the defence.
Attendance: Not given at time of printing.
n On Saturday, Ely switch their attention to the Emirates FA Cup when Holbeach United will be their visitors in the Extra Preliminary Round (3pm).
Not since the 2012/13 season have the Cambridgeshire outfit gone beyond the opening round.
“For the club in a financial sense, a win would be massive,” said Stone.
“But, for the players, winning an FA Cup tie is also a big thing.
“Just to play in the FA Cup means so much, so hopefully we can get through a round or two.”
The Robins will return to league action on Tuesday with a trip to Histon (7.45pm), who recently signed Ely playmaker George Darling.