Rocks are so near a title challenge - yet so far

Stuart Axten back in action against Hornchurch - but other injury problems are still afflicting the Rocks  Picture by Tommy McMillan
Stuart Axten back in action against Hornchurch - but other injury problems are still afflicting the Rocks Picture by Tommy McMillan
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JAMIE HOWELL surveyed the Ryman premier title race and admitted: We’re so near - yet so far.

The Bognor manager said his team could be challenging for the championship had they not had another season so disrupted by injuries to key players.

He spoke out as it emerged winger Ben Johnson may not play again this season - while there are lingering concerns over midfielder Harvey Whyte’s fitness and loan midfielder Nick Awford is awaiting an x-ray on a suspected broken toe.

With nine games in 29 days coming up in March, the management could do with a full squad to choose from - but that’s a luxury they have not known for some time, and are not about to enjoy in the near future.

Despite their injury woes, the Rocks have had a great season and sit sixth - one place outside the play-off zone - ahead of Saturday’s visit to Enfield. But Howell said a consistently-fit first-choice XI could have taken them higher.

He said: “I know what we are capable of when we get our strongest team out, but that just doesn’t happen. We’re in the mix and I’m delighted by that but the frustration for me is that we could have been challenging for the title had everyone stayed fit.

“Against Hornchurch, for example, we were without Ben Johnson - obviously - and Arron Hopkinson had work commitments, while Harvey could only play a half. That meant we had to change the shape we like to play at home and we struggled in the first half as a result.

“In the second half, with Harvey and Dan Thompson on, we were a different side.”

Of particular concern to Howell is the side’s away form. Monday’s 1-0 loss to a late goal away to Hendon was their fifth defeat in 13 away games. The ‘away league table’ puts Bognor 15th - while one judged on home matches only sees them third.

“I don’t know what it is away from home but we are not the same team,” he said. “We have to be sensible away from home but have to be able to read games and know when they are there to be won, and know when a draw is a good result.

“We will carry on giving it our all but we do need to pick up more points away from home. That more than anything will dictate where we finish the season.”

The Rocks’ manic March begins at Enfield on Saturday before they host a rearranged clash with Billericay next Tuesday.

News from the treatment room is mixed.

Howell revealed that earlier optimism over Johnson’s return following his latest knee injury now looked misplaced and the fans’ favourite could struggle to play again this season. The manager said: “He is training but needs to strengthen the muscle around the knee. We can’t rush him back.”

Awford, on loan from Pompey for a month, is believed to have broken his toe in a challenge at Hendon but can’t be x-rayed until the swelling has come down. If it is a break, Bognor won’t see him again in his current spell.

But fellow midfielder Scott Chamberlain is recovering well after a hamstring injury and could feature at Enfield - while centre-half Stuart Axten has shown no ill effects from two games in three days following his recovery from an ankle problem.

New keeper Grant Smith - on loan from Brighton’s development squad following an injury to Will Britt - has impressed in his first two games.

The Rocks need all the bodies they can find. With 16 league games to cram into the last eight weeks of the season, they will also need to fit in a Sussex Senior Cup semi-final - and hopefully the final.

That’s after they beat Brighton’s development side 4-2 at Nyewood Lane last Wednesday, with Terry Dodd netting his fourth hat-trick of the season and Kane Wills scoring the other.

Howell said: “It was an excellent performance and result. In the first 20 minutes I felt we gave them too much respect. But once we got ourselves into the game, we played really well and in the second half there was only ever going to be one winner.”

With other quarter-finals still to be played, the Rocks will have to wait to see who they will face in the semis.

STEVE BONE

Get the first report from Enfield v Rocks at www.bognor.co.uk