Stratford Town held by Bedford Town in Southern Premier Central opener
STRATFORD Town had to settle for a share of the spoils on the opening day of the new campaign as newly-promoted Bedford Town came from behind to claim a 1-1 draw.
Last season's Southern League Division One Central champions were the better side in the opening 25 minutes but fell behind shortly after when Josh Hawker pounced on a loose ball in the middle of the park to steam through and slot past Alex Street with aplomb.
The goal swung the game in Stratford's favour and they looked to carry that momentum into the second half in front of a 395-strong crowd at a sunny Arden Garages Stadium but the Eagles would not have their wings clipped that easily.
Both sides had chances throughout the second 45 but as time wore on it looked as though the Bards were going to hold on for all three points, especially when the imperious Liam O'Brien pulled off a number of stunning saves late on.
However, O'Brien's resistance was finally broken in the 88th minute when substitute Will Summerfield tapped in from close range to ensure the points were shared.
The fledgling table sees the Bards in 12th and with a hectic pre-season schedule finally over, bosses Dean Holdsworth and Gavin Hurren will be looking forward getting the players into training ahead of two away days in the space of three days, starting with St Ives Town on Saturday and then Redditch United on Monday.
Holdsworth, though, would not have been pleased with Saturday's slow start and Bedford would have been scratching their heads as to how they did not find themselves ahead early doors.
Matt Moloney and Sam Warburton both had respective efforts blocked inside the area, before the lively Connor Tomlinson got on the wrong side of the Stratford defence but he took too long to get the shot off and that allowed James O'Neill to make a crucial last-ditch challenge.
O'Neill and man-of-the-match Paul McCone worked well as a central defensive pairing and were always in the right place at the right time to mop up any danger throughout.
Despite being on the back foot, the Bards broke the deadlock in the 26th minute. Will Grocott was tackled midway in the Bedford half and Hawker capitalised on the loose ball to charge through on goal and confidently stroke the ball past the onrushing Street.
The goal seemed to burst the Bedford bubble as the Bards started to enjoy more of the possession as the game approached half-time. Holdsworth's men did not create many clear-cut chances and often Curvin Ellis was a lone figure up top, while wingers Jamie Molyneux and Will Dawes swapped sides in a bid to try and mix things up.
The Bards looked to up their game in the second half and within minutes of the restart Dawes saw a dangerous in-swinging cross put behind by Warburton and then goalscorer Hawker had a powerful drive blocked by some desperate Bedford defending.
Bedford, though, weathered the early Bards storm and once again started to play with confidence, with Tomlinson the architect of everything that came their way.
Jack Storer, a surprise omission from the starting XI, replaced the yellow-carded Molyneux and his arrival gave the Bards some extra impetus.
Within four minutes of his introduction the former Birmingham City forward had managed to break free down the right-hand side and his inch-perfect cross towards the back post was met by Grocott whose header back across goal was headed off the line.
The home side continued to press and once again it needed another clearance off the line to keep Bedford in the game, this time Hawker was the man denied from doubling Stratford's lead.
Hawker then thought he'd added that crucial second goal when a stunning half-volley looked destined for the bottom corner but Street somehow managed to get across his line quick enough to keep the ball out.
Bedford hit back and only a stunning stop from O'Brien kept the score at 1-0. A cross into the box somehow made its way through to Summerfield who had all the time in the world to pick his spot and stab in the equaliser but O'Brien rushed off his line, made himself as big as he could and stuck out a strong left hand to keep Stratford's clean sheet intact.
It looked as though Bedford's luck had run out but two minutes from time they snatched the equaliser. The Bards failed to clear their lines and while O’Brien did well to save the initial shot, Summerfield had the easy task of prodding in the rebound from close range to ensure the spoils were shared.
STRATFORD TOWN: Liam O'Brien, Dan Vann, Josh Endall, Ashley Sammons (Dan Lafferty 83), Paul McCone, James O'Neill, Will Dawes, Josh Hawker, Curvin Ellis (Dexter Walters 77), Will Grocott, Jamie Molyneux (Jack Storer 60). Unused subs: Louis Beresford, Jack Turner.
BEDFORD TOWN: Alex Street, Matt Moloney (Sam Granville 75), Sam Warburton, Luke Pennell, Kai Phelan, Hugh Alban-Jones, Connor Tomlinson, Callum Donnelly (Will Summerfield 75), Tyrone Lewthwaite, Liam Brooks (Joe Butterworth 89), Drew Richardson. Unused subs: Craig Mackail-Smith, Josh Page.
REFEREE: Luke Scott