Maldon & Tiptree 1
AFC Sudbury 2
There came a point during Tuesday’s trip to Maldon & Tiptree when Phil Kelly started to fear the worst.
The recent arrival from Brightlingsea Regent had not scored in his first two outings as an AFC Sudbury player and it appeared he was going to draw another blank at Park Drive.
Three good chances came and went on a blustery night in Essex — one smartly saved and the other two off target.
Self-doubt was beginning to creep in. But then, with the scoreline locked at 1-1 deep into second-half stoppage-time, Kelly was put in the clear.
AFC’s new number nine showed good strength to hold off a challenge from a retreating defender, before displaying the type of composure that saw him net more than 100 goals for Brightlingsea with a low strike into the bottom corner.
It sealed a deserved three points for the visitors and from a personal point of view, lifted the weight off of Kelly’s shoulders.
“I know I am not the most clinical striker and that is something I am always working on,” said the match-winner.
“But I will be giving everything I have for the team and keep going until the final whistle.
“I am so happy it has turned out to be the winning goal — the one that has earned us three points.
“I did start to think in the game it was going to be one of those situations where a new striker comes over and he cannot score — I did not want to have that title.
“You could probably sense the relief in my face when the ball went in.
“I have scored a lot of vital goals and that is up there as one of the most special.
“I will always empty the tank for the team, even if I am not scoring. To get that type of reward at the end of it is the icing on the cake.”
While Kelly and his team-mates were well worthy of the three points, on another day they could have been out of the contest — rearranged after August’s floodlight failure — inside the opening 25 minutes.
They fell behind with eight minutes on the clock, albeit in controversial circumstances.
Maldon’s Kieran Bailey was the scorer, heading in at the back post from a George Brown cross.
However, Sudbury felt that goalkeeper Jake Jessup had been impeded in his attempt to make the save by Eoin McKeown, who appeared to be standing in an offside position.
The match officials were having none of the protests, though, and the goal stood.
Jessup — playing his last game for AFC before returning to parent club Chelmsford City — had to be at his best to deny Bailey, Ryan Clampin and former Sudbury left-back Joe Claridge in quick succession, while McKeown struck the angle of post and crossbar following a swift counter-attack.
Visiting boss Mark Morsley had seen enough by this point and duly ordered a change in formation via a piece of paper passed on to the pitch, switching from five at the back to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
It was arguably the turning point in the game — all of a sudden Sudbury were playing higher up the pitch, winning second balls and putting the Maldon backline under pressure.
Kelly’s first opportunity came in the 37th minute after he had been picked out inside the box by Jake Clowsley, but his shot drifted just wide of the far post.
The pressure continued and in the second minute of time added on, Sudbury got themselves level.
A long angled pass from defender Tyler French sent Kelly scampering towards the right byline, from where he hooked the ball back into the path of Mekhi McKenzie.
The forward had the time to take a touch, yet he instead opted to unleash a half volley that bounced once before nestling in the far corner.
With parity restored, it was largely one-way traffic after the restart as Sudbury carved out chance after chance.
McKenzie fired well over when perhaps he should have done better in the 49th minute, followed by substitute Ryan Horne and Ollie Peters both sending efforts wide of the same upright.
That was followed by more frustration for Kelly, who in the 76th minute smartly controlled Horne’s cross. His turn was sharp and the subsequent shot looked goalbound, until Tim Brown in the Maldon goal stuck out a boot.
And just two minutes later Kelly had an even better chance to open his account in a Sudbury shirt, but with the goal at his mercy he headed over the top.
Such a miss may have prompted certain strikers to shy away for the minutes that remained, but the 29-year-old continued to plug away and he was suitably rewarded in the third of four added-on minutes.
Plenty on the pitch had tired legs at this point, but Kelly looked fresh as he broke clear and drilled in a shot that was too powerful for Brown.
There was still enough time remaining for McKenzie to strike the base of the post, with AFC then seeing out the seconds that remained to claim their first back-to-back league victories under Morsley’s management.
AFC: Jessup, Mills, Clowsley (Horne 62), Holland, French, Whight (C), Hunter, Peters, Kelly, McKenzie, Miller (Dunnage 70)
Free Press Man of the Match - Phil Kelly: Plenty of contenders for this award, but the fact Kelly continued to keep going after a couple of misses saw him edge it