Cheltenham Town moved to pole position in the Vanarama National League for the first time this evening - for 24 hours at least - after this less-than-convincing display against a resilient Braintree Town at the World of Smile Stadium.
All the drama in this one arrived on the stroke of time after a frustrating 90 minutes for Gary Johnson’s side.
For the second home match in succession it seemed the Robins had fallen to a late sucker punch when substitute Anthony Edgar fired home on the stroke of time after swapping passes with Simeon Akinola 20 yards from goal.
The Essex side’s streetwise brand of football has served them well this term, earning them sixth position going into this match and they defended manfully here to restrict Cheltenham.
In their defence they had forced Dillon Phillips into a string of good saves before they snatched what seemed to be their late winner.
But Cheltenham had enjoyed most of the possession, hit the woodwork twice, had one cleared off the line and saw two appeals for a penalties turned down when the late goal finally sparked them into life, and they more than merited their leveller deep into injury time.
Replacement Billy Waters raced on to Harry Pell’s flick-on, rounded keeper Will Norris and smashed the ball into the empty net to earn a share of the spoils.
He almost grabbed a winner seconds later when his deflected effort from the corner of the box was expertly tipped over by Will Norris, the Braintree goalkeeper who did so well to keep his side in it up to that point.
In the end the home faithful will be pleased with a point, and even happier to sit top of the pile ahead of Saturday's longest trip north to high-flying Gateshead.
Unsurprisingly Gary Johnson named the same side that thrashed Halifax Town at the weekend but they struggled at first to find the fluency that served them so well at The Shay.
Braintree’s intentions were clear from the off, deploying two holding midfielders to shield the centre half pairing of Matthew Paine and Remy Clerima and restricted the home side until the 17th minute, when a wicked ball by Danny Wright almost found Saturday’s hat-trick hero Jack Munns in the middle, but the ball flew past the diminutive attacker.
He went closer three minutes later when he fizzed one past the angle of the goal from 20 yards.
Cheltenham enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession before the break, but the visitors created the better chances on the counter attack.
They were indebted to Dillon Phillips midway through the first half for a couple of fantastic saves to prevent Simeon Akinola from snatching the lead for the visitors on the break.
First the pacey striker caught McLennan in possession 20 yards from goal, but smashed his effort against the number one’s trailing leg.
Then a moment later he tried his luck from 20 yards, but Phillips dived to his right to turn away the danger.
At the other end Wright had a chance, rising to meet Jack Barthram’s deflected cross from the right but he saw his header loop on to the top of the bar. A minute later Amari Morgan-Smith fired wide from distance.
Braintree were taking their chances on the break and also hit the bar with half-time approaching, Daniel Sparkes thumping a fierce volley from a tight angle down the left against the face of the crossbar.
Next Storer saw a couple of 20 yarders blocked, first by Matthew Paine with a diving header and then by Norris.
And on the stroke of half-time Barthram saw a credible shout for a penalty waved away when he cut in from the right and tried to centre, but it seemed Sam Habergham blocked with his arm.
How Cheltenham didn’t score five minutes after the interval is anyone’s guess. Braintree were opened up down the right and the ball arrived in the centre, where Morgan-Smith called Norris into a low save from 12 yards. It spilled to Wright, who stretched and bundled the ball against the right post before it fell invitingly to the Braintree shotstopper to gather.
He pulled off his best save of the night shortly after the hour, diving to his left to push away McLennan’s well-struck drive from 20 yards.
The away side were successfully frustrating the Robins with 23 minutes to play when Johnson made his first move, withdrawing Barthram and sending on Billy Waters and it would go on to pay dividends.
Next Munns released Morgan-Smith down the inside right channel shortly afterwards and the striker lifted the ball over Norris who had raced from his line, but Paine was on hand to clear the ball off his own line.
Braintree were clearly content with a point, and successfully broke the rhythm of the second half through their approach to ‘game management’, to the point where Norris, had been carded for time wasting in the final minute of the match.
But then came all the late drama.
CHELTENHAM TOWN (3-5-2): Phillips; Dickie, Downes ©, Parslow; Barthram (Waters 67), Pell, Storer, Munns (Rowe 77), McLennan; Morgan-Smith, Wright. Subs not used: Kitscha (Gk), Hall, Vaughan.
BRAINTREE TOWN (4-5-2): Norris; Brundle, Clerima, Paine, Habergham (Miles 56); Sparkes, Woodyard, Isaac (Edgar 60), Davis ©, Akinola; Cheek (Marks 69). Subs not used: Walker, Haigh.
REFEREE: A Hopkins
ATTENDANCE: 2,097 (30 from Braintree)