THURLOW NUNN LEAGUE PREMIER DIVISION: Ely City 3 Thetford Town 3: Thetford Town manager Mark Scott hailed the impact of his half-time substitutes after a 3-3 draw with relegation rivals Ely City on Saturday.
The Brecklanders trailed 2-0 at the break to a header from James Seymour and an own goal by Sean O’Donnell, but replacement Steve Harley pulled a goal back before setting up Luke Catchpole to equalise.
Catchpole fired Thetford in front with eight minutes remaining, but Ely snatched a point in the 89th minute when Austen Diaper fired home via the inside of Scott Cruickshank’s post.
“It was a huge decision to leave Steve Harley out, but he’s come on, scored the goal to get us back in the game and worked hard up front,” said Scott.
“Equally, a lot of credit has to go to Nathan Birch, who has been out for three or four weeks and was undecided about his future.
“He was going to go to Ely, then chose to stay with us, and when I put him on in the second half I thought he was immense.
“We battled really hard — I think a lot of people would have written us off when we were 2-0 down at half-time.”
A mix-up between Thetford goalkeeper Cruickshank and central defender Luke Bailey should have resulted in an opening goal for Ely in just the fourth minute.
Cruickshank fired his clearance against Bailey, but Diaper sidefooted his shot across the face of an open goal and wide.
After a sluggish start, Thetford — who lined up with a 3-5-2 formation against Ely’s 4-4-2 — went close a couple of times.
Ian Fancett floated a shot wide from a good position before a quick break down the right by Sam Bryant gave him the space to thread a square pass to Matt Dixon. He shifted the ball on to his right foot and fired his low strike inches wide of the left post.
The pitch — having taken a hammering from the elements for the previous 48 hours — was holding up well against the intermittent rain showers, but it was still no surprise when the opening goal arrived via an aerial route.
Ely’s Lewis McDonald floated a right-wing corner over with his right foot and Seymour powerfully headed home at the far post under little pressure from the Thetford defence.
Dixon — with 10 goals in 20 league appearances this season before Saturday — remained the Brecklanders’ best hope of getting the Norfolk side back into the match and drilled wide again while trying to escape the close attentions of Ben Lawrence.
However, the Robins gave their relegation rivals a mountain to climb when they went 2-0 in front in the 33rd minute.
Adam Murray floated a right-footed cross in behind the Thetford defence from the left-hand side and the unfortunate O’Donnell could only bundle the ball past his own goalkeeper.
Thetford’s goal led a charmed life for the remainder of the opening 45 minutes, with Seymour shooting wide and Stuart Walker taking an air shot, both when well placed inside the visitors’ penalty area.
The Brecklanders responded by bringing on their only two substitutes at the break — Harley and Birch, in place of Ian Fancett and Ryan Conroy.
And it was the introduction of Harley that made all the difference for the visitors, who got a goal back through the striker in the 57th minute of the contest.
Harley latched on to Martin Carter’s long ball before shooting to the right of goalkeeper Lee Pacey, who could not stop the ball trickling into the net, despite getting his hand to the shot.
Thetford’s comeback was complete four minutes later when Catchpole exchanged passes with Harley before drilling the ball home from inside the penalty area.
Any thoughts that Ely might collapse were wiped away though as Adam Murray headed over, but Ben Amery should have put them back in front and instead sidefooted wide from 12 yards after another misunderstanding between Cruickshank and Bailey.
Sandwiched in the middle of those two chances, Catchpole blazed over when he probably should have fired Thetford in front, but he made no mistake eight minutes from time and steered the Brecklanders in front after receiving the ball deep inside the Ely penalty area.
Having worked hard to turn the match around, Thetford then swiftly threw away two points as Diaper sprung the visitors’ offside trap and thumped a right-footed shot home via the foot of the left post.
Ely might have snatched victory themselves in stoppage time, but Murray glanced a header wide and Amery volleyed over, meaning the two goals difference that separated the two teams either side of the safety line at the start of the day remained intact, with Thetford 17th and Ely 18th.
“I thought their equaliser was offside by a long way,” added Scott.
Thetford: Cruickshank, Jospeh, Carter, Bailey, O’Donnell, Leech, Bryant, Catchpole, Fancett (Harley 46), Dixon, Conroy (Birch 46).