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10-man Thetford Town lose 2-0 at Barton Rovers in their inter-step play-off game to miss out on a first-ever promotion up to Step 4

Thetford Town fell short in their bid for promotion after losing 2-0 to Barton Rovers in their Step 4/5 inter-step play-off this afternoon.

The Thurlow Nunn League Premier Division runners-up made the trip to Sharpenhoe Road in search of a victory which would have secured an historic move up the non-league pyramid.

But second-half goals from Ashton Grant and Kieran Gauthier, either side of Thetford player-manager Matt Morton’s sending off for two yellow cards, meant it was the Pitching In Southern League Division One Central hosts who preserved their Step 4 status for next season.

Emmanuel Machaya struck the crossbar during Thetford Town’s 2-0 defeat at Barton Rovers Picture: Richard Marsham
Emmanuel Machaya struck the crossbar during Thetford Town’s 2-0 defeat at Barton Rovers Picture: Richard Marsham

Morton made four changes to the Thetford side which started in their 1-0 win at Brantham Athletic on the final day of the Premier Division campaign last Saturday, as the player-boss recalled himself along with Jordan Lake, Adam Laker and Nathan Clarke to the line-up.

With promotion/relegation on the line it was a typically edgy opening to the play-off game, as both sides took time to settle into a contest that had so much at stake.

It was the higher-league hosts who threatened a breakthrough first when front man Jemale McKenzie-Lowe created space for a shot which crashed back off the frame of the goal, with Thetford goalkeeper Tom Smith left stranded.

The Brecklanders had racked up an impressive 102 league goals on their way to matching the club’s highest-ever finish this term, and it was their leading marksman Dan Gilchrist who came close to scoring next.

Just two minutes after almost conceding at the other end, Thetford were denied the game’s first goal when Gilchrist’s determined run finished with his shot being kept out by the onrushing goalkeeper Matt Boylan.

Gilchrist, who won the Premier Division’s golden boot this season with 35 goals in all competitions, looked to turn provider in Thetford’s next move five minutes later.

His ball over the Barton defence was met first by Emmanuel Machaya, who brought the ball down with his head and went through on goal, but his strike agonisingly smacked off the centre of the crossbar.

The visitors continued to create chances and on 32 minutes right-back Laker teed up Jake Mann and his effort, which looked destined for the bottom left corner, was kept out by a fine save from Boylan.

In the closing stages of the first half, an off-balance Elliot Smith drilled a shot wide of the target for Thetford, before McKenzie-Lowe headed over the bar at the opposite end, as the two sides went into the break somehow without a goal between them.

The Brecklanders were then hit with a sucker punch five minutes after the restart, as Grant’s volley from outside the box flew past Tom Smith to put the home side in front.

Referee John Perry began to brandish his cards with four Barton players going in the book during the second half, but it was two cautions for Morton, the second one after 70 minutes, which left Thetford down to 10 men.

Rovers were making their man advantage count as they pushed for a second goal and some much-needed breathing space.

Josh Adeyileka and Joe Sutton both saw efforts kept out byTom Smith, before Gauthier headed home from a corner to make it 2-0 on 76 minutes.

It left the visitors with a mountain to climb as they turned to the bench and made a triple change, with Ryan Fuller, Sam Bond and Callum Olpin all coming on straight after the goal.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, Thetford fought until the end and Elliot Smith’s diving header was cleared short of the line during seven minutes of added time.

The final whistle brought an end to Thetford’s hopes of an historic promotion and a first season at Step 4 in 2023/24, but Morton and his side will be determined to go one better next term and continue the progress being made both on and off the pitch at Mundford Road.

Thetford Town: T Smith, Cusack (Bond 77’), Laker, Morton, Clarke, Mann, E Smith (c), Lake, Machaya (Fuller 77’), Diggens (Olpin 77’), Gilchrist. Subs not used: Davies, Rogers. Booked: Morton (x2). Sent off: Morton.