AFTER going three games out without a win, Jersey Bulls knew they could not leave south London without a win this week. Anything less would most likely impair their promotion efforts without recourse.
In their way was a Balham side unbeaten since late October and mental scars from a chastening 3-1 defeat to the same opponents exactly a year ago, after which the Islanders’ boss Gary Freeman acknowledged his side’s season was over.
Not this time round.
Led by a magnificent hat-trick from Francis Lekimamati, the Bulls were in imperious form in the capital, winning 4-2, with Fraser Barlow notching their opening strike.
With Knaphill doing to Badshot Lea what they did to Bulls last Saturday and holding them to a draw, the race for promotion far all but over. Bulls turn their attention to Farnham Town tomorrow at Springfield [3pm kick-off], who have given them some tough battles in the past, knowing that it is vital to start building a positive momentum for the rest of the season to have any chance for going up.
‘That was a proper Bulls performance, we were absolutely superb,’ said a beaming – but clearly relieved – Kevan Nelson, Freeman’s right-hand man, after the Balham game.
‘We didn’t really give them a sniff. OK, they’ve pinched a couple of goals but our power, intensity and quality wouldn’t have been matched by any side in this division.
‘Francis is brilliant for this group. He’s one of those lads who’ll go out there and do exactly what’s asked of him, no questions, no drama. Since he’s joined us, we’ve seen him grow and grow and if you’re going to score a hat-trick, that’s how you do.’
With talisman and top scorer Lorne Bickley suspended, Fraser Barlow was deployed as the centre-forward and he was a real bundle of energy in the opening exchanges, his movement buying him a yard of space to nod home the visitors’ opener.
The celebration was evidence of the frustration in the Bulls changing room, given their recent indifferent form, and served as a catalyst for a dominant performance.
The tireless Robert Martins-Figueira and Lekimamati both had clear chances to put the tie beyond doubt, before the pair combined for a delicious second.
Martins-Figueira’s clever, first-time pass over the Balham defence was latched onto by Lekimamati, who volleyed cleanly past Haydn Read in the home goal.
Tom Read got his side onto the scoreboard early on after the break as a rare error of judgement from James Querée was punished, ahead of Lekimamati striking twice in quick succession.
A free-kick into the Balham area was not dealt with by Kojo Kyei – the centre-back inexplicably ducking out of the way of the ball – and Lekimamati punished him, dinking over Read. A poor night for Kyei became a horrendous one as was penalised for a handball; coupled with his position as the ‘last man’, he was dismissed.
From the resulting free-kick, Lekimamati fizzed one into the top corner to cap off a fine virtuoso showing, confirming a win which narrows the gap to second-placed Badshot to just three points.
Read did add a second for Balham from the penalty spot late on, but the damage had already been done with Freeman’s thoughts now turning to taking on a resurgent Farnham side, and then a trip back to London for a tie against Balham’s landlords, AFC Croydon Athletic, next Tuesday.
‘We’ll enjoy this one, that’s for sure, because it’s been a tough couple of weeks. It can be relentless at this level with the travel and when you aren’t getting the reward, it’s tough,’ he said.
‘But Saturday is another challenge now. Farnham have hit a bit of form and obviously bringing new faces in has helped them. They’re another side who we’ve had some good games with over the last 18 months, and they are ambitious. We expect nothing less than them coming to our place and wanting to have a go.’
Bulls will be without the suspended Bickley again tomorrow, as he has two more games left to serve, but otherwise, apart from Ruben Mendes, who has long been ruled out for the rest of the season, they are at full strength.