Preview: Aldershot Town v Braintree Town

Aldershot Town’s goalless draw at Forest Green Rovers may have stretched their winless run to five games, but it was a huge improvement on their last two away results. The Shots start their run of three consecutive home games in eight days on Easter Monday as they welcome play-off-chasing Braintree Town to the EBB Stadium. BBC Surrey’s Gavin Denison previews the action.

Getting a positive result at the side with the best home record in the National League was always going to required defensive discipline and that’s exactly what Barry Smith got from his players on Good Friday. The Shots kept chances to a minimum and Phil Smith’s saves were all of the routine variety. In the first half James Jennings, Charlie Clough and Elliott Frear failed to test the Aldershot Town goalkeeper, whilst Nathan Ralph did well to clear an inswinging 25th-minute corner off the line. At the other end, Rovers stopper Steve Arnold made fine stops from Sam Hatton and Jim Stevenson. The second half saw a tighter game, with former Aldershot Town striker Brett Williams having the two best chances to break the deadlock, heading over from five yards in the 77th minute and shooting straight at Phil Smith ten minutes later.

Whilst plaudits went to the Shots’ defensive stability, it was the fourth time in five games that they’ve failed to find the back of the net. Their goalscoring form at home has been especially poor, scoring just sixteen goals in eighteen league games, a record which only Boreham Wood has ‘bettered’. Barry Smith’s players also haven’t managed a goal in the first half of a home game since the draw against Bromley on 17 October. That’s an extraordinary run of 547 minutes across twelve straight league, FA Cup and FA Trophy games. Having said that, Aldershot Town are still unbeaten at home in 2016 (two wins, two draws) and have kept three clean sheets in a row at the EBB Stadium.

Most of Braintree Town’s 116-year history has been spent in regional and local leagues, but four Ryman League promotions in ten years between 1996 and 2006 took the Essex club up to Conference South. Five years at that level ended with the Iron’s promotion as Champions in 2010-11, with their first two Conference Premier campaigns bringing finishes of 12th and 9th, whilst they finished sixth, just three points from a play-off place, in 2013-14. However, they dropped back into the pack last season, finishing 14th. This season they’ve had to take on the non-league elite without long-term manager Alan Devonshire, who resigned last April to be replaced by former Concord Rangers boss Danny Cowley.

The Iron have had a fantastic 2015-16, currently sitting 5th in the National League table and two points above sixth-placed Tranmere Rovers in the race for the play-offs. Defensively, they’ve been outstanding this season, keeping 21 clean sheets in 38 league games, with no team conceding fewer than their 26 league goals. Braintree Town are currently on a run of 491 minutes without conceding a goal, which includes five clean sheets on the bounce. Overall, they’ve gone eight games without defeat since they lost 2-0 against Boreham Wood on 16 February. However, they haven’t won away since a 2-1 victory at Tranmere Rovers at the beginning of December, a run of two defeats, then three consecutive draws.

Whilst promotion to the Football League is the dream, it will certainly come at a huge cost to the part-time club. Speaking to the Braintree & Witham Times earlier this month, chairman Lee Harding said: “My best guess is that we are talking about the best part of half a million pounds, but we are entitled to grants and, heaven forbid, if we did get to the Football League, there would be a significant uplift in central funding (from the league) compared to being in the National League. There is a bit of work to do, but we are on it. Over the course of the last few weeks, we are just very pleased with the progress that we are making… There is a lot of work ahead and we have some tough games, but we are in a good position.”

Barry Smith made three personnel changes, including one tactical switch for the game at Forest Green Rovers. Luke Oliver and Sean McGinty came in for Jack Saville and Tom Richards in the back four, whilst Jim Stevenson replaced Alfie Pavey as the Aldershot Town manager switched to a three-man central midfield. Every change worked exceptionally well for Smith, but he could change back to 4-4-2 to try and give the Shots extra attacking option for Monday’s home game. If that is the case, Pavey or Charlie Walker could return to the starting line-up. 18-year-old midfielder Louis McGrory signed on loan from Forest Green Rivers last week and could make his debut against Braintree Town.

The Shots boss will be without midfielder Damon Lathrope, who suffered a fractured foot last month, and Joe Oastler, who picked up a knee injury at Chester, for the rest of the campaign. Both will be big losses as the Shots try to turn around their poor form. Rhys Browne’s call-up to the Antigua & Barbuda squad means he will miss the game on Monday, whilst Dan Walker didn’t feature on Friday due to a slight knee injury.

Danny Cowley kept the majority of last season’s squad, whilst also bringing in seven permanent signings to compensate for the six key players that departed Cressing Road over the summer. Unsurprisingly, some followed Alan Devonshire to Maidenhead United, including defenders Ryan Peters and Alan Massey, midfielder James Mulley and back-up goalkeeper Carl Pentney. Their first-choice stopper, Nick Hamann signed for Woking, whilst Dan Walker made the move to the Shots. Amongst those who remained at the club were defenders Mitch Brundle, Remy Clerima, Sam Habergham and Matt Paine, midfielders Chez Isaac and Kenny Davis (ten goals last season), plus forwards Jordan Cox (the Iron’s top scorer last season with twelve goals, but is currently on loan at Billericay Town after a long-term injury), Dan Sparkes (ten goals in 2014-15), Simeon Akinola (seven goals) and Sean Marks.

A quartet of players followed Cowley to Braintree, with the most notable being the England C midfielder Alex Woodyard. Defender Matt Fry, midfielder Taylor Miles and forward Joe Gardiner also left Concord Rangers to join their manager at Cressing Road. Michael Cheek, who scored 22 goals last season for Chelmsford City, is the club’s top scorer with thirteen goals in this campaign, with former Aldershot Town loanee Mark Phillips doing the same at the other end of the pitch after signing from AFC Wimbledon. Winger Anthony Edgar (Bishop’s Stortford) is a good option off the bench, whilst Harry Palmer arrived in January from Heybridge Swifts to act as the back-up goalkeeper. The Irons’ manager has also snapped up four loanees to strengthen the promotion push, with two arriving from Reading (striker Harry Cardwell and full-back Sean Long) and another pair from Millwall (goalkeeper Tom King, who spent the first half of the season on loan at Welling United, and midfielder Jack Powell).

The recent results have been even more impressive when you consider Braintree Town’s current injury list. Cheek and Marks are both out with hamstring injuries, whilst Matt Paine is done for the season after suffering ankle ligament damage earlier this month. Defenders Remy Clarima and Sean Long missed the win over Bromley on Friday, whilst Chez Isaac limped off after 35 minutes of that game and must be a doubt for the trip to North-East Hampshire.

Aldershot Town and Braintree Town have met on eleven previous occasions, with the Shots winning six, losing three and drawing two of the meetings. In hindsight, the Shots 2-1 win at Braintree Town in August is the best win of their season so far. That’s especially true when you factor in that they trailed 1-0 with twenty minutes to go before goals from Charlie Harris and Richard Brodie gave Barry Smith’s side all three points. Last April’s game at Cressing Road saw Sam Hatton gave the visitors the lead before Dan Sparkes equalised just before the hour mark, whilst Sparkes also scored in this corresponding fixture last season. In September, Sparkes netted again with Jordan Cox scoring twice in a 3-1 win for the Iron. Damon Lathrope’s first senior goal was the merest of consolations.

Prior to last season, the Shots had won their first five home games against the Essex side, scoring fifteen goals, whilst conceding just two. The Shots won 2-1 in November 2013 (Brett Williams and Matt Paterson on the scoresheet), 3-1 in the first FA Trophy meeting in November 1999, 4-0 in the league in September 2001 (Lee Holsgrove, Grant Payne, Stafford Browne and Scott Forrester with the goals) and 3-0 eleven months later, thanks to a brace from Michael Harper on his debut for the North-East Hampshire club. John Grant scored twice, with Ben Harding also netting, as the Iron were beaten 3-0 in a FA Trophy 3rd Round tie in February 2008.

Monday afternoon’s referee is Adam Bromley from Plymouth, who took charge of the Shots’ 1-0 home win against Kidderminster Harriers in January, as well as the 3-0 loss at Wrexham in August. This season he’s officiated in seventeen National League fixtures, showing thirty yellow cards and two red cards.

BBC Surrey’s Gavin Denison and Rob Worrall of the Aldershot Town media team will be covering the game on Monday afternoon. Tune in to 104.0 & 104.6 FM or DAB from 2.10pm for team news and pre-match interviews, followed by full match commentary via the BBC Surrey website and BBC Sport app from 2.50pm.

You can also contact us throughout the afternoon via Twitter. Tweet your predictions and thoughts on the game to @gavindenison and @bbcsurreysport