Downing and the Robins soar to a new level
AN AFTERNOON that started with one Sean as the centre of attention ended with another taking the acclaim of the Bideford fans.
Manager Sean Joyce's testimonial was launched with a lunch at the Sports Ground and the players formed a guard of honour to welcome him on to the pitch before kick-off.
Eighty-six minutes later, Sean Downing was mobbed by his team-mates and saluted by his supporters after scoring the goal that confirmed Bideford as league champions.
The Robins have been head and shoulders above their Evo-Stik League Southern rivals this season.
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And Downing rose just as high above the Taunton Town defence to head the goal that clinched the first division south and west title on Easter Monday.
Sholing's earlier 2-1 defeat to Gosport Borough – the team who ended Bideford's 25-game unbeaten run on Saturday – raised the prospect of the Robins securing top spot in front of their own fans.
But in heavy rain at the Sports Ground, the promotion party threatened to turn into something of a damp squib.
A Devon-Somerset derby lacking any of the usual fire was seemingly headed for a goalless draw, which would have left Bideford still one point from being confirmed as champions.
But in the 86th minute Nick Barker delivered a free kick from the right corner into the heart of the penalty area and Downing climbed to meet his cross with a thumping header that sent the ball arcing beyond the despairing dive of goalkeeper Lee Matthews and into the top corner of the net.
The goal sparked frenzied celebrations among the players, substitutes and management.
Eight minutes later, those scenes were repeated – and then some – as referee Marc Whaley blew the final whistle.
Joyce took a step back as his players threw themselves across the sodden grass.
He has seen it all before – this being his sixth league title since taking charge in September 1998.
That is only two fewer than the Premier League titles won by Sir Alex Ferguson in the same period – soon to be three fewer, probably – four more than Arsene Wenger, and Chelsea, well, they have been managed by 11 men since Joyce took the reins at the Sports Ground.
For the most part he stood calmly in front of the dugout as his team tried in vain to break through Taunton's stubborn defence, led by the rock-solid Chris McGrath.
Full time was greeted by a blast on the siren of a fire engine stationed within the ground.
Those were the only alarm bells ringing for Bideford.
Joyce knew full well that even with a defeat his side still had three matches left in which to claim the two points they needed to put Sholing out of reach.
Besides, Taunton never looked like scoring.
They had only one effort of note – not until the 66th minute – when Raith Plant teed up a volley for himself but put it wide.
Paul Hider, in the Bideford goal, was not called upon to make save.
It was a day for a mistake to make the difference, so both defences deserve great credit for not making any howlers in the treacherous conditions.
Instead, with McGrath and Co slamming the door on every neat flick and touch Kevin Squire and Matt Andrew produced around the box, it was dangerous deliveries from the flanks that created the clearest opportunities.
Ben Wood sent over an enticing cross in the 32nd minute which flicked off McGrath's head, just taking it out of reach of Squire's bandaged noggin.
Ten minutes into the second half Wood delivered again, this time from the right, and Matt Hockley's glancing header hit the foot of the far post.
It was something of a surprise when Wood was withdrawn shortly after.
But we should know by now to trust in Joyce's judgment.
Connor Clifford, Wood's replacement, gave Bideford some new impetus.
One cross, dug out from the left touchline, slipped through Matthews's hands.
Then, on 77 minutes, Clifford went agonisingly close to scoring himself.
Meeting Andrew's right-wing cross at the far post, he stabbed the ball towards goal.
Matthews flung himself to his right to make a fine save but the ball very nearly squirmed through him, only to get stuck in the mud on the line and allow Luke Cole to clear.
Downing gave a hint of what was to come when he met Matt Bye's left-wing corner but headed over the bar.
He got the trajectory right five minutes later, though, with the most important of his 16 goals this season.