SECURING a win against the current Toolstation Western League Premier Division champions was always going to be a tough ask for Barnstaple Town.
But the fact they more than matched Melksham Town – who are only at this level as their ground failed to meet Southern League requirements – is testament to how far Barry Yeo’s men have come.
Melksham left Mill Road 4-1 winners, but for 70 minutes of the encounter it looked like Barnstaple were going to be the team securing the three points – however three goals in the final 15 minutes condemned Yeo’s side to defeat in their first game of 2016.
It is only a second league defeat in 12 games for Barum – who slip to seventh after the action-packed game.
It was a positive start from Barnstaple as they bossed the early proceedings and almost took the lead in spectacular fashion when Ryan Turner headed on Lee Francis’s ball into the path of Shaun Copp who tried a first-time volley which flew just over.
But despite the early pressure, Melksham aren’t Premier Division champions for no reason and they took the first chance that came their way when Gary Higdon beat ‘keeper Steve Oliver to Ian Jeffrey’s free-kick and looped a header in – despite the best efforts of Josh Phillips on the line – after 11 minutes.
The hosts didn’t let the early goal knock them back, Jack Jenkins’ shot was well held by Rob Brown and Jed Harper-Penman flicked a Liam Gregory free-kick just too close to the Melksham stopper.
As the half wore on it was a game which threatened to boil over, with referee Lee Roberts bearing the brunt of Melksham manager Darren Perrin on numerous occasions.
But it was Perrin who almost saw his side double their lead seven minutes before the break as their aerial presence caused problems in the Barum back line again. This time Shaun Bension’s corner was met by Higdon who hit the bar.
The ability to score has not troubled Barnstaple in recent seasons, so when Niall Heeney was brought down in the box by Benison on the stroke of half-time, it seemed the teams would go in level at the break.
But Brown had other ideas as he dived to his left and beat away Heeney’s spot-kick.
The second half started in much the same vein as the first, Barnstaple on the front foot but lacking that end product as both Turner and Ross Jones fired over.
So Yeo threw on both Jack Jenkins and Dave Pearse – for Scott Huxtable and Shaun Copp – and the pair made an instant impact as Jenkins delivered an in-swinging free-kick which Pearse ran on to and diverted past Brown after 65 minutes to make it 1-1.
But 10 minutes later the visitors re-established their lead when another Benison corner was nodded against the bar by Higdon, but captain Ryan Bennett reacted quickest to head into an empty net.
And then two minutes later it was game over. Mike Perrott broke down the left and fired a low cross which Joe Strading was on hand to slam home.
Barnstaple’s misery was compounded with five minutes to go when Higdon was felled in the box from yet another dangerous Benison corner. The Melksham striker picked himself up, was initially denied by a superb save by Oliver, but was the first man to react and fire home.
Turner looked to have ended the game on a positive note with a stunning acrobatic strike, but the linesman had his flag raised and that just about summed up the hosts’ afternoon.
Barnstaple Town (4-1-4-1): Steve Oliver; Scott Huxtable (Jack Jenkins 56), Liam Gregory, Aaron Harper-Penman, Josh Phillips; Niall Heeney; Jed Harper-Penman, Ross Jones (Will Nicholls 80), Shaun Copp (Dave Pearse 62), Lee Francis; Ryan Turner. Subs not used: Jimmy Thorne, Steve Holland.
Yellow card: Lee Francis
Melksham Town (4-1-4-1): Rob Brown; Syeed Ibrahim, Ryan Bennett, Lee Fielding, Ian Jeffrey; Jack Morris (David Thompson 66); Joe Strading, Shaun Benison (Warren Maidment 85), Mike Perrott, Ben Thomson; Gary Higdon (Kurt James 85). Subs not used: Luke Aldrick, Mike Kilgour.
Yellow card: Ryan Bennett, Ian Jeffrey, Ben Thomson, Mike Perrott.