FARNBOROUGH Town enter into their most important match of the season to date tonight, where the visit of Telford United to Cherrywood Road simply MUST produce maximum points.
Forget Arsenal or Darlington, this is Boro's most crucial 90 minutes in several years as caretaker chief Ian McDonald looks to halt his side's plummeting form and record his first league win.
Without an away Conference victory since September 28, and a miserable return of just four points from a possible 33 since Boxing Day, Boro are in freefall, as the relegation pack begin to snap uncomfortably around their heels.
Their latest flop was a quite dreadful performance at Eton Park, Burton, on Saturday, which could prove crucial as Woking, Stevenage, Nuneaton and Gravesend all picked up precious points in the bid to beat the dreaded drop.
Burton Albion, boasting the worst home record in the Conference, and starting the day just one place and one point ahead of Farnborough, showed the commitment and desire necessary to secure their Conference future, qualities that Boro were sadly lacking.
The performance was followed by a constructive 15-minute chat in the dressing room afterwards which saw a few heated words exchanged, but ended with a team once again united in their hopes for the future.
Boss McDonald pulled no punches, ‘we were very poor' he said. But he must be desperately concerned that the determination and enthusiasm so evident in recent performances, has evaporated, leaving a side desperately lacking in confidence, and haunted by the fear of relegation.
Macca explained: "We were second best in every department today. When I first joined the club, the players had set themselves standards in terms of quality, effort, commitment and determination.
"Those standards have dropped horribly under par
these last couple of games and it's my job to pick the players up again and build on what what we have.
"I, and the players, all agree that we are too good to go down but good sides have been relegated before. We have to start scrapping for points now. Pretty football alone is not going to get us victories at the moment. Gravesend, Woking, Nuneaton and Stevenage are all scrapping, we have to do the same.
"We have a very constructive get-together after the game where, for the first time, I had to question the players' desire. The response was encouraging from everyone and I told to players to have a miserable weekend like me and arrive on Tuesday fired up."
The unexpected news that a 24-team Conference next season could mean just one side is relegated this term, could provide a lifeline for Boro, but many more performances like this and even bottom club Kettering will have Farnborough in their sights.
Yet for the first ten minutes on Saturday, Boro were the better side, Dean Green was causing Aaron Webster all kinds of problems down the Burton left flank, and only a fine save from Matt Duke prevented Green from opening the scoring in the third minute.
Thereafter, however, the Burton midfield started to dominate proceedings, and with the impressive Andy Ducros, linking the midfield with the attacking strength of 14-goal Christian Moore, goals looked inevitable.
The ever-reliable Tony Pennnock twice thwarted the home side with terrific saves to deny Darren Stride and Moore, but on 42 minutes the keeper's sliced clearance was headed forward by ex-England international Andy Sinton and Moore calmly lobbed the ball over Pennock and tapped the ball into the net.
Boro claimed with some justification, that both Moore and Ducros were offside, but referee Paul Canadine waved away the vociferous claims of the infuriated Boro players and bench.
The second period began in much the same vein as the first, but when Dean Green unforgivably failed to hit the target when unmarked eight yards out, Boro's heads noticeably dropped, and a second goal became a certainty.
That moment duly arrived on 73 minutes, John Howard thumping home form 12 yards after Darren Annon had miskicked inside the area,
Big Joff Vansittart was introduced at the expense of a clearly very disgruntled Ken Charlery, and the big striker at least showed the commitment so sadly lacking in many of his colleagues.
The watching Brian Clough happily recovered from his recent operation, would have approved of the desire shown by his son Nigel's side, and how the Boro players could do with a few choice words from the ex-Forest and Derby boss, before Tuesday's now vital game.
Macca certainly has a job to do is picking up dropped heads. Geoff Pitcher is proving a massive loss and certain other big players are not showing their true colours.
With Boro on level points with Woking and just two ahead of the relegation cut-off point, these are crucial times for the club. The majority of these players may have enjoyed their three-week Arsenal build-up in the media spotlight but it's time now to stand up and be counted.
Macca is desperately clinging onto the hope that Christian Lee may be fit in time for tonight's visit of Telford - a major boost for the boss who has promised to "freshen things up" on the field.
Lee's inclusion will mean Macca having the luxury of three recognised centre halves for the first time in his reign, and with full-backs Chris Piper and Tony Taggart itching to get forward at every opportunity, it could herald a formation change with the boss disappointed with a number of individual performances of late.
Gary Patterson is another player who could force his way into the starting line-up after two games on the bench, as could Vansittart for his efforts on Saturday.
The boss added: "Having Christian back would be a major boost for us. I suspect it may be a couple of days too early for him but I'm crossing my fingers because my team selection is revolving around his fitness.
"When you lose players of the calibre of Geoff Pitcher and Christian it makes your job a lot harder and certainly doesn't help the cause.
"Telford is not a massive game, only a win will do. It's all about pride now, both personal and collective. These players are still getting paid by the football club so they really can't complain.
"One thing is for sure, come 7.45pm on Tuesday, the 11 players who line up with be pumped up and ready to go."
BORO: Pennock, C Piper, Taggart, Annon, Rodwell (sub Ayers 84mins), Green (Potter 65), Butterworth, L Piper, Harkness, Charlery (Vansittart 65), Baptiste. Not used: Patterson, Osborn.
Ref: P Canadine. Att 1,548.
l Don't forget, Boro's home fixture against Chester City on Saturday is a 1pm kick-off.