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Hendon's proud record of going 98 years without suffering the indignity of relegation came to an end on Saturday afternoon when their 4-2 defeat at Hartsdown Park, Margate, consigned them to the worst 19th place finish and thus the last of the ten relegation spots from the Ryman, Southern and Unibond Leagues. The Greens' tally of 39 points would meant automatic relegation from both other Leagues, so they can have few complaints.
Rikki Banks' return at the expense of Dave King was the only change to the starting 11 against Fisher in midweek, when the Greens had fought back from 3-0 down to lose by the odd goal in five. With victory the minimum requirement - other results had to go Hendon's way for relegation to be avoided - the Greens opted to have goalkeeper King, two attackers and two attacking midfielders on the bench - although Ross Pickett could have been used as an emergency central defender.
For 45 minutes, almost everything that Hendon wanted went their way. After eight minutes, the Greens got a dream start. Andy Cook found himself in space and his pass invited Jeff Campbell to drive home the pass with a superb low shot into the far corner.
In the 15th minute, Ricci Crace was correctly shown a yellow card for handball after he had pushed the ball into the net as he desperately tried to reach a low cross from James Burgess. The referee initially awarded the goal, much to the anger of the home defence, but the assistant referee had seen the handball and the goal was chalked off.
It was far from one way traffic and Margate will probably not have played any better in the opening half all season and still gone into the dressing rooms without a goal to their credit. Danny Hockton had already forced Banks into a save from a clever lob and Spencer Knight had fired over the bar from close range before they hit the frame of the goal for the first of three times in the period.
The unlucky player on this occasion was Pat Gradley and Lee Protheroe forced Banks into making a smart save on the rebound. Next to test the goalframe was player-manager Robin Trott, whose header rebounded off the bar and was hooked to safety.
A brilliant move on 37 minutes brought Hendon their second goal. Jamie Busby and Campbell combined to find Blaise O'Brien, whose cutback was blasted into the roof of the net by Crace, his first goal of the year after missing almost four months with injury. His absence for almost all of the second half the season was a key reason in Hendon's failure to stay up.
Danny Hockton induced chaos in the Hendon defence after 44 minutes, causing Burgess and Banks to almost let the ball go into the net before it was cleared for a corner. Mark Cooper's clearance of Protheroe's kick went back to the former Aldershot star and he returned it with interest, off a post and away.
Then, in first half stoppage time, Hendon should have had a penalty. A corner from Campbell was on its way to Busby, but before he could touch the ball, James Donovan had barged him in the back, flattening the striker. Neither the referee, nor his assistant saw the incident before the ball arrived and play was waved on.
Hendon's season and safety was decided over 42 games, mostly of unconvincing stuff, but it could be encapsulated by the ten minutes before the midway point of the second half. The Greens had weathered sustained Margate pressure in the first few minutes of the second half and were beginning to move with a bit more confidence.
A deep cross from Campbell was beautifully weighted to allow Crace to challenge Dean Standen for the ball. The full-back won the contest but his backpass made it awkward for Darren Bechet to deal with and the goalkeeper made a complete hash of it. The ball slid under his foot and Bechet then slipped as he made a second attempt to clear it.
Suddenly O'Brien was all alone, 12 yards from goal, six yards wide of the far post, with Standen desperately trying to cover his fallen goalkeeper. Sadly, O'Brien's lack of confidence is such that he needed two touches to control the slowly rolling ball. He needed a simple third touch to roll the ball the ten uncontested remaining yards into the goal for a 3-0 lead and almost certain safety for his team. On a perfect surface, without looking at the target, he scuffed the ball four yards wide.
Like a condemned man, reprieved from the gallows, Margate took full advantage at the second chance. Ninety seconds later, John Keister, who was outstanding for the Gate, set up Danny Hockton, who dragged the ball away from Cooper's challenge before shooting past Banks.
Two minutes later, Hockton was all alone as he finished from close range after good approach work from Protheroe. Suddenly, from 2-0 up and in a position of safety, Hendon were all-square and back in the danger zone.
After Danny Edwards had replaced O'Brien, things got much worse for the Greens in the 67th minute when Osman Sesay set up Spencer Knight for a close-range finish. All around the pitch, Hendon players sank to their knees in horror.
Ross Pickett came on for Cook as Hendon chased the game with three out and out strikers. Edwards flicked a shot into the side netting, inches from the near post with Bechet beaten, Pickett went desperately close to reaching a low cross from Danny Murphy and Cooper and Mark Leach were off target with headers.
Then, in the 80th minute, a cross from Burgess to the middle of the penalty area was four or five yards behind Ricci Crace, who was in an offside position. However, he wasn't Burgess's target; Campbell was, and his 16-yard header flew past Bechet and into the net. As Crace was in an offside position, the assistant referee flagged him offside as in his opinion Crace was actively involved in play despite making no attempt to go for the ball and the goal was disallowed.
In the final minute, with Mapes having replaced the completely exhausted Crace - who had run himself to a standstill with a brave performance - Margate added a fourth goal. It was another example of the talents of Protheroe, whose temperament is the only thing keeping him out of the Conference or even higher. Protheroe's skill dispossessing Campbell and controlling the bouncing ball with one touch was excellent, his turn past Burgess was superb, his finish sublime, bending the ball into the far corner.
He almost did it again in stoppage time, but this time an offside flag denied him another chance to display his skills as a finisher.
There were tears on and off pitch from the loud and previously cheerful Hendon contingent as the final whistle meant that the stark reality of relegation was staring them in the face.
Manager Gary McCann, himself very emotional, said, "I experienced every emotion a manager can feel in the 90 minutes today: Joy, despair and tears.
"I know this group of players have given their best, but we were not good enough to hold Margate during that 15 minute period in the second half.
"I feel a sense of failure, that I have let down the club and the supporters, and so do the players. But, rest assured, I will be working even harder to ensure that next season we will bounce back."