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Hendon produced by a long distance one of their two best performances of 2011 in booking their place in the final of the London Senior Cup, sponsored by Coventry Scaffolding (London) Ltd. It has been more than five years since the Greens have beaten a team from the Blue Square Bet (Conference) Premier Division.
The decision of manager Gary McCann to rest tired players for last Saturday's Ryman League encounter with Horsham was entirely justified by the performance put in by the much-changed 11 at Kingsmeadow Stadium on Tuesday night. Eddie Munnelly, Craig Vargas, Casey Maclaren, Jamie Busby, Rakatahr Hudson, Dave Diedhiou and Belal Aite-Ouakrim all came into the team, or - put another way - only James Reading, Scott Cousins, James Parker and Greg Ngoyi retained their places.
AFC Wimbledon's team contained seven players with first-team experience with the club and one, Reece Jones, won Welsh Under-21s recognition this season.
Most of the experience, however, was outside of the defence and the south London Dons showed their lack of ringcraft in the in the fourth minute. A ball into the penalty area was not dealt with and a sliced clearance fell into the path of Hudson.
On the edge of the Wimbledon penalty area, Hudson steadied himself, took aim and drilled a powerful shot off the body of Jack Turner and into the net. It was the perfect start for Hendon.
The goal silenced most of the almost 800 crowd and the north London Dons made a concerted effort to hang onto their lead by withdrawing a little into a defensive shell. The experienced former Staines Town and Dagenham & Redbridge striker Mark Nwokeji, who is more comfortable playing in a two-man strikeforce, struggled to make an impact as the only out and out striker, though Jones and Kirk Hudson did try to support him.
But playing against his former club, Casey Maclaren had a superb game alongside James Parker, while Craig Vargas did well against Jones and Eddie Munnelly mainly got the better of Brendan Kiernan. There was far more danger from the attacking full-backs Ryan Jackson and Nathan Gordon, the former causing consternation with a number of crosses which just eluded the Wimbledon front men.
From a rare foray forward, Hendon almost grabbed a second goal. Good work by Diedhiou created a half-chance for Ngoyi, but he put his shot just wide of the far post with Turner beaten.
Wimbledon upped the ante as the half progressed and, after half an hour, Nwokeji put a header, from a free-kick, inches wide of the far post. Four minutes later, Hendon had an escape when Jones struck a 25-yard drive which cannoned off outside of the far post. Although it seemed a clean strike and Reading wasnâ€™t close to getting a touch, the referee, nonetheless, awarded a corner, but it came to nothing.
For the start of the second half, Wimbledon introduced a second recognised striker, Christian Jolley - at the expense of the anonymous James Mulley - and he brought an urgency down the south London Dons' right flank.
But Hendon actually were much more competitive in the second half and Wimbledon had to do much more defending, something they were not entirely comfortable doing. The game was really open with both teams creating a number of openings, but failing to take them.
In the 61st minute, Aite-Ouakrim, also playing against his former club, went on a mazy run which ended with a shot flashing just wide. Two minutes later, from a cross by Jones, Kirk Hudson powered a first-time drive inches over Readingâ€™s crossbar.
Play quickly switched to the other end and Hendon suddenly found themselves two goals to the good. The move was instigated by a typical Aite-Ouakrim run. He fed the ball to the late arriving Diedhiou, who had lost his marker.
The shot from Diedhiou beat Turner and probably would have gone into the net, but Ngoyi, as predatory strikers are wont to do, made absolutely certain from around two yards out. Home players and fans looked to the assistant referee for an offside flag, but it stayed down.
It is a football truism that a team is at its most vulnerable immediately after it has scored and that proved to be the case for Hendon because, within 30 seconds of taking a 2-0 lead, AFC Wimbledon pulled back a goal. It was a catalogue of defensive errors by the silver-shirted Dons, and the pass to Jolley by one of them was of the silver service variety.
Even so, Jolley's strike from about 16 yards was magnificent, rising high into the roof of the net and giving Reading absolutely no chance. As well as getting a lifeline into the game, the goal roused the previously rather quiet home fans and, suddenly, Hendon's passage into the final became anything but serene.
Wimbledon pushed forward with greater urgency. Vargas and Cousins were at full stretch trying to deny Jolley and Jackson the space down the Greens' defensive left flank, but they were indebted to Reading on more than one occasion. After 78 minutes, the goalkeeper flung himself to his left to make a magnificent save and deny Nwokeji an equaliser.
With nine minutes of normal time remaining, Aaron Morgan took over from Ngoyi and he had not even touched the ball before the match was back all square. Jolley was the instigator down the AFC Wimbledon right and his low cross was turned in by Jones from close range.
It was a crushing blow for Hendon and, with around a dozen minutes, including stoppages, to play, it was the home side who seemed to be the likeliest winners. And the feeling of dread among the Hendon faithful only grew as Jerson Dos Santos, AFC Wimbledon's two-goal quarter-final hero, replaced Kiernan to be a more orthodox striking partner for Nwokeji.
The pair did not combine well and although Reading made a couple of relatively comfortable saves, the final ball from the south London Dons was all too often not good enough. That said, when the referee signalled the end of normal time, it seemed that Hendon was the more tired team and the additional 30 minutes would be very tough.
It proved not to be the case because, in extra time, it was Hendon who were the better team and they could have added four or five goals to their tally. Aite-Ouakrim, in particular, looked dangerous and on more than one occasion, Dwayne Campbell and/or Charlie Girdler pulled out of challenges that may well have conceded penalties. When Aite-Ouakrim shot, however, his radar was a little bit off and although the balls were well beyond Turner's reach, they were also a little wide of the target.
James Burgess replaced the exhausted Rakatahr Hudson with three minutes remaining in the first period of extra-time. Having barely played in the past two or three years, it spoke volumes for Hudson's overall fitness that he was able to contribute for more than 100 minutes.
In added time at the end of the first period, Hendon scored the match-winner. A ball into the penalty area from Aite-Ouakrim created panic in the defence. Campbell and Girdler got into a mess and the attempted clearance from one bounced off the other and into the path of Diedhiou, who rolled the ball just inside the far post.
After their problems in the seconds after scoring their second goal, the referee's whistle for the end of the period almost as soon as play resumed was a beautiful sound for Hendon ears. It meant they could have a brief chat and regain their composure.
The second period of extra time was completely dominated by the north London Dons and Burgess, who has scored three goals in 320 appearance, might have doubled his career output in those 15 minutes. He struck a post from 25 yards two minutes after the resumption, put a powerful drive just the wrong side of the left upright two minutes later, and fired wide of the right post after 116 minutes.
Nwokeji was withdrawn midway through the period, but a midfielder, Billy Hussey, replaced him - a surprising move given that AFC Wimbledon were chasing the game. Hendon were determined to ruin the hosts' party and the defenceâ€™s resolve was stiff.
As well as Reading, Munnelly, Vargas, Maclaren and Parker played, the real heroes were in midfield, where Busby had his best game for a long while - and also had a shot which fizzed inches wide and another which brought Turner to his knees making a save - while Cousins, Hudson/Burgess and Diedhiou were immense. The Senegalese star was given the final minute off - more good news for the Greens as it saw Danny Dyer return, albeit briefly, after missing four matches with a suspension.
The final whistle was greeted enthusiastically by the Hendon faithful behind the goal. Although outnumbered by a significant margin, they generally outsang the home fans and helped to great a atmosphere.
AFC Wimbledon manager, Terry Brown, who watched the match from the Directors Box, said, "Hendon thoroughly deserved to win tonight. But it was a fantastic match and a credit to both teams. I wish Hendon all the best in the final."
Greens boss McCann said, "I thought it was our best performance for three or four months, both collectively and individually.
"After the performance on Saturday, I asked a number of questions of the team and they gave me all the right answers tonight.
"In extra time, we were the better team and could have won the extra 30 minutes 4â€“ or 5â€“1.
"It is great for the team to be in the London Senior Cup final for the fourth time in six seasons. And we will get the chance to win something at the end of a very long and difficult season."