Hendon failed to build on Wednesday night's victory over Hitchin Town when they fell to 3 sucker punches at Grays Athletic's Recreation Ground on Saturday, losing 3-2. There is no such thing as a bad time to score, but it is acknowledged that three of the very best times to tally are in the opening and closing minutes of both halves and immediately after conceding a goal. Grays did all 3.
Bontcho Guentchev replaced manager Frank Murphy on subs bench in an otherwise unchanged line-up, but any confidence Hendon might have had disappeared in just 37 seconds. An attack built up down the left side, but the Hendon defence should have dealt with the danger. Instead, the ball was not cleared and it fell to Andy DOUGLAS, whose first-team shot was perfectly struck just inside the post.
The next 47 minutes about as poor an advertisement for football as was imaginable. All three teams played their parts in the awful fare. After spending the last few months playing on marshland, Hendon were utterly caught out by the high-bouncing, rock-hard pitch which, aided by a gusty, cold wind, made control almost impossible. Grays were happy to play the ball long and force errors by constant pressure and harrying.
Referee Mr A Wager (Kent) decided that he was the most important person on the pitch and to prove this, he awarded free-kicks on an almost random basis for 45 minutes. He cautioned 3 Grays players: one for dissent, one for delaying taking a Grays free-kick and one for being hit on the hand by a high-bouncing ball. His assistants did not help in awarding free-kicks and were frequently badly out of position.
Hendon struggled to make much of an impression despite plenty of possession. Grays snapped into challenges and chances were few and far between. The best that came went to the home team. In the 20th minute, Marvyn Watson produced a brilliant challenge to halt a dangerous run from Douglas. Four minutes later, Wilmot made a fine save, coming off his line quickly to deny Lee Bajada after Douglas had sent him clear.
In the 25th minute, Hendon lost Ross Pickett to injury, David Adekola replacing him. The bad news for Hendon continued in the 43rd minute, when Jason Soloman came on for Warren Kelly, forcing a reshuffle in defence. It certainly didn't work because in stoppage time at the end of the half, Hendon again failed to clear their lines and Billy MANUEL fired home Grays' second goal.
The second half was an almost different game. Mr Wager kept his whistling to a minimum and suddenly a football game broke out. This suited Hendon, who looked a different proposition from the opening whistle. For the third time in a week, the opening goal of the second half came in the 48th minute. This time it was Davis HAULE who got the important strike, the ball deflecting off a Grays defender, leaving former Hendon on-loan keeper Paul Newell helpless. Haule became the 4th Hendon player to reach 10 goals this season, the first time this has happened for many years.
Five minutes later, a deep cross from the right wing eluded everybody and Soloman, arriving beyond the far post, was desperately unlucky to watch his effort bounce off the post with Newell again hopelessly out of position. Hendon were not to be denied for long. After Soloman had hit the side-netting with another far post effort from a Dale Binns corner, a Binns free-kick was met by Jon DALY, whose close-range header was unstoppable.
From here there looked like only one winner, but this Kevin-Keeganesque prediction came true as, within 90 seconds, Hendon conceded the winning goal. It was a cracker too. A quick ball out of defence found Sammy Cooper streaking down the right wing. His cross was met by the flying DOUGLAS, whose header gave Wilmot no chance.
The Dons tried to hit back quickly. Chris Sparks and RenÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ Street both had heading chances go wide. Newell fumbled a corner from Iain Duncan, under pressure from Haule, then another corner from Duncan hit crossbar before Newell tipped the ball away.
Soloman wasted a great chance to put Duncan clear when he tried an ill-judged 35-yard shot that endangered fans behind the goal, but not Newell. Then, in stoppage time, panic defending almost let Adekola in for an equaliser, but as he drew his foot back to knock the ball home from 6 yards, Manuel came from almost nowhere to hack the ball away.
"After the equaliser, we were chasing the win," admitted Mr Murphy, "but we fell for a sucker punch. At least we turned up for the second half."