There are times in the life of a football fan - albeit rare - when defeat (even in a cup match) can be forgotten because of the quality of the game. Last Saturday's 6-5 Isthmian League Full Members Cup 2nd round defeat for Hendon at Scraley Road falls into this category.
In this case, the match was one of the best that many Hendon fans have ever had the pleasure of watching and, if this sounds heretical to those Hendon fans who didn't travel, the result was almost secondary. There were many positives for Hendon, even in defeat, probably the biggest of which was goalkeeper Gary McCann's return after missing 8 months with knee reconstruction, the last 6 weeks of which were spent waiting for a game to test his knee out. "My knee feels fine," he said after the game, "but I need more games." Everybody was hoping Gary would suffer no reaction after the match.
Managers Frank Murphy and Liam Cutbush had agreed to use the match to look at squad players, so none of the 22 named in the programme's starting line-ups actually played. Any complaints spectators may have had about the quality of the line-ups were silenced by the total commitment, effort and entertainment provided by the 26 boys and men who took to the field. The very difficult pitch undoubtedly contributed to the great entertainment, but both teams were desperate to play and Heybridge deserve much credit for getting the pitch even remotely playable - no goal could be put down directly to the conditions.
One more person deserves special credit and that is referee Michael O'Keefe (Orpington). He passed the pitch as playable at 2.10, although voicing some concern at the state of the penalty area in front of the covered end goal. After 90 minutes, he had a further look at this area but allowed play to continue. The last thing either team wanted was the replay at LOOT Stadium that an extra time abandonment demanded.
Heybridge started brightly, but the Hendon defence looked quite resolute. Then, in the 10th minute, Paul Johnson took a short pass from Ossie Hasan and fired a powerful drive which Matt Greenley did well to save. The ball fell to Nathan Edwards, whose shot brought an even better block from Greenley. But this is where his luck ran out as Ike OBIJI had the next opportunity and, from 8 yards, he gave Hendon the lead.
In the 19th minute, Hasan produced some fine skills down the left flank, leaving Raymond Filby almost pretzled into the ground as Hasan twisted and turned trying to find an opening. His pass found Edwards, whose shot was again saved by the inspired Greenley. He again could not hold it, however, and JOHNSON was able to knock home the loose ball.
In the 25th minute, Johnson had the chance to extend the lead further, but instead of going for placement when given a clear shooting opportunity, he went for power and fired over the bar. McCann was then brought to his knees by a fine shot form Joel Rogers as Heybridge looked to get back into the game. The Hendon defence looked much more comfortable, with David Annobil and Patrick Sappelton, in particular, looking very strong and commanding. Dave Stewart was tigerish in midfield, but he once went too far, collecting a deserved yellow card for a bad foul.
Hendon's third goal, in the 30th minute, came thanks to more outstanding set-up work by Edwards. Faced by Colin Wall, the young striker had too much skill and strength, making space for a shot which Greenley again did brilliantly to block. Greenley looked aghast to see Obiji running in alone, looking to poach and OBIJI had an even simpler finish for his second goal.
In the 37th minute, Heybridge reduced the arrears when the Hendon defence failed with two attempts to clear the ball and when Glen Moss delivered a deep cross from the right wing, nobody was left to mark Terry WARWICK. His towering header was perfectly placed, bouncing just inside McCann's left post. The half-time whistle came with Hendon leading 3-1, but it could just have easily been 6-0 to Hendon as 3-3.
As it turned out, Hendon had enjoyed a massive advantage defending the Scraley Road goal. Quite how uneven to two ends were became clear in the opening 10 minutes of the second half. Now it was the Hendon defenders who looked clumsy and awkward, while Heybridge's back line had an air of confidence. Almost inevitably, Heybridge pulled another goal back, but it took until the 64th minute for WARWICK to notch his second of the game. The way both teams were playing it seemed likely the scoring was from finished.
Five minutes later, Hendon defended a corner which was not hit deep enough. The ball broke to Richard Dee and he set off on a long run. He had too much pace for the nearest opponent, who could not risk making a tackle as he risked a red card for a tackle from behind. Dee fired a low cross which was destined for the boot of Edwards until 16-year-old Ronnie BRIDGE got his foot in first. His intervention flew past his Greenley for a most unfortunate own goal.
Even at 4-2, victory was far from certain and when WALL drilled a 74th-minute free-kick under Hendon's wall, and McCann could do no more than help the ball into the net, the deficit was again one. Hendon had three half-chances. Edwards hit a post with one low shot and whistled a drive just past the other post, while Bontcho Guentchev, on his 50th Hendon appearance, fired a shot which rippled the net, but it had gone the wrong side of the post.
The exhausted Obiji was replaced by Ghogo Soki, who slipped into a defensive role, allowing David Boateng to move forward. In the 84th minute, Benson MIYOBA scored the game's 8th goal. His work down the left flank had played a big part of Swifts' recovery and he deserved his goal.
Nine minutes into extra time, EDWARDS scored the goal he deserved finishing off a fine run from Boateng. Within a minute, however, Heybridge equalisd again, this time Andrew CHIPPERFIELD finding himself unmarked 8 yards from goal and he confidently shot home.
In the second period of extra time, Hendon withdrew Edwards and Johnson for Shaun Ryan and Andrew Francos, but almost any of the other 9 starters could have gone off because exhaustion was evident everywhere one looked. Around the pitch, the fear was not of exhaustion, but of hypothermia for the 150-odd watching as the temperature dipped well below zero.
Heybridge snatched the winning goal in the 117th minute. Brilliant work down the right wing resulted in a cross from Moss, right on the goal-line. The ball was floated to the far post where an unmarked Joel ROGERS was waiting to send a perfect header past McCann.
The drama was not over. In stoppage time at the end of the second period of extra time, Guentchev had a great chance to level things up. He turned past a desperate challenge from Neil Cooper, steadied himself and fired. Once again, Greenley came to the rescue with an inspired save. The ball rebounded to Guentchev, who, off-balance, found the side-netting.
In the end, the difference between the two sides was that with 7 outfielders boasting Ryman League starts, Heybridge's players had more all-round experience than Hendon's (although none, of course, could match Guentchev's credentials, despite his last start comming on 25 October). Also, only Johnson, Dee and Guentchev had seen any action since November 4, the day of Hendon Reserves' last competitive match.
"Of course I am disappointed to lose the game," said assistant manager Dave Anderson. "But there were more important things today, such as giving us the opportunity to watch the reserves in action, how the youngsters showed, and giving Gary McCann a game."