One of the most truly amazing Hendon performances of recent times was displayed at Colston Avenue on Saturday afternoon. The final score of 2-1 to the Dons barely scratches the surface of a game which saw blue-and-black-shirted heroes at every turn.
Goalkeeper Richard Wilmot, in the last game of his three-month loan spell, played the final 15 minutes of the first half with a broken arm. He was replaced at half-time not by regular stand-in Simon Clarke - who has finished 4 games with the No. 1 on his back in the past 26 months - but by Bontcho Guentchev. The winning goal came 30 seconds after captain Gary Fitzgerald had been sent off and the Robins had a free-kick just outside the Hendon penalty area.
Hendon were forced to make a couple of changes following the FA Cup exit against Dagenham & Redbridge on Monday night, with Phil Gridelet and Paul Towler both absent injured and David Adekola reduced to a substitutes role. Fitzgerald, Clarke and Warren Kelly were all less than fully fit. Into the line-up came Richard Dee, for his league debut, Marvyn Watson and Paul Adolphe.
The reshuffle didn't work well in the opening half-hour. Despite kicking down the slope in the first half, considered a big disadvantage, Hendon lost the midfield battle and their passing was nothing like as sharp as would have been expected on a surface which looked almost perfect.
Carshalton created almost all of the early openings and Wilmot had already been called into urgent action twice before the home side opened the scoring after 25 minutes. The move was very simple. A ball over the midfield found Jamie Pace breaking into space. Evading a clumsy challenge from Dee, Pace took aim and fired high and powerfully into the roof of the net.
Four minutes later, Pace ran in on Wilmot, but this time the goalkeeper spread himself well, diving at the forward's feet. Wilmot was a little slow in getting to his feet, but nothing untoward was apparent. Over the next few minutes, however, it became clear that all was not well with the goalkeeper. He had a spell of a treatment before the break, but looked in serious discomfort.
Hendon, meanwhile, were beginning to get into the match. Watson watched a snap shot crash off the underside of the crossbar after a corner caused chaos in the home penalty area. Ross Pickett also went close on a couple of occasions, once shooting just wide as goalkeeper Adrian Jones came off his line and then narrowly failing to reach a ball driven across the penalty area.
At half-time, the Hendon substitutes were sent onto the pitch to warm-up for the second half until Guentchev briefly disappeared, only to re-emerge with a bright yellow goalkeeper's shirt. Wilmot was taken to the local hospital for x-rays and the report, sadly, proved he had broken his arm. Dee also failed to appear for the second half, with Dale Binns taking his place. Carshalton, with the kick-off, tried to test out Guentchev with a 55-yard shot. The Bulgarian back-pedalled hastily as the ball approached, but it sailed over the crossbar.
Binns soon gave the right side of the Carshalton defence a taste of what to expect with a run and cross which was cleared with little comfort by the home defence. Hendon stepped up the tempo and took control of the game, with Adolphe and Watson improving their performances. The equaliser seemed only a matter of time in coming and it duly arrived in the 54th minute.
It was, almost inevitably the result of fine play by Binns down the wing. He got beyond the struggling Neil Robson and delivered a low, teasing cross. Darren Brodrick, comfortable with the ball high in the air, stooped to attempt a clearing header and succeeded only in knocking the ball downwards, a couple of yards away. Waiting for this break was Pickett, who steadied himself and shot confidently past Jones. It was no more than Hendon deserved.
It took until the 65th minute for Carshalton to launch any sort of attack on the Hendon goal, a testimony to the play of Jon Daly , Fitzgerald and Kelly in a central triangle, while Iain Duncan and Clarke snuffed out any raids down the wings. When Carshalton finally managed to get a cross into the penalty area, Guentchev handled it like an accomplished veteran.
In the 73rd minute, Guentchev, by now warming to his task, showed a level of confidence in his own ability that gave palpitations to Hendon management and fans alike. Eschewing a save with his hands, he brought the ball down with his foot, shimmied and dribbled past a bemused Robins attacker, before launching a downfield kick that found Davis Haule, who was caught late by Robson.
Haule stayed down injured, but the referee Mr N Kinseley (Essex), allowed play to continue for a while before allowing the Hendon man to receive treatment. Haule played on briefly, but had to be replaced by Adekola. It was another of manager Frank Murphy's inspired changes.
But things still had to get worse for Hendon before they would get better. In the 80th minute, Fitzgerald, who had already been cautioned, appeared to get involved in an incident near the Hendon penalty area. Mr Kinseley had no hesitation in producing a second yellow, and a red, card. The free-kick was easily cleared by the Hendon defence and the ball was passed out to the fresh Adekola. He hared up the slope with a couple of defenders trailing in his wake, while Pickett and Binns tried to join the attack. Adekola's cross was just beyond Pickett's reach but Binns was able to reach it.
It appeared that Binns had taken the ball too far in going around the last defender, but it turned out that he knew what he was doing. He looked up and drilled a fine, low drive beyond Jones' vain dive, just inside the far post.
Three minutes from the end of normal time, Adekola found himself in space and his low shot also beat Jones, but cannoned off a post. In the last minute of the 90, Guentchev produced a flying save to deny Carl Bartley an undeserved equaliser, but the linesman's flag probably would have ruled out a tying goal. Carshalton's frustration finally boiled over in stoppage time as Sean Daly lashed out at Duncan and he, too, was sent off, making it 10 vs. 10 for the 6 nerve-wracking minutes of stoppage time.
"What a great performance;" said a delighted Mr Murphy. "Great courage, great skill, I'm proud of them. I couldn't risk Simon Clarke going in goal for the second half because it would have upset our balance too much. Bontcho volunteered to go in goal. He said he had done it before but I thought he just wanted a game anywhere. He did excellently, with safe hands."