Not with a bang but a Shrimper

The game: Southend United v. Wycombe Wanderers.
The ground: Wembley Stadium.
The conditions: appropriate to the start of the great British summer; positively dismal.

My first season in the lower leagues was coming to a close and so, on pure impulse, I decided last week to treat myself to one last, luxurious outing at the end of the campaign. Poring over final fixtures of the footballing calendar, I settled upon the League Two play-off final between the ‘Shrimpers’ of Southend United and the ‘Chairboys’ of Wycombe Wanderers – the venue none other than Wembley Stadium. Come Saturday morning, my overexcitement was starting to worry my loved ones. “What do they know?!” I thought, as I stepped out of the front door. Completely nude bar my Southend-Wanderers half-scarf, I knew this was going to be a great day out.

Okay, yes, that last part is an exaggeration for comic effect. I would never wear a half-scarf. Still, I was very excited; with Southend and Wycombe having both finished the regular season on eighty-four points – the former formidable defensively, the latter with more by way of goals – I had a strong feeling that this would be a match of fine margins, a game replete with tension and tightly-fought drama from the get go. Arriving at Wembley Park, catching sight of the stadium’s iconic arch, my anticipation only grew. It was then temporarily diminished by the looped chanting of the Irn Bru-sponsored ‘Bru Are Ya!’ bridge, the giant signs along Wembley Way that warned the gathering League Two crowds against ‘persistent standing’ and the bitterly acrimonious process of collecting tickets. All that horror over, I went back to enjoying myself.

photo(1)

Though I’m sure every seat in the house had a sweet view, mine in the second tier of the Wycombe end was quite exceptional. As I settled down five minutes before kick off, yellow balloons and blue paper aeroplanes were already filling the air below; songs from both sets of fans just about blotted out the Alan Partridge-esque interjections from the hype man on the tannoy. Suddenly, the on-pitch pyro flared. The teams were led out to a thunderous roar. Phil Brown and Gareth Ainsworth took their places in the technical areas. The whole thing started to feel legitimately bloody epic.

photo(2)

I was brought back down to earth by the most League Two start to proceedings imaginable. From the kick off, after literally six seconds, Southend midfielder Will Atkinson clattered Wycombe counterpart Sam Saunders – the latter had to be substituted only three minutes into the game. This may have set a rather rudimentary precedent for the first half, yet there were several good chances for both sides to take an early lead. In the fifth minute, a looping cross from Chairboy Hogan Ephraim caused chaos in the Southend box; Shrimpers’ left back Ben Coker made the crucial clearance, but the ball could have gone anywhere. Ten minutes later, after significant Southend pressure at the other end, defender Cian Bolger worked a free header from a corner; he belted just past the upright, much to Wanderers’ relief.

In the twenty-second, Southend had the ball in the back of the net; another free leap in the area was afforded to long-serving Shrimper Barry Corr, and the striker planted a beautiful header into the top left. Unfortunately for him, this was disallowed for a pretty blatant shove by Bolger on Chairboys’ centre back Alfie Mawson in the build up. A chorus of boos rang out from the Southend fans, only silenced when Wycombe striker Paul Hayes made the Southend net bulge not two minutes later – this was ruled out for a narrow offside.

After that, the rest of the first half was very, very bitty. Wycombe had a couple of good opportunities around the fortieth-minute mark, Hayes seeing a low shot saved at the feet of Southend keeper Daniel Bentley before midfielder Sam Wood sent a twenty-yard curler inches over the crossbar. Apart from that, it was all robust fouls, even endeavour and punted free kicks. The break came with the game goalless. Both sides had plenty of room to improve.

It took a while longer, but improve they did. Though it was much the same up until the seventieth minute – the Shrimpers had the best chance of this period, Corr forcing an acrobatic save from young Chairboys’ stopper Alex Lynch with a firm header from five yards – the tempo was hugely upped with full time looming. In the seventy-fifth, Wycombe should have opened the scoring; a rare one-touch passing move on the edge of the Southend box allowed Hayes to burst into the left side of the area but, with a great sight of goal, his shot at the far corner was too close to Bentley – the keeper made the save. A flurry of Wycombe efforts followed, but it was their opponents who should have struck next; in the seventy-ninth, Shrimpers’ substitute striker Joe Pigott thrashed just wide from ten yards.

Wycombe had a last chance to snatch a win in regulation time, centre half Aaron Pierre with a bullet header which was tipped over superbly by Bentley late on. Despite the overdue flourish, the ninetieth minute ticked past without a score for either side. The extra time tension ramped up. The Chairboys’ paper planes collected by the side of the pitch like some sort of bright blue aviation graveyard. A bad omen, perhaps.

It certainly didn’t look a bad omen for Wycombe when, four minutes after the restart, they went one-nil up. Wanderers’ striker Aaron Holloway won a free kick twenty-five yards out, just to the right of goal. Left-back Joe Jacobson stepped up, then bent a gorgeous shot onto the underside of the crossbar – and in off the diving Bentley’s back. The Chairboys went wild, half of Wembley erupting in jubilation. A stony silence descended over the Shrimpers. Now could the Chairboys sit tight?

The answer was, well, astounding. Wycombe defended valiantly for the rest of extra time. In the hundred-and-fifteenth minute, they could and certainly should have put the game to bed; Holloway burst through Southend’s desperately high line, went through one on one with Bentley and, with a couple of teammates in support, overplayed to the point that Coker got back and made an emphatic tackle to keep his team clinging on. Then, twenty seconds from the final whistle, as the Wycombe fans jumped and celebrated in glee, the game truly delivered on all the pre-match excitement. Southend attacked. The cross came in from the left. Corr headed down to Piggott. Piggott turned in the Chairboys’ box, unchallenged. He rifled a low shot into the bottom right. Equaliser. Mega scenes from the Shrimpers. A low murmur of anguish around me.

So it went to penalties. The teams stretched out along the halfway line. Southend were up first.

The heroic Joe Piggott made the long walk. A moment’s hesitation. Scored.

Wycombe’s Peter Murphy was up next. To the keeper’s left. Scored.

Then it was the turn of the man with the crucial tackle, Ben Coker. Saved! Lynch had done it!

Alfie Mawson scored. Wycombe were ahead.

Ryan Leonard tucked away for Southend, Paul Hayes for Wycombe.

Jack Payne kept the Shrimpers within touching distance, pinging home.

Matt Bloomfield trudged forward for Wanderers’ fourth. Bentley got a hand to it! Screams of Southend relief!

The tension was now unbearable. Seven more penalties were taken, all converted. Southend now led seven-six.

Sam Wood stepped up to take Wycombe level once more.

Bentley stopped him.

The Southend players raced wildly from the touchline, arms outstretched toward their disbelieving keeper. The Wycombe players and supporters crumpled alike. A last minute equaliser, then the cold calculation of spot kicks. Southend had calculated the better, and now the noise of primal joy reverberated around Wembley, cutting through the total hush amongst the stricken Chairboys – the fans who had come so close.

Southend will play League One football next season, while Wanderers will have to regroup and challenge once more come August; keep their squad and management together and, despite this cruel loss, they should be in a good position to do so. As for The Luxury Fan, there is no telling what highs and lows future football will bring. To make an educated guess, however, the lows will probably involve drinking Bovril on a frozen terrace in mid-December. Just a guess, that.

Result (AET): Southend United 1 (7) Wycombe Wanderers 1 (6).
My MoM: Joe Piggott. Lively from the moment he came on, took his penalty well. Oh, and scored a leveller with half a minute to go.
Best fans: anyone who persistently stood. Take that, Wembley.

Advertisement
Not with a bang but a Shrimper

Breaking new ground

The game: Hendon v. Corinthian-Casuals.
The ground: Silver Jubilee Park.
The conditions: brrrr.

When television pundits talk about ‘the magic of the cup’, they are almost invariably not referring to the London Senior Cup. This is quite unfair considering that – more so than the cynical sponsorship exercise that is the Milk/Littlewoods/Rumbelows/Coca-Cola/Worthington/Carling/Capital One Cup and its increasingly anodyne FA counterpart – the London Senior Cup can be more than a little enchanting; it was especially so this Thursday evening, when Hendon competed with Corinthian-Casuals for a spot in its semi-final.

Perhaps the most magical aspect of the fixture was the fact that this was the Greens’ first competitive match at their soon-to-be new home, Silver Jubilee Park. Having roved from one non-league ground to another since the departure from Claremont Road in 2009, having journeyed through Northwood, Staines, Wembley and – most recently – Harrow, this game marked the moment that Hendon Football Club finally returned to (West) Hendon itself; the club might still have to see out the current league campaign at the Earlsmead, but the cup tie with Casuals was an opportunity to remind the supporters of what truly local games feel like.

The significance of the match brought in a bumper attendance, and there was a great sense of eagerness before kick off; the clubhouse and adjoining stand were absolutely rammed with Greens’ fans while a singing section gathered early behind the away goal – their presence was notably marked by a banner which simply read: ‘Hendon Loyal’. Nonetheless, despite being a Ryman South side, Casuals were not about to bow to the occasion. Hendon’s opponents had not come this far in the cup by chance; the Greens would have to be at their best to mark their homecoming with a win.

For the opening half an hour, the two sides were evenly matched; open, end-to-end football flowed freely on the artificial 3G surface – a far cry from the Earlsmead’s pockmarked battlefield of a pitch. Hendon created their first opening in the sixth minute, bold running by Aaron Morgan and a good cross in from the left finding Max McCann five yards out; from there, the Greens’ midfielder could only slice his shot over the crossbar. Casuals then came straight back at them; tricky feet by Mahrez Bettache saw him slip past Casey Maclaren and into the box, but his stinging effort was chested away by Elliott Brathwaite.

After Casuals’ forward Jamie Byatt had run thirty yards unopposed and blasted over the crossbar, Hendon’s Andre Da Costa was next to take aim; Greens’ striker Leon Smith held the ball up well to the right of the box before cushioning a pass for Da Costa to rifle low at goal – Casuals’ stopper Danny Bracken saved this confidently. Several long-range efforts were exchanged before, in the fifteenth minute, the visitors nearly opened the scoring. Maclaren couldn’t clear a long ball into the box, and this was seized upon by lively attacker Max Austin. One on one with Ben McNamara, Austin rather snatched at his shot; Hendon’s keeper dived to his left and spanked it away to safety.

In the twenty-fifth minute, Casuals had another great chance to put themselves ahead. Ross Defoe ran directly at the Hendon centre backs and, caught ball watching, they completely failed to track a clever run by Bettache; Defoe skidded a cute ball through the Greens’ back line to set his teammate away. Just as Bettache was about to slot past McNamara, Maclaren then redeemed his earlier mistake by making the tackle of the match. Getting back and timing his slide perfectly, he left the Casuals’ number eight striking at thin air before thumping the ball away.

This goal-saving intervention was to prove quite decisive. Four minutes later, Hendon went ahead. A goal kick sent Morgan steaming off down the left once more, then all the way round the Casuals’ retreating backline and in behind. Bearing down on goal, he rattled a cross-cum-shot across the goalmouth; in a cruel twist of fate, it was would-be goalscorer Bettache who got the inevitable touch on it, blasting it into his own goal via the underside of the crossbar. One-nil Hendon, and it was a Corinthian-Casuals player with the first competitive home goal at Silver Jubilee Park.

In the thirty-third minute, Casuals could have drawn level with a freak shot; Bettache, desperate to atone, went straight for goal from a corner – and smashed the crossbar. If nothing was paying off for poor Bettache, everything was going Morgan’s way. In the thirty-sixth, Hendon’s number eleven won a free kick on the edge of the away area; controlling the subsequent delivery by Smith and playing a neat one two with defender James Fisher, Morgan burst past a static Casuals’ defence and tucked past Bracken. Two-nil, with Morgan involved in pretty much everything.

The game looked to be decided moments later. On another foray forward, Fisher combined with Morgan on the right. Morgan then sliced the Casual’s back four apart with a through ball for Smith; the Hendon striker dummied, rounded the forsaken Bracken and tapped in from a yard out.

The stunned Casuals managed not to concede again before the break, just about rallying themselves beneath the home bombardment. The away side could have been forgiven for looking bemused at the stroke of half time; having not played badly at all, they were already staring defeat in the face. Meanwhile, the Greens’ fans looked positively overjoyed. So far, so good.

The second half started well for the Greens, Leon Smith racing through almost immediately and attempting to chip Bracken for his second – this time the Casuals’ keeper kept him out. After that, the visitors showed that they had somewhat changed tack; rather than trying to outplay Hendon, they contented themselves with breaking up the Greens’ attacks while staying tight and compact at the back.

This had the desired effect for a while; the home side seemed far less fluent. In the seventy-first minute, Casuals even pulled one back; a quick break after a Hendon dispossession saw winger Juevan Spencer clip a good ball to Bettache – the midfielder finally got his goal, dinking skilfully over the onrushing McNamara before stroking into the back of the net.

The Greens weren’t finished, however. The game was well and truly over as a contest when, just over ten minutes later, substitutes Lee O’Leary and Kezie Ibe passed the ball between themselves almost into the Casuals’ net; it was Ibe who got the eventual finish, firing across Bracken and in. A few minutes later, Danny Dudley fouled Ibe to allow Morgan to put a gloss on the scoreline; sweeping the ball into the side of the net from the spot, this capped off an excellent individual showing from the Greens’ forward.

It ended five-one to Hendon and, even if the score was a little harsh on Casuals, this was indicative of just how majestic the Greens had been on the night. Not only had they won their cup tie, they had shown a glimpse of the club’s footballing future in Hendon. The future looks bright. What a homecoming.

Result: Hendon 5 Corinthian-Casuals 1.
My MoM: Aaron Morgan. Two goals and a forced own goal make a hat-trick, of sorts. Add an assist to that. Monstered it.
Best fans: Greens’ fans. Have followed their team all over, now following them home. ‘Hendon Loyal’.

Breaking new ground