On Saturday afternoon everything was over. Our play-off hopes were completely dead and buried, barring a miraculous run-in that would bring us maximum points from our remaining four league matches. That was very unlikely to happen particularly in view of our stuttering record against sides in the bottom four this season and indeed the fact that we still had to host Kingstonian. We were running on empty, just as we had been four years ago when we entered the last day of the season with our play-off destiny in our own hands only to see them slip through our fingers despairingly against Wealdstone.
I spent all of Saturday evening following the 3-0 reverse against an impressive Margate side wondering just what it was about being a Hendon fan that played so heavily on my emotions. Was it the fact that I always saw us as plucky underdogs, expecting to be disappointment yet daring to hope when things were going well? The end to the 2007/8 season had been a real kick in the goolies, yet the reality was that we had fallen just short. There could be no doubting the effort and commitment, we just didn’t quite have enough about us to make our season last a week longer.
This season has felt a bit different though. In 2007/8 I felt as if the players were almost as surprised as we fans were that we had been riding so high in the league. This time around, for the most part there has been a belief about the way we set ourselves up that we belong at the top end of the table and aren’t there due to a fortunate good run. And so with each impressive win against our rivals in and around the play-offs that belief has grown and filtered onto the terraces. I think it has shown with the number of times fans have come away from games disappointed because we’ve only had a point to show, when really, had we put in a performance as we did at Bury or against Lowestoft or Hornchurch, we would have come away with all three.
This all made getting up to go and watch the boys play in the miserable, blustery wet conditions that the bank holiday brought along a tiny bit tougher. Those five minutes of madness at Lewes were pretty hard to take. Yet three days later we had beaten AFC Wimbledon for the third time at Kingsmeadow in the London Senior Cup under Gary McCann. Elation. Of course, that was then followed by deflation as Margate turned us over with a worrying degree of comfort. What on earth was yesterday to bring?
The home match against Wingate had seen us draw 1-1 with Greg Ngoyi grabbing a second half equaliser. Although Murat Karagul had seen red for a foul on Ryan Wharton, we displayed a lack of guile on the day that would have brought us three points. At the time, I saw that as two points dropped. With the hosts requiring a point to guarantee Premier Division football next season, I expected a tough afternoon’s viewing.
The first six minutes were tough to watch. Wingate began the game with their customary powerful and pacy attacking, and the Hendon back four were put under early pressure. A skewed clearance by Berkley Laurencin did little to settle the nerves as the ball span away off the outside of his boot having fizzed off the greasy surface.
In the 7th minute, began a sequence of events that wouldn’t have been too out of place in something like Groundhog Day or Jesus, Don’t leave him unmarked on the Far Post again! as Scott Cousins’ excellent left-footed delivery from out wide, using full benefit of the wind was simply touched home by Isaiah Rankin for his first 1st half goal of the season, and his earliest of any match by about three and a half hours.
The goal settled Hendon down and they began to assert themselves. Tom Davie and Scott Shulton were both fairly prominent, linking well with Carl McCluskey and Rankin whilst the back four dealt well with the increasingly limited Wingate threat. After Davie had returned a poor Bobby Smith clearance with interest from 40-odd yards out that bounced off the base of the post, the lead was increased in the 20th minute when Cousins delivered a corner towards the far post for Casey Maclaren to climb highest and nod the ball home simply from close range for his first goal of the season.
|Casey Mac - Superb effort this season so far.|
At this point it is worth making a note of Casey’s efforts this season. He’s always been a player who has given 100% whatever role he has been asked to undertake and having begun this season wide on the left, all that is left for him to do now I think is to don the gloves at some point to complete the set. However, I have always had a nagging doubt about his ability to play at this level. Part of that comes from what I saw as a desire to try and play too much football at times rather than keeping things simple, and part of it was simply down to his temperament. The nadir of my ‘fan / player’ relationship with him, more so than his brother, came after the disgraceful brawl in pre-season at Chesham the summer before last. I really didn’t want him to play for the club again, particularly as this wasn’t the first time he had ‘got involved’. A stray elbow against Dartford, a headbutt against Tonbridge that went sight unseen, it was beginning to verge on the ridiculous.
However, for the first time since his long injury lay-off a few years ago, I have really seen Casey as a real asset to the squad. Not only for his willingness and ability to play in more than one position, but also because he has improved markedly as a footballer now. To be honest, I think the ‘number 6’ role suits him down to the ground, just as it does Kevin. Both have thrived this season in the holding midfield role so much so, that the player most physically suited to the role, Dave Diedhiou has been largely unable to get a look-in. (More of him later). Gary deserves a lot of credit for sticking with Casey through the bad times, his patience is now really paying dividends, and to be fair, Casey (who has always been approachable) deserves a lot of credit for the way he has knuckled down to concentrate on his football, and leave the bare knuckle brawling behind. At no point was that more obvious than yesterday when in the face of some provocation he kept his calm. Gone are the stupid, reckless challenges, gone are the stray elbows and more snidey elements to his game. He has benefitted hugely as a player from the change and Hendon have benefitted as a team.
|The unlikely 2 goal hero (with thanks to hendonfc.net)|
Back to on-field events and the more cynical members of the crowd may have begun to accuse the yellows (as the Greens were yesterday) as employing a game similar some exponents of the egg-shaped game by not so much playing for touch, as playing for corners. On 28 minutes, another corner was swung in by Scott Cousins to the far post were Dave Diedhiou simply prodded the ball in before wheeling away in celebration and within five minutes, yet another Cousins corner to the far post was taken down by Diedhiou, totally unmarked again, before smashing the ball into the roof of the net. The combined distance of the four goals was probably no more than 20 yards, but they all counted.
From a Wingate perspective, the simplicity of the goals was almost as bad as the repetitive nature of them. Hendon really hadn’t had to work especially hard to gain a lead that if not already unassailable by this point, certainly was ten minutes before the break when David Laird, who had scored four times in Wingate’s previous two matches lunged at Ryan Wharton. Behind the goal Wingate fans were vociferous in their disapproval for Wharton’s antics as the referee brandished the red card in Laird’s direction. I would agree that there isn’t really any need for the centre half to yelp as he goes down when fouled, but put quite simply, the challenge was late, reckless and unnecessary. It wasn’t as bad as Karagul’s in the return fixture, but it was worthy of a dismissal.
It had been a while since I had seen Hendon four goals to the good at half-time. In actual fact, it had been a while since I’d seen them manage that many in 90 minutes. Talk at the break was of how many we might go on to get after the break, but I was more concerned with making sure we didn’t do anything silly to undo all of our good work. We did that with a fair degree of comfort, although Wingate deserve credit for giving it a go after the break and forcing a couple of solid saves from Berkley in goal. At the other end we rarely looked like extending our lead before Carl McCluskey coolly made it 5-0 two minutes from the end to complete another good personal performance from him just behind the front man.
I couldn’t actually remember the last time I saw us scoring five in any game, never mind a competitive one. Having looked back through the website, it was a 6-0 win against Biggleswade United in the FA Cup back in September 2005. The last time I’d seen us achieve the feat in a league game? April 22nd 2000 when Hendon beat Farnborough Town 5-3. Although we have of course scored five in matches since then, I had not been lucky enough to have been in attendance.
So, a point outside the play-offs, with Bury losing and having 2 men sent off in the process, there is still a glimmer of hope that this time around Hendon may just sneak into the top five. With three matches remaining, two against relegated sides the match on Saturday against Kingstonian takes on extra significance now. There would be no better time to lay to rest the ghost of our awful league record against them. And with the K’s having to play on Thursday in their London Senior Cup semi-final against Cray, one can hope against hope that they may be struggling a little with fatigue themselves. However, as we saw last season in the final of that competition against Wingate, sometimes fatigue just isn’t there.
This time things are no longer in our hands. All we can do is pick up nine points out of nine. Lewes still have to play Cray and one suspects that Wealdstone may well slip up somewhere with six matches remaining in just over a fortnight. There are likely to be more twists and turns between now and the end of the month, and it promises to be an entertaining ride full of ups and downs. For the time being, I’m laying expectations firmly to rest and concentrating once again on being the plucky underdog.