Bostik Premier: Leiston 1 Hendon 2
PUBLISHED: 07:54 30 April 2018 | UPDATED: 07:54 30 April 2018
Hendon sealed a third-place finish against the odds on Saturday after Jamie O’Hara’s stoppage time goal for Billericay against Folkestone sealed a point for the champions.
Coupled with Hendon’s 2–1 win against fellow play-off side Leiston, it saw the Greens gain home advantage in the semi-final on Thursday night.
Although goal difference was firmly in Hendon’s favour, they knew a point would eradicate all doubt of their top-five finish.
However, the Greens knew that they needed to win to have so much as a sniff of home advantage in midweek.
With Arthur Lee missing through illness, it was a reshuffled Hendon back four that took the field with Luke Tingey coming in at right-back, James Hammond shifting to left-back and Ollie Sprague partnering Rian Bray at centre-half.
Casey Maclaren returned in midfield after suspension alongside Sam Murphy with Dan Uchechi taking the wide-left berth.
The first half was a fairly even affair with both sides looking to take the initiative but failing to create much in the way of clear-cut chances.
Twice, the slick pitch defeated Leiston forwards as they looked to shoot – the ball holding up slightly – Matt Blake having his effort kicked away by Tom Lovelock and Christy Finch directing his effort wide.
The clearer chances fell to the Greens, with Niko Muir flicking an effort narrowly wide of the near post, Josh Walker having a low shot saved after Maclaren had intercepted a Marcus Garnham bowl out and a fierce effort from Uchechi forcing a fine save at full stretch from Garnham too.
The second half saw both sides even more committed to attack than before and Ashley Nathaniel-George had a couple of sighters from the edge of the penalty area early on, Sam Murphy’s powerful drive was fisted away by Garnham who then did well to paw away an Uchechi free kick that was top-corner bound.
Blake then wriggled away from Tingey on the hour mark and cut the ball back to the waiting Finch on the edge of the six yard box. It looked easier to score than miss, but as Finch looked to sweep the ball home left-footed, his effort went so wide of the post that it would probably have ended up wide of a second goal next to the one he was aiming for.
He was made to pay for that miss as Nathaniel-George broke the deadlock moments later with yet another superb strike.
Having had some luck picking the ball up from deep and driving off the left flank in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, the Hendon winger did so again.
Walker, playing as the most advanced forward, dropped off his marker Tom Bullard to receive the ball into feet and returned the pass to his attacking colleague.
Walker’s movement had created a gap as Bullard had tracked his man and Nathaniel-George made the most of it surging towards the edge of the box and then unleashing a beautiful curling effort with his right foot that left Garnham clutching at thin air as the ball sailed into the top corner of the net.
Just 90 seconds later, the lead was extended and ultimately it proved to be an unassailable advantage.
Once again, Nathaniel-George’s craft proved invaluable as he teased Kyle Hammond before cutting the ball back to the edge of the penalty area.
It was met first time by Uchechi and although Garnham got a hand to the Nigerian’s effort, it wasn’t enough to stop the ball from sailing into the same top corner as Nathaniel-George’s earlier effort and doubling the Greens’ lead.
Leiston immediately made a double change replacing Blake and Finch with Jake Marsden and Chris Henderson – both players having proved to be thorns in Hendon’s side in the past.
The arrears were reduced with about 20 minutes remaining when Marsden sent a cross in towards the far post. Lovelock was at full stretch, yet unable to get anywhere near the ball which, if it had been aimed just inside of the far stick, couldn’t have been better judged. The ball struck the inside of the post and went in.
The hosts, smelling blood, piled forward but Lovelock only had one real save to make, thanks to the efforts of Tingey, Sprague, Bray and James Hammond, although it was a brilliant one from a Byron Lawrence piledriver that travelled at pace and required the goalkeeper at full stretch to palm the ball onto the crossbar.
Bray, in particular, deserves mention for a performance that oozed a maturity beyond his years, not only in shackling the dangerous Jake Reed but also in the way he organised the back four.
Leiston continued to press for the equaliser and forced a number of corners, but aside from a couple of good Lovelock punches and a corner which glanced off the face of the crossbar, Hendon were able to see out the final stages without too many alarms.
A minute or so later, the final whistle went, confirming the Greens’ place in the top four – yet the loudest cheer of the afternoon was reserved for news of O’Hara’s equaliser at New Lodge. With the Greens faithful resigned to a long Thursday evening trip to Folkestone, news of the home draw – care of the chairman’s phone – was greeted with unrivalled joy amongst the travelling throng of Hendon supporters.
Hendon: Lovelock, Hammond, Sprague, Tingey, Bray, Maclaren (Cole), Uchechi, Murphy, Walker (Ball), Muir (Joseph), Nathaniel-George. Unused subs: Eggleton, Currie.