I had a decision to make.
I’d just watched my train to Ashford pull away from platform 15 at Waterloo, meaning that I would be cutting it very fine indeed if I was going to make it to Short Lane in time for kick off, if indeed I made it at all! The next train was timetabled to arrive barely 5 minutes before kick off and the 25 minute walk from the station to the ground seemed now to be a deal breaker. After some deliberation, I took a gamble and jumped on a train to nearby Feltham, hoping to wing it in a cab from there. It was one of the best decisions I have made in a long while.
Arriving at the ground having spent more than £15 to get there and still missing the first 10 minutes, I was not optimistic. The original tie between these two Ryman Premier rivals on Saturday had ended 0-0 and there was little early evidence of the drama to come in the first period of play that I witnessed. Neither side could create much of a chance and the only entertainment was the atmosphere, provided by the combination of a surprisingly noisy bunch of Tangerines fans behind the goal (who insisted on doing the “oooooooOOOOOhhhhHH” shout during every back pass) and the regular lift off of flights from nearby Heathrow.
On 24 minutes, Hendon took what was probably a deserved lead through Lewis Ochua after a superb cross from the right. The home side, always (even by the stadium announcer) referred to as “Ashford Town (Middx)” in order that they may be distinguished from their namesakes from deepest Kent, had mostly matched Hendon without ever threatening the Green goal but that almost changed just before half time.
Referee Quelch had apparently not been “at his best” so to speak on Saturday, according to the locals, and he did his popularity in this part of the world no favours when turning down what looked like a very strong penalty shout which, had he given it, would almost have certainly meant red for the Hendon defender. Luckily for Mr. Quelch, half time was only seconds away at which point he was given the privilege of having to leave the pitch in the corner, right next to the tea bar whereby he could receive some congratulations for his performance. “Worst decision I’ve ever seen”, “Cheat” and “Did you get your whistle in a cracker, ref?” were a few.
The second half started with referee Quelch insisting, almost continually it seemed, on the Hendon players getting a move on and not wasting time at throw-ins – a fact mocked by one defender who pretended to take a throw without a ball, it having not yet been returned from the stand.
On 67 minutes, the ground came alive when Ashford captain Paul Johnson curled a free kick into the top right hand corner of the Hendon net with his left foot. The Ashford Trees were back in it and the odds were further swung in their favour 10 minutes later when Wayne O’Sullivan was sent off for an elbow which, it seemed, no-one saw apart from the ref and his “George from ‘George and Mildred’-alike” assistant (left). Surely now, the home side would make their dominance tell?
They started well, Brian Haule managing to do something I’ve never seen done before by hitting the crossbar twice with a single shot – the ball bouncing straight up in the air the first time, only to come back down and strike it again. But as time ticked on, it was actually Hendon who looked the more likely to score – their efforts though, did not produce the vital goal in normal time, meaning that we were to be treated to an extra 30 minutes of what, by now, was a very good game indeed.
It took Ashford only six minutes to take the lead in extra time, with a superb cross from the much-maligned Hone Fowler (‘Kiwi’ to his management) which was headed in at the near post by Byron Harrison.
Ashford, however, began to show their nerves despite their numerical advantages both on the scoresheet and on the team sheet and, once the Hendon manager had thrown on some attacking subs in an effort to try and claw back their place in the Cup, the game swung back towards the Tank End (pictured). Lubo Guentchev was only just beaten to a short back pass by the Ashford keeper in one of many efforts the Dons carved out.
When all looked lost, however, and with 1 minute of injury time in extra time having already been played, Hendon substitute Glenn Garner curled an identical free kick to Ashford’s equaliser into the top left corner to send the Hendon fans and bench into delirious celebrations. Barely had the game kicked off, once the referee had calmed everyone down, when Mr. Quelch blew his whistle to indicate that time was up and we would have to settle for a penalty shoot out.
In another first for me, all 5 initial penalty takers scored and, when the next 3 from each team did likewise, talk switched to what would be done if Hendon ran out of penalty takers, having seen their number 9 depart the pitch what seemed like hours ago. Eventually however, another O’Sullivan – Vinnie this time – saw his effort saved by keeper James Reading and it was left to Pat O’Donnell to power the Dons into a 4th Qualifying Round tie at home to Woking.
The jubilant Hendon fans behind the goal left singing “… and she wheeled her wheel barrow, through Wealdstone and Harrow …” long into the night and Ashford were left to wonder how they’d let things slip so late on after having fought their way back into the game.
I had missed my last train home but a very kind fan gave me a lift back into town and, after a game like that, I probably could have happily walked the 17 miles home.
That last statement was not true. But it was a very good game indeed.