AFC HORNCHURCH 2 LOWESTOFT TOWN 1
The ground was packed, all seats filled long before kick off, and standing areas filled to capacity on the East Side and the Riverside. The reason? The Play Off final, which seems designed purely to try and prevent the second placed team from taking its rightful promotion place. Lowestoft brought four coach loads of supporters with them.
Hornchurch kicked towards the windmill end, and started confidently, winning a free kick in the first minute when Lewis Smith was fouled. Andy Tomlinson touched the ball sideways to Simon Glover, and his first time shot skimmed the post, to set the pace for the rest of the match.
A minute later and it was another free kick, and this time Tomlinson directed the ball deep into the goalmouth where keeper Andrew Reynolds punched away to safety, the first of many fine saves which kept his side in the match.
Smith made ground on the right, running forward to Frankie Curley’s pass, and won a corner, which Tomlinson sent over close to goal where Greg Crane headed away.
Carl Rook took a pass from Glover and made ground on the right wing, where he crossed for Curley to crash his shot goalwards, the ball hitting a defender and deflecting narrowly wide for another corner, which Tomlinson took and this time it was Sam Gaughran who cleared. But only as far as Smith who quickly fed the ball to James Love, whose shot went a fraction over the bar.
The siege was halted when Chris Henderson moved sharply through to meet Reynolds’ long kick, but quick reaction from Love prevented any danger, though shortly afterwards Michael Frew played the ball through to Joe Francis, who almost got in a shot, only for Love to get in what proved to be an important tackle.
Hornchurch came back strongly and almost scored when Martin Tuohy’s shot eluded Reynolds, but a defender came back at speed to scoop the ball off the line.
Next it was Rook to Smith whose shot went over the bar. Back came the Urchins, and Rickie Hayles sent Joe Anderson away, and down he went, Lewis Smith took the free kick, with Tomlinson lurking, and the ball crashed against the wall.
Hornchurch were relieved when Frew headed over, and again when Henderson raced through the middle, forcing Joe Woolley to come quickly out to narrow the angle, and then to save the shot which looked to be going in otherwise.
Hornchurch enjoyed the better of the territorial play and again went close after Anderson and Glover combined to set up Curley, whose shot curved wide of the post.
Close to half time and Curley conceded a somewhat controversial free kick, following what many considered to be a perfectly legitimate tackle on Joe Francis, and it was Curley who then headed away from the free kick.
Second half and a Rook cross was headed away by Crane as far as Martin Tuohy, whose shot went wide. But Lowestoft were now coming more into the match as an attacking force, and an Adam Smith free kick was headed out for a corner by Reiss Noel. Lubomir Guentchev sent the ball over and Hornchurch were relieved when Dale Cockrill’s unchallenged headed went wide of the goal.
A shot by Adam Smith was then blocked and the ball was quickly played firmly upfield by Love to Lewis Smith out on the right and his cross found Rook who hooked the ball past Reynolds but wide of the post.
And a minute later it was Rook again, but he fired weakly and Reynolds gratefully made an easy save.
A moment of controversy when Lewis Smith fed through to Carl Rook who was brought down inside the area, but play was allowed to continue,
Curley found himself with a chance in front of goal, but Reynolds made a fine save to prevent the goal.
Lowestoft always looked dangerous when they came forward though the closest they came was when Guentchev tried a speculative shot from long range, and the ball bounced off the cross bar, although Woolley appeared to have it well covered.
Drama at the other end, when Lewis Smith was fouled and Tomlinson’s free kick caused havoc in the Lowestoft defence, and Reynolds made two excellent saves in quick succession, first to block from Tuohy, and then a second later to tip the follow up from Rook around the post. Tomlinson’s corner was then cleared to ease the pressure.
A Rook shot was turned around the post for another Tomlinson corner, and again it was Reynolds to the rescue, punching clear under pressure.
Guentchev, ever dangerous, fired wide, whilst Crane’s free kick went for a corner, via Reiss Noel, and Guentchev’s corner was headed away by Rickie Hayles.
Guentchev then shot wide of the goal, and Hornchurch came back as the match moved towards extra time. Lewis Smith tried a hard drive which Reynolds turned around the post, but the keeper was then beaten by Tomlinson’s corner, which found Noel, only for his header to be directed a fraction too high.
Into stoppage time and Leon McKenzie came on for Carl Rook, who lacked match practice after a long lay off. And in the last minute of stoppage time, a Hayles throw was well held by Reynolds, and Hornchurch then won another throw, this time out on the right. Hayles raced across, hurled the ball into the goalmouth and Curley rose high to head powerfully at goal, where Reynolds made an incredible finger tip save to tip the ball over the bar. There was not time to take the corner.
Extra time, with Hornchurch again kicking towards the windmill end. And at last came the breakthrough. Adam Smith was caught in possession near the half way line, and McKenzie moved rapidly forward, turning the ball out to Tuohy, and it was LEON McKENZIE who continued his run to slot the ball home – cue bedlam.
Lowestoft threw everyone forward, and Joe Woolley made an excellent save from Robert Eagle, turning the ball around the post. The pressure was eased when Guentchev put the corner behind the goal.
Back came the Urchins, and Reynolds saved from Lewis Smith, at the cost of another Tomlinson corner. Lewis Smith then hit a free kick past the defensive wall, and again Reynolds saved.
Disaster then struck, when Curley mistimed a challenge to concede a penalty, which DEAN SINCLAIR converted.
Hornchurch almost replied within seconds. McKenzie took a pass from Glover and set off on a weaving run, and played the ball into the middle, where Tuohy’s shot was scrambled off the line and to safety.
Michael Spencer came on for Andy Tomlinson, who had worked non stop and whose performance was an inspiration.
The second half of extra time saw Lowestoft looking for goals. A Guentchev corner was cleared by Love, and then came another moment of controversy when Greg Crane made a massively mistimed tackle, and the red card seemed inevitable. He had already been booked, but this looked like a straight red – but not to the referee, to whom it looked like a lengthy lecture, to loud jeers from the packed Eastside.
Jon Hunt came on for Martin Tuohy, which now meant that Hornchurch’s two top penalty takers were no longer on the field.
What was Jim McFarlane thinking of? The answer was simple – he was thinking of a win and no need for penalties.
But not before Lowestoft thought they had won the match, following a Guentchev corner, which was headed goalwards, and Woolley hurled himself to his left to parry the ball, which then ran out and was promptly struck back – and again Woolley hurled himself sideways to tip the ball around the post for what must rank as the save of the season. Guentchev’s corner was cleared by Love to Hunt and thence to safety.
More than safety, because it was Lewis Smith who raced forward, weaved his way through and played a perfect pass to MICHAEL SPENCER, whose first time shot beat Reynolds and went in close to the far post. Cue bedlam – no, cue mass hysteria.
Two minutes to go, and Lowestoft threw everyone forward. Even keeper Reynolds. But they did not look like levelling, and when Joe Woolley caught a speculative long ball, it was all over.
The next fifteen minutes witnessed a completely new game – called ‘hunt the player’ as the entire team disappeared under a mass of Eastsiders, and eventually they were released and allowed to collect their winners medals. The time was now just after six pm, and Max was at last able to preside over the presentations, and the little pub team from the heart of rural Essex at last regained their place in the Conference South, a place they had been forced to vacate so many years ago.