Monday, 6 May 2013

Wealdstone 1 Concord Rangers 2

After extra time; 90 mins 1-1

It’s that point in the season when you’re just desperately trying to eek out another match to add to your total. I’d already clocked up in excess of 60 games since last July but a combination of the end-of-season play-offs, a day off work and some beautiful spring sunshine persuaded me to take in another one for good luck.

I had actually intended to visit Wealdstone’s adopted home of the Grosvenor Vale in Ruislip the previous Saturday as the new flat I’ve moved to happens to be a few paces from a Piccadilly Line station, making jaunts to west-flung suburbs like Ruislip very straightforward.

However, the stresses of moving in to said flat meant a blank Saturday in terms of football for the first time in a fair while. By the time I’d arduously unpacked my possession and found an appropriate space for them in my new surroundings, it was about half two and so I was forced to settle for Final Score and a bit of commentary on the radio.

Luckily, Wealdstone beat Canvey Island, neighbours of Concord on that caravan-infested shank of Essex that juts out into the Thames Estuary, and so guaranteed a home play-off semi-final in midweek. I didn’t want to waste such a blessed opportunity.

Wealdstone play a very significant part in Boston United’s history, being not only adversaries in the Alliance Premier and Conference during the 1980s, but the team that beat us on our one and only visit to Wembley - for the 1985 FA Trophy final. Their win that day secured what was an unprecedented league and cup double of what is now the Conference and what still remains the Trophy.

It’s evidently a key part of their heritage and their landmark was printed proudly on the cover of the programme for the play-off occasion - a document that must have been very hastily printed but still featured plenty to read and enjoy. 

The Vale is a rough and ready venue and one I guess that Wealdstone and their supporters hope is temporary before they can move back to their home borough of Harrow. 

Things haven’t gone entirely smoothly since their eighties heyday, but there was a real buzz of expectation going into the ground that this was the season they escaped from the Ryman League and back to the kind of level in which they belong. 

Over one thousand were in attendance, encouraged by the lovely evening and packing out the narrow terraces around the pitch. A hundred or so had made the lengthy cross-capital journey from Essex too, firmly believing that they would be the ones to advance to play either Lowestoft Town or East Thurrock in the Bank Holiday Monday final. 

A very disgusting cheeseburger digesting inside me, I found a spare patch of concrete in one of the corners and watched a one-sided first half unfold. Wealdstone pinned back their opponents from the off, with Concord happy to absorb and counter-attack on the rare occasions they were allowed to.

It was hardly ideal that Concord had to call up an emergency loan goalkeeper in young Luke Chambers in the hours before kick-off, but he excelled, notably when keeping out a point-blank deflected header from Chris O’Leary that drew warm applause from all sides of the ground.   

The Stones should have led - in fact, they should have led by two or three - having also seen three shots come back off the woodwork and, as a result, the blokes stood around me were left with a sense of unease at half-time.

The crowd seemed to shift in my direction at the break, with Wealdstone attacking the end I was standing at. But the atmosphere with so many packed into close proximity was excellent and there were wonderful scenes of celebration when Wealdstone finally took the lead on 62 minutes.

The goal was simplicity itself - Lee Chappell swung in a perfect free-kick from the right and Richard Jolly rose to loop a header into the net. 

Not in the game at all, Concord realised it was now-or-never and actually started to apply some pressure. They should have been dead and buried, but as the coffin lid squeaked shut, the corpse gave a twitch. 

Two minutes remained on the clock when Wealdstone failed to clear their lines and following an almighty goalmouth scramble, Steve King bundled the ball over the line. A pall of gloom fell over the ground - so near and yet so far. Into extra time. 

The goal sucked the life out of Wealdstone - their heads dropped, their legs tired and the self-belief so evident in their rampant first half drained away. Yet they still had the better of things - until the 108th minute at least.

Tony Stokes, who has scored 29 goals this season, was in the right place to turn the ball home after Rikki Banks had saved a header from King. The small pocket of away fans behind the goal went wild, more so when the referee brought proceedings to a close 15 minutes later. 

It was the last game of the season, but there was no Wealdstone lap of honour. Instead, the crowd trudged out into the balmy west London night in funereal silence. They had come so very, very close. 

Next Match: Chelsea v FC Basle in the Europa League semi-final