Ecstasy to Last-Gasp Agony

Enfield Town 2 Hornchurch 3

Report by Andrew Warshaw

So close and yet, agonisingly, so far.

In front of our biggest ever home attendance, a staggering 1,948, Enfield Town’s promotion hopes ended in heartbreaking anguish last night, leaving players, management, fans and directors collectively shellshocked.

Town were just three minutes away from the Isthmian Premier League playoff final, with promotion to the Holy Grail of National League South within touching distance, when Hornchurch struck twice to spoil the party in a last-gasp win that left all of us scarcely able to  believe what had happened.

In an incredible atmosphere in our first playoff for five years, Town led twice through Jerry Gyebi and Mo Faal, only for the Urchins to level on 87 minutes with a piece of sublime skill from super-sub Sam Higgins, then snatch victory three minutes later as the clock ticked towards extra time.

With three players ruled out at the worst possible time – skipper Scott Thomas and Nathan Smith through injury and long throw specialist  Lee Chappell through personal circumstances – John Muleba started at right-back and Harold Joseph, who had hardly trained, was called up at the last minute to the bench against the surprise winners of last season’s FA Trophy.

Town’s line-up was certainly an attacking one with all three of our forwards starting in a 4-3-3- formation.  Adam Cunnington had the game’s first big chance when he headed wide after two minutes while at the other end former Towner Micky Parcell sent Liam Nash’s backheel too close to Nathan McDonald.

Olly Muldoon and Joe Christou both then threatened our goal as we took time to settle but  we gradually imposed ourselves on the game and  on 38 minutes, shortly after a clear penalty claim for handball was turned down, we took the lead. Percy Kiangebeni’s freekick was flicked on and Jerry Gyebi – one of our best players on the night – supplied an excellent finish (pictured).

It could so easily have been 2-0 when a Sam Youngs effort hit the base of the post before rebounding to safety. The first half was then prolonged for several minutes for what appeared to be a bad injury to Hornchurch’s Tom Wraight who was carried off on a stretcher and replaced.

H-T 1-0

Just after the restart, again we might have doubled our lead when Cunnington’s bicycle kick had Joe Wright, another ex-Towner, scrambling, only for Hornchurch to level out of nothing on 56 minutes when Nash took advantage of hesitant defending to convert a long throw.

It didn’t at the time do any lasting damage, however, because within a couple minutes we had restored our lead as Muleba’s surging run and cross was rattled home by Mo Faal.

But cue Hornchurch’s call from the bench for the dangerous Higgins who turned the game on its head. With his first touch,  he created a golden chance for Nash who shot inches wide with McDonald beaten.

With 15 minutes left on the clock, we almost made the game safe only for Wright to save superbly from the ever-willing if tiring Cunnington. But just as it looked as if we would hold on and the celebrations would last long into the night, they were suddenly cut short. Higgins controlled the ball 25 yards out and sent an outrageous lob beyond McDonald and in off the post for 2-2.

All eyes were now on extra time but instead Town’s collective hearts were broken as the ball was fed out once again to Nash and this time he made no mistake, lashing it into the far corner.

As our frustrations boiled over, there was still time sadly for Manny Maja to be dismissed for a second yellow.

To make matters worse, victory would have given us a home final against local arch-rivals Cheshunt, who upset Bishop’s Stortford in the other semifinal, on Bank Holiday Monday, a double whammy that made the last-gasp defeat all the more gut-wrenching to take.

Crestfallen players who had left everything on the pitch slumped to the ground in abject disappointment at the final whistle before regrouping for a squad huddle with the management staff to reflect on what has been the club’s best ever season.

It was entirely fitting that after a memorable campaign, the team were given a rapturous send-off by the majority of a bumper crowd that had the stadium packed to the rafters and bursting at the seams.

“Football can be a cruel mistress at times and so it proved,” said Enfield manager Andy Leese. “A devastating end to the game and our hopes which I just didn’t see coming. We gave it our all and edged a very competitive game until the last few minutes when a couple of bits of excellent finishing undid us. It’s been an exceptional season in so many ways and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Final mention to our incredible support which went to a new level last night. Huge appreciation from us all on the management and playing staff.”

Despite the agony of defeat and a summer of “what ifs” ahead, the entire squad can look back with pride. The playoffs were always the goal from day one of the season, something clubs with far greater resources than Town also aspired to but never achieved.

A record points tally and biggest ever average home gate speaks volumes about the commitment and camaraderie of a unique group of players.

“It was hugely disappointing to get so close to our first playoff final at this level but when the dust settles we will look back and feel very proud,” said chairman Paul Reed.

“To have a crowd of that magnitude shows the inroads we’ve made in the local community and how our support base is growing. Hopefully we can carry that forward.”

Town: McDonald, Muleba, Bray, Gyebi, Kirwan (Della Verde 90), Kiangebeni, Maja, Youngs;  Cunnington, Faal, Cass