Hednesford Town 2 Salisbury City 2 a.e.t. (Salisbury win 3-2 on pens) SLP Play-off Final
While Britain has been basking in unseasonal warmth for the past six weeks or so, my guess is that the coldest place in the country during this spell is Hednesford’s Keys Park ground. It was absolutely freezing at yesterday’s play-off final. It was a lovely sunny day. No doubt about that. It was just that the sun was accompanied by a biting gale that seemed to have been swept up straight from the arctic.
Conditions aside, fans rolled up in numbers in anticipation for this final, with nearly 2000 at the venue for this winner takes all showdown between the Southern League’s 2nd and 3rd placed clubs. Hednesford’s ground looks to be one of the bigger and better non-league venues. Large covered terraces at one end and down one side, big enough to genuinely require two rows of crush barriers, both look bigger than their total 5000 capacity.
Another covered end, this time holding around 400 black seats, was designated the away end for this fixture. The main stand side wasn’t quite as impressive. The stand itself, exposed to the wind enough to cause a watching director’s trousers to flap like a flag on a ship’s mast, held about 600, and had two welcoming bars upstairs – these were segregated for the day too. Flat areas flanking either side looked a little empty, but other than that the ground looked a fine non-league ground, and more modern than its age suggests.
One exception to that would have to be the away end toilets. Build underneath the otherwise commendably finished main stand, these were a breeze-block bunker throwback to the 1980s. No locks on the cubicle doors. No toilet paper. No toilet paper holders for that matter. The cubicles did, by a way of variety, offer a choice of blockage. One contained a large styrofoam cup, while the other was occupied by a lager can and a beer bottle. The sinks had no hot water. The large bin was so full of hand-towels that it made you wonder if it had ever been emptied. If Osama Bin Laden had hidden in that bin rather than in Pakistan, he’d still be alive undiscovered today.
2000 fans hadn’t turned up to admire the toilets though. This was serious business, with the whole season on the line. Everything from determination of the players, the nerves of the crowds, and the whole atmosphere in general had a more professional edge, with all the good and bad that entails.
For the first half hour though, the only winner looked like being the wind. It made all attempts at football seem ill-judged as few passes found their target. Not finding the touchline was an achievement half the time.
Salisbury, with the wind at their backs, adjusted first. A shot thumped against the bar with the keeper well beaten sparked a period of ascendency for Salisbury that lasted for the rest of the half. The closest they came was to force an excellent full length save from close range, with a follow up blocked. The half time break, and the loss of the wind advantage, possibly came at the wrong time.
Hednesford had won 17 of their last 20, but you wouldn’t have guessed from the way they were playing. They were having as much possession as Salisbury, but doing almost nothing with it. In fact it took until twenty minutes into the second half for them to have their first serious chance. Unfortunately for Salisbury, it resulted in a goal.
Hednesford found space at the side of the box uncontested. The ball was squared across the six yard box. A chance to cut the ball out was missed, and Hednesford’s Nick Wellecomme was able to flick a boot at the ball and steer it past Salisbury’s keeper. Another smoke bomb went off in the home end, one of many on the day, and the home fans sensed victory.
Salisbury were rattled, and it was just a case of hanging on for the next 10 minutes, or it’d be game over. A tense series of free kicks and corners were cleared, if only just, but it was enough for Salisbury to gain a foothold.
My pre-match neutrality was gone by this point. I wanted Salisbury to save themselves. And save themselves they did with just five minutes left. Matt Wright burst into the box and thumped an equaliser high inside the keeper’s near post.
With extra time looming, Hednesford nearly nicked it. A shot from the edge of the area was aiming for the far corner until Salisbury’s Tommy Smith dived to his right to turn the effort wide, collecting the post into his face for his pains. Luckily, despite a lengthy stoppage for treatment, he was able to continue, as that wouldn’t be the last of his heroics for the day.
Extra time followed, and the first half of it was cagey again. It burst into life at the start of the second half. Slack marking from a free kick allowed Hednesford to flick a floated ball back across goal where Danny Quinn turned the ball in from close range, right in front of the Hednesford fans.
There were no time for nerves now. It was just a case of throw everything forward and hope, while hoping nothing goes wrong at the other end too. It nearly did as a Hednesford run ended in a shot coming back off the woodwork. Hands went to open-mouthed heads. That could have been the clincher.
Time was running out. Just two minutes left. More nervy balls into the box, and equally nervy unconvincing clearances. One looked to have got the ball away, but it fell to Salisbury’s Ben Adelsbury. He had a rare second of room, just enough to line up a shot, and rifled it low and hard. Hednesford’s keeper dived full length, but wasn’t able to get near the shot as it flew true like a missile into the bottom corner. The few hundred Salisbury fans, not to mention one very unneutral neutral, leapt in the air to celebrate. It felt more like a winner than an equaliser. Psychologically, the edge seemed to be with Salisbury now. Hednesford has been close twice, and blown it. How would they handle penalties?
Both scored their first. Hednesford scored their second. Matt Wright, scorer of Salisbury’s first equaliser, took Salisbury’s 2nd kick. He’d had little time to think about his shot during the match, but he walked slow and had an age to think about the spot kick. He didn’t look confident, and hit a terrible penalty, pulling it about as far wide as possible. The Hednesford fans in front of him celebrated. They were in front again. Would they hold on this time?
Another bad kick, this time thumped against the bar and out of the ground, gave momentum back to Salisbury. No mistake this time to equalise.
2-2. Two penalties left each, but confidence looked to be draining from Hednesford, while the irrepressible Tommy Smith danced and bellowed about his goal like a cocaine fuelled bear, ready for anything. And ready he was, diving to his right to smother Hednesford’s 4th kick. Advantage Salisbury, and they took it to lead 3-2 with one kick left.
Danny Quinn, scorer of Hednesford’s second goal, who must have thought he’d won the game for a while, was now looking down the barrel. He had to score past Smith, who looked confident enough to stop bullets by this stage.
It was no contest. Another save, and that was it. Salisbury had come to Hednesford’s backyard and nicked promotion. The players ran to their hero, than ran to the fans who’d sang throughout, to celebrate. From the manager, on his knees with joy, to the players, fans wives and girlfriends on the pitch, it was a day to remember, and one that would be hard to forget.