Andrew Warshaw on an epic but ultimately tragic end to Town’s season
So near, and yet so far.
In front of their biggest home attendance since the club was formed 21 years ago – a crowd twice as big as any seen since the club moved to QE2 Stadium in 2011 – Enfield Town’s promotion hopes ended in heartbreaking circumstances.
On the biggest night of their footballing lives, Town led twice through Jerry Gyebi and Mo Faal and dominated for most of the game, only for Hornchurch to level on 87 minutes and then snatch victory three minutes later, just as the clock had been ticking towards extra-time. It sealed a 3-2 win for the East London side, who are due to compete in the play-off final on Monday, 2nd May.
Crestfallen Town 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 had still been the club’s best-ever season – having finished third (above Hornchurch) in the Isthmian Football League Premier Division table.
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 to the bench. But Town’s line-up was certainly an attacking one with three forwards starting in a 4-3-3 formation.
Olly Muldoon and Joe Christou both threatened the Town goal early on but Town gradually imposed themselves on the game and, on 38 minutes, shortly after a clear penalty claim for handball was turned down, Enfield took the lead. Percy Kiangebeni’s free-kick was flicked on and Jerry Gyebi supplied an excellent finish.
It could so easily have been 2-0 when a Sam Youngs effort hit the base of the Hornchurch 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.
After the restart, Hornchurch levelled out of nothing on 56 minutes, when Liam Nash took advantage of hesitant defending to convert a long throw. Within a couple of minutes, Enfield restored their lead as Muleba’s surging run and cross was rattled home by Mo Faal.
Cue Hornchurch’s call from the bench for the dangerous Sam Higgins, who turned the game on its head. On 87 minutes, 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, who lashed it into the far corner. And as Town’s frustrations boiled over, Manny Maja was dismissed for a second yellow.
Players, management, fans and directors were collectively left shell-shocked as the borough’s biggest club were just three minutes away from the play-off final, with promotion to the ‘holy grail’ of National League South within touching distance. Victory would have also given Town a home final against local arch-rivals Cheshunt, who had upset Bishop’s Stortford in the other semi-final, making Hornchurch’s late comeback a gut-wrenching double-whammy for Enfield.
It was nonetheless an incredible atmosphere and a very special occasion. “Football can be a cruel mistress at times and so it proved,” said Enfield manager Andy Leese afterwards. “A devastating end to the game and our hopes, which I just didn’t see coming. We gave it our all.
“It’s been an exceptional season in so many ways and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.”
It was entirely fitting that after a memorable campaign, the team were given a rapturous send-off by the majority of a bumper crowd of almost 2,000 – 1,948 to be precise – that had the QE2 Stadium packed to the rafters and bursting at the seams.
Despite the agony of defeat and a summer of ‘what-ifs’ ahead, the entire squad can look back with pride. The play-offs were always the goal from day one of the season, something clubs with far greater resources than Town – English football’s first fan-owned club – 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, some of whom may decide their future lies elsewhere – although it is too soon to speculate as, at time of writing, the players are still absorbing the reality of defeat.
Enfield Town chairman Paul Reed told the Dispatch that everything will be done to make the squad equally competitive next time around. He said: “It was hugely disappointing to get so close to our first play-off final at this level, but when the dust settles we will look back and feel very proud.
“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.
“We will have a catch-up with [manager] Andy and the players in the coming weeks and make sure we are in the best shape to start next season, to give us every chance of going one better.”