Thursday 28th April 2016 – RymanPremier League – Playoff semi final – Bognor Regis Town 0 v 1 Dulwich Hamlet – Nyewood Lane – Att: 1403

One swing of the right boot by Ashley Carew and the dream of promotion died in an instant for Bognor Regis Town. It was the 91st minute of a nervous and tense playoff semi-final when Carew curled a free kick over the Bognor wall and beyond the reach of Bognor goalkeeper Grant Smith. It was that precise that Smith was rooted to his spot as the ball flew past him and dropped in the bottom corner of the net. The Dulwich Hamlet players and travelling Dulwich supporters celebrated wildly whilst the Bognor players, management team and majority of 1500+ crowd inside Nyewood Lane looked on in utter disbelief. It was never supposed to end this way. This was a cruel way to lose a game and an even more painful way of ending a season that had promised so much and delivered plenty of highs, but the ultimate prize of a playoff final and a shot of promotion had been snatched away right at the very death.

The cliché of the season being a marathon and not a sprint has never been as apt as it has been for Bognor Regis Town’s 2015/16 campaign. This was the Sussex club’s 65th game of very long season, a season that included a glorious and memorable run to the FA Trophy semi-finals, which included beating four clubs from the higher divisions before National League Grimsby Town proved just an obstacle too far with a trip to Wembley within touching distance.

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A dark storm cloud had already gathered over Nyewood Lane midway through the second half, but when Bognor’s top scorer Jason Prior stepped up to take a penalty with just under fifteen minutes of this one legged semi-final remaining, you sensed the mood inside the ground was about to brighten even if the weather wasn’t about to oblige. However, the experienced hands of Hamlet’s goalkeeper Preston Edwards stretched far enough to pull off a fantastic save down to his right to deny Prior and swing the momentum back in Dulwich’s favour. It was a crucial juncture in the game and the home crowd stared to sense it wasn’t going to be Bognor’s night.

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In all honesty had the penalty been put away by Prior it would have come against the run of the play of the game, as Dulwich had been the better of the two sides on the night despite finishing 14 points behind Bognor in the league season. The home side just never managed to get their fluid passing game going on the night and the ball was often wasted when the Bognor’s midfield of Connor Tighe, Stuart Green and Doug Tuck tried to open up the well drilled Dulwich back line.

Out of form Dulwich Hamlet had come into the game on the back of a final day defeat away at relegation threatened Needham Market, where as Bognor were on a fine run that included six straight high scoring wins. They (Bognor) had also finished 2nd in the Ryman Premier League (RPL) table missing out on promotion and the title by just a single point.

In a cruel twist of fate Bognor had also been in a similar position as recently as 2011 when the Met Police denied them the Ryman League Division One South title on goal difference, before Dulwich Hamlet went on to inflict more heartache on the Rocks with a 3-1 win in the playoff semi-final at Bognor’s ground. It almost felt like history virtually repeating itself as Bognor’s dreams suddenly became their nightmares once again.

Dulwich had beaten Bognor twice in the league, and as recently as April at Champion Hill, and of the other three clubs involved in the RPL playoffs Dulwich were certainly one of the strongest even if their recent league form had suggested otherwise.

In the build up to the game Dulwich manager Gavin Rose had spoken of the threat Bognor’s forward players posed to his side, which included twenty four goals being scored by them in their final six league games, however, on this most crucial of nights Jamie Howell’s players just couldn’t find the net once.

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Dulwich had started the game well in front of an exceptionally big home crowd, and it was the South London side who dominated the possession in the first twenty five minutes. Nevertheless, Bognor remained a threat going forward and the first real chance for either side came when James Crane’s cross caused a mix up between Hamlet goalkeeper Edwards and one of his defenders, but Connor Tighe on loan from Brighton couldn’t swing his boot around the ball to divert it goal bound.

Stuart Green was the next to go close for Bognor but his well hit shot went the wrong side of the post. Dulwich were causing the home side problems too, and Nyren Clunis made Grant Smith pull off a diving save when his run into the box went unchecked. The biggest chance of the half came Dulwich’s way with the half time whistle about to go. An in-swinging corner saw Dulwich defender Matt Drage rise the highest in the penalty box to plant a header at goal which forced Smith into a smart save.

The second half again began with Dulwich dominating the ball as the Bognor players found themselves penned into their own half for long periods. A series of corners came to nothing for Dulwich and Bognor manager Jamie Howell was forced to re-think his approach. On came Craig Robson and Ollie Pearce for Stuart Green and Doug Tuck.

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Unlucky to start the game on the bench, winger Pearce was immediately involved in the action and it took a nasty challenge from Mitchell Nelson to halt one of his dangerous ones forward. The referee produced the first yellow card of the contest.

The referee and linesman were not proving themselves popular with the Bognor supporters as a few decisions went the way of Dulwich. They were further incensed when Chad Field was booked for a challenge on Akinyemi that looked 50/50 around the seventy minute mark.

Then with fifteen minutes remaining the referee gave a decision in Bognor’s favour as Alfie Rutherford was fouled in the box and a penalty was awarded. Bognor’s hero and top scorer Jason Prior stepped up but Edwards denied him. It was a massive moment in the game but Bognor failed to seize the initiative which would have probably seen them go on to win the game.

Dulwich finished the game the stronger side and almost won the game inside the ninety minutes. Akinyemi somehow managed to miss the ball after a great cross just needed a touch. That left Carew to have the final say in second half injury time as Dulwich secured a place in the final.

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As the majority of the crowd drifted away into the night before the storm could dampen their mood further, you could only image the utter devastation that must have been felt inside that Bognor dressing room.

After playing thirteen games in the final four a half weeks of the season this just felt like a game too far for the Bognor players. They had come so close to glory in both the FA Trophy and now in the League but history is littered with clubs and stories of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’.

The Bognor management team of Jamie Howell and Darin Killpartrick have been on a journey together with this club since 2009. That journey has had plenty of highs and lows in that seven year period and they will have to rebuild again this summer for another shot at promotion to step 2. Bognor fans everywhere will hope they do just that despite this massive disappointment.

Dulwich themselves went on to suffer their own heartache with a 3-1 defeat in the final against East Thurrock United, meaning these two clubs will meet yet again in the RPL next season.

The agony and ecstasy of the playoffs continue to provide the neutral with drama in bucket loads. Sadly, for this seaside club it was a heart-breaking ending to what otherwise was a memorable season on the South coast.

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