“When opportunities like this come along you have to seize them”. Those were the words of Hemel Hempstead Town manager Dean Brennan as the Hertfordshire club went into their final game of the season and the biggest game in their history.
They and their final day opponents Whitehawk were in a two-way fight to finish in the final playoff place for the National League South Division, the six tier of English football. Ebbsfleet United, Maidstone United and Truro City had already claimed the other three playoff places, so this winner takes all game would decide who would finish their campaign with an extension to their season.
For both clubs, promotion to National League (Step 1) would represent their highest ever position in the English football pyramid. First they had effectively a playoff quarter final to battle through before a meeting with Non-League big spenders Ebbsfleet, who waited in the playoff semi-finals.
This was only Hemel’s second ever season playing at step two after a glorious Championship winning season in the Southern Premier League in 2013/2014. Brighton based Whitehawk were playing their third season at this level having finished 19th in 2013/14 and 4th in 2014/15. The Hawks had been beaten playoff finalists the year before so it was very much a case of unfinished business for them.
A midweek game in hand had seen Whitehawk climb into the final playoff place and overtake Hemel after a vital 1-1 away draw with playoff rivals Truro City. The goal that had secured that draw had come in the 90th minute through top scorer Danny Mills. That vital point earned drew the Hawks level on 61 points with Hemel but crucially they had a better goal difference. That meant only a win would do for Hemel Hempstead if they were going to avoid missing out on the playoff party.
Form wise going into the game Hemel were undefeated at home since Ebbsfleet United had won at Vauxhall Road way back in early December. As for the Hawks they were on a six game unbeaten run which had included five wins and one draw which had propelled them up the table from 16th to 5th.
A crowd of 972 had been the biggest attendance at Vauxhall Road so far when neighbours St. Albans City had been in town in April. However, for this game there were queues at the turnstiles half an hour before kick-off, which ensured this would be another bumpy payday for Hemel, but it was the result that really mattered to the Tudors and their supporters, not the tills ringing.
The travelling contingent from Sussex had also turned up in good numbers to support their team and they provided fantastic noise and colour to what was already going to be quite an occasion.
30/4/2016 – Hemel Hempstead Town 0 v 3 Whitehawk – National League South – Att : 1,138
They came, they saw and they very much conquered. The visitors were ruthless in this high stakes contest as the home side were swept away in a deadly twenty minute spell that saw Whitehawk score twice before adding a clinching third goal after the break. After scoring the opening goal in the 25th minute, Whitehawk just never looked back.
Up until the point Hemel had given as good as they had gotten and could and should have been in front themselves. A dangerous corner in the box saw Michael Richens force Craig Ross into an excellent save to keep the score at 0-0.
The Tudors then went even closer to scoring in the 20th minute, when Jamie Slabber’s shot almost sneaked into the corner but somehow stayed out. It was a big chance for Hemel and they were made to pay dearly shortly afterwards.
A defence-splitting ball by Nick Around set Dave Martin in on goal and he cooly slotted the ball past an on-rushing Jamie Butler, the Hemel goalkeeper. The goal sent the already noisy and voracious visiting fans into utter joy and the noise level rose accordingly.
It was a blow to the home side, but they didn’t let their heads drop and they went close to equalising when a cross into the box found its way to top scorer Slabber, but his goal bound effort was deflected over the bar.
It was an end-to-end contest at times in the first period, but with half-time fast approaching Whitehawk all but killed the game stone dead by scoring their second goal. Danny Mills fired home inside the box right in front of the ecstatic Whitehawk contingent. Suddenly you could feel the deflation amongst the Hemel support as the ball rippled into net.
It was a killer blow to Hemel and you sensed the game has just gotten away from them just at the worst possible time. If they were going to stage a Lazarus-like second half comeback they would need a goal early in the second half that’s for sure.
Unfortunately for the large home support that goal never came, but it wasn’t through lack of effort or chances. They created several but they just couldn’t find their way past Craig Ross in the Hawks goal.
As Brennan had said in his programme notes you have to seize your chance, but the game finally slipped away from Hemel with twenty minutes remaining as Dave Martin rifled the ball beyond the despairing dive of Butler after he had been played in by the excellent Danny Mills.
The scoreline was harsh on Hemel who had given their all in an absorbing contest, but failure to take their chances had cost them on their big day. Whitehawk were never troubled thereafter as the minutes and the game drifted to an obvious conclusion.
After the full-time whistle, Whitehawk celebrated on the pitch with their delighted supporters whilst the Hemel Town management team, players and supporters trooped away with heavy hearts but still with the heads held high after a season they can be very proud of at Vauxhall Road.
A final league position of Sixth in the National League South represents Hemel’s highest ever finish in their history and another season of continued progress after promotion to this level in April 2014. I’m sure in the long Summer months they will reflect on this season with fondness.
As for Whitehawk, however, they head off to the playoffs in fine form with money bags and longtime league leaders Ebbsfleet United their opponents in a two legged semi-final. After this performance the Fleet will need to produce their best to stop the Whitehawk juggernaut.