The difference, at the end of play on Saturday, between tonight’s Bostik South Playoff Semi-Final hosts, Cray Wanderers, and their opponents, Walton Casuals. That’s the closest margin between the first and last playoff spots in the history of the division. Indeed, it was only equalled once, back in 2008/09.
The winners of the end of season lottery that year? Cray Wanderers.
Charlie MacDonald prepares to kick off for Cray
Football fans often embrace superstitions, in which case that might have been seen as a good omen for Cray. But these sides last met only ten days ago, and it was Casuals who triumphed- scoring five goals in the process despite being 2-1 down after only eight minutes. Does that mean that Anthony Gale’s team had the advantage? Perhaps, but then again both sides had identical home records this season with only two defeats, and it was Wanderers who had home advantage on this occasion. That said, Casuals had taken four points out of six from their meetings this season.
What did all of this mean? In truth, absolutely nothing. But each of these points was made by a home or an away supporter before the match this evening, as fans of both sides attempted to find some reason to believe that their side had some kind of psychological advantage over the other.
That’s what the playoffs do to you. Everyone knows that the season’s work is over, and is now largely irrelevant. All that matters are the ninety minutes (or perhaps one hundred and twenty) ahead. One Cray fan even suggested that their 3G pitch may be an advantage, before a friend pointed out that Casuals had an identical one of their own. There may have been three points of separation but you’d have struggled to conclusively find three degrees.
Both sets of fans were positive- not only about their own side, but about the quality of the opposition. Indeed Hayes Lane was experiencing a bit of an orange love in, as home and away supporters shook hands and wished each other- well, good health, if not luck. There were also a number of pink and blue infiltrators- a Dulwich Hamlet enclave, if you like- as supporters from South London prepared for their own D-Day on Thursday night by taking their minds off it altogether. It was to prove a decent distraction.
Casuals supporters Ray and Richard
Wanderers fan Tony typified the confidence of the home side’s fans, but his confidence was tinged with a note of realism. “In the scheme of things, what happens in the office of the Mayor of London is more important than what happens here tonight. But we’re still going to win! We want to be in our own ground, but it would be good to be in a higher division when we move in.” Predicting a 3-2 victory, he was confident about next season- whichever division his side ended up being in. “If we can keep the nucleus of this squad together we’ll do well next year. I’m delighted that player of the year Jay Leader has already committed, along with Captain Lea Dawson. That’s a good start.”
Casuals fans Ray and Richard reflected a similar attitude. “We’ve had an excellent season, the best we’ve ever had. The football has been great, we’ve scored some fantastic goals, and there’s a character about the team- they don’t know when they’re beaten. And they’re disciplined, too." They were very clear that there was no chance of a goalless draw. “No chance at all- it’s got goals written all over it.” Casuals manager Anthony Gale had said very much the same before kick off, so hopefully they would all be right. Mind you, he then grinned and suggested that he shouldn’t have said that. Anyway, Ray and Richard predicted a 2-1 scoreline.
Charlie MacDonald kicked off for Wanderers, as the Casuals supporters realised they’d have to change ends and sang their way along the touchline. Three minutes later and they had much more to sing about. A corner from the right found Joe Hicks absolutely unmarked, and the ball was in the net! There was a momentary stunned silence as if nobody could quite believe it, but there was the ball, nestling in the bottom corner. How would Wanderers respond? Perhaps by recalling the match of ten days previously, and not panicking.
In the ninth minute a foul right on the edge of the box earned the home side a free kick- and a booking for Max Huswick. The shot from Michael Frieter cleared the wall and forced keeper Denzel Gerrar into a mid-air save, and MacDonald was the first to react, firing the rebound goalwards only to see the ball bounce back off the bar with the keeper beaten. The game continued, the ball being moved- with some style- from end to end by both sides, neither of whom had abandoned their usual passing instincts- but Walton continued to have the better chances, another free header from a corner- this time from Huswick- going just wide of the post, whilst a marauding run from full back Harry Mills ended in a shot which just cleared the bar.
Cray Wanderers fan Tony
And then, in the 32nd minute, it seemed like disaster had hit Cray. Zak Henry, who had received a yellow card three minutes previously, went right through Alex Kelly thirty yards from goal. It was an unnecessary challenge, Kelly moving towards the touchline, and the referee was left with little option but to show a second yellow, and then a red. One-nil down and now with ten men. Where did Wanderers go from here? The answer to that question turned out to be forward- and they levelled six minutes later. A free kick on the right was whipped in beautifully by Frieter, and Aaron Rhule got ahead of his marker and crashed the ball home. Three minutes on and the ten men were ahead, a cross to the back post poked home by Brandon Scott, causing delirium amongst the home fans. What a game! Casuals applied a great deal of pressure as we approached the interval, but it came to naught and the whistle blew with Wanderers ahead on goals, if not on players.
Casuals started the second period with a double substitution and a slight change in positioning. Wanderers responded by making two changes of their own only four minutes later, manager Tony Russell seemingly adjusting to his counterparts tinkering. The result was that the game became a little more direct. That isn’t to say that the sides had suddenly embraced the Charles Hughes coaching manual, but there was an urgency to get it into- and out of- the danger area that hadn’t existed earlier. Casuals had the first chance of the half, a cross from the right whipped in by Youseff Bamba and being met by the head of Tyrell Richardson-Brown, and the ball rebounded viciously off the upright before being cleared. They continued to press, and in the fifty sixth minute they produced a moment of absolute beauty. The ball fell to substitute Daryl Coleman twenty five yards out. He looked up, and wallop- the ball flew past the keeper, who didn’t even have time to move. 2-2- and, surely, advantage Walton? Their fans behind the goal certainly thought so, singing and jumping up and down to their hearts delight where they had earlier fallen silent.
Sixty five minutes in and Walton were ahead once more- and it was another substitute who found the net. Good work on the edge of the box led to Sean McCormack getting the space to shoot, and goodness didn’t he do so, crashing the ball home to spark a celebration with the fans behind the goal. Anthony Gale must have been delighted, as each of his substitutes had had a dramatic impact on the game. The ten men now had it all to do once more, and it was one of their subs, Junior Dadson, who had the next chance, the keeper pushing his firm strike over the bar. From the resulting corner the keeper and a defender cleared off the line as Casuals fans in the main stand became gripped with panic. “Clear it! Stop fannying about!” came a voice from the back row. The away defence did as instructed, but it must be said that there was little evidence of fannying to begin with.
Casuals took the ball up the other end and should have gone further ahead. A cross from Bamba found Alex Kelly at the back post, and the goal gaped. The Casuals fans cheered in delight…and the ball went past the near post and out for a goal kick. Kelly held his head- and dropped it. The other Kelly, Josh, tried to make up for it almost immediately, forcing a great save from Nick Blue, and from the corner another opportunity went begging as Joe Hicks headed wide. You had to wonder whether Casuals would suffer for not taking their chances, and Michael Power tried to make them pay with thirteen minutes remaining, Gerrar saving well to his left; but the ball was soon back at the other end with Blue making another excellent save from Josh Kelly. Blue was keeping his side in the game, and you expected he’d have to continue to do it, as Cray went three at the back as they tried to chase another equaliser.
Corner to Casuals
With six minutes to go Michael Power had the ball in the Casuals net, but no! The referee had blown a moment before the strike to give Cray a free kick. The home fans were irate- and they were even more irate a moment later, as a breakaway ended in Josh Kelly firing home from a tight angle. Surely that was that. 4-2 to Casuals with five minutes to go, and at this some Wanderers fans began to leave. Some of those who remained continued to complain about the referee, but the official was, in truth, rather unlucky- he’d blown not expecting the ball to run to Power, and he’d been honest in that assessment.
In the final minute another break, and Jack Sammoutis made it five. Casuals fans erupted with joy, and the game was as good as over. Anthony Gale had been right- there were goals guaranteed, and the Stags manager needed to be given enormous credit as his substitutions had turned the game in favour of his side. As the whistle blew players on both sides fell to the ground, exhausted. Perhaps all in the ground knew exactly how they felt.
News came through from Greenwich Borough that there had been another away win in that semi-final too. On Saturday the finale will therefore be between Casuals and Casuals. Who will triumph? Who knows, but if we get a game that is half as good as the one we saw at Hayes Lane tonight, then the Bostik League- and all present- will be the winners.