The town of Maldon and the playoff system make rather uneasy companions.
The last two occasions our hosts today, Maldon & Tiptree, had qualified for such a showpiece it hadn’t ended well. First, in 2013, they took a two goal lead over Thamesmead Town only to concede two goals and then lose on penalties. More recently, in 2017 they amassed ninety one points, finished only second, defeated Haringey Borough in the semi-final and then lost the final to Thurrock. The nerves amongst the Jammers faithful before kick off today were understandable.
That said, the nerves certainly weren’t all confined to supporters of the home side. Opponents and local rivals Heybridge Swifts, whose Scraley Road ground is around a mile away as the crow flies, were of course also involved in the playoffs as recently as last year, when they departed at semi-final stage at the hands of Haringey. Today, because of the peculiar playoff format imposed by the FA this season, they went into this match knowing that victory alone wouldn’t guarantee promotion, they’d also need a favour elsewhere. They’d also been playoff losers in 2014 and 2006, and lost a playoff in 2005 when the pyramid had been restructured, so the end of season knock out tournament had been even more unkind to them than it had been to their local rivals.
Welcome to Maldon
The fact that we had such a local derby for our showpiece final shows the strength of the Non League game in this part of Essex. Three of our top five are located within a fifteen mile radius, and a fourth, champions Bowers and Pitsea, are less than twenty miles away. Given that each of these clubs are effectively competing for the same player pool demonstrates how much talent there is available, and- hopefully- two of the four will be in our Premier Division next season, showcasing their wares on a bigger stage.
Anyway, back to today’s game. Last season we interviewed the then Swifts boss Jody Brown, shortly after his side had won a derby by five goals to nil, and he explained the importance of the fixture:
“I’ve been involved in a lot of these derbies and they probably don’t get the coverage they should; it’s one of the bigger derbies in the Bostik League, in all of the divisions. There’s a rich rivalry between the supporters, so the fixture is critical to them regardless of where we are in the league. For example, last Boxing Day, we were bottom and they were top and we beat them 1-0; it gave the whole place a boost. It’s a really important fixture for us. “
Given what was riding on today’s outcome, it was more important than ever.
An elevated view of Park Drive
Swifts certainly had the local bragging right last season, their cup and trophy exploits overshadowing the efforts of their neighbours. This season had been rather different, Maldon taking four points from six- but that doesn’t tell the whole story, given that over the two matches there was but one goal between them. Incidentally, two of the Jammers goals in the 3-2 victory over Swifts in August were scored by Shane Cojocarel, who got two more in a Playoff Final yesterday- for Cheshunt.
The Jammers got us underway, and immediately launched the ball forward, Swifts keeper Chris Haigh coming out to claim at the edge of his box; although not quite as easily as he might have expected, a strong crosswind holding the ball up a little. It was the visitors who started the stronger, and had the first shot on goal, Nicholas Brown firing in an effort from the edge of the box as we entered the fourth minute. Ben McNamara, an ever-present in the Jammers goal this season, wasn’t unduly troubled and held the ball without difficulty. The Swifts fans, gathered in numbers behind McNamara’s goal, broke into song. They seemed rather less noisy than they had in victory at Aveley in midweek, but that may have been because they had no roof above them on this occasion. Dan Walker, scorer of a sublime first goal against the Millers, had the visitors next chance, but again didn’t worry the home keeper too much. McNamara was worried a moment later, however, Matthew Price firing home, but the Swifts striker was flagged offside.
Maldon responded, and Eddie Louis Dsane tested Haigh at his near post, the Swifts keeper sticking out a foot to deflect his shot for a corner, but soon we were back at the other end once more. “We’re gonna score in a minute,” sang the away faithful as their side applied pressure, winning two corners in quick succession, and then a third, which Price couldn’t quite get on the end of at the far post. A run from Evans Kouassi earned yet another corner, which was headed down and wide at the back post. The first quarter of an hour had been most definitely black and white, but without a breakthrough.
Dsane looked lively at the other end, and in the seventeenth minute he wriggled free of a challenge at the left hand side of the box and delivered an excellent pass to Tariq Issa, whose shot was deflected for a corner. This was the prelude to the Jammers best spell so far, the same two players at the centre of it, but Haigh remained unthreatened. Nicholas Brown picked up the first booking of the day for a slightly over-boisterous challenge. “Send him off,” came an overly-optimistic shout from the sidelines.
A Swifts warm up
Maldon then had their best chance so far. A corner found Jack Cawley- sporting a head bandage- unmarked at the back post, and his header was headed off the line by Guillem Ramon-Carreno. More pressure followed, and Haigh was twice called into action to deal with it, but we entered the final twenty minutes of the half with no goals and the match finally poised.
By this point, Maldon were shading possession. They passed the ball well, and Haigh had a few difficulties claiming crosses under pressure, but didn’t really have a shot to face, every effort sent goalwards blocked by a defender. Swifts seemed to have momentarily misplaced their earlier self-assurance going forward, but remained resolute in defence.
As we entered the last few minutes of the half, however, Swifts regained their attacking composure. The work of Kouassi, particularly, led to a spell of pressure which included three corners, and led to some desperate home defending, but we got to the break without a breakthrough.
As we began the second half we had some sunshine for the nine hundred and forty five souls present, and the wind had dropped a little. Within three minutes we had something else, too- a goal- and it was beauty. Nicholas Brown was twenty five yards out when the ball fell to him, and he couldn’t have hit it any better had he been given twenty minutes to practice. The ball screamed into the back of the Maldon net, and the away fans standing behind it went wild. The Swifts onslaught continued, whilst their supporters jumped up and down and sang “ole, ole, ole.” Could the Jammers respond?
"I can jump higher than you..."
They began to see more of the ball, and came close to an equaliser in the 57th minute, a free kick from Issa coming within an inch of Cawley’s head, a defender glancing it out for a corner. Shortly afterwards, and at the other end, another Brown piledriver forced McNamara into a save as Swifts looked to extend their advantage. Kouassi fired over, as Julian Dicks’ men remained in control. “Heybridge till I die,” came the chant from behind the goal, which, given most of the choir looked rather young, would hopefully be quite a long time. Kouassi fired over again as the visitors continued to dictate play.
In the sixty fifth minute a foul on Dsane, right on the edge of the box, gave Maldon a chance. It was right on the edge of the D, central, and Swifts put up a four man wall- which did its job as Issa’s strike glanced off it and out for a throw. Issa was on the end of the throw and managed another strike at goal, but once again a defender got in the way and the ball was cleared.
As we moved into the last twenty minutes the home side again began to dominate possession, as the visitors sat back a little. They were able to do very little with the ball, however, every move seeming to break down as it approached the Swifts box. They made a second change, Laste Dombaxe joining earlier substitute Oluwatobi Coker in the hope that they could provide a spark to get them back into the game, but instead it was Swifts who came closest, a run from Kouassi ending in a shot which McNamara saved with his legs. The home fans tried to lift their side. “You’re just a small town in Heybridge,” came the response.
Nine minutes from time, a great ball found Kouassi. The tricky winger took it in his stride, and finished with aplomb. It was perhaps a just reward for his performance today, and perhaps his man of the match performance in the Semi-Final, and surely it made the result secure. The away bench thought so too, many of them joining the players on the pitch to celebrate- and one of them actually taking an on-pitch selfie with the goalscorer, which the referee seemingly turned a blind eye to, and which rather antagonised some of the home support. The fans behind the goal began to have “a disco,” and the party got louder still as substitute Jack Adlington-Pile looked to have made it three at the far post, only to be denied by the linesman’s flag.
The Jammers line up
Two minutes before full time Maldon got a chance to reduce the arrears, a free kick finding Kojo Awotwi two yards out- but he couldn’t make a clean connection and Haigh saved easily. A minute later, however, and they got that goal- Dsane poking home. Suddenly added time would be interesting.
The Jammers sent almost everyone forward, and in the fourth added minute Dsane worked himself space at the edge of the box and fired in a fabulous shot which Haigh had to save, diving full length to his left. And then, with more than four added minutes played, the corner was forced home by Awotwi. Two-two, and suddenly that Heybridge celebration looked to have backfired spectacularly. The not-so-final whistle went, and thirty more minutes awaited.
Five minutes into the first period of extra time Swifts could have regained their lead. Indeed, everyone expected the net to bulge as Kouassi poked the ball goalward, but it trickled past the far post. Next, at the other end, Awotwi fired just over the bar. Neither side was playing for penalties, but we were soon only fifteen minutes away from that outcome.
The game slowed as the players tired. Three minutes from the end a ball to the back post saw Awotwi force a save from Haigh, but there was little other incident to mention. Two added minutes were displayed, and Brown had the last shot of the match for Swifts, hitting a team mate and seeing the ball ricochet for a goal kick. And then the whistle went, and there would be no more. A penalty shootout would follow.
The referee signalled that the penalties would be taken at the open end of the ground, and that the Jammers would shoot first. Jack Cawley was up first, and he leant back, the ball flying yards over the bar. Could Swifts capitalise? They could, Joe Claridge sending McNamara the wrong way. 0-1.
Dombaxe was next up. He put it down the middle, and Haigh saved easily. Harrison Chatting then made it 0-2, firing into the corner.
Jorome Slew stepped up next, and once more Haigh was equal to it. If Brown could find the net, the game would be over. He had already scored the stand out goal of the game, could he clinch the match? He couldn’t, his shot clearing the bar. Still 0-2.
It didn’t matter. Issa stepped up, and Haigh saved again! Game over, and Swifts had the victory.
Maldon get us underway
We don’t yet know whether this victory will see Swifts take promotion. But if the fates align, we will see them in the Bostik Premier Division next season- and they’ll deserve to be there.