Nine-man Swifts take the prize

By Ian Townsend

We had two goals, three red cards, and enough incident to keep the fans talking for months. Heybridge Swifts defeated Aveley to reach the North Division Playoff Final- and here's how they did it.

On Saturday 1st December, Aveley won at Mildenhall Town. Heybridge Swifts were at Parkside, defeating Grays Athletic, Maldon and Tiptree were demolishing Romford, Coggeshall Town were defeating Basildon United, and Bowers and Pitsea were winning in Barking. You might wonder why we’re telling you all of that, but there’s a very good reason.

Those five clubs may have changed position a little since then, but not one of them has left the top five. For twenty three further matches- twenty four in the case of Aveley- the only contest worthy of note at the sharp end of the Bostik North Division was that to decide which position Bowers, the Millers, Swifts, The Jammers and the Seed Growers would finally end up in. By the turn of the year there was a six-point gap between fifth and sixth, and although it narrowed to four at one point, we’ve all suspected for the best part of five months that one of that quintet would win the league, and the other four would contest the playoffs. The only question of note left to ask was whether Sam Bantick would get the chance to play for all five of them by the end of the season- but he stopped at three!

Early arrivals at Parkside

Early arrivals at Parkside

With twenty five goals so far this season, Bantick has had an enormous impact on the promotion race. But perhaps he wasn’t finished yet- perhaps he might manage to fire Aveley back into the Premier Division for the first time in seven years? As we wandered into Parkside this Wednesday evening we were about to find out. Aveley were about to entertain Bantick’s former employers, Heybridge Swifts, in one of our two Bostik North Playoff Semi-Finals, whilst thirty five miles down the road Maldon & Tiptree were going to take on the other one of Bantick’s clubs this season, Coggeshall Town.

Aveley’s modern, state of the art home began to fill up rather early. Amongst the first arrivals were a number of away supporters, and discussion of their club’s exploits last season was, understandably, a topic of conversation for many. Swifts had a magnificent 2017/18, with a run to the First Round of the FA Cup, a run in the FA Trophy, and a promotion fight that might have ended rather more successfully had they not been knackered by the end, their cup runs and an incredible number of replays meaning that they were playing three matches a week as we moved into the closing stages of the season. Playoff Semi-Final defeat to eventual winners Haringey Borough brought their season to a close. Could they go further this time around?

The Millers were determined to stop that from happening- and having defeated Swifts twice already were undoubtedly the favourites. When Jody Brown’s side last arrived at Parkside to take on Aveley, Bantick- remember him- scored twice for the visitors, but his current team mates got three. The manager left shortly afterwards, replaced by Julian Dicks, and Dicks does have a victory at Parkside to his name, but that- as we mentioned earlier- was against Grays. When the Millers travelled to Scraley Road less than three weeks ago they came from behind to take another three points. Perhaps that recently memory would stir the Swifts to revenge?

The teams certainly seemed in good spirits as they warmed up before the match, particularly the Millers, who kept roaring loudly as if they were rehearsing for a production of the Lion King. The supporters seemed confident too, filled with positivity and burgers and perhaps charmed by the greatest hits of Little Mix, which was being blasted out at such volume that anyone in Essex aged over thirteen probably had grounds for complaint.

A rather gloomy Parkside before kick off. Where did the sun go?

A rather gloomy Parkside before kick off. Where did the sun go?

Swifts were unchanged from their victory at Bury Town on Saturday, which meant that top scorer Matthew Price again started on the bench. The Millers were also unchanged from their victory over Soham Town Rangers, which meant that Lamar Johnson kept his place in goal, with David Hughes the substitute keeper. The visitors got us underway, and their fans, behind the left hand goal, got immediately behind their team, drumming and singing with abandon. They were far more musical than the girlband who preceded them.

It was the Millers who started the stronger, Tom Richardson winning the first corner of the match in the fourth minute after earlier pressure. It came to naught, and there were a few nervous touches from both sides as they got used to the occasion. Chris Haigh in the Swifts goal seemingly wasn’t suffering any butterflies, however, as he charged out to the corner flag and shepherded the ball out of play for a goal kick despite the attentions of Richardson. It seemed a little risky, but it worked.

We then head a lengthy stoppage. Nicholas Brown was poleaxed in a 50/50 challenge, the referee immediately waving on the physio, and after treatment the medical staff decided that the player couldn’t continue. On came Charlie Kendall, wearing fifteen even though the teamsheet had him as number eighteen. We weren’t fooled by this subterfuge- although Football Web Pages had the replacement down as Odei Martin-Sorondo, so perhaps we were. Brown looked disconsolate, but it was undoubtedly the correct decision.

The first quarter of an hour passed without an effort on target, and then Swifts broke the deadlock with the first. Abouhadje Kouassi charged down the right, vaulted two challenges, then delivered a cross which seemed to be just behind Daniel Walker. The striker wasn’t worried about this, however, flicking the ball with his heel and watching it as it flew unerringly into the corner of the net, giving Johnson no chance. The fans to his right celebrated, the team celebrated, and there was nothing but silence from the rest of the stadium. Walker could have had a second three minutes later, firing a shot against a defender when there seemed space for him to do better. He held his head, momentarily, but after the goal he’d already scored he could be forgiven an aberration. Kouassi fired over a moment later, as the visitors dominated proceedings, and the same player then took on another two defenders, beat them, then produced a cross that was hacked clear. We reached the midway point of the half with the traffic all one-way, but the Millers did finally have a shot at goal, Jason Raad scuffing it around ten yards wide of Haigh’s right hand post. Haigh responded by skewing his goal kick out of play, which brought the biggest cheer of the evening so far from the home fans. They’d had precious little to shout about previously.

The queue for burgers would only get longer...

The queue for burgers would only get longer...

The Millers then produced some pressure of their own, but the delivery from the resulting two corners and a free kick wasn’t particularly good. The game became stretched, a shot from Walker at one end- easily saved by Johnson- followed immediately by a run from Bantick at the other, the home forward running into trouble just as he was about to pull the trigger. Back at the other end once more, another mazy run from Kouassi saw the ball run to Walker, but the shot was wide, and the Swifts midfielder- the best player on the park at this point- limped away for treatment. He was still limping as he rejoined the fray, but was immediately beckoning for the ball so it can’t have been too painful. In the thirty seventh minute he had the next attempt; his shot being deflected wide for a corner. More Swifts pressure saw Kouassi turn and fire over a couple of minutes later, and it seemed that the home defence just couldn’t cope with his pace. “Come on, you’re better than that,” came the voice of an exasperated home fan as another ball forward was wasted, and it wasn’t difficult to understand his frustration. There was even more frustration voiced as the home faithful wandered off to queue for tea after four added minutes.

The Millers returned to the fray a good five minutes before their opponents, and gathered in a team huddle on the edge of the centre circle. There was a great deal of encouragement voiced, and a big forty five minutes to follow. Despite Swifts’ dominance they were but one goal to the good. It was still anybody’s game. Five minutes in, a cross to the back post, Bantick unmarked, and the ball glances off his head and drops gently wide of the post. Perhaps that was the moment. The groans from the stand were prolonged and pronounced. Two minutes later, another Aveley attack, the ball forced home, and the flag went up. It must have been tight, and the Millers protests were loud and long, but they were still behind. “We love you lino, we do,” sang the away fans.

They weren’t enamoured with the officials for long. A foul by Martin-Sorondo, who had already been booked, saw the rest of the players enter into a melee. At the end of it, Emmanuel Osei Owosu got a straight red, apparently for an elbow, Martin-Sorondo got a second yellow and walked too, and then Bantick for the home side departed. The stoppage was five minutes long and suddenly it was ten v nine. It was all rather extraordinary. Aveley had lost their talisman, but surely now would get their chance. They threw on Andy Freeman, perhaps he’d provide the spark?

Freeman made an immediate impact, drawing a near post save from Haigh, but Swifts brought everyone back for the resulting corner and cleared the danger. It was the nine men that came closest to extending their lead on sixty eight minutes, Johnson spilling a Walker shot, the resulting corner finding Jayden Randell at the far post but the defender couldn’t poke the ball home. Freeman, at the other end and once more in the thick of the action, teed up Alex Akrofi but the shot was pulled across the face of the goal and deflected for a corner, cleared by the nine men.

A Swifts warm up

A Swifts warm up

With fifteen minutes remaining, Kouassi was withdrawn, and the Millers fans in the main stand breathed an audible sigh of relief. His pace had troubled the home defence for the entire night. Adlington-Pile replaced him, as the Millers sprayed the ball about and the away defence stood firm. Adlington-Pile’s first act was to pick up a yellow card, as the referee was once more called into action. Another Heybridge substitution followed, Price making his bow, goalscorer Walker heading for the bench. One stoppage followed another, followed another, and another, and the discussion in the stand turned to added time. The smart money was on nine minutes.

The smart money was wrong, but only just. As the fourth official displayed a red number eight on his board, a Swifts break. Price was clear, and he was calm. The ball was sent across the keeper into the corner of the net, and the nine men were two goals to the good. The Millers would need a miracle.

There was to be no divine intervention.

The away fans jumped and sang, keeping up their cacophony. Aveley pressed, but for all their pressure still failed to work Haigh, who spent far more time fetching the ball after wayward efforts than he did actually doing his job. The home fans began to drift away into the night, and the final whistle blew. The best team had won, but in truth the Millers hadn’t really shown up.

The Millers- almost as noisy as Little Mix

The Millers- almost as noisy as Little Mix

As the away players jumped into the crowd, news came through from the Wallace Binder Ground that Maldon & Tiptree, Swifts’ biggest rivals, had triumphed too. Sunday afternoon will see a Maldon derby for perhaps the biggest set of local bragging rights ever.

There can’t be a much better way to end what has been an enthralling season.

Swifts get us underway

The Aveley faithful

Sam Bantick prepares to fire in a free kick

Where next?

Moatsiders march on! Carshalton Athletic and Merstham played out a Surrey derby for more than bragging rights- the winners marching on to a Playoff Final on Bank Holiday Monday. The Moatsiders left the Robins nest with the prize.
Robins and Ambers set up an exciting Final Bracknell and Cheshunt overcome stubborn opposition to get within touching distance of glory

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