For men of a certain age, the name of Leatherhead FC makes the eyes mist over and the memories come flooding back. The Tanners were in Division One of the Isthmian League (which was renamed the Premier Division in 1977, following reorganisation) when they beat Colchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion on the way to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup in 1975, where the BBC’s Match Of The Day cameras saw them steal a two goal lead against First Division Leicester City before losing by three goals to two. Over the next couple of years, they would beat Cambridge United and Northampton Town, as well as reaching Wembley in the 1978 FA Trophy Final, before dropping back to the relative obscurity from whence they came. Three and a half decades on, the Isthmian League is now known as the Ryman League and Leatherhead are fighting to get out of one its two basement divisions.
This evening, their supporters are back on the south coast for a play-off semi-final in the Ryman League Division One South against Whitehawk. Such is the slightly rushed atmosphere under which non-league play-offs tend to be played that it’s the second time in four days that the two clubs have met – Whitehawk won 2-1 here on Saturday to secure third place in the league and, therefore, home advantage this evening – and there is reasonable cause to think that this evening’s match will be a close yet entertaining one. After all, only goal difference separated the two teams in the league, but they have scored two hundred and nine goals between them in the league alone this season.
A year ago, Whitehawk were celebrating winning the Sussex County League championship and winning promotion into this division. There has been money spent here – the question of what may happen should the money run out or the owners lose interest is, perhaps, one for another day – but the team, although it has been hanging around on the fringes of the championship run-in for much of the season, was comfortably beaten into third place in the table by the eventual champions, Metropolitan Police, and runners-up Bognor Regis Town. A pleasantly sunny, if brisk, May evening has, however, swollen the crowd to just shy of 300 people (over three times Whitehawk’s average this season), and this contains a sizable contingent that have travelled down from Surrey this evening.
Football at this time of year, however, isn’t necessarily easy. Pitches naturally deteriorate with use over the course of the season, and the remaining grass often merely masks the potholes and divots that lie beneath. In addition to this, the last few weeks have been exceptionally dry, and both teams seem to have difficulty in getting the ball under proper control during the early stages of this match, with the ball spending a lot of time either in the air or bouncing in a sky-wardly direction. Leatherhead start strongly and force several corners in the opening twenty minutes, but have only one shot from Chris Boulter which is comfortably saved by Anderson in the Whitehawk goal to show for their early pressure. Whitehawk, having started slowly, eventually start to assert themselves more effectively but it is little surprise that a disjointed first half ends goalless.
With the coming of the darkness, East Brighton Park becomes a different creature. The South Downs, which frame the ground on two sides, fade away to nothing and the atmosphere feels more intimate. It takes just four minutes of the second half for Whitehawk to take the lead, a high boot from Mark Simmons catching Karl Akehurst. Paul Armstrong’s penalty beats the extravagantly-named Leatherhead goalkeeper Chico Ramos to give the home side the advantage. Leatherhead recover from this blow well, and almost draw level when a cross from Kevin Terry flashes across the face of the goal and narrowly wide. At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, Ramos makes a mess of a cross and Jerahl Hughes some manages to miss the goal altogether.
It proves to be a costly miss for Whitehawk. With just over twenty minutes left to play, though, the visitors are level when Mu Maan finds himself a little space on the left-hand side and gets the ball into the Whitehawk penalty area, where Tommy Hutchings bundles the ball over the line at the second attempt, after his first shot hits the Whitehawk goalkeeper, Anderson. From here on, Leatherhead are in control of the game. Hutchings has a header cleared off the line and the rebound is driven out of the ground. Simmons has a shot saved. Both sides create chances and half-chances, but extra-time is looming large in the background. The extra thirty minutes, however, still cannot separate the two sides. There are chances at either end, but the two teams both run out of steam a little during the second period. After two hours of football, they will need to be separated by a penalty shoot-out.
There is, of course, something fundamentally harsh about deciding a play-off match with a penalty shoot-out, but it feels almost apt in this case. Two teams that couldn’t be separated by points in the league now face each other under the harsh glare of floodlights as thoughts of getting the last train home tonight start to turn to uncomfortable thoughts of getting the first train home the next morning instead. Things don’t start well for Leatherhead, as Daniel Dean misses, but the shoot-out then settles into a predictable routine with all scoring both from both teams, until, well, what can only – and, since this may be the only opportunity to use this line, it would be remiss not to – the evening suddenly becomes Chico time. He saves from Darren Rudd. Kevin Terry’s final kick for Leatherhead gives them a 4-3 lead, and then Ramos leaps at full stretch to push away the final Whitehawk penalty to put the Tanners through to the play-off final on Saturday.
Whitehawk, one suspects, will be hanging around the top end of the Ryman League Division One South again next season, and Leatherhead, for forcing a penalty shoot-out away from home, just about deserve a place in the final at their expense. It is worth, however, sparing a moment to consider the fate of Bognor Regis Town tonight, though. Bognor were beaten into second place in the league by one goal on goal difference on Saturday. They scored one hundred and three goals, and earned ninety-six points, having lost just four league matches all season. This evening at Nyewood Lane, however, they were beaten at home by fifth-placed Dulwich Hamlet, who finished a jaw-dropping thirty-one points below them in the league this season. Should any Whitehawk players be feeling too sorry for themselves this evening, they may wish to consider how Bognor’s players must be feeling at this precise moment in time. Football can be a tough, tough game and seldom is this thrown into a harsher light than during the end of season play-offs. Leatherhead will entertain Dulwich Hamlet at Fetcham Grove on Saturday for a place in the Premier Division of the Ryman League and they have earned their place there… by the skin of their teeth.
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