Five minutes into the second half of their Blue Square South play-off semi-final at home to Eastleigh, one could have forgiven Hayes & Yeading United supporters for feeling as if they should cut their losses and just go home. Already three down by half-time, a James Mulley own goal had made it 4-0 to Eastleigh, but even the most optimistic of their supporters would have been unlikely to have been able to predict what happened next. Hayes managed to pull two goals back in the first leg, before travelling to Hampshire and winning the second leg 4-0 to send themselves through to the final of the Blue Square South play-offs, where they would go on to play Hampton & Richmond Borough, who had beaten the pre-season promotion favourites Chelmsford City in their semi-final, at Hampton’s Beveree.
A crowd of over 3,000 packed into Beveree for the final, and Hayes took an early lead after Dale Binns crossed for Scott Fitzgerald to score from close range. The rest of the first half passed largely without incident, but the second half more than compensated for this. Four minutes, Shaun McAuley levelled for Hampton and, with twenty minutes left to play, disaster struck for Hayes. Their goalkeeper Delroy Preddie had successfully claimed a cross and wandered out to the edge of his own penalty area. He put the ball down to clear it, however, without realising that Ian Hodges was lurking behind him. Hodges nicked the ball away from him and scored to put Hampton 2-1 up.
Preddie, however, wasn’t the only goalkeeper to “have a moment”. Just three minutes later, the Hampton goalkeeper Matt Lovett misjudged a deep cross from Steven Gregory and the ball sailed in off the far post, and two minutes later a tame shot from Gregory crept under Lovett and in, and in the dying seconds, with Hampton laying siege to the Hayes goal and Lovett on the half-way line, Lovett hauled down Hayes’ Gary Fitzgerald to earn himself a red card and finish off an extraordinary evening’s football. Hayes & Yeading United clung on to win 3-2 and claim a place in next year’s Blue Square Premier.
The Blue Square North play-offs were a little lighter on the drama, but ended with a result that bucks this season’s trend of it being a miserable season for the north-east of England. In the semi-finals, AFC Telford United had beaten Alfreton Town 5-4 over two legs whilst Gateshead beat Southport 2-1 in the other match setting up a final at the Gateshead International Stadium. The match itself was unremarkable, with congratulations going to Gateshead after a late goal from Wayne Phillips gave them a 1-0 win. The attendance, however, certainly is worthy of note. Even though over 1,000 Telford supporters travelled up from the West Midlands the crowd of 4,200 is a remarkable one, especially considering that Gateshead have traditionally struggled for crowds in an area that is completely overshadowed by the monolithic existence of Newcastle United.
This raises an interesting point: with Newcastle United at the point of being relegated from the Premier League, Gateshead could be in a position to cash in. The International Stadium is far from an ideal environment in which to football, but they have plans to build a new stadium and if disenchantment continues to fester at St James Park, the option of more affordable football with less of the soap opera nonsense that seems to follow Newcastle United everywhere could become more and more enticing to supporters. Much will depend on whether Newcastle can maintain their Premier League status (which will considerably clearer by the time they have played Middlesbrough on Monday night), but Gateshead’s crowd figures may make for interesting reading next season.
There is still time for the make-up of next year’s Blue Square Premier to change, as we may not have seen the last of this summer’s financial crises yet. The league certainly seems likely to cover a broad spectrum next season – few would have expected to see Hayes & Yeading United vs Luton Town as a league fixture in their own lifetimes. Having seen their extraordinary resilience over the last couple of weeks, predictions of their immediate relegation might be premature. Whether they and Gateshead can bridge the gap remains to be seen. For now, though, the hangovers in West London and Tyneside this will probably be feeling pretty worthwhile.