Losing a match on penalties can be psychologically damaging. Losing a match on penalties when you were ahead in the 90th minute of the original tie can make that damage even greater, particularly when you have to watch your lower division opponents march on into the First Round of the FA Cup and a tie against Football League opposition. However Metropolitan Police are obviously made of stern stuff. Although other clubs may have crumbled, Met did the opposite, embarking on a twelve match unbeaten run that has catapulted them as high as second place in the Bostik Premier Division and into the Third Qualifying Round of the FA Trophy, with nine victories and three draws. Having beaten Lowestoft Town, Kingstonian and Thamesmead Town already this month, and having been victorious against tonight’s opponents as recently as three weeks ago, the boys in blue had every reason to be undaunted by the task ahead and started tonight’s match in third place.
And yet, as they approached this match at the Green Elephants Stadium, home of Burgess Hill Town, that confidence must have been tempered by the fact that, with Hill, you never know what you’re going to get. As Blackadder’s Lord Melchett might have said, had he been a) real and b) asked to comment, Hill “twist and turn like a twisty-turny thing;” winning one week, losing the next. You never quite know which side is going to turn up. Before losing to Police on 24th October they’d also lost to Dulwich Hamlet, Dartford and Lowestoft Town. After that match at Imber Court they’d beaten Aveley, Leiston and Tooting. Then on Saturday they travelled to Hendon and were walloped 3-0. Won five, drawn three, lost six. Twisty-turny.
The teams who walked out into the Mid Sussex murk just before half past seven showed a few changes from those who played in the FA Trophy at the weekend. Police had Zak Newton, formerly of Worthing, making his first start, and had also brought in Jeremy Arthur. The Hillians had replaced Pat Harding and McKenzie with Garrod and Rodrigues. The ground was rather empty, and it was apparent that the international match on the TV had hit the attendance, so expect that social media will be full of Non-League football fans complaining that England were boring/terrible/overpaid/delete as applicable. Well they should have got out of their armchairs.
Before kick-off Colin Bowman, local media guru, home supporter and regular Hillians programme contributor, was extremely positive about the way that the season was going. He commented on the match at Imber Court- “we were lucky to get nil”- but explained that he was convinced that the greens would get the win tonight that would “kick-start their season.” It was pointed out to Colin that he was always positive, and he accepted that, but he also remained adamant that performances recently- perhaps Saturday’s defeat notwithstanding- showed a maturity and a fluidity that had been missing during previous campaigns.
Met were on the attack from the start, but it was Hill who made the early breakthrough, as if to prove Colin right. A lovely passing move which started with Lee Harding found the same player unmarked in the box in the fourth minute, and he held his composure to finish beautifully off the inside of the right-hand post. Hill continued to press, and Police looked rattled initially, before showing some attacking intent of their own of their own, a shot from Lloyd Macklin blocked as they attempted to reply.
It was all-square in the 16th minute. A corner was whipped in from the right, and Jeremy Arthur got above the defence and headed towards the goal. Home keeper James Shaw got a fingertip to the ball but was unable to keep it out, and it bounced tamely behind the line as the side in sky blue celebrated. At this point Police took almost complete control. They applied pressure in waves- mixing up their approach, sometimes going long, sometimes trying to pass through the defence. The home side struggled to get possession, and Tony Garrod was an often-isolated figure as the ball was almost entirely in the Hillians half. When the ball was hit in his direction it was almost invariably high, and Arthur cleaned up professionally time and time again. The breakthrough finally came in the 42nd minute, and the biggest surprise was that it took so long, as although Hill had defended manfully they’d been doing it almost non-stop for half an hour. A corner was barely cleared and then sent back out to the left wing, and when the ball came back in it was met on the half volley by Jay Gasson, just outside the box. It flew into the bottom corner, and a home supporter who had spent most of the first half criticising the referee broke off for a moment to loudly describe it as “a worldy.” He was undoubtedly right.
The second half kicked off with more of the same, but it was Hill again who came closest to an early breakthrough. A run from Joey Taylor- perhaps Hill’s best outlet, buzzing up and down the left flank- was ended by a foul from Newton, right on the edge of the box. Harding whipped the ball in, and it was headed off the line before being cleared. But almost immediately Met were back on top, and the home faithful were beginning to get restless. “Work harder Hill!” “Come on Hill, get into it,” grumbled the supporters by the corner flag. In truth this was partially unfair, as they were working hard, and at only one goal behind they were patently still in it, but Met were in the ascendency. A minute later, however, the gap was two. A long ball was followed by a slip from Shaw, and Bayley Mummery was left to pass into an empty net. Half an hour to go, and you felt it might be a long half hour for the home support. It could easily have been four three minutes later, a through ball and shot from Macklin pushed wide by Shaw, and from the corner it was four. This time Macklin wasn’t to be denied.
To give Hill credit, they didn’t give up. Garrod, aided by substitutes Charlie Bennett and Tim Cook, worked the away defence quite hard, Cook particularly unlucky as his header from a corner came back off the underside of the bar and bounced away with the keeper beaten. A great ball in from Taylor was almost poked home by Cook with Williams in the Met goal scrambling to deflect it wide, and James Richmond headed wide from a corner, voicing his disgust as the ball bounced off the Gardner-Scardifield (sponsors of the Hillians Academy) banner by the tunnel. The next chance also went the way of the home side, Taylor’s shot blocked, and a penalty appeal by final sub Pat Harding was waved away before Bennett should have done better with a shot that cleared the bar.
That was the cue for the first home supporters to begin to slip away into the drizzle. Most stayed behind to applaud at the end of the match, however, and there is a realism about them this season. Met are, even if it might have come as somewhat a surprise, real playoff contenders this year. Hill, after two seasons where they have escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth, are a far more solid side this time around despite this defeat. You can never say never, but there is enough about Ian Chapman’s team to suggest that this campaign will end far more comfortably.
By Ian Townsend