Vanarama National League South Promotion Final

 Sunday 13th May 2018, 1500 Kick Off

Hampton & Richmond Borough FC vs Braintree Town FC

The Build Up

Today’s match was a special one for me, falling as it did at the same ground as my first ever foray into nonleague football.  It was fitting that Beveree Stadium would also host my final blog of the domestic season.  However, whilst special for me, it prove to be far more so for the fans of either Braintree Town or Hampton & Richmond Borough, as they’d see their side rise to the Vanarama National League.

For Hampton & Richmond, the only side to represent the Royal Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames in senior football (astonishing for an area with a 195,000 population), this match represented one step further than last season, where they lost 4-2 to Ebbsfleet in the Semi Final.  They’ve reached this stage before though, making consecutive Play Off finals in the noughties, losing their last 3-2 to Hayes & Yeading United.  That loss precipitated a change in fortunes, and the Beavers dropped down the leagues, eventually falling to the Isthmian League in 2011/12.  After four attempts, the club on the banks of the Thames bounced back, winning the title, and returning to the National League South.  7th last season became 4th this, earning them a shot at the Play Off Eliminators…

After seeing off Truro City 3-1 thanks to an extra time double from former Sutton United man Bradley Hudson-Odoi, Hampton & Richmond faced off against Chelmsford City, where a Max Kretzschmar penalty – to add to his 15 league goals – was enough to put them in the Final.

Today, by virtue of their higher league finish, Alan “Dowse” Dowson’s side were hosting Braintree Town, after the Essex side secured a 6th place league finish.  Having won the southern Step Two division back when it was Conference South, The Iron know what it takes to go up from the level.  Added to that experience, is the fact that manager Brad Quinton knows the club inside out – not only is he the gaffer, but with 546 matches for the Cressing Road club, he’s also their record appearance holder.

Initially the works team for the Crittall Window Company (where Braintree take their “Iron” nickname), Braintree Town were formed in 1898, and were first promoted to this level in 2006/07.  After the aforementioned promotion to Conference Premier in 2012, they flirted with the Football League, but lost to Grimsby Town in the Play Offs.  Relegated the next season, Braintree would be desperate to return to what they must feel is their natural level.  A six game unbeaten run got The Iron into the Play Off places, and since then they’ve taken down Hemel Hempstead on penalties in the Eliminator, before a Billy Crook strike put paid to Dartford’s promotion hopes in the semis.

Second top scorers in the league, since the departure of 16 goal Philip Roberts to Chelmsford City, Braintree have had to share the goals around the team, with Billy Crook – named in the league’s Team of the Season – top scorer with 11.  For Hampton, the man from nearby Kingston, Max Kretzschmar is the main threat, leading his teammates with 15.

The Ground

After swimming out of Wembley yesterday evening, I went to Hampton in completely different conditions today.  Arriving at 1300ish and parking in the overflow car park, I was greeted by the familiar dance with death to walk down the VW Golf-wide path with cars driving in other direction to get to the entrance.  After making my way in, I dispensed with £3 for a programme and a fiver for a pie, chips and Diet Coke, and bumped into Worcester Park manager Gary Taylor.

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After a brief chat with the soon-to-be Walton & Hersham boss, I headed around the ground to soak up some of the atmosphere.  A complete sell-out, the attendance was certain to be well above the average for both teams (HRBFC with 566, BTFC with 427) and it surely was, with 3,127 fans attending the game.

It seemed that the majority – certainly the more vocal lot – were from Essex, but it may just be that their bright orange garb stood out more.  As did their solid use of inflatables throughout – they’ve got a tree and a horse, not to mention a rather famous fan, you know?  Their regular chant about hating Chelmsford made perfect sense, but it felt slightly odd when coming from the Hampton fans…

The Match

A minute into the game and Braintree looked to threaten with a ball over the top form deep for nippy striker Reece Grant to run onto.  The Hampton defender dealing looked sluggish, but managed to get the ball away.  However, it was only sixty seconds (ish) later that Grant got his first shot of the game, cutting inside his defender, but scuffing the final effort straight into Seny Dieng’s arms.

Hampton & Richmond almost created their first chance on four minutes, when former Bromley winger Brendan Kiernan almost got through.  A good covering tackle by Billy Crooks kept him away though.  To say it had been a busy start would be an understatement.  It got busier though, on eight minutes, when a Josh Casey ball from the left was missed/dummied by loanee Shaun Jeffers and arrived at the feet of Max Kretzschmar.  The former Wycombe midfielder made no mistake, and slotted home right footed.

Billy Crook wasn’t the only Team of the Season player on show today, with Hampton’s former Maidenhead centre half Charlie Wassmer also being named.  Both he, and his L’Oreal locks were alert after ten minutes to shepherd the ball away from Reece Grant when he looked like getting in behind.

Ten minutes later, Seny Dieng spilt a nothing cross to give Braintree Town a corner, but again big Mr Wassmer was there to clear.  On 27 minutes Jonathan Muleba was released down the right and cut inside Taurean Roberts who was back covering.  His low cross reached Grant in the middle, who toe-poked towards the bottom left corner.  It looked to have wrong-footed Dieng, who once made the bench for a Champions League tie at Grasshoppers in Switzerland, shifted his weight back, and saved in the corner.

The first fifteen minutes had been all the home side, but they had begun to sit off the The Iron players, allowing the likes of Billy Crook, Luke Allen and Diaz Wright to stroke the ball around.  That said, there wasn’t a huge amount of penetration from Braintree, and it looked as though the half would dwindle out with the Beavers enjoying a one goal lead.

However, you know what they say about looks and their tendency to deceive, and on 44 minutes Braintree got level.  Dan Thompson, who started his career as a Beaver, and had a very vocal family/friends travelling support, did brilliantly through the middle, beating four Hampton players on his own.  When confronted with Ben Wynter he stood up a cross to the middle post, where Reece Grant had enough room to have five or six mates over.  He headed a looped effort over Dieng, and the recent signing from Heybridge Swifts had bagged the equaliser.

Dowse’s side had started very brightly, but the visitors had quickly grown into the match.  It didn’t help that the Beavers seemed content to sit off and let Braintree have the ball in midfield, but by similar token, by half time they were also struggling to play it out of their own half.  Both defences were pretty dominant at this stage, with Wassmer and Okoye probably the star performers after 45 minutes, through Brendan Kiernan and Max Kretzschmar were showing some bright flashes.

The second half continued much as the first had finished, and it was 61 minutes before there was any action of note.  When Muleba got forward again well – the Congolese right back caused Josh Casey headaches all afternoon – he was confronted by the onrushing blond mane of Wassmer.  As the big centre half lunged in, Muleba nicked the ball past him, and with his next touch crossed for Grant, but he was eased off the cross by the covering Jack Cook.

Two minutes later, a deep free kick was lofted up to the back post by Billy Crook.  Crook, who was brought across from Enfield by Quinton in the summer, was a threat from the set piece every time he got an opportunity, and regularly aimed for the significantly elevated head of Hill.  This time, as with many, Hill got above Wassmer at the back stick and headed back across goal.  It fell to captain Marc-Anthony Okoye, who dummied left, turned right and shot.  But, sadly, he’s a centre back, so his shot went as high and wide as you might expect.

Braintree were upping the ante now, and on 70 minutes his defensive mucker Josh Hill tried his luck.  As another Crook free kick was misjudged by Wassmer it dropped to Hill in the area.  He lunged and crossed, but the ball was half cleared.  As it dropped, it fell at the feet of the now retreating Hill, who on the half-turn shot right footed just wide of the post.  Better than Okoye’s effort, but still no dice.

After 75 minutes Billy Crook released a loose pass out of the back, straight to the feet of Jack Cook.  Around forty yards from goal, and having seen almost every other centre back have a pop, he struck at it.  This one, too, went high and wide.  Just as I was beginning to think the balls were filled with helium, Ricky Gabriel confirmed it for me, blazing a shot so wild it passed me on the A3 on my way home after the aerially dominant Hill had again knocked down a free kick.

Brad Quinton’s side continued to exert pressure, and came close to a winner on 81 minutes.  A long clearance looked to be bouncing through to Seny Dieng, but Reece Grant is faster than he looks (and he looks pretty fast to be fair) and got close enough to cause trouble.  Dieng managed to nick the ball away from Grant, but only as far as Thompson, who shot first time with the goal empty.  He hadn’t counted on the former Palace youngster Ben Wynter making up incredible ground though, and the right back cleared from almost under the crossbar.

With 90 on the clock, we moved into five minutes of added time, and there was still one chance to come.  It fell to Beavers’ sub James Mulley, and – would you believe it – his sliced volley went high and wide.  Onto extra time…

If the second half of the regular match was played at a slightly gentler tempo in the sun, the first additional half more than made up for it.  After only one minute, Billy Crook drove forward on the ball and played a one-two off his forward.  As the ball came back to him he was in a good position to shoot, but pulled it narrowly wide.

Three minutes later, a good cross from the right wing was headed narrowly over by Reece Grant, before substitute Bradley Hudson-Odoi drove forward for Hampton.  Some lovely dribbling out on the left got him in a position to cross, but when he did it was just behind the head of Brendon Kiernan.  It landed nicely for Shaun Jeffers, but he’d left his composure in the glove box, because he sliced it good and proper about three goals wide.

 

After ten minutes the game really became end to end, and was played at an absolute sprint.  The frankly massive Elliott Charles got a ball across the box for Hampton & Richmond, where Brendan Kiernan was kept out by Nathan McDonald.  Straight down the other end, and Braintree couldn’t quite work a shooting position.

Straight back up to Braintree’s goalmouth, and this time Elliott Charles got a shot away, but it didn’t trouble McDonald, and then Diaz Wright was inches away from a gorgeous winner when he curled wide from 12 yards.

13 minutes in and a Hampton free kick was punched clear, and with substitute Roman Michael-Percil, signed from Met Police in the summer, breaking at pace, he was hauled down by James Mulley.  An important – but illegal –intervention, and rightly awarded a yellow card.

A minute later, another big punch clear by McDonald dropped beautifully for Hampton skipper Josh Casey on the volley, but although his shot was on target, that man Okoye was in the right place – he was always in the right place – to block.  The referee called time on the half, and everyone grabbed a quick breather.

Thankfully the only notable action of the second period was a yellow card for Ben Wynter when he booted Ben Wyatt in the midriff.  Aside from that, the second half was a cautious, slow affair, as both side’s seemed to accept the inevitability of penalties.  Which came shortly after…

I’m legally bound to say that no-one likes to see a game like this decided on penalties, but both sides had worked so hard and there wasn’t anything at all between them.  I was asked after the game who had deserved to win before penalties – honestly, neither, and simultaneously, both.

Hampton must have won the toss, because the spot kicks were taken at the end in front of the home fans, and Shaun Jeffers stepped up first for them.  First blood to the Beavers, and they stayed ahead shortly after when Billy Crook put his penalty wide to the right of the goal.  1-0.

In the second round of kicks, Nathan McDonald was the hero, getting down well to his left to save Josh Casey’s effort, before Daniel Thompson capped his fine performance with a curled effort into the right hand corner.  1-1.

Next up for the hosts was substitute Elliott Charles, and the Grenadian international made no mistake, slotting away low to the left.  Braintree didn’t blink though, and Marcel Barrington – a Guyanese international – also scored low and left.  2-2.

Then disaster struck for Hampton & Richmond, as Brendan Kiernan missed his penalty.  A heart breaking moment for the attacking midfielder, who had been so impressive throughout the match, but his shot over the bar meant that when Joshua Hill scored to the left, The Iron were in the lead for the first time.   2-3.

Bradley Hudson-Odoi ensured a nervous thirty seconds at the end when he slotted away a neat finish to even the scores, leaving Diaz Wright with the all important strike.  Plenty of pressure, but the Colchester loanee gave zero shits, and buried the best penalty of the shoot out right in the top corner.  3-4, and Braintree were up.

The Wash Up

Cue, unsurprisingly, bedlam.  Despite repeated pleas to remain in the stands, the club staff knew that was never going to happen.  A horde of orange-clad Essex dwellers charged onto the pitch, like some sort of Dutch orgasm, and enveloped the players in the middle.

It was a horrible, gutting way for Hampton to lose though, and the bandaged Max Kretzschmar and his teammates left the pitch whilst the celebrations were under way.  Neither team deserved to lose this game, and to come so close, and to fight for so long, with no reward must have been excruciating.  Alan Dowson brought his squad back out to applaud the winners, though, and much like Boreham Wood yesterday, that feeling will surely motivate his squad to come back stronger next year.

As for Braintree, Brad Quinton and his squad can look forward to a heavy night – as long as they don’t have work tomorrow.  Roman Michael-Percil assured me post-match that the hard work starts now, and he’d be in the gym preparing for National League football over the summer.  I imagine the whole squad will.  At the start of the season Brad Quinton sat at Cressing Road with an empty dressing room, and has built this squad from scratch.  His captain Marc-Anthony Okoye sang the manager’s praises post-match, and rightfully so, but must also take his share of the credit today.  He was an absolute rock at the back, and the rest of his side took their cue from him.

Players such as Jonathan Muleba, Diaz Wright and Daniel Thompson ran their absolute socks off across this match, and for sheer effort expended, they – and their teammates – deserve their reward.  Congratulations to Braintree, and commiserations to Hampton & Richmond.

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