Sunday, 21 September 2008

Game 3: Hassocks 2, Chertsey Town 3 (aet)

Second Round Qualifying ~ Saturday 20th September 2008
Venue: The Beacon, Hassocks, Sussex
Attendance: 110

Distance travelled: 103 miles

The Beacon has left an impression on me, and I have no doubt in my mind that it will be a very long lasting impression. The view from the ground is alluring, with the South Downs ridge visible beyond the South Fields, with the outline of the Jack and Jill windmills focusing the eye on the point where the ridge meets the sky. It is a lovely view, and on a gloriously sunny September afternoon the scene was quite simply intoxicating.

Once again, we were treated to another excellent advert for the non League game with an enthralling encounter than ended with a one goal margin of victory for Chertsey Town. The winning goal in extra-time came as a huge relief for the away team and their supporters, in a game that they should really have killed off in the early stages of the tie. Hassocks maybe felt that they had done enough to resist the Chertsey onslaught and, with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, were no doubt dejected at the outcome.

Our welcome to this part of Sussex was first class; I travelled with my son and fellow footy addicts Mackem, PB and Posh Mate, all wedged into my tiny motor. If any of you followed my adventures in last season's FA Cup, these names will ring many bells and my mates, more used to the surroundings of The Stadium of Light, Loftus Road or London Road, were keen to sample FA Vase football. Manning the turnstile upon our arrival was the Hassocks' Vice Chairman and General Secretary David Knight and the Youth Team General Secretary Dave John, and I later met Paul Elphick as he was writing out the teams on the Hassocks FC whiteboard. Paul's other duties include producing the programme, tannoy announcing and serving at the bar. We were made to feel extremely welcome at Hassocks and I for one learnt a lot about the club; a very friendly club indeed.

The ground boasts an impressive new clubhouse, built using monies raised by the club and donated by an anonymous benefactor. It is an impressive building, something that the club is understandably proud of. Whist the clubhouse is grand, by contrast the seating behind one goal is wonderfully quirky; a single park bench with room enough for four. Perched up on top of a bank, it is both unusual and tricky to get up to.

The game was a cracker; five goals (that's a total of sixteen in three FA Vase games already for me) played out on an uneven pitch. The surface has been re-laid over the summer after new drainage had been installed, and the pitch hadn't quite 'settled in'. In truth, it seemed to affect Chertsey the most, but the rugged turf failed to spoil what was a great Cup tie.

The five goal scoring sequence went like this. Cherstey Town took a 22nd minute lead from a Leon Johnson free kick, which went in off the post (see photo left). Hassocks equalised quarter of an hour later with an own goal, Wayne Noad applying the finishing touch into his own net after a melee in the box. All square at half-time. The home side took a 2-1 lead on 70 minutes when James Laing tucked away a close range header, and seemed to be heading through to the next round before the Chertsey substitute (and assistant manager) Kevin Cooper slipped the ball beyond Jack Simpson in the Hassocks goal with only a few minutes of normal time remaining. The tie was settled in extra-time with a fine goal on 117 minutes from Chertsey's Marcus Moody following a fine interchange involving Noad and Paul Brooker.

But the goals were only a small part of the story, and as in the previous two FA Vase games that I have seen so far, it was Brooker who quickly became the topic of discussion on the touchlines. Chertsey Town could so easily have scored close on double figures in this game, the number of clear chances they had. Many fell to Brooker; at the end of the game I had a brief chat with Spencer Day, the Chertsey manager, and I mentioned that Brooker should have had a hat-trick. "More like six!" was Day's reaction and I couldn't disagree. Brooker's numerous efforts, including several one-on-ones with the keeper, either whistled past the post, grazed the bar or drifted agonisingly wide. My guess is that he probably knew before half-time it just wasn't going to be his day.

Hassocks really struggled to keep up with the visitors from Surrey and there was a notable gap in standard on the pitch. Hassocks players do not take a single penny in wage whereas Chertsey players are reasonably well paid for this level and Chertsey are considered to be a 'rich' club. Nothing should be taken away from the home team's efforts in repelling attack after attack, but Chertsey failed to capitalise. Buoyed by almost total control of proceedings, the visitor's frequent raids were always heavy in numbers. This proved to be their undoing, and the two Hassocks' goals were a result of Chertsey committing too many men forward in an almost gung-ho fashion.

But Hassocks, against all odds, found themselves in front approaching the end of the game, and the frustration amongst the Chertsey staff and travelling support was almost unbearable to witness; the players seemed to become increasingly burdened by expectation as the minutes ticked by. Their late equaliser was greeted with huge sighs of relief but also by equally huge groans of disappointment from the Hassocks support. In the end Hassocks were denied a remarkable, if unlikely, victory.

In the interlude between the end of normal time and the start of extra-time, the Chertsey players received an almighty ear-bashing from their gaffer. I'm sure everyone in the crowd was left in no doubt as to what was being said. It was also quite clear, once extra-time got underway, that both teams were physically exhausted; but it was Chertsey - no doubt with their manager's words ringing in their ears - who found that little bit extra to seal the win in the dying minutes. As the shadows on the pitch lengthened, it was Moody's winner that sent Chertsey into the First Round Proper and set up another trip to Sussex. Heartbreak then for Hassocks; Arundel await Chertsey.

So what a great game and a marvellous day made even better by wonderful hosts. As we left Hassocks yesterday, with a huge ochre sun in the sky, I felt a tad rueful that there would be no more Vase trips to The Beacon this season. What a great spot to watch a bit of footy; I must resolve to go back one day.

Click [here] to see a fine selection of photos from the game by Chertsey Town photographer Andrew Pearson.

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