Saturday, April 21, 2012
United secured their Premier Division future a week earlier than many might have imagined likely after a magnificent performance saw them return from their longest trip of the season with three points and a league double over promotion seeking Lowestoft Town.
The home side lost goalkeeper Andy Reynolds to a suspected broken ankle barely ten minutes into the contest, and without a specialist replacement on the bench, were forced to play with striker Michael Frew between the sticks for much of the game.
The U's took full advantage, as first half goals from Josh Jirbandey and Bradley Goldberg put them on course for a well deserved victory, and although Lowestoft reduced the deficit shortly after the interval, Bailo Camara's first goal for the Club sealed the win late on.
Leatherhead's defeat at home to Kingstonian left them six points behind United and Harrow, who surprisingly beat AFC Hornchurch, with just one game to play, so the U's will be able to relax on the final day of the season for a change, when they have previously become rather more accustomed to their survival fights going right down to the wire.
After losing at Lewes on Easter Monday, it appeared that this year's battle might even be a losing one, but last weekend's vital victory over Harrow clearly served to remind Sean Ray's beleaguered side that relegation was far from a foregone conclusion, and an unchanged line-up displayed all of the same qualities at Crown Meadow this afternoon.
Even before the unfortunate Reynolds had been stretchered off, the U's had settled noticeably better than the high flying Trawlerboys, although the home side appeared galvanised by their ill-fortune, with Matt Armstrong-Ford making the first in a series of important saves to keep the scoreline blank.
Camara then missed a decent chance to put United in front, before Jirbandey met Lee Carey's twenty-fourth minute corner with a thumping header that soared past Frew, and midfielder Andrew Fisk on the goalline, to claim his fourth goal of the season.
The skipper soon picked up a caution for a foul just outside his own penalty area, but Armstrong-Ford was equal to Adam Smith's free kick, and United's dreams of survival then became yet more realistic, when Goldberg robbed Dean Sinclair of possession inside his area and powered home majestically to double the visitors' advantage at the interval, repeating the half time score from when the two sides met at the Pilot Field in late February.
The anticipated Lowestoft backlash was swift in its arrival though. Less than two minutes into the second period, Lubomir Guentchev's through ball split the U's defence wide open, allowing Chris Henderson to waltz through the gap and clip a shot past Armstrong-Ford from a narrow angle.
For twenty minutes or so, the home side dominated, and United suddenly started to struggle to string more than a couple of passes together, although the tireless Danny Ellis did go close from a rare U's counter-attack.
Lowestoft switched keepers for the final quarter of the contest, Matt Halliday volunteering to give Frew a chance to join a bolstered attacking line. United responded by introducing Scott Manning as an extra holding midfielder, and the move paid almost instant dividends, the recent arrival breaking up play and allowing Carey to send Camara clear, the Eastbourne Borough striker holding his nerve to beat Halliday at the second attempt.
Two goals clear again with fourteen minutes remaining, U's supporters were still treated to a tense conclusion, as the hosts kept them pinned back in a final effort to keep their own faint title hopes alive. Frew and Henderson were both denied by outstanding saves from the impressive Armstrong-Ford, and even when he was beaten by Robert Eagle's effort, Ray was on hand to clear off the line.
As the players celebrated their escape with supporters at the end of the match, memories of Tooting and 2006/07 were evoked, albeit on a smaller scale perhaps. And whilst the achievement of narrowly avoiding relegation for the fourth time in five years may feel slightly hollow to some, it clearly meant everything to those present in Suffolk today, both on the pitch and off.
An essentially meaningless encounter with Metropolitan Police next Saturday will hopefully be a novelty that all can enjoy.
|Lowestoft Town||(0) 1||-||3 (2)||Hastings United|
|Henderson 47||Jirbandey 24|
|Lowestoft Town (4-4-2)||Hastings United (4-3-3)|
|1 Andy Reynolds||1 Matt Armstrong-Ford|
|2 Adrian Forbes||2 Jack Dixon|
|3 Adam Smith (c)||3 Matt Whitehead|
|4 Andrew Fisk||4 Lee Carey|
|5 Scott Mitchell||5 Sean Ray|
|6 Sam Gaughran||6 Josh Jirbandey (c)|
|7 Lubomir Guentchev||7 Danny Ellis|
|8 Dean Sinclair||8 Jamie Crellin|
|9 Nathan Stone||9 Bailo Camara|
|10 Chris Henderson||10 Zac Attwood|
|11 Robert Eagle||11 Bradley Goldberg|
|12 Jamie Forshaw||12 Scott Manning (for Goldberg 72)|
|14 Matt Halliday (for Stone H.T.)||14 Ross Sutton|
|15 Joe Francis (for Forbes 68)||15 Nick Gonsalves (for Ellis 89)|
|16 Stuart Ainsley|
|17 Michael Frew (for Reynolds 11)|