Evostik League Southern Premier Division
Play Off Final
Phillips 66 Community Stadium
Monday 1st May 2017
They didn't do it the easy way, but Leamington secured a return to the National League at the second time of asking following a dramatic extra time victory over Hitchin Town in front of a record crowd of 2,102 at the Phillips 66 Community Stadium.
Brakes fans know only too well the pain of play off defeat, having lost a Midland Division final to Stourbridge nine years ago, a semi final at Hednesford in 2011 along with last year's final at Hungerford, so it is difficult not to have some sympathy for visitors Hitchin, who possibly paid for a little complacency in thinking they had the game sewn up when they took off their talisman and main protagonist Brett Donnelly with four minutes to go.
One thing this Leamington team has shown this season though is that when they are up for the fight they will battle right to the end, and though it took a long time for Paul Holleran's men to get going in this game that is exactly what they did, Rob Thompson-Brown's late penalty cancelling out Matt Lench's scrambled 11th minute opener for the Canaries, and with Lewis Rolfe sent off after bringing down substitute Kurtis Revan for the spot kick Leamington finally had the upper hand as tired legs hauled themselves into extra time. Just as penalties began to loom top scorer Courtney Baker-Richardson was the hero, curling in his 20th goal of the season to send a raucous home support into raptures.
The game hadn't begun well, Hitchin gaining the upper hand early on when Lench, one of two or three green shirted players converging on the ball at the far post as a free kick was headed back across goal, bundled home to delight the travelling support scattered around the ground.
The first half was littered with stoppages and niggly flashpoints that have seemed to dominate fixtures between these two sides in the past couple of seasons, but Hitchin were executing their game plan perfectly, frustrating their opponents and the crowd. Leamington simply could not get going.
There were no real clear cut chances for either side after the goal, Connor Gudger firing straight at Hitchin keeper Michael Johnson, while free kicks for both side were off target. Half time was much needed for Brakes as an opportunity to regroup.
Thompson-Brown lashed a decent chance inches over the bar early in the second half as Leamington looked for an early response. Baker-Richardson headed well over the bar while a free kick from Richard Taundry bounced into the arms of Johnson, who then held a looping header from Baker-Richardson from Taundry’s long throw into the Hitchin penalty area.
Donnelly was almost played in on goal from the left in a rare Hitchin attack, only a superb interception from Connor Gudger stopping him in his tracks.
The introduction of Richard Batchelor seemed to give Brakes fresh impetus, the home support buoyed at the sight of their former favourite back in Gold and Black. A neat move involving him saw Taundry’s ball in and Baker-Richardson’s header saved.
Gudger whipped up the crowd once more when he tore away from the touchline with the ball from a Hitchin attack down the left, hooking it over the retreating defenders for Baker-Richardson, who managed to poke his shot past the advancing Johnson but unfortunately past the post.
The visitors floated a free kick into the arms of Breeden before making a second substitution as Donnelly was withdrawn, but the game was about to take a dramatic twist. Revan was fouled tight to the touchline by Rolfe, who having been booked in the first half was maybe harshly shown a second yellow, but this was a chance for Leamington to swing the game. Thompson-Brown stepped up, and undeterred by the wait as Rolfe took his time leaving the field of play, he stepped up to smash the penalty past Johnson.
This was the cue for a frantic few minutes as Brakes bombarded the Hitchin penalty area in an effort to try and finish the game off. Johnson bravely punched the ball off the head of Edwards from a left wing cross, James Mace, stooping to head the resulting corner just past the post. The young Canaries keeper then took the game into extra time when he produced a stunning save to keep out Jamie Hood’s powerful header in injury time.
There was little to separate the two sides during the first half of extra time despite Leamington having a man advantage, Thompson-Brown driving just past the upright in the final minute. Mindful of their superb performance in the shoot out at Merthyr on Wednesday evening, Hitchin may have been eyeing penalties once more, but they were finally undone in the 114th minute, Baker-Richardson showing incredible persistence to win the ball back in the penalty area before swiftly curling a shot beyond the despairing dive of Johnson to spark absolute bedlam in the Harbury Lane End.
The drama wasn’t quite over however. Dan Webb had thrashed a shot over the bar after Breeden had failed to gather a corner, but in the final moments of the contest the Brakes skipper showed just how valuable he is to the team once again, producing a save to better the amazing one he pulled off in the dying throes of the game against Slough on Wednesday. Lench whipped an inviting ball in from the left which was met by a thumping header from Lucas Kirkpatrick. The fans behind the goal thought it was going in. The Hitchin bench were on their feet ready to celebrate, but Breeden somehow plunged down to his right, thrusting out an arm to divert the ball away. The final whistle sounded moments later, fans running onto the pitch to celebrate with their heroes as a memorable league campaign drew to a fitting conclusion.
It is not quite over though. A chance to add more silverware to the cabinet awaits at Molineux next Wednesday as Leamington travel to face Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Under 23 side in the Birmingham Senior Cup Final. Another great occasion for which this team deserves the same kind of support it received on a dramatic Bank Holiday Monday. Well done Brakes!
Seats are still available on the Supporters' coaches to the BSC Cup Final, priced £8 (pay on the day), departures 5pm from the Phillips 66 Community Stadium and 5:30 from Newbold Terrace (Parade end), Leamington. Book online at cupfinal.brakestrust.com
Attendance: 2,102 (A new record)
Leamington: Tony Breeden ©, Richard Taundry, Connor Gudger, Darren Pond, Jamie Hood, James Mace, Courtney Baker-Richardson, (15 Richard Gregory, 119), Callum Gittings (16 Kurtis Revan, 68), Ahmed Obeng (14 Richard Batchelor, 64), Jack Edwards, Rob Thompson-Brown.
Subs not used: 12 Joe Magunda, 17 Tom James.
Hitchin Town: Michael Johnson, Will Wright, Ben Walster (15 Jonny McNamara, 118), Jay Dowie, Dan Webb ©, Lewis Rolfe, Matt Lench, Lucas Kirkpatrick, Brett Donnelly (12 Liam Brooks, 86), Robbie Burns (14 Callum Donnelly, 80), Josh Bickerstaff.
Subs not used: 13 Martin Bennett, 16 Kane Smith.
Referee: Mr James Durkin
Assistant Referees: Mr Ioannis Christadoulou & Mr Sean Jenkins
Fourth Official: Mr Dan Lamport
Brakes Man of the Match: Connor Gudger.