Nine man Wealdstone suffered crushing heartbreak on Wednesday night as a penalty deep into injury time eliminated them from the Ryman League playoffs.
Despite the agony of defeat, it has been a remarkable season for Stones in which they finished fourth in the league, their highest ever placing as well as reaching the semi final of the FA Trophy. Everyone involved with the club will be extremely proud of the way the side have performed, and Manager Gordon Bartlett will be determined to get over the finishing line successfully next season with the excellent squad he has.
Played in front of a crowd of just under 1200, including 250 away fans, Stones fell behind midway through the first half but a much improved second half performance saw them pull level before the tie was turned on its head with successive dismissals of Chris O’Leary and Sean Cronin. Despite being down to 9 men Stones created a couple of half chances to snatch the win before they were undone by a late penalty in the sixth minute of injury time.
With so much at stake, it was a predictably nervy start from both sides with Lowestoft shading it in terms of possession and forcing a couple of early corners.
There was a penalty shout for the home side with 9 minutes on the clock when Joe Francis went to ground in the box with Wes Parker in close attention; however the referee waved play on.
Town took the lead on 21 minutes with what was the first real attack of the game. A neat passing move resulted in Scott Mitchell pulling the ball back across goal from the right hand side to the unmarked Chris Henderson who slammed the ball home from 6 yards.
Wealdstone began to enjoy more of the ball towards the end of the half, and a swift attack ended with Lee Chappell seeing his effort from the edge of the box blocked after a tidy interchange between Scott Fitzgerald and Richard Jolly.
The half ended with Wealdstone forcing a couple of corners; however they were unable to capitalise despite Lowestoft ‘keeper Jake Jessup looking very vulnerable to ariel balls into the box.
Stones came out of the second half the quicker of the two sides, and four minutes after the restart Lee Chappell swung over a cross from the left which just evaded the onrushing Jolly.
Town tried their luck with a couple of efforts from distance soon after, with Henderson sending a shot straight into the arms of Ashlee Jones before Greg Crane dragged one just wide from 20 yards.
Stones made their first change of the night on 62 minutes with Tom Pett replacing Alan Massey in a bid to give the side a more attacking edge.
Pett had been on the pitch just a minute when Stones levelled the match. Chappell send over a cross from the left, with Jessup flapping at the ball as it found its way to Scott Fitzgerald at the back post. The experienced striker met it with a towering header which just found its way over the line, much to the delight of the hugely vocal away support.
Wealdstone were now in the ascendancy and Chappell put another delivery into the box, this time from a free kick 30 yards from goal which Jessup again missed but luckily for him the ball dipped just over the bar.
The visitors were rocked when they were suddenly confronted with being down to ten men on 78 minutes. Chris O’Leary took exception to a challenge by Mitchell and pushed the Lowestoft man in retaliation. Having been booked for a challenge earlier in the half, the combative midfielder was shown a second yellow.
Two minutes later and Stones were down to nine. Sean Cronin went in with a strong challenge on the halfway line and the referee deemed it to be a two footed resulting in a straight red, with the Wealdstone man protesting that it was a 50/50 challenge with the opposing player going in equally hard.
Despite Lowestoft having a two man advantage Wealdstone summoned their renowned spirit and still created a couple of half chances late on with Alex Dyer firing just over from 20 yards before miscommunication between Jessup and Sam Gaughran saw the latter almost put the ball into his own net.
Despite the strong finish from Stones they were dealt a gut wrenching blow deep into injury time. The pacey Lubomir Guentchev burst into the box only to be chopped down by Scott McCubbin, giving the referee no option but to point to the spot. Dean Sinclair stepped up to cooly slot home the resultant kick to send his side into the final, ending Wealdstone’s promotion dream.
At the final whistle Wealdstone were given a great reception from their fans who had once again been superb all night as they outsung the home contingent, with a large number of them staying long after the final whistle to ensure the players and management were given the ovation they deserved for what has been an incredible season.
Wealdstone: Jones, McCubbin, Massey (Pett 62), Parker (c), Cronin, Dyer, Brooks, O’Leary, Fitzgerald (Smith 82), Jolly, Chappell. Subs not used: Dean, Mulley, Hammond
Report by Stuart Warren