It was a case of acute poetic justice for Concord Rangers on Wednesday night as they wrought devastating revenge on Wealdstone by dumping them out of the play-offs in a wickedly cruel reversal of the controversial league match debacle.
Whilst Stones were anything but complacent in their approach to this huge match, it was a massive, massive blow as they would have expected to progress to the final on Bank Holiday Monday having earned hard won rights to a home tie at The Vale.
The emotion of this painful exit was all too plain to see at the end as supporters trudged away silently as though they were leaving a funeral rather than a football match. The desire and expectation generated within Wealdstone pre match had reached a high level and suddenly all had been snatched away; a distraught Gordon Bartlett appeared close to tears.
Concord had attempted to hype themselves prior to this crunch knock out encounter by making noises to the press about revenge – and who could blame them. But as matters turned out on the pitch it was Stones that took up virtually all the running, playing some their best football for the vast majority of normal time but somehow they contrived to fail to defend a one goal lead courtesy of guess who – Richard Jolly – with only an agonising two minutes of time remaining. Whether this shocking aberration was about a sudden loss of mental strength, a reshuffled back line or an act of God will now be confined to history.
In front of a record league crowd at The Vale of officially 1,055 and amid a heady, expectant, atmosphere, it was Stones that seized the initiative from the off as they ripped into Concord down the slope.
The Wealdstone side adjusted quickly to an enforced reshuffle as skipper Wes Parker sustained an injury during the warm up but Gordon Bartlett had already astutely brought in the dual signed Alan Massey as a surprise call up. Massey would have slotted in at left back but was rapidly re designated to play in the centre of defence alongside player of the season Sean Cronin.
Up front the experience and tenacity of Scott McGleish, playing alongside Richard Jolly was proving to be a real handful for the away defence that looked uncharacteristically panicky and unsettled. Concord themselves had a changed line up with their talismanic top striker Tony Stokes left on the bench through illness .This apparent malady was later to prove all to fleeting for Stones as Stokes was able to later shake off his illness to devastating effect. Rangers also had to pull in an emergency loan keeper Luke Chambers and the young custodian is unlikely to put up a better display during the remainder of his career
For virtually all of the first period Rangers tactic appeared to be to soak up pressure and attempt to counter but such was Stones dominance that this plan looked increasingly full of risk.
How Chambers kept out innumerable efforts including a deflected header from the excellent Chris O’Leary was the main talking point of the first half – it was a truly magnificent save of world class proportions
But for all Wealdstone’s dominance they couldn’t make the breakthrough and the feeling on the terraces was that surely Concord would take advantage at some stage in the proceedings. Rangers had one effort of danger prior to the break when Hammond cleared off the line but it was Stones that were scratching their heads at half time asking how they hadn’t scored at least two goals and having struck the woodwork three times.
In the second period Rangers upped their anti and started to play as we know they can and pinned Stones back for a time using the slope to their advantage. Having struck Rikki Banks woodwork, Stones still looked largely unperturbed as they continued to build attacks although with less gusto than in the first 45.
But Stones did make the breakthrough on 62 minutes. A rash foul meant that Lee Chappell had the chance to float in a perfect free kick and in ghosted the arch goal poacher Richard Jolly for a rare headed goal that left Chambers clutching thin air sparking scenes of unbridled joy. We didn’t know it but this was to be Jolly’s final goal of his remarkable career in non league football.
Back came Concord showing admirable grit and stoic determination but time ticked away. But when Tony Stokes finally entered the fray as Ranger’s third and final substitute the writing was being quietly etched on the wall.
But his entrance should have been entirely irrelevant as both Jolly and McGleish spurned gilt edged chances to kill the game off. They didn’t and this gave the Beach Boys the hope and precious time they needed. On 88 minutes they struck – Steve King netting a scrambled, untidy gut wrenching effort. Poor defending.
This was the life line they sought and suddenly the complexion of the whole game changed. Stones were stunned and their play became inhibited and far less purposeful – fear of failure crept into some minds and it showed.
Into extra time and Stones started to rally but on 108 minutes the lights went out and it was good night Vienna as Stokes – the spectre of doom for Wealdstone – struck mercilessly after another high ball ‘ down the throat’ wasn’t dealt with.
It was all over.
Concord celebrated and briefly their fans taunted Wealdstone with a song that a mere few weeks ago was being rammed down their own throats.
Wealdstone had once again achieved a glorious ‘failure’ displaying admirable spirit and tons of skill and application along the way. But they have to do all again next season in the same division just to get back to where they started on Wednesday evening.
Football can be a very, very cruel game. Concord may yet find that out on Monday, and that would be even crueller.
Wealdstone: Banks, Hammond, Massey, Dean, Cronin, Dyer, Godfrey, O’Leary, McGleish, Jolly, Chappell. Subs used: James, Moore. N/u Brooks, Locke, North.