Sun shines on 'pub team' from Hornchurch at Wembley Stadium
- Credit: Ben Gaby
The sun shone on the Hornchurch end at Wembley Stadium ahead of the Buildbase FA Trophy final against Hereford on Saturday.
It was a good sign.
Supporters had enjoyed the chance of a coffee – or something stronger – in the cafes and bars close to the ground earlier in the day, with the club’s all-time leading goalscorer George Purcell spotted along the way, still pinching themselves no doubt that their Isthmian League outfit had made it to Non-League Finals Day.
The Road to Wembley had already thrown up no shortage of dramatic twists and turns, including six ‘giantkillings’ of clubs from one and two tiers above the ‘pub team from Hornchurch’ in football’s pyramid.
National League South Tonbridge Angels were eliminated thanks to an injury-time goal from Joe Christou, while Dulwich Hamlet fell to a Charlie Ruff effort with only four minutes to play.
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Liam Nash then cancelled out an opening goal from National League side King’s Lynn Town, before Joe Wright saved three penalties in a shoot-out, and Nash netted in the sixth minute of stoppage time to seal a 5-4 win over another National League South side in Maidstone.
A long trip to Darlington, of National League North, yielded a 2-1 win in the quarter-finals after a decisive spot-kick from Sam Higgins on 54 minutes, before Urchins defied the odds yet again to beat Notts County, who were pushing for a return to the Football League, in another shoot-out after more injury-time heroics from Nash to seal a 3-3 draw and another save from Wright.
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Surely Mark Stimson’s men had used up all their fairytale dust in just getting to Wembley?
Fans, long-standing and newbies, were going to enjoy the day no matter what, but Stimson – with four winners’ medals in his collection already – had spoken of going out to win, while captain Lewwis Spence had said he wanted more than just the memory of leading the team out.
And former England star Stuart Pearce – a veteran of close to 50 matches at Wembley – had advised the players to embrace the occasion during a special visit to a training session in his role as ambassador for the multi-million pound investment programme Pitching In.
As 3,000 ticket holders made their way to seats at the national stadium – to watch the Urchins live for the first time since a crowd of 208 watched them beat Wingate & Finchley 4-1 in the first round at Bridge Avenue - the players and coaching staff took their pre-match stroll on the hallowed turf.
Casually dressed in their tracksuits, Hornchurch players took the chance to video themselves, waving to those fans already inside the ground just over an hour before kick-off, while Hereford adopted the more classic look in Cup Final suits and were first to retire to the dressing rooms.
Two previous meetings between the clubs had gone to the formbook, with the Bulls winning an FA Cup fourth qualifying round tie 1-0 at Bridge Avenue in 2013 and a third qualifying round tie on their own turf by a 2-0 margin four years later.
But third time’s a charm right?
League form, of course, was going to be no guide whatsoever with neither side having played for months due to their campaigns being curtailed thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
For what it’s worth, Hereford were sitting in a mid-table spot in National League North after five wins, five draws and three losses, while Urchins were ninth in the Isthmian Premier after four wins, two draws and four losses.
But only Trophy ties had been played since December, their semi-finals some eight weeks earlier than the big day at Wembley.
Hornchurch players carried out a series of shuttle runs, as sunlight stretched from midway inside their half of the pitch and into the stands. Substitutes were pinging long passes across the pitch to each other in more shady areas, while goalkeeper Wright was being worked in a training goal behind the dead-ball line in the far corner.
One-touch keep-ball drills followed to sharpen up the touches as Hornchurch fans began to start up some songs, sadly drowned out by the stadium PA playing pop music above the press box, which was situated close to the Hereford supporters.
As they prepared to leave the pitch at the end of their warm-up, it was a nice touch to see the Hornchurch players throwing t-shirts into the crowd for fans, with skipper Spence waving his arms to urge them to make some noise.
The Hereford fans had seemed a lot quieter in the shady end of the ground, meanwhile. Maybe they were concerned about their side being on the wrong end of another Urchins giantkilling?
They finally raised their voices to acknowledge Joey Butlin, broke into song as the players left the pitch at around 4pm and would repeat their mantra about being ‘Hereford FC, from Cider Country’ at various points once the game was underway.
Sprinklers were switched on to liven up the surface and groundstaff poked and prodded the turf at each end as the trophy itself and backdrop mount were placed on the pitch for the team presentations, with the minutes ticking down to the start.
And then the teams appeared, accompanied by bursts of flame from the touchline, and lined up for a socially distanced pre-match presentation, free of handshakes or elbow bumps but involving head nods and thumbs up.
Lily Day-Scott sang the national anthem beautifully, both teams posed for the obligatory photo and Wright made sure to have a feel of the ball while it was placed on the centre spot before taking up his position in the Hornchurch goal.
And then Hereford got the game underway.
And on 13 minutes the Bulls took the lead when a training ground move from a corner led to a goalbound effort from Tom Owen-Evans, which a diving Higgins headed past Wright and inside the post.
The rest of the first half was largely frustrating fare for Hornchurch, but they kept battling and Mickey Parcell summed up the mood when thumping into a tackle on Lewis Butroid and signalling back towards the Urchins fans to raise the decibel level.
Wright dived to his left to punch away a Chris Camwell free-kick to keep it at 1-0 and Urchins got a couple of sights of goal just before the break, but it was clear they had some work to do after the restart.
Whatever was said at the interval it did the trick as Stimson’s men made a bright start to the second half, with Christou diverting a shot from Higgins just wide of the near post.
And cometh the hour, cometh the men as Chris Dickson and Ruff replaced Higgins and Spence in what turned out to be a crucial double substitution.
The red shirts began to move forward with more purpose, attacking their sunlit fans, and they created a golden chance to level on 70 minutes when Parcell picked out Nash in the box and he nudged the ball past Hereford keeper Brandon Hall, only to see Jared Hodgkiss clear off the line.
Was that it? THE chance to get back into the game, gone?
Thankfully, no. A few minutes later a long throw-in from Christou skimmed off the head of a Hereford defender and hit the crossbar, before dropping down onto the shoulder of Ruff and over the line.
A quarter of an hour was left on the clock, which now appeared to be ticking down quickly towards extra time.
Hereford rallied, but they were crowded out by a wall of red shirts in the box, had penalty appeals ignored, saw a shot deflected behind and a header go over the crossbar.
And then, with four minutes to go, Ruff juggled the ball out on the left touchline, before playing a high cross towards fellow sub Dickson, the Ghana international who was ticking Wembley off his bucket list, and he nodded expertly inside for the predatory Nash to drive his seventh goal of the competition under Hall and into the net.
Cue scenes of ecstacy among the Hornchurch supporters behind the goal, as Nash ripped off his shirt and ran towards the sidelines to be mobbed by teammates.
Stunned silence descended on the other end of Wembley, but six minutes of injury time raised anxiety levels among Urchins while offering Hereford some late hope.
Then Parcell’s long throw along the right touchline was headed on by Dickson and Ellis Brown scampered clear of Butroid from halfway, showing amazing levels of energy after a long afternoon, to steer the ball past Hall and cap a golden ending to this most magical story.
The final whistle followed soon after to cap a stunning few minutes, with some supporters managing to make it onto the pitch to celebrate with players, before a PA announcement asked them to leave the playing area.
And after a short passage of time, the team were lining up behind the sponsor’s board as Spence and Rickie Hayles lifted the silverware to kickstart the celebrations, which one expects would have lasted long into the night – especially for a pub team from Hornchurch.