Ryman League playoff final: AFC Hornchurch 2, Lowestoft Town 1 (aet)
Photo Gallery: Lowestoft Town experienced play-off heartache once against this afternoon as Michael Spencer’s extra-time winner ensured they will remain in the Ryman League Premier next season.
Spencer struck in the 116th minute to break Lowestoft’s hearts despite the Blues looking the more likely winners in extra time.
The match had finished goalless after 90 minutes but Hornchurch got the breakthrough thanks to Leon McKenzie’s close range strike. Dean Sinclair threw Lowestoft a lifeline from the penalty spot after Andrew Fisk had been fouled and Scott Mitchell came close to heading a winner in the second period of extra time.
However, it wasn’t to be and Spencer was to have the last word, latching on to Lewis Smith’s through ball before despatching a left-footed drive past Andy Reynolds.
Hornchurch had the first shot in anger in only the second minute when Andy Tomlinson laid off for Lewis Smith to strike from distance but his effort whistled past Andy Reynolds’ left-hand post.
Despite the early scare Lowestoft settled well and in Chris Henderson and Michael Frew they looked to have a strikeforce that could cause Hornchurch problems at the back.
There was certainly an open feel to the match and the Blues were getting some joy when Henderson and Frew pulled into wide areas. In the 26th minute a long diagonal pass from Crane found Frew round the back and his cross found Francis at the back post but the winger’s diving header somehow flew just wide.
Just after the half-hour mark Lowestoft had an even better chance to break the deadlock when Henderson sprung the offside trap to go through on goal. The former Bury man’s superb first touch saw him bearing in on goal but from a tight angle his right footed strike was brilliantly saved by the legs of Joe Woolley.
The Blues didn’t have it all their own way in the opening period and a flowing move involving Lewis Smith, Tuohy and Love saw the latter’s shot go just wide to the relief of Reynolds.
Lowestoft had another presentable chance before the break when Guentchev turned Love inside out on the wing before delivering a cross for Sinclair, whose glancing header whistled just over the bar.
Lowestoft were forced into a reshuffle at half-time as Sam Gaughran was replaced by Dale Cockrill. The midfielder replaced Sinclair in the heart of the midfielder as the former Norwich City man went to right back. Scott Mitchell moved into centre half.
The Blues were again the brighter side at the start of the second half and only good goalkeeper from Woolley prevented Frew from having a tap-in after excellent work down the left by Henderson.
Lowestoft were in the ascendancy although they were almost caught on the break in the 60th minute when Tomlinson got in behind the Blues back four. The midfielder dug out a cross for Rook at the back post but his scuffed effort was easily gathered by Reynolds.
Guentchev almost produced one of his trademark volleys in the 72nd minute but his right-footed effort cannoned off the crossbar and rebounded to safety.
The travelling Trawlerboys breathed a massive sigh of relief a minute later though when Tomlinson’s free kick found Rook free at the back post. The striker controlled well but Reynolds was out superbly to smother his shot.
Guentchev again came close from distance when he met Cockrill’s knockdown but his left-footed volley skimmed the top of Woolley’s crossbar.
Lowestoft had a mighty let-off in the fourth minute of injury time when Curley met Hayles’ long throw but his header was brilliantly tipped over the bar by Reynolds.
The Blues’ luck ran out in the fourth minute of extra time although there was more than a hint of controversy about it. Adam Smith looked to be elbowed on the halfway line in the build-up but the referee waved play on allowing Smith to cross into the penalty area. Sinclair could only clear as far as the penalty spot where McKenzie nonchalantly clipped the ball home with the outside of his right foot.
Mitchell came within a whisker of hauling his side level a minute later when he swivelled on the edge of the box but his left footed shot was turned round the post by Woolley.
Just when all hoped looked to have been lost Lowestoft were thrown a lifeline when Curley bundled Fisk over inside the penalty area and the referee pointed to the spot. Sinclair stepped up and side-footed the ball home into the bottom corner and it was 1-1.
The Blues had a let-off just before half-time in extra time when Lewis Smith went through on goal and prodded the ball past Reynolds but Sinclair raced back to hack the ball off the line.
Crane was lucky not to be shown a second yellow card for a rash challenge on McKenzie but the referee decided a stern talking to sufficed.
Mitchell almost found a winner with a fine header, which Woolley scrambled to his right to save. Sinclair looked set to pounce on the rebound but somehow Woolley scrambled the ball round the post.
Lowestoft looked the only winner then in the 119th minute they got sucker punched. Lewis Smith broke and ran at the heart of the defence before sliding Spencer in and his left-footed shot arrowed past the despairing dive of Reynolds.
Henderson had a half chance to level but sliced wide when well placed and Lowestoft were left cursing the play-offs once again.
• AFC Hornchurch (4-3-3): Woolley, Love, Noel, Hayles, Anderson, Glover, Curley, Tomlinson (Spencer, 107), Rook (McKenzie, 90), Tuohy (Hunt, 113), Smith. Subs not used: Eyong, Anderson.
• Goals: McKenzie (94), Spencer (119)
• Lowestoft Town (4-4-2): Reynolds, Mitchell, Crane, Gaughran (Cockrill, 46), Smith (Stone, 98), Guentchev, Fisk, Sinclair, Francis (Eagle, 80), Frew, Henderson. Subs not used: Forbes, Jessup.
• Goal: Sinclair (pen, 104)
• Referee: Mr L Venamore
• Attendance: 1,411