Not for the first time this season, Hemel Hempstead Town boss Sammy Moore’s side fought back against the odds to emerge triumphant 2-1 over Havant & Waterlooville on a rainy Saturday in Hampshire.
Facing the pre-season title favourites on their own patch was always going to be a tough ask, especially as Havant came into the game in good form with four wins on the bounce, including an impressive thumping of league leaders Wealdstone.
Hemel, in second place before the match, were also on a good run in the league and they certainly weren’t overawed by their third-ranked opponents, giving as good as they got, especially in the first half.
The game got off to the worse possible start when Tudors’ centre-half Mitch Dickenson was floored by a stray arm that left him on his back for a considerable time.
He was eventually stretchered off, with Munashe Sundire coming on as a makeshift left-back in a reshuffled back-line.
There were one or two flying tackles as players struggled in the sodden conditions and Havant centre-back Chris Paul was lucky not to get a red card for a late challenge that left Munashe in a heap just when he looked to break clear down the left.
Munashe, to his credit, did not look out of place at full-back and made several forays forward, especially in the first period when Hemel looked the more likely to score.
Sam Ashford had a decent effort well-saved by Ross Worner, who was the busier keeper in the opening 45 minutes. He also had to be on his toes when a mix-up at the back almost let Hemel in, the stopper just managing to get back and push the ball out for a corner.
There was a good shout for a penalty, too, when Hemel’s new signing Adam Cunnington was bundled over by two Havant defenders, but nothing was given.
Hemel skipper Connor Essam, who was having another outstanding game at the back for the Tudors, blocked a shot late in the half, before debutante Cunnington shot just wide after great build-up play by Liam Nash and Jacques Kpohomouh.
There were eight minutes of injury time played at the end of the half, but finally the referee blew for half-time with the scores level.
The second period saw the hosts up their game and Hemel were put under pressure for a time.
Havant looked as though they had broken the deadlock on 49 minutes when a cross from the left was headed home by Sam Magri but the referee saw a push on a Hemel defender and it was disallowed, much to the relief of the healthy contingent of Tudors’ fans who made the long journey south.
Hemel keeper Danny Boness was seeing much more of the ball and made two excellent stops, including a superb save from Jonah Ayunga when he stretched to deflect a goal-bound drive.
Ayunga then had a great chance to open the scoring when he was put in the clear, but as Boness closed him down, Ayunga elected to chip the net man and the ball drifted wide.
With 80 minutes on the clock, all of Hemel’s hard work appeared to have been undone when Kpohomouh was caught in possession by substitute Alfie Rutherford just outside the box and Boness caught the player when trying to block his run. Rutherford wasn’t running through on goal, but Boness mistimed his challenge and a penalty was given.
Up stepped Hawks’ skipper Danny Kedwell, who blasted the spot-kick down the middle and Boness did superbly well to block the shot, but the ball kindly rebounded back to Kedwell, who calmly slotted it home to break the deadlock.
It was harsh on Hemel but this is a side that doesn’t know when it’s beaten and boss Moore changed the formation to 4-4-2 to try to get something out of the game.
Just three minutes’ later Ashford received the ball on the edge of the area and sent his marker the wrong way with a deft turn, before curling the ball past Worner to level the scores.
It was no more than the visitors deserved.
But if the Tudor Army thought their side were going to settle for a point, they were much mistaken as they continued to press forward.
Ashford again brought a superb save out of Worner with the clock ticking down.
An in the third minute of stoppage time, that man Ashford struck again. Worner and a Havant centre-half both challenged for the same ball and it fell invitingly to Ashford, who blasted it home from close range to put Hemel 2-1 up and secure all three points.
The goal, Ashford’s sixth of the season, sent the Tudors’ fans into ecstasy behind Worner’s goal as Ashford and all the Hemel players celebrated with departing coach Darren Beale and the rest of the back-room team.
After the game, Moore said he was delighted with the performance, saying every player in the away dressing room deserved credit for such an effort in difficult conditions and against a side that will be very much in the mix at the end of the season.
He wished Beale all the best for his new coaching job in Spain and revealed that there are plans in place to replace him.
Moore also thanked the Hemel supporters and said they were pleased the club was now on a good run of results which puts them in a strong position for the play-offs, but that they will remain focused.
“It’s still early days with plenty of points to play for,” he added.
He said he was also delighted that Rob Sinclair and Alex Wall were able to return from long injury lay-offs on Saturday, so the squad is looking even stronger now.
It was a fourth league win on the trot for Hemel and leaves them still in second place in the National League South table and four points ahead of Slough Town and Dorking Wanderers.
Wealdstone remain five points clear at the summit after they beat Chelmsford City 3-1 on the road on Saturday.
Hemel have a break this Saturday after being knocked out of the FA Cup earlier this term and their original league opponents, Chippenham Town, are still in the cup competition.
That away clash is now being rearranged for Tuesday, November 19.
The Tudors next return to league action on Saturday, October 26, when 16th-ranked Eastbourne Borough will be the visitors to Vauxhall Road.
Hemel’s line-up v Havant: Danny Boness, Jacques Kpohomouh, Tyrone Sterling, Jake Howells, Connor Essam (captain), Mitch Dickenson (Munashe Sundire), Liam Nash, Tosan Popo, Adam Cunnington (Alex Wall), Jack Midson (Rob Sinclair), Sam Ashford. Subs not used: Isaac Galliford, Ricardo German.
Man of the match: Duel winners, Jake Howells and Sam Ashford.