The Tudors season could be at a crucial crossroads after Hemel Town lost for the third time in five league outings when they went down 4-1 at strugglers Oxford City yesterday (Saturday).
Hemel travelled to an out-of-form City hoping to get their promotion hopes back on track after a surprise home defeat to relegation-threatened Poole in their last encounter.
City hadn’t won for five matches and had only picked up one point in the process, so the odds were firmly in favour of the fifth-ranked visitors.
But Hemel seem to have developed a bad habit of dropping points against teams in the lower half of the table and that’s how it panned out on 17th-placed City’s 3G rubber-crumb artificial surface.
It’s just the second time this term that The Tudors have lost three games in a five-match spell (last time August 19 to September 2) and boss Dean Brennan will now be hoping that their new signings last week - purchases of forward Karl Oliyide and central defender Darren Ward plus the loan signing of Sutton United defender Dan Spence - might give a boost to his injury-hit squad.
The rain lashed down for much of the game yesterday which made things difficult but nothing was to prepare The Tudors faithful for what unfolded before them. They had the first decent chance as early as the third minute when some good build-up play sent striker David Moyo on a run towards goal, but he was closed down quickly by City keeper Craig King and managed to tuck his shot past him but the angle was too tight and it hit the outside of the post.
Team-mate Spencer McCall was chasing in at the back post unmarked but Moyo didn’t see him and elected to shoot so City survived.
An early goal would have been just what Brennan would have been hoping for against a side that would have been lacking in confidence.
However, having escaped that early let-off, it was the hosts who began to look the more dangerous, with their front three causing problems with their pace.
Hemel keeper Laurie Walker saved well after just ten minutes and shortly afterwards City’s Reece Fleet hit a shot from the edge of the box that was deflected wide for a corner. The corner wasn’t dealt with and Fleet made no mistake this time, driving home from close range to give Oxford a 1-0 lead.
The home side were getting a lot of success chasing in behind Hemel’s backline and a loose pass on the halfway line was quickly passed forward to Matt Paterson who raced towards goal. Walker came out to close him down and saved his shot but the linesman flagged to say that the Hemel stopper had just slid out of his area and therefore stopped a goalscoring opportunity by handling outside the box.
The referee wasted no time in producing a red card, much to Walker’s dismay, the keeper claiming he was inside when he stopped the shot and it certainly looked very harsh at the time. The closeness of the call was extenuated by the fact that the ball for the free-kick was placed right on the line at the edge of the area.
The Tudors were thus faced with the prospect of playing the remaining 75 minutes with ten men and also had to sacrifice their influential midfielder McCall so that substitute keeper Dillon Barnes could enter the fray and replace the departed Walker.
Oxford went 2-0 up in yet more controversial circumstances when Christian Oxlade-Chamberlain – younger brother of Liverpool star Alex – bundled the ball home when Barnes had claimed it had been kicked out of his hands. Oxlade-Chamberlain also appeared to handle the ball as it went in, but the goal stood and the Tudors’ task was made all the more difficult.
The visitors had a couple of chances just before the break, Moyo had a decent effort saved and Joe Howe somehow managed to miss a cross at the back post, ending up in the back of the net himself. Robert Sinclair then wasted a chance for City when he raced clear as half-time approached but Barnes managed to deflect the ball wide.
The second period saw the hosts sit back somewhat, quite content to keep what they had, but they still remained dangerous on the break and Barnes made a couple of good saves to keep his side in the game.
Midweek new signing Ward, a 39-year-old defender who has previously played for Watford, Millwall and Crystal Palace, came on to make his debut for The Tudors in and he marked the occasion in style when powering home a header to reduce the deficit in the 73rd minute.
Moyo almost made it 2-2 when he turned sharply and forced a full-length save out of King, who just managed to tip it away for a corner. The corner was taken while Hemel were down to nine men after City skipper Godfery Poku appeared to use an elbow on Howe, forcing the Hemel fullback to leave the field so a bandage could be put over a cut on his face.
Poku only received a yellow card and just to rub it in, he then got on the end of a quick breakaway from the corner to tuck the ball home and effectively end the contest on 78 minutes.
As Hemel pushed forward, the ten men were leaving more gaps at the back and City substitute Samuel Nombe chased a carbon-copy counter-attack down before tucking past the helpless Barnes to make it 4-1.
In the end the scoreline flattered the hosts but there was no doubt they deserved the victory, even though the contentious sending-off of Walker changed the game fundamentally. It resulted in Hemel dropping a couple of rungs in the National League South table to sixth but they are still in the playoff places despite this recent rough spell.
It makes the next game next Saturday on the road all the more important - at fellow promotion-chasing Chelmsford City, who are in fifth place.
Hemel line-up v Oxford: Laurie Walker, Dan Spence, Joe Howe, Jordan Parkes (captain), Kyle Connolly, Ismail Yakubu, Matt Saunders, Scott Shulton (Will Hoskins), David Moyo, Alex Osborn (Darren Ward), Spencer McCall (Dillon Barnes). Substitutes not used: Ebby Nelson-Addy and Matt Spring.