TACTICAL GENUIUS Simon Halsey says Wembley Stadium is staring into his players' faces - after his heroic Herne Bay players reached the two-legged FA Carlsberg Vase semi-final against all the odds in Gloucestershire today.
Hellenic League side Shortwood United went into their eighth FA Carlsberg Vase tie of the season with a proud record of not losing any of their sixteen games at their hilly Meadowbank ground.
But Kent Hurlimann Football League leaders Herne Bay played the entire game with ten-men for all but 43 seconds of this game, after central midfielder Dave Soutan was red-carded inside the opening minute.
When Shortwood struck the post during a one-sided first half and the ball rebounded into the grateful arms of their goalkeeper Dan Eason, around 250 travelling fans’ had the feeling that this was going to be their day.
Herne Bay created history by reaching the semi-finals for the very first time in their proud 125 year history, thanks to an excellent, all-round team performance from fourteen heroes, and goals from leading marksman Byron Walker, who was later forced off after pulling his hamstring, and a looping header from defender Steve Hanson, a timely moment to score his first goal of the season, sealed a memorable victory against the odds.
Halsey appeared to be dazed as he emerged from the dressing rooms at the final whistle, being congratulated by jubilant travelling supporters, two coachloads of coaches departed at 8 o’clock in the morning and many more made their way their own way to Gloucestershire.
Halsey said: “Absolutely relentless, absolutely relentless, mate!
“Eighty-nine minutes, whatever it was, 43 seconds, playing with ten-men in a FA Vase Quarter-Final. It’s like we’ve got a never say die belief – unbelievable!
“I don’t want to use all those old clichés – I’m proud!
“The preparation was spot on. Everything from Friday leaving, to arriving at the ground at 1:28. I wanted it to be 1:30 so we were two minutes’ ahead of time.
“I saw the pitch and changed my team completely. I had a team selection in my head, I had a formation. I expected it to be like Newcastle (Benfield), on top of a hill, boggy, horrible. We turned up, it was great, a great pitch. It’s like Beckenham so I changed the team and my game plan goes out of the window but we didn’t change.”
Halsey added: “I’m proud as anything. Proud to keep the Kent flag flying. We go into a two-legged semi-final and we’ve not lost two games on a trot.”
Herne Bay, who stayed overnight in Gloucester, arrived at the ground 90 minutes before kick-off and were pleased that the pitch was in a perfect condition, helped by a sprinkling of rain two-and-a-half hours before kick-off, but they struggled to cope in a gusty wind during the first half, before the introduction of winger Dan Lawrence early in the second half was inspirational.
But all Halsey’s plans went out of the window when Southampton based referee Andy Davies swiftly brandished Soutan a red-card after just 43 seconds for a reckless challenge on the halfway line on Shortwood midfielder John Finnigan, who enjoyed a seven-year stint with Cheltenham Town.
Unlike many managers, Halsey refused to withdraw one of his forwards, instead Walker and Luke Harvey remained up top, Michael Turner slotted in at left-back and Herne Bay’s defenders battled resiliently in tough conditions with Shortwood pumping ball after ball into their faces.
Two weeks’ ago, Herne Bay had to play with ten-men when midfielder Tom Parker was shown a red-card after only 29 minutes, but James Campbell’s knee sealed a deserved 1-0 win over a poor Larkhall Athletic side.
Herne Bay struggled to cope in the wind and were guilty of over-hitting balls, which bounced down the hill and were gathered by Shortwood keeper Tom King on too many occasions.
It was no surprise that Shortwood created the first chance of the game when a ball over the top from left-back Matt Bennett released the impressive striker Kevin Slack, who cut in from the left and he poked a shot towards goal from an acute angle, which was blocked by Eason at the near post and the ball trickled across goal before the Kent side cleared their lines.
That rub of the green that Halsey has been asking for arrived in the 19th minute when Slack was put through on goal and his angled right-footed drive flashed across Eason and bounced against the far post and the ball cut across the face of the goal and fell kindly into the keeper’s grateful arms with the keeper still on the deck.
A floated cross from the left picked out an unmarked Joe Tustain, who glanced his header over from six-yards, before Herne Bay really should have been behind in the 25th minute.
Left-back Tom Bryant rolled a poor back-pass towards his goalkeeper but the ball was never going to be cleared away by Eason and there was danger when Jake Parrott intercepted the ball, rounded Eason but fluffed the gilt-edged chance, losing composure and dinking the ball embarrassingly wide of the near post.
Herne Bay did well to weather the early storm and they took over 30 minutes to create their first chance.
Michael Jenner curled a right-footed free-kick from 30-yards towards the near corner, but King made a comfortable save.
Shortwood continued to press and right-back James Coates had time and space to whip in a cross towards the far post, which was met by a looping header by long-haired Tim Haddock, which was tipped over by Eason from underneath the bar – referee Mr Davies awarding a battered Herne Bay a goal-kick.
Ben Brown then played the ball over the top of the Shortwood defence and Harvey cracked a half-volley with his right-foot, which flashed across King and past the far post.
But Herne Bay did brilliantly to hold firm and go into the break on level terms.
The introduction of Lawrence, however, sparked Herne Bay into life and they the place went wild when Walker netted his 22nd goal of the season in the 59th minute.
Brown clipped the ball upfield from inside his own half and as Harvey was running back, Walker burst forward from the half-way line and left the Shortwood defence in his wake. The nippy striker cut in from the left and the ball trickled past a stranded King into the bottom near corner with his right foot.
Walker, 25, says he was feeling great after ending his goalscoring drought at a crucial time.
He said: “I’m feeling great. A really, really hard contest for us, a quarter-final of The FA Vase. We spoke about it before the game and in the week about the possibilities of getting to Wembley and the performance that everyone put in today really showed how much everyone wants this club to do well, not just in the league but in all competitions that we play in.
“I’m a little bit sore with all the kicks I keep getting every week, but I’m chuffed for the club and for the players, the management and the staff and the fans that have come this far to support us.”
He added: “It’s two games we’ve been down to ten-men but the good quality that we’ve got in that squad, I think that’s showed over the two games. The ten-men that we’ve played with have come away with victory.”
It appeared from the side of the dug-outs that Walker had trickled his shot agonisingly wide of the foot of the near post, before the ball bent into the bottom corner.
Walker said: “That’s what Deery (Anthony Deer) and Si (Halsey) said. From that angle it looked like it was going wide but as soon as I hit it, I think it you looked at my reaction I pretty much knew that was going in! I was right behind it.
“I managed to get the keeper off balance and once I struck it I didn’t think he was getting to it so I was really, really grateful scoring in The FA Vase, but I haven’t scored for a while so hopefully that’s the catalyst for getting me scoring again.”
His manager was pleased that Walker and Hanson both got on the scoresheet on this magical day.
Halsey said: “Byron hasn’t scored for a couple of games and I’m pleased for him.
“It was a great flick from Camps and Hanson rose well and headed it into the top corner, where the goalie didn’t get near it. I’m pleased for him as well. He’s been out of the side, he’s been in for the last couple of games.”
Eason, arguably the best keeper in the Kent League, kept the lead intact with a fantastic reaction save, as Shortwood almost levelled exactly four minutes after the opening goal.
Coates did excellently to keep a mis-placed pass in play and turned and floated in a cross from the right touchline, which was met by Slack’s near post header and Haddock’s header from three-yards was caught by Eason above his head. Either side of the highly-rated 22-year-old keeper then Herne Bay would start their mountain climb.
The Kentish contingent started to fear the worst when Shortwood levelled in the 69th minute through Parrett’s fifth-goal of the campaign.
Winger Tustain played the ball down the line to release Slack, who cut in through two Herne Bay defenders and his low shot was parried by Eason at the near post and the ball fell at Parrott’s feet, the central midfielder rifling a right-footed shot into the top right-hand corner from eight-yards.
That goal galvanised Herne Bay and the 250 travelling supporters’ carried their side through thanks to passionate support as Winch’s Field came to Gloucestershire for a day.
Walker insisted the travelling fans became the eleventh man.
He said: “Fantastic support! Some other clubs, they don’t get the passion and the drive and the emotions that the fans and these supporters gave us. They became the eleventh man today. It does carry you on. That bit of ‘come on guys’, that bit of desire that leaks through to the side, that got us going to be honest. It’s lovely to have. It’s a great club to play for!”
Harvey and Walker combined on the break and Walker put his strike partner through, but Harvey’s right-footed shot lacked conviction and King easily gathered the rolling ball at his near post.
And at the other end, Slack cracked a left-footed volley, which was comfortably saved by Eason at his near post.
With fifteen-minutes remaining, Shortwood’s central defender and skipper, Ashley Thomas, came up from the back to loop his header over the crossbar after Parrott floated his free-kick in from the right.
Herne Bay sealed their passage through to an exciting two-legged semi-final with thirteen minutes left, thanks to Hanson’s timely moment to open his goalscoring account.
Herne Bay won themselves a free-kick down the left, near to the corner of the Shortwood penalty area.
Tom Bryant floated the free-kick across to the far post where James Campbell rose like a salmon to head the ball across the goal towards the far post and Hanson won his aerial battle to loop his header across King and into the top far corner from six-yards.
“What a time to score!” said match-winner Hanson afterwards.
“We work with the set-pieces, we go diagonal across goal for James Campbell, who will win nine times out of ten and then the one time he does win it today against a very good centre half, I think I was probably 70/40 against to win it but I just wanted it that little bit more and I came on to it, I couldn’t have got it much further into the top corner and when I celebrated I just run out of energy. I didn’t know what to do! It was just surreal!”
Reflecting on the game, the 24-year-old defender said: “At the moment it’s a bit unreal. It don’t feel right. We’re two games away from playing at Wembley in The FA Vase Final. At the moment it hasn’t sunk in.”
When asked about Soutan’s 43 second red-card, Hanson replied, “That’s got to be some sort of record, hasn’t it?
“It was a hard battle but that’s two games that we’ve had to fight with ten men but it’s a team effort. It’s not just the 10 players on the pitch. It’s the whole squad. Everyone chipped in today. They put in everything and left nothing on the pitch. No-one’s got anything left but we’ve got a nice four hour journey, I think everyone’s going to be asleep!
“I mean, for 90 minutes we struggled with the strikers, with their back four, I don’t think Byron’s come up against a better back four all season but they’re a very good side. We didn’t adjust very well in the first half obviously losing a player so early that’s never a good thing, but in the end, you could see, we just wanted it that little bit more I think and it shows and we’ve come through.”
Herne Bay’s supporters, decked in blue and white, started signing the iconic Cup Final chant, “Que Sera Sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Wembley,” but the job was still not done.
Eason saved his best save until the 81st minute, diving full length to his left and with his left hand tipping Finnigan’s left-footed drive from 25-yards around the post.
Eason, 22, said: “I always have to do a bit. I didn’t see it until late on because Camps was in the way so I had a bit of a moan at him!”
Reflecting on the goal he conceded, Eason said: “I did moan at the boys a bit but I hate letting in goals but that’s why I’m a keeper, I suppose.
“I did think we could still get another goal. I still thought we could do it.”
Eason said there’s a special bond between the players, saying, “We’re good mates, a good bunch of boys. We all love each other really. I think that’s it. We just want to play with one another, win with one another.”
Hanson was then beaten for pace and Slack poked a right-footed shot towards goal but Eason made a smart save low to his left and when Tustain hit a right-footed half-volley wide that shattered Shortwood’s Wembley dream.
The final whistle – timed at 48:08 – brought a celebratory pitch invasion as the youngsters decked in the club’s former reserve team kit sprinted onto the pitch to join their heroes – and the management team and bench personnel followed suit and the realisation that Herne Bay Football Club are now only a successful 180 minutes away from Wembley Stadium.
Herne Bay’s heroes were dead on their feet, but it takes a special team to win with only 10 men on the pitch for 89 minutes and this team have enough quality in their ranks to replicate Tommy Sampson’s Deal Town side, when they defeated Chippenham Town 1-0 in the last final underneath the iconic Twin Towers, back in May 2000.
Halsey added: “It’s got us to the semi-final of The FA Vase, Herne Bay Football Club, 125 years’, brilliant.
“Shortwood are a good side, strong, very direct. They used the game to their strengths.”
Halsey prised Slack, who has previously played for Yate Town, Eversham United and Bishops Cleeve.
“He’s good, the nine. He shouldn’t be playing at this level. I saw a few different jackets here, Blue Square South and Chesterfield. He ain’t this level. He’s quality. You can see by his movement, his technique, everything. He should be playing at a higher level without a doubt.”
Halsey also praised the travelling fans’, who made today just like a home game.
He said: “It’s massive, isn’t it? They’re mad! They’re mental” They’ve all got the old reserve kit on, which Deery gave to them. They’re crazy! They’re just great support.
“The dream gets nearer – and the dream continues.
“Getting Herne Bay out of the Kent League and into the Ryman is what I’m aiming for. This is great but whatever we get out of it is a bonus but at the moment I need to get them out of the Kent League and I’ll continue to try and do that.”
With Kent backing Herne Bay to win at Wembley Stadium, Halsey knows the importance of getting through a two-legged tussle.
“It’s massive for Herne Bay Football Club,” said Halsey, whose side are still involved on three fronts.
“It’s (Wembley) staring us in the face and it’s only us that can give it away. It’s got to be a good side that beats us.
“I’m a proud manager, good manager, proud manager, with good people around me, good club. We deserve it after 125 years.”
Shortwood United: Tom King, James Coates, Matt Bennett, Alton Axton, Ashley Thomas, Jake Parrott (Chris Mortlock 80), Joe Tustain, John Finnigan (John Cant 83), Kevin Slack, James Baldwin, Tim Haddock.
Subs: Luke Bennyworth, Liam Meredith, Martyn Pearce
Goal: Jake Parrott 69
Booked: James Baldwin 77
Herne Bay: Dan Eason, Michael Jenner, Tom Bryant, Steve Hanson, James Campbell, Dave Soutan, Michael Turner (Dan Lawrence 51), Ben Brown (Nathan Eastwood 60), Byron Walker (James Turner 86), Luke Harvey, Rhys Lawson.
Subs: Tom Parker, Brad Ashmore
Goals: Byron Walker 59, Steve Hanson 77
Sent Off: Dave Soutan 1
Referee: Mr Andy Davies (Southampton, Hampshire)
Assistants: Mr Chris Wade (Bournemouth, Dorset) & Mr Peter Lavelle (Totton, Hampshire)
Fourth Official: Mr Andy Penwell (Weston-super-Mare, Somerset)