Heartbreak again as Lowestoft Town lose out to Concord Rangers
- Credit: James Bass
Lowestoft Town 1 Concord Rangers 2: It's hard to imagine anyone wishing on a club what Lowestoft Town have suffered in three seasons of agonising play-off devastation.
Even after the previous two Ryman League Premier Division play-off final trips to Tonbridge and Hornchurch in 2011 and 2012 respectively ended only in another campaign at step three, there was a feeling the Trawlerboys' year would not be too far away.
And that year was supposed to be this year.
While there was disappointment Town didn't push champions Whitehawk closer, their second place at least meant home advantage was guaranteed throughout their third attempt at play-off success.
Throw into the mix third-placed Wealdstone were humbled in extra-time of their home semi-final by Concord Rangers – Canvey Island's second club that scrapes three-figure attendances – and Town had the venue and opposition to do what a remarkable Crown Meadow crowd of 2,490 was desperate to see.
No one was saying it, but everyone was thinking it. This was supposed to be the time – and that's why this play-off heartache will take more to get over than the last two put together, plus a bit of 2008 FA Vase Wembley hurt for good measure.
Experience is supposed to be a good thing in football, but sometimes the wrong experience can do more harm than good. And while the swirling nerves and tension of the Bank Holiday Monday occasion never went away, the collective sense of 'oh no, not again' that emanated once a wide open Leon Gordon struck with barely four minutes of normal time to go spoke loudest of all.
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As it happened, Lowestoft were edgy from the off. The match-winning Ben Greenhalgh's free-kick just three minutes in was dealt with by the hosts – but the tension that greeted it was inescapable.
Those feelings would have been eased had Lee Smith struck with better quality four minutes later, but he could only drill straight at Rangers keeper Luke Chambers.
Instead, the mood got a whole load heavier on 11 minutes. Another troubling Greenhalgh delivery left centre-back Steve King to nod at goal and despite Andy Reynolds' best efforts, the ball squirmed under his body and across the line.
A small pocket of Concord fans made themselves known for the first time – but sadly not the last. The rest of Crown Meadow gulped at what they might be feeling come 4.45pm.
Another Greenhalgh delivery swept across the hosts' goal with Jason Hallett and Concord's semi-final hero Tony Stokes loitering.
The Trawlerboys were rattled, rushing their game and their set-pieces. They were clearly desperate to avoid reliving their past – but it was only when Town regained their composure that they started to look like the side they are. And from then until half-time, Rangers struggled to leave their own half.
The equaliser came on 20 minutes and the mood immediately lifted. Captain Dan Gleeson led by example with superb work down the right, and his beautifully flighted cross was flicked inside the far post beyond Chambers by Scott Mitchell.
From there, it was attack versus defence. Corner, free-kick, corner, shot from free-kick, corner… It felt like a key time in the match, when a second goal would have afforded the Trawlerboys some freedom from the heavy burden of their history.
But all too often, they failed to work Chambers – and after the break, things were never the same.
It got niggly as delays for treatment followed hefty whacks. And it got nervy as both sides battled in midfield but failed to create in front of goal. Lengthy injury-time was inevitable.
Crown Meadow sensed it was needed, upping the noise level at regular intervals in a bid to make home advantage count.
Lowestoft were not without their lucky moments: no one seemed sure why referee Lee Venamore allowed Gleeson's 69th minute back-pass for Reynolds to go without penalty – or at least a free-kick just a few yards from the Town goal.
Concord appeals were waved away, while semi-final hero Chris Henderson went up the other end only to head over when put through with Chambers in no man's land – one controversial moment, and another avoided.
It began to look increasingly like the next goal would win it.
Greg Crane's header threatened to hand it to Town 10 minutes from time, only for Chambers to tip it on to the bar. And Concord went one better six minutes later.
Greenhalgh had too much time down the left as Lowestoft were inexplicably exposed at the back – a point emphasised as Hallett and Gordon queued up at the back post, with the latter heading home.
Suddenly the beautiful, sunny day on the coast felt painfully ironic.
Seven minutes of added time arrived. Town's best chances to save their season came from two free-kicks, but Lee Smith curled his over and substitute Joe Francis brought out another fine Chambers save.
Centre-back Crane was sent forward, the kitchen sink wasn't far behind and the injury time felt like it would never end.
Maybe some in blue wished it never did – if only to postpone the horrible reality of a third crushing play-off final defeat. The defeat in undeniably their best chance of success – and a wound that will take longest to heal.
Where Lowestoft Town go from here will be talked over and thought about long and hard by players, managers, fans and the board over the summer.
You feel only a successful title bid would really deliver what the Trawlerboys want – and what a club that can attract 2,500 fans deserves.
But football doesn't always deliver what's deserved – and if it does, it would be more than unfair to test Trawlerboys faith any more.
Town (4-4-2): Reynolds; Gleeson (Benjamin 90), Williams, Crane, A Smith; L Smith, Fisk (Francis 76), Okay, Mitchell; Araba, Henderson (Frew 84). Unused subs: Plummer, Eagle. Booking: A Smith 51, Mitchell 82; Goal: Mitchell 20.
Concord (4-4-2): Chambers; Lampe, King, Fry, Glozier; Gordon, Cowley, White, Greenhalgh; Stokes (c), Hallett (McKenzie 90). Unused subs: Easterford, Elmes, Robinson, Harris. Goal: King 11, Gordon 86.
Referee: Lee Venamore; Attendance: 2,490