Hornchurch 3-3 Cray Wanderers - They gave me everything and I thought we thoroughly deserved to take it as far as we could. Just disappointed with the outcome on the penalties, says proud Cray Wanderers boss Neil Smith

Wednesday 26th April 2023
Hornchurch 3 – 3 Cray Wanderers
Location Bridge Avenue, Upminster, Essex RM14 2LX
Kickoff 26/04/2023 19:45

(after extra time – Hornchurch win 4-2 on penalties)
Isthmian League Premier Division Play-Off Semi-Final
Wednesday 26 April 2023
Stephen McCartney reports from Bridge Avenue

PROUD Cray Wanderers manager Neil Smith insists his players gave him everything after their promotion hopes were smashed in heart-breaking fashion after losing on penalties to Isthmian League Premier Division runners-up Hornchurch in this Play-Off Semi-Final epic.

Mark Stimson’s side face a home winner-takes-all Play-Off Final against Aveley, who beat Canvey Island 4-2 on penalties after a goal-less draw.

Bishop’s Stortford celebrated winning promotion in to Vanarama National League South after picking up 88 points from their 42 league games.

Hornchurch picked up 84 points, Canvey Island 81, Aveley 78 and Cray Wanderers finished in their highest position of fifth on 74 points, finishing level on points with Tony Russell’s Lewes, who missed out on the play-off lottery on a goal-difference of two.

Cray Wanderers arrived here on a nine match unbeaten run and gave Hornchurch an almighty scare.

Hornchurch striker Sam Higgins poked in the opening goal after 14 minutes and Smith’s men were facing a mountain to climb when hard-working attacker Liam Nash curled in a sublime finish to score his 27th goal of the season.

However, Cray Wanderers pulled a goal back through David Ijaha’s finish from a well-worked corner, before Nyren Clunis’ 89th minute volley deservedly forced extra-time.

Higgins gave Hornchurch an early extra-time advantage with a clinical finish to notch his 35th goal of the campaign, but Sam Wood’s 35-yarder in the second period took the game to penalties.

Six of the nine penalties, however, were taken by defenders.  Right-back Jephte Tanga and left-back Harrison Sodje both missed from the spot – as did Hornchurch centre-half Rickie Hayles, before former Cray Wanderers striker Chris Dickson held his nerve to send Hornchurch through 4-2 on penalties.

“Obviously disappointed but I’m proud of the boys.  They gave me everything and I thought we thoroughly deserved to take it as far as we could.  Just disappointed with the outcome on the penalties,” said Smith.

“They gave me everything.  I couldn’t ask for any more from them. It’s a brand new team, 12 months ago we were fighting relegation to fighting promotion with a short turnaround and to a man they have me everything!”

Hornchurch made five changes to their side that came away from Kingstonian with a 1-1 draw, while Anthony Cook was restored to the Cray Wanderers starting line-up by Smith, following their 2-2 draw at Haringey Borough on Saturday.

Both goalkeeper’s were hardly tested during the first-half, with Hornchurch regularly going direct with Ade Yusuff (left), Higgins (centre) and Nash (right) up front causing problems.

Hornchurch drew first blood by taking the lead with 13 minutes and 10 seconds on the clock, following a set-piece.

Tanga fouled Tom Wraight down the left-channel and Wraight whipped in a quality delivery with his left-foot into the crowd of players, where centre-half Jordan Clark flicked the ball on and Higgins was standing in front of goalkeeper Shaun Rowley and poked the ball past him from three-yards.

Smith said: “I was disappointed. I thought we should have won the first header and any ball that goes in the box, Sam Higgins has scored 34 goals this season and is a poacher and we knew all about him, so in terms of that, I thought it was a soft goal but after that we actually grew in confidence and dominated the rest of the half.”

Joe Christou rolled the ball out to Nash out on the right and he whipped in a deep cross towards the back post but Yusuff (who has scored five goals since being sold by Folkestone Invicta, where he scored 25 times this season) steered his header past the near-post.

Hornchurch left-back Jamie Mascoll played the ball into Christou, whose sublime through ball cut open Cray Wanderers’ centre-half Freddie Carter to play in Yusuff, who unleashed a right-footed drive screaming just past the right-hand post from 18-yards halfway through the half.

Cray Wanderers weathered the storm after half-an-hour at Bridge Avenue and their set-pieces into the Hornchurch penalty area lacked quality in the first half but they did end the half with some confidence.

Cray Wanderers dominated the corner count over the 120 minutes by 14-1 and their second delivery came in the 43rd minute.

Cook swung in a corner from the left towards the back post, which was headed away by Hayles and the ball came out to Clunis, who swept his first-time shot across the keeper and past the far post from just inside the Hornchurch box.

“We went in at half-time, I spoke to the boys and apart from the goal that I was disappointed with and the manner they got it.  I said keep going, go out there and do exactly the same,” said Smith.

“I always thought it was going to be a game of the second half with our fitness levels and subs and I knew we’d be a threat.

“Unfortunately, you then let a goal in and you’re back against it.”

Hornchurch came out with all guns blazing in the second half and called Shaun Rowley into action after only 34 seconds.

Right-back Mickey Parcell threw the ball short to Higgins, who poked the ball forward and the ball came back out to him and Higgins drilled a first-time right-footed stinging drive from 20-yards, which forced Rowley to dive to his left and push the ball out for a throw-in by the corner flag.

However, Hornchurch had one foot seemingly in next Monday’s Final by doubling their lead with three minutes and 47 seconds on the clock.

It came through route-one football.  Recalled first-choice goalkeeper Joe Wright launched a big kick straight down the middle of the pitch towards the edge of the Cray Wanderers box.  Yusuff used his chest to tee up Nash, who cut the ball onto his left-foot and curled a sublime shot past the diving keeper into the far corner from 25-yards.

“I said before the game on the Tuesday night, we highlighted the players to watch and it was Liam Nash, Sam Higgins and Ade Yusuff,” said Smith.

“We knew what Nash can do. He comes inside and I was standing behind it, it was a great finish and Shaun had no chance.

“The boys still believed.  You could sense they were disappointed being 2-0 down but they hadn’t lost belief.  I then thought we took the game by the scruff of the neck.”

However, Cray Wanderers showed character and pulled a goal back following their fourth corner of the game, timed at 13 minutes and 21 seconds.

Smith hooked the ineffective Danny Bassett for Yahaya Bamba (11:27), who played a big role in the goal.

Wood floated the ball in from the right with his wand of a left foot, Bamba found oceans of space at the far post and sent his free-header back across the face of goal and Ijaha hooked his right-footed volley into the right-hand corner of the goal.

Smith said: “Listen, Yahaya’s full of running, he’s full of pace and I said to him ‘go and use it and go and attack the full-back’.

“We didn’t do it enough in the first half. We had a couple of one-on-ones and we didn’t have the end product, a shot or a cross.  I said ‘get at the full-back, get a chance to put the ball in the box,’ which he did.

“I thought David Ijaha was outstanding. He was a leader. All my senior players in the first half were outstanding but I thought he deserved that goal, David.”

The next goal was going to be big and Hornchurch holding midfielder Lewwis Spencer noticed that Rowley was off his line and tried to score from beside the centre spot but his left-footed effort sailed harmlessly wide.

Cray Wanderers were a threat with Tanga and Clunis often linking up well down the right and were a threat for Hornchurch left-back Jamie Mascoll, who was the weak link in their back-four.

Smith’s men put in a vastly improved second half performance but Hornchurch created an opening at the halfway point to kill off the Kent side.

Hayles hit a long ball out of defence, Yusuff laid the ball off for Nash, who stroked a left-footed drive from inside the D, which was kept out by Rowley, beside his near-post.

The momentum shift appeared to come in the 70th minute when Stimson subbed Yusuff for Dickson, and the hardworking and pressing Nash operated behind the front two.

Smith rolled the dice too, however, and in the 76th minute, Dayshonne Golding replaced Cook and operated down the left and big targetman Destiny Oladipo ended Tom Derry’s frustrating night, as the pair were joined up front by Bamba.

Smith said: “You get to a situation where you have to go for it. I’m not saying we didn’t go for it in the first half. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

“I just put on a bit of pace and we played a bit direct because we needed a goal.  I wasn’t surprised when we got the equaliser.

“I’ve said it all this season, it’s never been about the starting 11. It’s always been about the squad of players and so many times I’ve brought on the subs and they’ve won us the game.

“We put Destiny on, he used to play for them and he was up for it.  Yahaya with his pace and Golding got promotion with Worthing the year before and he came on and the whole dynamic changed.”

Smith revealed the reason why he took off his influential captain Cook (no pun intended).

“It was just to put a bit more pace in there. I wanted to start with my experienced players and I wanted to put a winger on and keep Nyren on because he's been scoring a few goals up over the last few games so I wanted to keep him on the pitch.

“Cookie done nothing wrong. I just wanted to change the dynamic of it and go a bit more direct.”

Cray Wanderers finished the second half with momentum and playing on the front foot and with belief that they could grab an equaliser. 

You could tell how well the away side were playing as the vocal support from the Hornchurch fans was now non-existent and you could now hear a pocket of travelling fans.

That moment almost came in the 85th minute when Wood recycled the ball back into the box and Jalen Jones (who had come up for Wood’s initial set-piece) sent his towering header down and towards the bottom right-hand corner, only for Hornchurch goalkeeper Wright to grab hold off the ball before it crossed the line.

“He just didn’t get enough power on it. He headed it into the ground, he done everything right, all that was lacking was a little bit of power and a yard either side, maybe the keeper had to work that little bit harder but it went straight into the goalkeeper’s hands from the bounce,” added Smith.

Cray Wanderers kept plugging away and they were rewarded with a deserved equaliser, timed at 43:43 on the clock.

Golding drove down the left and reached the by-line and whipped in a sublime cross towards the back post for Clunis to crack his volley into the right-hand corner of the goal for his eighth goal for the club this season.

“Again, Nyren timed his run. I had Cookie as the number 10 but I’ve taken him off and I put Nyren in there and he’s scored a few goals of late and took his goal, very, very well,” added Smith.

Cray Wanderers showed character, fight and desire to take the game into extra-time.

Smith said: “I think we’re fitter, I generally believed we’d win the game. I thought the way we finished the half, the momentum changed and I thought we had the momentum and I really believed we could get a result.”

However, Hornchurch scored their third goal with the first chance of the first-period, the goal coming after only 126 seconds.

Wraight played the ball along the deck to substitute striker Charlie Stimson (who came on for the injured Nash and it will be a shame for him if he were to miss the Final) whose back-heal fed Higgins, who cut onto his right-foot and produced a clinical finish into the bottom left-hand corner from 16-yards, giving Rowley no chance.

“To gift what I believed was a soft goal, which was a little bit disappointing, but we knew we’d get another chance,” said Smith.

“It’s what he does. If you had a reel of Sam Higgins’ goals, apart from a couple of free-kicks, they’re all going to be all around that 18-yard box or just inside. He’s very clinical, you’re right.”

Cray Wanderers finished the first period on the front foot, however, and Oladipo fed Clunis, who drilled his shot towards goal from 20-yards, forcing Wright to spread himself and make himself as big as possible to keep the rasping drive out.

Hornchurch were on the ropes and Tanga drilled in a low cross into the middle but Bamba (who was being pressed) scooped his shot on the turn over the crossbar.

Cray Wanderers deservedly equalised 168 seconds into the second period.

Wood, 35, who was now wearing the captains armband), was left in space and unleashed a sublime left-footed drive from 35-yards, which whistled into the right-hand corner of the net for his sixth goal of the season for his boyhood club.

“Listen, he’s been brilliant for me, Sam, with his experience in there. He’s a fit boy, he’s looked after himself and it couldn’t have happened to a better guy, scoring that goal,” said Smith.

“He was at Cray as a kid and went on to better things in respect of by playing higher up and in the League and he’s come back to Cray, where he’s started.

“He’s not given me anything less if he was playing for Wycombe Wanderers or Brentford again, he gave me everything.

“For him to score that goal, I was pleased and as I thought we’d go and get the winner!”

Hornchurch, meanwhile, had a chance to grab the victory with the last kick of extra-time, to deliver the knock-out punch that Cray Wanderers craved.

Sodje gave away a free-kick within the channel after a foul on Clark and Wraight stroked his left-footed free-kick from 30-yards, which was comfortably saved in Rowley’s midriff.

Smith added: “With the forwards they’ve got there, Nash has scored so many goals, he’s gone off.  You’ve got Chris Dickson, who was always going to create stuff because of who he is and where he’s been. I thought we managed them very, very well in extra-time, apart from one lapse when Higgins got the goal.”

Cray Wanderers players practiced penalties at Flamingo Park during last night’s training session.

Hornchurch took the first penalty with Wraight drilling an emphatic left-footed penalty straight down the middle, as Rowley dived to his left.

Cray Wanderers centre-half Freddie Carter placed his right-footed penalty into the bottom left-hand corner and was relieved when Wright’s hand didn’t keep it out after the goalkeeper went the same way.

Visiting goalkeeper Rowley dived to his left and thought he had saved Clark’s right-footed penalty, but the ball spun over the line and found the bottom right-hand corner to give Hornchurch a 2-1 lead.

Wright dived to his left and used a strong left-hand to deny Tanga scoring with his right-footed penalty.

Mascoll stepped up to drill an emphatic left-footed penalty into the roof of the net.

A long run-up for Golding, who held his nerve and drilled his right-footed spot-kick into the top right-hand corner.

Hayles’ right-footed penalty is still in orbit as the ball ballooned high, high, high over the bar.

Sodje’s left-footed penalty had a Chris Waddle feel to it (Italia 90) as he skied it high over the top of the left-hand post.

Dickson had his back to goal, turned round, put both of his hands on his hips before confidentially lashing his right-footed spot-kick into the right to break Cray Wanderers hearts.

“We practiced on Tuesday night and then it’s on the night, it’s on the night. The one thing that I will say every one of them wanted to take one and no one was hiding and you are on that lottery,” said Smith.

“When Shaun got his hand to the second penalty and it sort of spun in, you’re like maybe this isn’t our night.”

When asked about six defenders for both sides took the spot-kicks, Smith replied: “Listen, I turned round and asked who wanted to take one and they were the first five.  Taking Cookie off, who is my penalty taker, Tom Derry wasn’t on the pitch, who would’ve taken one, every one of them, it just happened to be they were the first five to put their hand up to take one and then you leave it up to them.”

The two players whom missed for Cray Wanderers, are loan players from Leyton Orient.

“Obviously they’re devasted and that’s a credit to them. They’ve come in on loan, it’s not their club, Leyton Orient is their club and I’ve got to thank Leyton Orient for the loans.

“They were part of the team, they’re never once Leyton Orient players, as soon as they came in, they were Cray and they were absolutely devasted.

“I spoke to both afterwards and told them since they’ve come in, they’re part of the reason we got to the play-offs and they shouldn’t look back on the penalties but look back with pride on their performances.  They’ve been amazing and a credit to themselves and Leyton Orient.”

Cray Wanderers supporters’ gave their heroes a standing ovation at the end for their efforts and Smith walked into the Hornchurch dressing room after the final whistle to seemingly offer his congratulations.

The act of sportsmanship from Smith was certainly appreciated by Hornchurch coach Tony Gay, who shook the hands of a couple of Cray Wanderers officials and gave Smith a glowing tribute.

Smith revealed: “I just said ‘good luck.’  I think over the course of the season the teams are up there for a reason and to score 98 (league) goals is unbelievable and probably thought they should have got promotion.

“I said ‘go and finish it off, you’ve had a great season.’  If we’re going to lose to someone, we want to lose to someone who got promotion. 

“I just thanked them, it’s been a good season, go the rest of the way.  On the night, I don’t think we were too far away from them.”

Smith has turned the club’s fortunes around from staying up by the skin of their teeth last season to promotion contenders.

“I need a break. I’ve got to speak to the boys, like I always do. We’re meeting up on Saturday to have a chat. I’ve got to thank them for this season. Everybody needs a break. It’s been intense and full-on, absolutely full on.

“I don’t class that as a loss, we were drawing after 90 minutes.  It’s been an amazing achievement and at the beginning of the season we brought in predictions where people thought we’d be fifth-from-bottom and scraping staying up.

“We’ve come fifth from top with a brand-new team, management and we’ve set up an academy and we’ve turned it around in 12 months.

“We’ll have a little sit down and re-asses the season and see where we can improve.

“I think it’s going to be a tough season with the teams coming up and coming down. It’s not going to get any easier and we have to be ready for that, as much as we had to forget about last season where we’ve just beaten relegation.

“We’ve got to quickly move on and prep for next season and it’s going to be another tough one.”

Hornchurch: Joe Wright, Mickey Parcell, Jamie Mascoll, Tom Wraight, Rickie Hayles, Jordan Clark, Ade Yusuff (Chris Dickson 70), Lewwis Spence, Sam Higgins (Nathan Bertram-Cooper 109), Liam Nash (Charlie Stimson 89), Joe Christou.
Subs: Lamar Joseph-Johnson, Ellis Brown

Goals: Sam Higgins 14, 93, Liam Nash 48

Booked: Lewwis Spence 38, Ade Yusuff 66, Mickey Parcell 84

Cray Wanderers: Shaun Rowley, Jephte Tanga, Harrison Sodje, Sam Wood, Freddie Carter, Jalen Jones, Danny Bassett (Yahaya Bamba 57), David Ijaha, Tom Derry (Destiny Oladipo 76), Anthony Cook (Dayshonne Golding 76), Nyren Clunis.
Subs: Marcus Sablier, Rio Campbell

Goals: David Ijaha 59, Nyren Clunis 89, Sam Wood 108

Booked: David Ijaha 105

Attendance: 710
Referee: Mr Nicholas Dunn
Assistants: Mr Dele Sotimirin & Mr Matthew Pointer
Fourth Official: Mr Graham Swanton