Hammers and L'Orange draw a blank
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Phil Peters says NLR are in pole position to achieve big things after they came away from their battle with title rivals Hendon with a hard-earned point following a stalemate at Hadley FC.
In a game of few chances, defences came out on top, with Hendon's Greg Corin missing the best chance late on.
After a few days of uncertainty due to the rain, Hadley was passed fit to play early Sunday morning and although soft in patches was in excellent condition. Hendon were looking to continue a run that had seen them go unbeaten at home for nearly two years whilst at the same time beating early Maccabi pace-setters Norstar Raiders and getting themselves back in the title hunt in the process.
There was added drama in the officials room as well, when original referee Martin Lavender had to pull out late on Saturday night and was replaced by referee secretary Martin Fox.
With confidence high after last week’s dramatic victory over Oakwood, the league leaders were determined to come away with their unbeaten record still intact, in a game that David Garbacz described as a "must win", however the result was a million miles away from the comfortable victory the Hendon gaffer had predicted.
Both teams started cagily, not wanting to give much away on Super Sunday with fellow challengers Redbridge and Faithfold locked in battle. Neither side looked in control and some heavy challenges were flying in – Raiders’ savage vice-captain Elliot Espinoza the main culprit with a mistimed tackle on Yishai Last.
Yishai Last curled a fine shot inches wide whilst also going close with a header and from a series of Rafi Kon inswinging free kicks Norstar stood firm and dealt with all that Hendon could muster.
Raiders had clearly come with a game plan and looked to soak up the Hendon pressure and move the ball quickly at the breakdown. Jamie Wolfson and Matt Stock on the wings were looking lively and David Dinkin up front was "unplayable" in the first half, contributing to Raiders best chance of the half controlling long-term Hendon target Alex Bloch’s throw, and rolling the ball to Wolfson whose near post cross found skipper David Rhodes who shot just wide.
Referee Martin Fox was letting the game flow and not stopping play for some strong tackles from both sides and this attitude continued when Ben Kon burst through on goal in the 35th minute and looked to have been pulled back only for Fox to once again wave play on.
The second half was one-way traffic, with Hendon laying siege to the Norstar goal with the three points much more important for the home side.
Norstar seemed intent on defending deep whilst hoping to catch Hendon on the break and one scintillating run from Matt Stock nearly did just that and only a heroic last ditch tackle from the impressive Ari Nevies stopped a certain goal.
The rearguard action adopted by NLR was based on outstanding discipline. Hendon continued to press and had another strong penalty appeal turned down when Ari Last burst into the box – once again Fox waved play on much to the frustration of the men in red.
In the last 15 minutes Hendon created clear-cut openings for Greg Corin and Ben Kon, but both times the target was missed.
Norstar keeper Jake Doffman also made a fine point-blank save from Avi Korman late on and together with his defence stood up to all that Hendon could throw at them.
With the clock running down, Stock made a couple of mazy runs down the Raiders left and despite several cynical attempts by the home players to bring him down he wasn’t able to get his shot off as he approached the penalty area, whilst Dinkin and substitute Adam Jason both went close in the final moments.
The final whistle blew with the away team clearly much more satisfied with a valuable point earned at the home of one of their fiercest rivals.
Raiders manager Phil Peters was delighted with the point. He told JC Sport: "This was a game we did not want to lose and we set up our team to make sure of this. Despite all the pre-match talk, Hendon hardly threatened us and in the last 15 minutes we really should have taken all three points and ended their impressive home record.
"Today was another outstanding effort by all 15 boys in the match day squad and we once again showed we can mix it with the best of them. It was a very satisfying result.
"We are unbeaten, halfway through our league season and still in both cups. I couldn’t really have asked for more at this stage from my players.
"There’s a real belief that we can go on and achieve big things this year but it is still very early days and we’ll continue to enjoy our football and take each match as it comes."
But Hendon boss David Garbacz saw things very differently. "We came off very disappointed not to have clinched all three points," he told JC Sport. "We probably had 70 per cent possession and were camped in their half for most of the second half.
"We had numerous good goalmouth scrambles in their box - and other good openings - but a combination of excellent defending and the ball just not falling for us ensured that it was not to be our day.
"We also had two very strong penalty appeals turned down – I wouldn’t say either were stonewall but there could certainly have been no complaints had either been given and on another day I’m sure they would have.
"Norstar had their moments – mainly on the break through the electric Matt Stock, but in truth there was only one team who wanted to win today and they weren’t dressed in orange.
"I can see why they are top though – they defended really well and their goalkeeper was excellent and up front the front two will be a handful for anyone.
"However, we know there is still an awful long way to go in this campaign and when they do drop points we hope to be slowly but surely closing the gap."