GALLERY: Needham Market denied Ryman North title by second-top Harlow Town
Needham Market were within minutes of claiming the Ryman North Division title on Saturday.
In front of a fantastic crowd of 972, and finding themselves 2-1 up with just one minute of normal time to play, former AFC Sudbury man Craig Pope popped up with a deflating equaliser to put Needham’s promotion party on hold.
The Suffolk side will go again at Chatham Town next week, where a win would see them crowned champions, but Saturday was certainly a missed opportunity for them, especially as they had led 2-0 for the majority of the game, thanks to Sam Newson’s clinical first-half double.
But they can’t have any complaints about the final result as Harlow, who have interchanged with Needham in pole position all season, produced a fighting second-half performance to deservedly leave Bloomfields with a share of the spoils.
That said, it was a win Harlow, who host Thamesmead Town next Saturday, needed as they continue to sit one point behind their Suffolk rivals heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
Neck-and-neck in the nine-month title race so far this campaign, it was perhaps typical, and predictable, that these two clubs were not going to be separated on a huge day for non-league football.
A great advert for the grassroots game, the action was as captivating as it was entertaining, with the match certainly living up to its billing.
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In truth, either side could have won it. Needham were fantastic in the first half, but Harlow proved that they are not second place for nothing with a determined fightback.
Surrounded by heaps of red and yellow balloons among colourful flags, as well as the banging of drums, it was actually Harlow who settled the quicker.
Much-travelled frontman Jamie Guy, who played for Needham Market last season, twice had half-sights of goal, but for good recovery blocks from Ollie Fenn.
Fellow centre-half Chris Hogg also proved his worth in the eighth minute when he superbly blocked a goal-bound shot from another former Needham player in David Cowley.
However, the context of the game completely changed three minutes later when the prolific Newson once again popped up with a vital goal.
There looked to be little on when Michael Brothers latched onto Keiran Morphew’s perfectly-weighted lofted through ball, but one dazzling run and stepover later, and Newson was gleefully tapping home as his strike partner put the opportunity on a plate for him.
Ten minutes later, the talisman was at it again.
Again, there looked to be little on when Ian Westlake clipped forward a ball following a Harlow corner, but after a neat one-two with Luke Ingram on the half-way line, Newson was happily smashing home his second. And while it is Newson who will take most of the credit for the goal, special mention must go to Ingram, whose outstanding run, and then shot, produced the chance.
Ingram actually nearly added a third in the 28th minute when he met Joe Whight’s cross, but Andrew Walker made a smart reaction save.
Buoyed with confidence, and with the sun shining down on them, it was Needham who kept up the intensity for the rest of the half with Westlake wastefully lashing over and Brothers drilling an effort wide.
But while the first half was all about Needham, the second was domineered by a determined Harlow.
Maybe the introduction of dangerman Alex Read inspired the Essex side, he certainly made an immediate impact as within 10 minutes of coming on, he had the ball in the back of the net.
Prior to the goal, Needham ‘keeper Shaun Phillips had made several convincing claims from crosses.
But on this occasion the stopper got it all wrong as Read nipped in between Hogg and the keeper to cutely glance home and give his side a lifeline.
Newson then had an opportunity to re-instate Needham’s two-goal cushion after linking up with Brothers, but for once, Newson’s execution was poor and his lobbed effort drifted harmlessly wide.
The front pair were causing problems again in the 66th minute as a cross from Newson eluded Brothers, but via a pig’s ear of a clearance from Warren Goodhind, the onrushing Kem Izzet looked like he was going to smash in a third, only for Pope to produce a heroic block.
Hogg then headed straight at Walker, before controversy struck 15 minutes from time as Leon Antoine looked to have pulled Harlow level in the aftermath of a goalmouth scramble only for the goal to be ruled out by the linesman’s offside flag.
Harlow were left incensed, it was a very tight call to say the very least.
Realising that Needham had one hand on the title, Harlow upped the ante in the final 10 minutes, and started throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at the Needham defence.
Phillips saved well from Jared Small, before Bloomfields suddenly turned tense as the magnitude of the game became more apparent with every passing moment.
That tension was broken in the 89th minute, as following a needless foul from Whight, former AFC Sudbury defender Pope, twice sent off against Needham earlier this season, couldn’t miss in front of the jubilant away fans as they piled onto the pitch to celebrate.
Needham were broken but they didn’t give up – substitute Darryl Coakley had the perfect opportunity to become the hero in injury-time, but he blazed over from six yards.
Then, with the last kick of the game, Read’s scrambled poke towards goal rolled agonisingly wide in a truly breathtaking end to an astonishing title race. It’s not over yet...