Hendon could not recover from a calamitous opening 15 minutes and slipped to a narrow defeat against Billericay Town at Vale Farm on Saturday afternoon. The Blues are in joint-second spot (with AFC Hornchurch), just a point off the top of the table and they have a game in hand on leaders Lowestoft Town.
James Parker returned to the starting line-up, as did Belal Aite-Ouakrim, with Carl McCluskey and Rankin reverting to the bench. The Greens' injury list remained close to double figures in numbers, but there was good news with both Greg Ngoyi and Elliott Charles likely to return in the next game or two.
From the kick-off, Billericay showed much greater urgency than Hendon and the Blues quickly unsettled the Greens defence with Jay May holding up the ball well and allowing Richard Halle and Emeka Onwubike to run dangerously, all thanks to the probing of Craig Edwards and Harrison Chatting.
It paid dividends in the tenth minute when Onwubike set off on a mazy run from the left touchline. He beat three defenders before going down under a challenge from fourth.
The referee immediately pointed to the penalty spot and there was little complaint from Hendon defenders. Halle stepped up and struck the ball sweetly to his left. Berkley Laurencin dived to his left and Billericay had the lead.
Three minutes later things got worse for Hendon. A through ball invited Darren Currie to run onto it, but he arrived at the same time as Chris Wild. The giant Billericay defender was stronger and won the ball, while Currie stayed down injured.
Wild might have kicked the ball out of play, but didn't and, as it wasn't a head injury the referee let the action continue. The ball was again played out to the left wing, where Onwubike was completely unmarked.
Spectators in line with the Billericay striker were surprised not to see the referee's assistant flag raised for offside because Onwubike was more than a yard behind the last defender when the pass was made to him. But the official kept his flag down.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the non-decision, Onwubike made Hendon pay for their inability to stop him as his run took him past a few would-be tacklers before shooting just inside Laurencin's near post. The goalkeeper was slow to get down to the shot, but he may well have been unsighted by a defender diving across to block the shot.
As soon as the goal had been given, and long before the referee had got to the stricken Hendon player, Greens physio Mark Findley had run onto the pitch to treat Currie, who was able to resume a minute or so later.
For the next 10 minutes Frank Sinclair and Ryan Wharton were at full stretch trying to stop waves of sky-blue-shirted attackers and James Fisher and Currie were forced into defensive roles to support full-backs Parker and Scott Cousins.
The result was that Elliott Godfrey, Aite-Ouakrim and Mauro Vilhete were hopelessly isolated and a third goal seemed almost inevitable. But with veterans Sinclair and Currie in the Hendon ranks it didn't happen, although Parker took a caution for the team with a take-down of Chatting as he launched a counter-attack.
Gradually Hendon saw more possession and, from a 34th minute corner, Fisher headed the ball narrowly wide of the near post. But Vilhete was kept quiet by Dave Collis whilst Currie and Godfrey didn't click together.
Aite-Ouakrim tried to do too much, attempting to beat half a dozen players with runs from the halfway line. When the striker is at his most dangerous, he is receiving the ball in or around the edge of the opposing penalty area, and there is another striker to occupy defenders. As neither was the case, Aite-Ouakrim was largely ineffective and he frequently took the wrong option losing the ball all too cheaply.
The second half was a different story as Hendon set out to test the Billericay defence and they dominated the half, but it should be said Billericay were probably comfortable with their two-goal advantage and confident they could up their tempo if the need arose.
It might have been different if Hendon had been awarded a penalty three minutes into the half. In a mass of bodies running to meet a right-wing corner, a green-shirted player appeared to be bundled over close to the penalty spot. The appeals were waved away by the referee.
The Greens looked more dangerous, but with no one able to get the better of aerial duels with Swaine and Wild, Vilhete and Currie had to try different tactics to orthodox crossing.
Billericay were also very clever in slowing the game down and the second half was littered with a multitude of fouls and yellow cards, the Blues winning that count with five after the break.
Hendon surprisingly left it until the last 15 minutes of normal time to make the first of their three changes, Rankin replacing Godfrey. Jerome Federico then came on for Aite-Ouakrim, giving the Greens three tricky ball-players, but the battering ram striker who might have been able to unsettle defenders already on a caution was not available.
Nevertheless, Hendon did eventually create a couple of half-chances, the best of which fell to Fisher, who missed with another header, and a driven cross which flew inches in front of the late arriving Diedhiou.
Hendon finally got the goal their endeavour so deserved. Good work by Cousins and Vilhete resulted in a pass to Rankin, who had lost his marker, just inside the penalty area. Rankin turned a fired a first-time shot that left Dale Brightly clutching at air as he dived in vain.
Carl McCluskey immediately took over from Diedhiou, but the game was already in the fifth minute of stoppage time. Hendon still had time to launch one more attack, but the Billericay defence was able stand firm for what was ultmately a deserved victory.
"If you take out the first 15 to 20 minutes, we gave them a game," said Hendon manager Gary McCann, "but we lost the game inside 15 minutes. If we had scored earlier in the second half, we might have got something from the game.
"We made it too easy for Billercay and it was a bit like our early season games when we won matches in the first few minutes and then coasted home.
"We should have some players back next week and I am sure that they will make a difference."