Hendon suffered a disappointing last-minute defeat at Hampton & Richmond Borough in the Middlesex Senior Cup on Tuesday night. The Greens who had been 2-0 down inside 11 minutes did exceptionally well to fight back to equalise, but the Blue Square Bet (Conference) South club profited from an unfortunate error in the last few seconds of normal time.
Hendon, with their eyes firmly on the vital Ryman League Premier Division clash against AFC Hornchurch on Saturday, rested four players with slight knocks - James Parker, Scott Cousins, Jamie Busby, Elliott Charles - and they were replaced by James Archer, Michael Peacock, Jerome Federico and Belal Aite-Ouakrim. Among the substitute was 17-year-old Tico Gavi-Mihedji, a recent signing from Stockport County.
Hampton, meanwhile, struggling against relegation from the Conference South, picked almost their strongest available XI, though they did lose goalkeeper Matt Lovett (making his comeback after a long period on the sidelines) in the warm-up and regular first-choice Craig Ross stepped up from the bench.
In the sixth minute, Hendon lost possession in midfield and, with men committed to attack, paid a severe price. The ball was played out to the left win and when it was crossed into the penalty area, no one had covered the run of Esmond James who first into the net to give Hampton the lead.
Five minutes later things got worse for Hendon. The Greens conceded a free-kick on the edge of their penalty area and former England Under-20s international Neil Jenkins took it.
His effort beat Berkley Laurencin all ends up before striking the underside of the crossbar and bouncing back across the goal. In the scramble which followed, Joel Ledgister got the final touch on the ball before it crossed the line.
Many teams would have folded their tents and taken a beating; not this Hendon line-up and, six minutes later, they had halved their deficit. Just as the Hendon defence had seemed uncertain in the face of fast-moving attacks, so it was with the Hampton rearguard, especially when Federico ran at Jenkins.
Federico delivered a superb cross in the 17th minute and, rising powerfully beyond the far post, Carl McCluskey planted a majestic header just inside the upright. As well as giving Hendon a confidence boost, it knocked back the Beavers, who suddenly looked far more tentative.
Amazingly it was the last goal of the half. Two minutes after McCluskey's goal Federico came close to his first Hendon goal when he cut in from the right and fired a powerful rising drive which Ross was grateful to watch fizz just over the angle of post and crossbar.
A few minutes later, a drilled cross from McCluskey, from the other flank, was overstruck and Aite-Ouakrim couldn't quite reach it.
Hampton had a couple of openings, but the team's failings in attack were again clear as Dave Tarpey missed two very presentable openings. The unease among home fans was clear every time a chance was spurned.
Before the second half started, Gavi-Mihedji came on for Archer, who had picked up a shin injury. It was not the only problem for Hendon because Federico had felt his hamstring tighten and although advised to come off by the coaching and medical staff, was sure it was not too severe.
Five minutes into the second half, Hampton should have restored their two-goal advantage. James Fisher attempted to clear a bouncing ball, but James nipped in front of him and took the ball on his chest.
Fisher, committed to the ball, and completely unaware of the winger's intervention caught James on the chest with his boot. The referee ruled that the challenge was a foul and that it had taken place right on the line of the penalty area, so pointed to the spot. It was a very harsh decision against Fisher and no further action was taken against him.
Neil Jenkins' ability with a dead ball had been seen already, but this penalty was given to Tarpey. The former Welsh rugby union fly-half, who shares his name with the Beavers' left-back, would have been impressed with the height of Tarpey's penalty, less so with the width and the ball sailed high over the crossbar and five yards wide of the right post as Tarpey aimed.
Before play resumed - a new ball was required to replace the one which had sailed over the stand â€“ Greg Ngoyi came on for Federico, whose hamstring injury had only got worse. It meant yet another reshuffle in the Hendon formation - Fisher having swapped wings to accommodate Gavi-Mihedji.
Although Hendon continued to create openings of their own, Hampton set up more and better ones, too. Laurencin produced a superb low save to keep out one attempt and then denied Tarpey. But, with 15 minutes to go, Tarpey made one of the misses of the season when he fired over the bar from about five yards out and Laurencin out of position.
The Beavers replaced their two goalscorers, James and Ledgister, with Joe Turner and Charlie Moone, respectively as they rather nervously entered the final 20 minutes. Fisher stung the hands of Ross with low drive - the goalkeeper being able to fall on the rebound before Aite-Ouakrim or Ngoyi could pounce.
A couple of danger runs from Aite-Ouakrim foundered when the striker either failed to make a pass to a better-placed team-mate or, more damagingly, had the pass picked off by a defender because it had not been struck hard enough.
Another foray was ended when McCluskey took the ball off Aite-Ouakrim's toe and the ball bounced conveniently for Dean Inman to launch a counter-attack. Although Hampton had a six-on-three advantage, they decided to move the ball out the wing and then allowed Casey Maclaren to get back and make a good intervention.
Hendon's last change came with six minutes to go, Isaiah Rankin replacing Elliott Godfrey, whose dead-ball expertise might well have been very useful a few minutes later. As it was, the Greens did get back on level terms from a set-piece with four minutes of normal time remaining.
A corner curled in by Darren Currie was met by the head of Peacock, and his glancing nod went between the defender guarding the near post and Ross. The goalkeeper's verbal attack on his defence was almost comical, not that Hendon cared.
But their joy at drawing level didn't last long. In the final minute of normal time, a ball the bounced behind Ryan Wharton should have been dealt with by Laurencin, but the goalkeeper made a hash of the clearance.
The ball went to Tarpey, who had failed to convert at least three much easier chances. Given no time to think the striker lobbed the ball over the stranded Laurencin and watched it bounce just over the goalline as the covering Wharton desperately tried to get back to cover.
As the announcement of four minutes of additional time was being made, Hampton made their final substitution, Karley Andrews replacing Josh Huggins. The added minutes were more than enough for Hendon to get another equaliser if the chance arose - and it did.
With 90 seconds remaining, a silly challenge just outside the penalty area gave Hendon a free-kick. Currie stood over the ball and placed it, but it was struck by Peacock, into the defensive wall and was cleared to safety.
"Of course I am disappointed to lose," said Hendon manager Gary McCann, "but I thought we gave a very good account of ourselves. We made a number of changes with Saturday's game in mind and took on a team playing a level above who chose almost their strongest available team.
"I was delighted with the way that we came back from two goals down, and was as disappointed with the goal that we then conceded.
"You never want to lose a cup-tie, especially a semi-final, but if there is one saving grace from this defeat, it means that we can concentrate on the League and our efforts to get promotion. It would have been nice for the fans to have a cup final, but it might have been a distraction for the players."