Hythe and Dibden 2 Andover Town 2.
“It was not the most buoyant of dressing rooms” was Andover Town manager Neil Benson’s understated reaction to Saturday’s game at Hythe and Dibden where a 96th minute strike from John Mulhern relieved the league leaders of their 14 match winning streak and ensured the promotion party, and possibly the championship celebrations, roll over to Easter Saturday’s mouth watering clash with Petersfield Town at the Portway Stadium.
Although it appeared that Town were on the receiving end of a number of contentious decisions, in truth Hythe thoroughly deserved their point having come back from 2-0 down at half-time and levelling after having skipper Simon Davison sent off with ten minutes left for a professional foul. It could also be argued that Town were fortunate not to lose defender Ope Aromona after he shoved Mark Lilley to the ground an hour earlier but the off the ball incident nullified an otherwise legal and well taken Michael Dixon goal which could have launched them to a straight forward victory.
Dixon’s first half double seemed to be enough but the home side dominated the second half and Town could not get going sufficiently and paid the penalty although with Petersfield losing at home to Cowes Sports at the same time, there was little damage done.
Tom Riddell and Cole Hinchcliffe were welcomed back to the squad after lengthy injury lay offs and after Cameron Hough and Lloyd Foot had both gone close early, the former Saint’s long ball out of defence found the charging Dixon and he slotted home his 28th goal of the season on seven minutes.
It appeared the striker had made it 29 minutes later but Aromona’s incident with Lilley was in front of the linesman and his report meant the play was brought back 60 yards for a free-kick and both were booked.
Town’s defence looked flustered and were being punished by a series of free-kicks and Stuart Green almost threaded one in but it flew across the penalty area and went just wide then seconds later Lilley all but converted another cross but Michael Weatherall was relieved to watch it roll inches wide.
The keeper then did well to hold a Green volley on the half hour and having seemingly survived the home onslaught Town struck with a stunning second goal.
Aromona won a battle and few Lewis Benson and his long pass found Lewis Alderman whose inch perfect cross was met by Dixon who was denied by Jon Page, only to crash home the rebound.
It should have been the catalyst to go on to a simple victory, but Hythe and Dibden, managed by ex-Andover man Lee Burch, dug in and rode their luck as Oliver Yates hit the bar with the last kick of the half.
After the break Dixon and Alex Dockree went close then the hard running Hough combined with Benson before driving just wide. Alderman then curled one wide of Page’s far post which seemed to be the signal for the home side to launch their comeback. Claudio Herbert replaced Hough and Terry Cox headed just over for Hythe as they began to enjoy far more possession and it was no real surprise when Town failed to close down Sean Stone and his 30 yard dipper flew past Weatherall to set up a tense finish.
Dixon set up Herbert who went close as Town’s attacks become more sporadic before Mulhern had a shot blocked by an increasingly under pressure away defence.
Benson threw on Hinchcliffe and McAuley to introduce fresh legs and a more defensive formation for the last ten minutes but for once it backfired despite Davison’s red card late in the play after bringing down Dixon.
With six minutes injury time already played Mulhern was lurking 25 yards out and his instinctive volley flew in to spark home celebrations.
Petersfield’s defeat means that should they not beat US Portsmouth tomorrow then Saturday’s match at the Portway could see Town promoted as champions.
Benson said after: “This season has had twists and turns and we are a point further ahead of Petersfield although of course we are disappointed to lose our long winning run.”
“The game was within our grasp at 2-0 but we gave them two soft goals, although they were well taken.
‘We are still 100 per cent at the Portway and I have every confidence that the squad will finish the job.”