Former players haunt Hungerford as Crusaders throw away another lead in Winchester draw
Two former players came back to haunt Hungerford Town as the Crusaders threw away yet another lead in a disappointing 2-2 draw with Winchester City on Tuesday night.
Town had looked to be cruising towards a fourth win in five matches after Brad Hooper and Conor McDonagh put them in front, only for the visitors to rescue a point following two goals in three minutes from former Crusaders Conor Lynch and Warren Bentley. That's the seventh time this season Hungerford have dropped points after leading inside the final quarter-of-an-hour.
Prior to kick-off, players, staff and spectators joined together in a minute's applause in memory of Bob Ponsford, who played over 500 times for Hungerford in the 1960s and 70s and passed away at the weekend.
Boss Danny Robinson made two enforced changes for the visit of the Citizens, who arrived at Bulpit Lane on the back of successive wins. Goalkeeper Rob Brown made an assured debut after signing on a dual-registration deal from Royal Wootton Bassett as a stop-gap while the experienced Ryan Clarke recovers from a dead leg he picked up following a collision in Saturday's draw with Hanwell Town. Midfielder Brad Hooper replaced Sam De St Croix, who was absent through illness. The visitors had three former Town players in their ranks, including popular goalkeeper Luke Cairney.
The game took some time to get going although the home side should have taken the lead when Elis Watts missed a gilt-edged chance at the back post after 17 minutes. The impressive Conor McDonagh slipped his man following a deft drop of the shoulder on the left-hand side of the box before flashing a ball across the face for Watts, but the Welsh winger turned his effort over the bar on the slide.
Joe Shepherd, who had another excellent game in midfield, dragged a shot wide from range two minutes later before a bizarre incident occurred approaching the half hour mark. The game was halted after the referee disappeared off down the tunnel never to reappear, meaning the linesman took over in the middle while the referee's assessor replaced him as an unlikely linesman. Theories ranged from an injury, to a prolonged toilet break and even that the referee was a police detective called off on an urgent investigation.
The game sparked into life on the stroke of half time after Hungerford had a penalty appeal turned down when Brad Hooper went over following a suggestion of a nudge in his back following a fluent move involving Adulai Sambu, Elis Watts and Rhys Tyler. However the hosts didn't have to wait much longer and were ahead in the third minute of added time when Hooper exploited a gaping hole in the heart of the Citizens' defence to latch onto Sambu's smart inside pass and send a left-footed shot beyond Cairney and into the bottom left-hand corner.
Town now had all the momentum and almost doubled their lead moments later when Conor McDonagh's left-footed shot was parried to safety by Cairney, denying the in-from frontman what would've been a slightly less spectacular copy of his goal at the weekend.
McDonagh went close again five minutes after the restart when Brown's punch clear started a quick counter-attack that resulted in Elis Watts sliding in the frontman, whose dinked effort beat Cairney but was well-cleared by the retreating Josh McCormick.
The home side looked to be in complete control but were almost stunned when diminutive England C striker Tommy Wright got in behind the Hungerford defence for the first time all evening and forced an excellent double save from debutant Brown after 52 minutes.
Town made it 2-0 four minutes later when Joe Shepherd's brave flick freed Conor McDonagh and the striker – brimming with confidence, whose first thought is always to head for goal – beat a defender inside the box and bent the ball into the far corner to extend his side's advantage.
Wingers Adulai Sambu and Elis Watts both forced saves from Cairney but the visitors missed an excellent chance to pull one back 18 minutes from time when Mark Jamison shinned the ball wide at the far post after arriving undetected from a corner.
The Crusaders looked to be cruising to a well-deserved three points when substitute Conor Lynch, who spent an unhappy spell at Bulpit Lane last season, flashed a strike across goal and off the inside of the post and in to halve the deficit with a quarter of an hour remaining.
Just three minutes later and the Citizens were level. Jack Wright dallied on the ball in the far corner for too long and gave away a free-kick in a dangerous position after losing possession. The resulting ball in was met by a Winchester head and then nodded across goal for the waiting Bentley, who was a fan favourite during his time with the Crusaders, to head in an equaliser and make it 2-2.
Robinson took off attackers Conor McDonagh and Elis Watts, bringing on Jack Stanley and Slavi Spasov and switching to a 3-5-2 in an attempt to stem the sudden flow of Citizens pressure. Yet it almost got even worse for the hosts with 10 minutes to go when Brown made a sharp save at his near post from Tommy Wright's half-volley before a lunging challenge on the rebound led to voracious appeals for a penalty from the visiting players. Town boss Danny Robinson later admitted he believed his side were fortunate to escape without punishment. The stand-in referee gave a corner instead, and from the ball into the box Mark Jamison's header was cleared off the line.
Substitute Fabio Lopes, making a welcome return from a long-term injury, provided a threat on the break late on but neither side fashioned another clear cut chance as the Crusaders drew 2-2 for the second time in four days.
Hungerford, who remain ninth in the Southern Premier League South table, are in FA Trophy action this weekend when they welcome National League South side Truro City for their second round tie.