Notts County fell at the semi-final stage of the FA Trophy for the second time in as many seasons after a dramatic 3-3 draw, in which they led three times, was won by AFC Hornchurch in a penalty shoot-out.
It means the Essex side will travel to Wembley for the final in early May – with supporters possibly being allowed into the national stadium as part of the Government’s easing of restrictions.
Hornchurch substitute Chris Dickson, who once scored for AEL Limassol against Marseille in the Europa League, stepped up to take the deciding fifth penalty and powered it into the top left corner.
Jubilant celebrations greeted the winning penalty and the upset of a lifetime that left Meadow Lane stunned. Hornchurch boss Mark Stimson was lifted onto the players’ shoulders as they took in what they had achieved and chants of “We are just a pub team from Hornchurch” rang around an eerie Meadow Lane.
It was a stoppage-time equaliser from Hornchurch’s number 10 Liam Nash forced the game to penalties. It was like a scene from a horror movie for County as Charlie Ruff’s low cross found its way to Nash at the back post who finished gratefully.
A semi-final and a potential trip to Wembley is not what many managers face when it comes to their first games in charge, but that was the challenge that faced new Notts boss Ian Burchnall today.
AFC Hornchurch, who play two leagues below the Magpies, proved a far tougher test than many would have thought.
Notts started the game in exactly the fashion that Burchnall had promised in his press conference on Thursday with “very offensive, attacking and positive football”.
The Magpies monopolised the ball early on – happy to play out from the back – and looked to get forward at every opportunity. Jake Reeves and Michael Doyle set the tempo of the game from the middle of the park.
The first goal of the new era took just nine minutes with leading goal-scorer Kyle Wootton finding himself on the receiving end of a Jordon Barnett cross. Wootton would have had another just two minutes later if it wasn’t for a brilliant low save from Hornchurch keeper Joe Wright.
For 30 minutes Hornchurch looked like a team that hadn’t played a competitive game for a month, but they grew into the game and on 37 minutes they had their first breakthrough courtesy of a deflected shot from the edge of the area.
Lewwis Spence struck the ball well, but it wouldn’t have caused Notts keeper Sam Solcombe any real problems it it wasn’t for the deflection. This was Spence’s second goal at Meadow Lane, previously scoring for Wycombe Wanderers.
The Hornchurch equaliser brought the game to life as the visitors from the Isthmian Premier League believed they could take on National League Notts. Notts looked troubled for a time, but within five minutes they had their lead back courtesy of Ruben Rodrigues. Enzo Boldewijn controlled a floated cross, shook off a challenge, and cushioned a pass across the area for Rodrigues to slot home.
Burchnall looked like he would be entering his first half time team talk as Notts boss with a lead, until stoppage time when they squandered possession and Joe Clark broke forward for the visitors sliding a ball across the box for Liam Nash to tap home.
Until his withdrawal around the hour, Boldewijn was a constant threat from his post on the left-wing running at the Hornchurch right back Mickey Parcell almost every time he got the ball.
Half-time team talks are vital for managers, but Burchnall’s first in the Meadow Lane changing rooms didn’t have the desired effect. The home team emerged from the break looking sloppy and sluggish.
Hornchurch on the other hand came out for the second half with an increased level of pressing and a belief that they could get a win and find themselves at Wembley.
It wasn’t until the 71st minute that the home side created anything of merit. On the counter-attack, substitute Jim O’Brien found fellow sub Jimmy Knowles who laid it on a plate for Wootton, who couldn’t sort his feet out before being swarmed by goalkeeper and defenders.
Just three minutes after entering the fray in the 71st minute Elisha Sam gave Notts the lead for the third time. The ball fell to O’Brien on the edge of the area who looked like he had dragged his first-time effort wide only for Sam to turn it home.
Burchnall’s half time team talk may not have hit the right notes with his players, but his changes from the bench certainly did. Sam was a threat from the moment he came on while O’Brien helped to control the game in the middle of the park.
Notts looked fairly comfortable with their 3-2 lead, but the stoppage-time equaliser courtesy of Nash changed that.
Burchnall said: “We played well for a lot of the game, especially in the first half, just lack of discipline at times let us down.”
The new boss only had a 45-minute session with his players yesterday
Hornchurch beat fellow National League club Kings Lynn Town on penalties in the fourth round. It was 3-0 then with keeper Wright saving three of the spot-kicks. In this shoot-out, though Wright only denied Reeves, but that was enough as it ended up 5-4.
“The players are really disappointed, but we need to change our full attention to the league now,” said Burchnall.
Teams: Notts County – Slocombe, Ellis, Reeves, Barnett, Doyle (C), Wooton, Boldewijin (Sub – Knowles 66 mins), Rawlinson, Kelly-Evans, Rodrigues (Sub – O’Brien 52 mins), Miller (Sub – Sam 74 mins)
AFC Hornchurch – Wright, Parcell, Sutton, Clark, Hayles, Muldoon, Brown (Sub – Stimson 88 mins) , Spence, Higgins (Sub – Dickson 66 mins), Nash, Christou (Sub – Ruff 52mins)
By Alex Brinton
Lead Image: Notts County FC