Maidstone United 4 Hemel Hempstead Town 2
National League South
14th August 2021 Match Report by Allan Mitchell
This was never going to be an easy first game for the Tudors, and so it proved, but Lee Bircham’s injury-hit squad did themselves proud in front of nearly 2,000 noisy home fans down in Kent.
With no less than eight players missing through injury, Birchy was dealt another blow when new signing Dejon Noel-Williams pulled up in the warm-up, so a squad that was already short on numbers was reduced even further with Zac Robinson coming in for the unfortunate Williams. This left the Tudors with just two fit outfield players on the bench and a keeper.
Maidstone are still very much a full-time outfit with ambitions to return to the football league, and a boisterous crowd really got behind their team at the start, but Hemel coped with the noise, taking the game to them from the off and went into the break with a deserved lead.
It could and probably should have been more than the one goal scored before half-time as Hemel pressed forward and the Stones were restricted to just one effort on target in this period.
After just five minutes, Nathan Cooper had the game's first chance when he rose unmarked to meet a James Dobson corner, but he could only direct his header into the keeper’s arms.
Josh Castiglione then chose to shoot rather than square the ball, which might have been the better option with two colleagues waiting in the box, his effort crashing into the side netting.
Shortly after, there was a shout for handball when the excellent Castiglione saw his cross blocked, but the referee waved away the appeals. Cooper met the resulting corner, but he headed past the post.
Samir Carruthers, who was bossing the midfield, then tried his luck from range, and Hadler, by far the busier keeper, had to push it out for another corner. This was Carruthers' last involvement in the game as the injury curse struck again; the midfielder stayed on the ground holding his hamstring and, after some treatment, had to be replaced.
It was another cruel blow for the Tudors, and with few options on the bench, they had to change to a back three with right back Gus Scott-Morriss moving into midfield and Ky Marsh-Brown replacing Carruthers.
It looked to have unsettled Hemel somewhat, but they still managed to take the lead on the half-hour with a superbly worked goal. Castiglione found space down the right and crossed for the waiting Robinson, who just got in front of his marker to get off the mark on his debut.
It was no more than Hemel deserved, and it could have been even better when, just before the half-time whistle, Dobson drove his free-kick around the wall only to see it hit the inside of the post and bounce out, with Hadler well beaten.
The second period saw the Stones up the tempo somewhat; clearly, the result of some stern words in the interval, and they equalised when Joan Luque cut inside the unfortunate Castiglione who slipped as he tried to cut him off and with time and space, he drove the ball home with only their second chance on target.
The lead didn’t last long though, with the home crowd in full voice, the Tudors mounted a quick counter-attack, and Ky Marsh-Brown drove up to the edge of the box before firing into the bottom corner to restore the lead.
However, the home side didn’t let up, and it was vital that Hemel cleared their heads and regrouped.
Still, before they could settle, they were pegged back again, just minutes later when a long ball was met by Luque, who looked suspiciously offside as the visitors pushed up, the linesman kept his flag down, and the Stones player raced clear, tucking it past Hayes for a second time.
Hemel never stopped trying; the game was now very much end to end, and it looked like a case of whoever scored next would win the game.
JJ Lacey almost put the visitors back in front when he arrived at the far post to meet a cross, but Hadler somehow blocked his effort from close range.
Almost inevitably, Maidstone took the lead shortly after this, and it was the cruellest blow when a speculative shot from outside the box from Booty looked as though it would be well covered by Hayes, but it took a massive deflection off a Tudors defender and diverted into the other corner, leaving Hayes stranded.
It was harsh on Hemel, who looked as though they’d get a well-earned point at this stage, but with the clock ticking down, they had to throw caution to the wind to get back into the game.
Alfie Cerulli replaced Cooper, and the tricky young forward almost rescued things when he found space on the left before curling a powerful shot goalwards; it looked to be heading towards the far corner when Hadler leapt across and got one hand to the effort, tipping it out for a corner.
Hemel caused a few panics from the corner with Lacey and Robinson having shots blocked, and with everyone pushing up, the Stones broke away from the resulting melee, and Christie Pattisson raced clear before tucking the ball past Hayes.
In the end, the final scoreline was harsh, and it summed up the Tudors' luck on the day.
Manager Lee Bircham said afterwards that he couldn’t ask for any more of his players. He has never known an injury list like this, and he is hoping and praying that one or two can return to fitness in the next week or two.
There is no doubt that with a full squad to chose from, Hemel will be there or thereabout at the end of the season.
Hemel: 1: Nick Hayes 2: Gus Scott-Morriss 3: Jack Williams 4: Kyle Ajayi 5: Nathan Cooper (14; Alfie Cerulli) 6: Cole Kpekawa 7: Samir Carruthers (12: Ky Marsh-Brown) 8: Josh Castiglione 10: JJ Lacey 15: Zac Robinson. Subs not used 9: Dejon Noel-Williams (inj) 16: Chris Paul (inj) 17: Lewis Patching
Tudors' Man of the Match: Cole Kpekawa, with a special mention to the entire squad on a difficult day.
There are many positives to take forward onto the next game, and thankfully, no Tuesday night fixture, which will give the squad a little time to heal.