Kings Langley wrote an emphatic new page in their 128-year history yesterday when, after six years of heartbreaking near misses, they finally gained promotion to the Spartan South Midlands Premier League, the highest level of the football pyramid that they have ever reached.
Both Kings and the visitors to Gaywood Park, Bedford, were locked on identical points in second place behind Division One champions Sun Postal Sports, but with Langley having both the best goalscoring and defensive records in the whole division, a draw would suffice to secure their promotion.
Stacked against that was the fact the home side entered the defining fixture having had to play four games in the last week and a punishing schedule of 21 games in the last 56 days. They were also without regulars Jack Johnson, Craig Preston and Dean Hitchcock, and the management team of Paul Hughes and Ritchie Hanlon had to make a paper-thin selection decision between two in-form goalkeepers, Ant Ladyman and Steve Bourke, and gamble on Callum Adebiyi, who scraped past a fitness test, but was subsequently immense throughout the whole afternoon.
Alex Campana opened proceedings with a shot that Aaron Bodger dropped, but was able to smother, but Bedford took a leaf from Kings’ book with an early onslaught that had the home team on the ropes. Mitchell Griffiths’ shot was blocked, Luke Knight put an effort just wide and they then hit the bar with the offside flag raised.
The referee had caused early concerns with a booking for each side within the first ten minutes, but seemed to feel he had made his point to press on and control the game exceptionally well. But as Bedford continued to batter the home side, keeper Bourke pulled off two outstanding saves to keep Kings in the game. The first, from Ashley Kersey was good, but the second, a minute later, bordered on the unbelievable, as wrong-footed, he tipped the ball onto and over the bar.
Kings recovered, shook themselves down, and came so close when Gary Connelly’s lob was just wide with the keeper beaten and then Nick Jackson’s snap-shot was tipped round for a corner.
Adebiyi was felled on the actual line of the penalty area for just a free-kick, Bodger pulled off a good save from a Campana set piece and Connor Toomey was just wide as Kings finished the half in the ascendency, although they did have an anxious moment when Bourke was called on yet again following a break resulting from a poor offside call.
A first half that seemed to have lasted for at least an hour finally finished and Kings were forced to substitute an unwell Toomey as the war of nerves continued.
Bedford’s early onslaught appeared to have taken its toll and as the contest moved to midfield and chances became fewer before Kings seized the season’s defining moment in the 66th minute. Summing up an unpredictable and dramatic campaign, it fell to experienced defender Jonny Munday who was born within a stone’s throw of the ground, was recalled to the squad this week, and was making only his third appearance of the season as a replacement for Craig Preston.
Tom Carter, who is in contention for the most improved player of the season, took a ball on the left flank and teased the defender with at least six changes of direction before releasing the perfect cross for Munday to deliver a powerful header past Bodger to the delight of the home support.
If the home side thought the dream had been realised at that stage, they suffered a rude awakening when a quick corner saw Luke Knight rock them with a snap-shot equaliser with 12 minutes to go after their attack seemed to have shot its bolt.
The work-rate of Jack Pattison, Lee Burgoyne and Danny Hutchins was outstanding and as the long afternoon ground to a memorable conclusion, it would be reflected that Kings probably had the most dangerous moments and dealt fairly comfortably with Bedford’s attacks for the last minutes. But at the time, it was a precipice waiting to be fallen over before - after five extra minutes - the celebrations could begin.