Kings Langley’s safety cushion to the Southern League Premier Division drop zone has been cut to four points after they suffered a 3-1 home defeat to Stratford Town that owed much to a controversial penalty award.

The mood of optimism that had followed the midweek 2-0 victory over Cambridge City was dispelled after just 36 minutes when the referee stopped play and pointed to the spot, apparently for a Sam Tring pull on the elbow of Michael Taylor.

It was a decision that mystified both sets of supporters and players alike, but the visitors gratefully accepted the gift and Edwin Ahenkorah duly dispatched the spot-kick.

With so much riding on the result, perceived injustices can have a greater than usual impact and Kings’ heads were still scrambled when they lost possession in midfield five minutes later.

A lofted pass out to the left wing saw a race between Ahenkorah and Ryan Plowright and the latter judged the trajectory of the ball perfectly to hold off the defender and beat the outcoming keeper to give Kings a mountain to climb after the break.

However, it seemed like the hosts might be able to respond when Kieran Turner produced a surging central slalom run that beat three defenders and ended with a chip that Stevie Ward hit on the volley just past the post.

Such chances were rare though, as an uncompromising defence dealt effectively with Kings’ front runners and their midfield gave the home side very little time on the ball.

Yet on the mid-half mark, there was a ray of hope when the hjosts were awarded a free-kick 25 yards out and Dean Hitchcock surprised everyone by driving it low and hard through a crowded box and past the apparently unsighted Niall Cooper. It may have taken a touch on the way in, but it was on target and inventive and provided a foothold back.

Town had other ideas and responded with a William Grocott shot just wide, but Kings were seeing more of their opponents’ penalty area and Lewis Toomey and Jerry Amoo shunned good opportunities to effect an unlikely comeback.

Stratford were becoming more physical as the game progressed and the hard-working Ollie Cox was left counting his bruises, particularly after one nasty encounter left him prone against the east stand fencing.

Jorell Johnson went agonisingly close with a shot on the turn just over the bar, but Langley’s miserable afternoon was summed up when Xavi Comas made a hash of a routine clearance in time added on and Taylor accepted the present of an empty net.

It would be easy to blame defeat onto a controversial decision, but to paraphrase a famous quotation, “to thine own self be true” and on calmer reflection, this was a solid performance from the visitors and a disappointing one from the home team.

With all but one of the bottom six losing on Saturday, it looks like the fight for survival will go to the wire, but there is a sense that two wins out of the final six games may be enough to keep Kings in the top flight.

Kings Langley: Comas; Pattison, Johnson, Tring (Coldicott-Stevens 58), Plowright; Ward (Waldren 73), Hitchcock, Cox, Turner (Amoo 64); Toomey, King. Subs not used: Balogun and Gosling.