When Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester City strut out at Wembley in May, it won't match the drama of this

Darren Freeman
Darren Freeman

It won’t get any better than this. When an Arsenal or a Chelsea or a Manchester City side struts out at Wembley next May, to bask in the sunlit glamour of the FA Cup Final, they will not better the drama of a dark, damp September night under the lights of the Dripping Pan.

The records will show that Lewes defeated Leatherhead, after extra time and penalties, in a first qualifying round replay: a mere statistic among the 745 ties in this season’s competition. But the 395 spectators will remember a three-act drama which absorbed, entertained, shredded the nerves and left both victors and losers drained and exhausted. See the equalising goal below

The skeletal facts. Early goal for the Rooks, turned around by the Tanners who led 2-1 at the break. Blood and thunder second half, Lewes still trailing until their 94th minute equaliser. Extra time with one red card and a clutch of yellows, but no goals. And a bizarre penalty shoot-out which saw the visitors miss four successive spot kicks, including one twice-taken. Even England versus Kosovo couldn’t match this.

In the first meeting last Saturday, Darren Freeman’s Rooks had battled back from 0-2 to force a replay at 2-2, and they instantly picked up their tempo in the replay, to take a fifth-minute lead. Jordy Mongoy darted in from the right and set up Dayshonne Golding’s first time strike for 1-0.

Visitors Leatherhead, with their own proud Cup history (remember Chris The Lip Kelly?) recoiled and then sprang back with a vengeance. Their lightning quick strikers were already looking a handful when, on eight minutes, Travis Gregory was sliced down en route for goal, and Eddy D’Sane equalised from the penalty spot.

Lewes had their own moments going forward, but a very open team shape left their central defence exposed, and D’Sane left Stacey Freeman for dead before laying on a simple finish for Tommy Wood to give Leatherhead a 22nd-minute lead.

The Tanners were now controlling much of the action, and in strong spells just before and just after half-time they might well have extended their lead. But, with the night darkening and a fine steady drizzle glistening in the Dripping Pan floodlights, the home side found new energy and commitment. A red card for front-man Wood reduced Leatherhead to ten men, and the Tanners were cracking. As the clock closed in on 90 minutes, the Rooks gathered, circled and finally swooped.

Added time – and with no signboard hoisted from the dug-outs, we had no idea how long. Four aching stoppage minutes, and Lewes – in front of a full-throated Philcox Stand – won one last corner on the right. Up came keeper Nathan Stroomberg to add an extra, anarchic threat, and as the towering corner was launched into a heaving penalty area, Mongoy knocked it goalwards. Keeper Zaki Oualah clawed the ball back – but from over the goalline. Two goals apiece then, and this crazy tie had lurched into extra time.

Each goalkeeper produced an outstanding save, Stroomberg point-blank from Charlie Wester-Cook, and Oualah with a marvellous finger-tip stretch from Stefan Ilic. But by now, the inevitable penalty shoot-out was etched into the script.

Most shoot-outs are heroic and heart-stopping. This one was a bit surreal. Leatherhead’s first kick drew an athletic sve from Stroomberg – but he had moved too quickly off his line. Reprieved penalty-taker Nuamani stepped up again – and blasted his second attempt high into the stand.

And for Leatherhead, it went from frustrating to abysmal. Three clean penalties by the Rooks alternated with three misses by the Tanners – and we didn’t need to get to five. Lewes can still dream.