The Rocks go into another play-off campaign tonight promising fans: We will give it absolutely everything we’ve got.
With supporters, players and management putting Saturday’s title heartbreak to the back of their minds, there is a feeling at Nyewood Lane that promotion is still very much within the team’s reach.
They host Wingate and Finchley tonight (7.45pm) in the semi-final – and if they get through, they will be at home again in Monday’s final, against the winners of the Dulwich Hamlet-Enfield semi.
Players, staff and fans were devastated on Saturday when a 1-1 draw with Met Police meant they finished two points behind champions Havant. A victory would have given the Rocks the title and handed them the sole automatic promotion spot.
Now they’re in a four-way battle with rivals for the other promotion place and the first hurdle brings Wingate – who the Rocks have beaten 3-1 at home and 2-0 away during the season – to Nyewood Lane.
A crowd of around 1,000 is expected and the Rocks have been heartened not just by the backing received from their own fans in recent weeks but also by messages of goodwill from other local football clubs.
Manager Jamie Howell said Saturday’s intense disappointment was in the past and it was time for the team to have another go.
“I certainly wouldn’t say we’re over what happened on Saturday but there’s no point dwelling on it. This is another game, and another chance to get closer to promotion,” he said.
“I’m at a loss to explain why we couldn’t do it on Saturday. It’s almost like we’ve played well in 44 games and then come up short in the final two, when it just hasn’t happened for us.
“It’s not through lack of effort and while no-one’s more disappointed than me that we didn’t finish first, the way Saturday worked out shouldn’t detract from it having been a very good season. I’d liken it to a club like Everton finishing second in the Premier League.”
Howell said everyone needed to be up for the battle this evening – and he was certain the players would be ready to go out and give it their best shot.
“We are all desperate to do this for the fans. The support we have had from them, and from the local area in general, even from players and managers at other clubs, has been superb.
“We wanted to win the title and didn’t make it. Now we are desperate to succeed in the play-offs. If we do, fantastic. If we don’t, it certainly won’t be through lack of trying.”
With one or two players carrying knocks after Saturday’s draw, there’s a surprise return to the squad tonight for centre-half Ed Sanders, who did well for the Rocks earlier in the season but has since been playing for Chichester City and Gosport. With central defender Chad Field a doubt with a hamstring strain, Sanders could be vital.
Fellow defenders Sami El-Abd and Dylan Barnett should be fit to feature, as should Gary Charman and Dan Beck, who have both been playing with niggly injuries.
Howell said: “I’m glad the semi-final is Thursday night and was not Tuesday night. That might have been a bit soon for us. Five days between games has given everyone time to lift themselves, refocus and be mentally ready for it.
“It should be a great occasion and we’re looking forward to it.”
It’s the Rocks fifth home play-off semi-final in seven seasons – a remarkable run by anyone’s standards – and they will need to summon the spirit of 2012, the year they went on to achieve promotion from Ryman one south via the knockout route.
That year, the semi-final brought a memorable clash with Godalming at the Lane. The Rocks led 1-0, trailed 2-1, led 3-2, then trailed 4-3 in extra-time before drawing 4-4 and winning 5-3 on penalties.
Fans can pay on the gate tonight – all support welcome.
Get all the play-off semi-final action and reaction at www.bognor.co.uk/sport
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