Dr. Martens Southern Premier League

Crawley Town

Stevens (56), Le Bihan (90)

Hednesford Town

Francis (9), Rae (80)

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(1) 2



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Les Robinson



Halesowen Town (A) 19.8.02

 The Pitmen kicked off their Dr. Martens Premier Division campaign with a well-earned point at Crawley Town's Broadfield Stadium - but it was so close to being all three for the new-look Hednesford side in Sussex


 It was the second successive season that the fixture computer had thrown up this exact fixture, with Paul Raynor's Pitmen on the end of a heavy 4-1 defeat to Crawley this time last season. A summer of upheaval at Keys Park had seen Kenny Hibbitt leave the club after keeping them in the Southern Premier League on the final day of last season, with former Stafford Rangers manager Ian Painter arriving at the club looking to build on a tumultuous 2001-2002 campaign. Painter handed league debuts to Darren Simkin, Les Robinson, Chris Brindley, Stuart Ryder, Shaun Wray, Mark Jones and Carl Adams - only three players remained from the corresponding fixture on the opening day of last season - Mark Gayle, skipper Richard Lucas and Kevin Francis


Crawley's pre-season had seen them recruit impressively, bringing in the likes of former Wimbledon midfielder Peter Fear to compliment their already-experienced ranks. With this in mind, the Reds were amongst the favourites to go up at the end of the season alongside the Pitmen's local rivals Tamworth, Havant & Waterlooville and Worcester City. Having finished fourth last term, manager Billy Smith was confident of a shot at promotion in May, although he was without the services of Fear for today's curtain-raiser due to an injury to the midfield man


Hednesford set about their task to upset the odds on a beautiful sunny day, forcing Crawley back into their own third in the opening minutes and gaining an immediate reward. On nine minutes, a Wray cross from the left wing was met by the in-form Francis, who flashed a header past the Crawley 'keeper Andy Little with his trademark towering header to open the Pitmen's account for the season


Buoyed by the goal, Hednesford continued to show good form in the opening quarter, as Francis was denied a sniff at a second goal on fifteen minutes by a last-ditch block from Marc Pullan after Wray's trickery had once again got him into a position to send a cross over


Mark Jones - another to impress during the pre-season schedule - tried his luck with a crafty chip over the head of Little on twenty minutes, but only succeeded in clearing the crossbar after seeing the keeper off his line


 Crawley responded with a neat passage of play involving Nic McDonnell, whose slide-rule pass was fired wide by Neil Le Bihan as Brindley shepherded the player into a more acute angle on the edge of the penalty area


Gayle claimed two successive corner kicks from Brake around the half-hour mark to add to the growing feeling amongst the coach load of Hednesford supporters that they may well extinguish memories of that awful performance on the same pitch twelve months ago and start with a win


 Derek Rae - May's goal hero against Newport IoW to keep the Pitmen up - did well to pick up a loose ball on thirty-eight minutes, beating off a challenge from Mo Harkin and letting rip with a long-range effort that dipped wide of Little's right-hand post


The final chance of an enjoyable half fell to Jones once more on forty-three minutes, with the former Wolves man again trying a deft lob over the head of Little, but just failing once more to test the stopper as he lifted his effort just over the angle of post and crossbar


The Pitmen were deservedly applauded off by the supporters at the break, having edged proceedings against a high-quality opponent and probably should have been further in front than by a solitary goal


However, Smith reorganised his team at half-time, with Crawley a far more potent threat at the start of the second half. There was a statement of intent from the hosts on fifty minutes when McDonnell headed home a cross from Pullan, only for the goal to be disallowed as the ball had gone out of play out on the touchline before it had been crossed


 The Reds did equalise soon after, however, as they pulled level on fifty-six minutes; a misunderstanding between Robinson and Gayle allowed Dave Stevens in to fire home from close range, taking full advantage of the Hednesford players leaving a bouncing ball to each other and nipping in to equalise for Crawley


 The Pitmen were put on the back foot as the home side pressed, sensing a winner. Stevens could have had a quick-fire second goal but failed to test Gayle when the play opened up in front of him on the hour mark and allowed him a clear shot on goal that flew wide


Four minutes later Nigel Brake tried his luck from twenty-five yards out but shot into the crowd with a speculative effort at Gayle's goal after picking up a pass from Pullan in acres of space just outside the Hednesford penalty area


The Pitmen made their first change of the afternoon on seventy minutes, with last season's second top scorer Graham Lancashire coming on in place of Wray, who had tired after his excellent first-half performance


Despite being second best for most of the second period, the visitors did not settle for the point and re-took the lead with ten minutes remaining. Francis - who had been a constant thorn in Crawley's side all afternoon - did brilliantly to nick the ball away from Little as the pair just inside the penalty area to challenge an Adams pass, with the big man squaring the ball to Rae, who had the simple task of tapping into the net from twelve yards


In an attempt to see the game out, Painter made a second substitution following the goal, with Steve Piearce making his second debut for the Pitmen after returning to the club in the summer as he replaced Jones up front


Crawley threw the kitchen sink at the experienced back-line of Hednesford in the closing stages, with Robinson imperious in his central defensive role alongside Brindley. Indeed, full-backs Simkin and Ryder were also showing their years of experience in league football, standing firm to Crawley's aerial threat


And yet, there was to be a cruel twist in the final minute, as Crawley snatched an unlikely equaliser at the death, and in comical circumstances; Le Bihan's inswinging corner kick was somehow missed by everybody, white shirts and red shirts, and found the far corner of the net, leaving the Pitmen shattered at the very end


Yet, there was plenty to be positive about, having started strongly against a much-fancied outfit. Painter will look to build on these positives on Monday night, as local rivals Halesowen Town arrive at Keys Park for Hednesford's opening home game of the new campaign

Crawley Town: Judge, Payne ©, Hooper, Pullan, Harkin, Holmes, Le Bihan, McDonnell (Hockton 75), Stevens, Brake (Patterson 75)      Subs Unused: McCoy, Bagnall, Hemsley

Hednesford Town: Gayle, Simkin, Lucas ©, Robinson, Brindley, Ryder, Wray (Lancashire 70), Rae, Francis, Jones (Piearce 80), Adams     Subs Unused: Airdrie, Williams, Jenkins