Tring Athletic came away from Preston Park empty handed on Saturday with their supporters feeling that they had been robbed by Harefield United in a 2-1 defeat.
The hosts should have been reduced to 10 men in the first half when captain Danny Bennell prevented a goal scoring opportunity. To rub salt into the Tring wounds, they missed the resulting penalty and the Hares skipper went on to score a late winning goal.
Athletic knew their record of eight wins from the previous 10 league games was going to be tested at third placed Harefield, who were on a decent run form themselves with just one defeat from their last eight games.
But Tring have generally done well Preston Park, with just three defeats in 15 visits, and in the first half the visitors showed they are no respecters of form or position by putting on a fine attacking display that should have yielded more than a one goal advantage by half time.
Chris Vardy’s pace was causing the Hares defence problems from the start, and in the ninth minute he latched onto a through-ball but was cynically chopped down from behind by Bennell.
The home captain had clearly denied Vardy a goal scoring opportunity, but bizarrely the referee produced just a yellow card.
But worse was to follow when Vinnie Iannone eventually stepped up to take the penalty after the fuss had died down. Keeper Matthew Elston-Bull resorted to some gamesmanship by moving the ball off the spot, and his antics had the desired affect as he saved Iannone’s penalty.
Undeterred, Tring kept playing the football and, two minutes later, Iannone had an opportunity to make amends for his penalty miss when Luke Dunstan and Chris Vardy combined to set him up in the area.
The striker superbly controlled the ball but volleyed over from a decent position where he should have at least hit the target.
Tring were very much in the ascendancy and we were causing their hosts all sorts of problems with some fine attacking play. Iannone went close for a third time in the 13th minute when he got in front of the keeper at a corner, but his flicked header just cleared the bar.
Not much had been seen of the home attack, although their leading scorer Harry Newman was always a threat when on the ball.
He had an early shooting opportunity from a distance but his effort went well over. Harefield won a few free-kicks in promising positions and had a few shots at goal but they failed to test Jack Hopwood.
Midway through the first half, Rob Tomlin and Chris Vardy combined nicely to give Ryan Sturges a shot at goal, but his effort was deflected over.
Despite their flowing football, Athletic had failed to find the net – but they put that right in the 37th minute in spectacular fashion.
Tomlin and Iannone linked up well and worked the ball out to the left wing to veteran wing-back Stuart Stedman whose cross picked out Dunstan just outside the area. Dunstan flicked the ball up and then volleyed it into the top corner of the net for a brilliant goal – his second in his last two games.
The Hares tried to get back onto level terms before the interval and Liam Hind forced Jack Hopwood into his first real save with a rasping shot that required the Tring keeper to tip it over the bar.
Right at the end of the half, the home side won their first corner but Tring held on comfortably to their lead, which should have been more emphatic.
The second half started scrappily, and the Hares made two changes just before the hour. Pushing forward in numbers, they started to enjoy more possession and attacked more frequently than in the first half.
Tring were not playing as fluidly as in the first period but they were defending well and giving keeper Hopwood plenty of protection.
However, in the 68th minute Athletic lost inspirational captain Chris Salmon – he was replaced by Ollie Butler – and, with Adam Toone also missing through injury, they were now without their two main central defenders.
It was probably no coincidence that just three minutes later the conceded an equaliser from a routine free-kick as they allowed sub Tom Hunt to thump the ball home for 1-1.
The game now swung in the Hares’ favour and Hopwood had to stick out a foot to deflect away a well-struck free-kick from the dangerous Newman.
With just four minutes to go, Athletic conceded a rather soft free-kick and Bennell made the most of his earlier reprieve to gleefully fire in what proved to be the winner.
Kieran Turner and Taylor Collins had come off the bench for Iannone and Vardy, and while they both struck goal bound shots, the keeper was able to gather without too much difficulty.
The Hares took every opportunity to run down the clock and, from Tring’s point of view, the hosts held on to fortunately collect all three points.