Bognor’s promotion dream is over in the cruellest fashion after Dulwich Hamlet beat them with an injury-time winner at the end of a tense play-off semi-final at Nyewood Lane.
Ashley Carew’s free-kick beat the wall and keeper Grant Smith to dash Bognor’s dream of ending a remarkable season with promotion.
They missed a penalty 15 minutes from time and if Jason Prior’s spot-kick had gone in instead of being saved by Preston Edwards, Bognor may well have been able to hang on and win, and now be looking forward to Monday’s final against East Thurrock.
But Dulwich had the last say and most admitted they deserved it on the night with a strong display - while Bognor never looked anywhere near their fluent best, their best that has seen them sweep all before them in many games this season.
Perhaps it was a game too far after they were forced to play 13 league games in the final four-and-a-half weeks of the season - or maybe it just wasn’t to be.
Whichever, this was hard to take for the players, management and fans who have experienced a memorable season with more highs than lows.
There was a huge crowd in well before kick for the third play-off meeting between Bognor and Dulwich in six seasons.
They met in the Ryman one south semi-finals in 2011 - when Dulwich won 3-1 - and again in the play-off final for the same division a year later, when the Rocks got their revenge with a 1-0 promotion-clinching victory.
Although the Rocks finished well ahead of Dulwich in the league over 46 games, most felt this was likely to be a close game between two sides who have played each other regularly in the past few seasons.
The game had a fairly tense start but Dulwich had most of the early possession, although neither keeper was called into serious action in the first ten minutes.
Dulwich keeper Edwards’ first bit of work had him rishing out of his area to clear as Alfie Rutherford chased a Prior flick - then at the other end Smith was down sharply to save a Carew drive from 25 yards.
James Crane caused panic in the Hamlet six-yard box with a clever cross with the outside of his right foot from wide on the left and Edwards and a defender got in each other’s way but Connor Tighe couldn’t quite latch on to the loose ball.
Then Stuart Green was close with a shot from just outside the D that beat the keeper but went just the wrong side of the post.
Bognor were demanding a free-kick a couple of yards outside the box when Rutherford went to ground in a run down the right-hand channel but the referee waved away the appeals.
Smith was forced into a good diving save, conceding a corner, on 27 minutes when Clunis ran into the area and sidefooted a shot towards the bottom corner.
For the most part the Rocks were unable to produce their usual brand of passing football - though they were at least containing Dulwich’s attacks.
Tighe found room for a cross from the right and there were a few calls from the crowd for handball as it came in and was cleared, but it was never likely to be given.
Dulwich centre-half Matt Drage almost gave his side an interval lead with a header from a right-sided corner but Smith got down to hold it on the line. It would have been a disastrous time to concede for the Rocks at the end of a tough first half.
The first ten minutes of the second half was virtually all Dulwich and a succession of corners put the Bognor defence under intense pressure.
Chad Field almost caught out Edwards with a high ball forward that might have gone in and which the keeper didn’t claim at the first attempt.
Dipo Akinyemi had probably the best chance of the game on 58 minutes when a ball from the by-line was pulled back to him eight yards from goal but he scuffed it and it was an easy save for Smith.
Roman Michael-Persil went close but his shot from a tight angle went into the side netting.
Bognor needed a change and it came in the form of Ollie Pearce, who replaced Doug Tuck on the hour, and Craig Robson, who replaced Green.
The game became a little heated and Mitchell Nelson was the first name in the referee’s book for a challenge on Pearce just inside his own half.
A couple of Pearce free-kicks were cleared as the Rocks struggled to break down the visiting defence.
Tighe’s clever pass down the right had Rutherford battling for the ball by the byline but he was pulled up for a foul just as he looked like he’d got the better of his man.
Bognor were incensed on 72 minutes when Field was booked for a foul on Akinyemi in a dangerous position - after the striker looked like he’d fouled Field earlier in the same move.
There was drama with 15 minutes to go when Rutherford was sent tumbling in the box and the referee pointed to the spot. Prior’s spot-kick wasn’t bad but Edwards guessed right and made a good save.
Dulwich brought on Rhys Murrell-Williams for Michael-Persil and Damian Scannell for Jordan Hibbert with nine minutes left.
Field’s lung-bursting run forward set up a chance for Prior on 87 minutes but his shot from 20 yards lacked power.
Akinyemi really should have won it for Dulwich on 90 minutes but failed to get a proper connection on a square ball across the box.
There was a twist in the tail and it was such a cruel one for Bognor in injury time when Dulwich scored a late, late winner.
Sub Robson brought down his man - and earned a booking for it - around 25 yards from goal and Carew stepped up to curl it round the wall and into the bottom corner with Smith rooted to the spot.
Dulwich celebrated wildly as the home fans, gutted at such an outcome, started to head for the exits.
Bognor had less than two minutes to save their dream and it proved beyond them. Gary Charman came on and had time to launch one of his long throws into the box but it came to nothing and soon after that, the whistle went.
At the end of a 65-game season, the Rocks were left with nothing to show for their considerable efforts.
Football, like life, just isn’t fair sometimes.
Rocks: Smith, Nilsen, Crane, Tuck, El-Abd, Field, Green, Beck, Prior, Rutherford, Tighe. Subs: Pearce, Charman, Parsons, Wollers, Robson.
Dulwich: Edwards, Nelson, Brown, Beaney, Drage, Pinnock, Clunis, Carew, Akinyemi, Michael-Persil, Hibbert. Subs: Pearce, Charman, Parsons, Wollers, Robson.
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