A late Mark Summers goal denied Biggleswade United all three points in an ill-tempered South Midlands Premier meeting with Hertford Town.
After going behind early on against their fellow promotion contenders, Cristian Colas’ team staged a comeback that looked like being enough to earn a valuable win.
However, United were made to pay for a missed penalty and an inability to make the most of playing with a numerical advantage for more than half of the match when Summers’ 85th minute strike went in off the post.
As a result, Biggleswade remain five points behind the Blues, who finished the match at Second Meadow with only nine men.
Both teams headed into Saturday’s contest in deceptively low league positions, their respective extended cup runs meaning they each have a number of games in hand over their rivals.
However, where United had made club history by reaching the second round of the FA Vase for the very first time last Saturday, Hertford had lost to Wadham Lodge at the same stage.
After an even start to proceedings, it was the visitors who struck first after nine minutes. Good work on the right flank ended with Ollie Sharman pulling the ball back for Summers, who couldn’t miss from six yards out.
United struggled to mount a response following the early setback but, out of the blue, they were almost level ten minutes later. Lusunga Ndovi pulled the trigger after being superbly played-in by fellow forward David Iwediuno, but Hertford goalkeeper Jayden Purdue did well to keep it out.
The challenges were starting to fly in in what was, at that point, a keenly contested encounter. However, the first sign that tensions would eventually boil over came in the 24th minute when Dan Ferrigno cynically took out Josh Sturniolo right in front of the home dugout.
It sparked the first of several heated exchanges between the two sets of players, with referee Lee Jessup having to work overtime in an attempt to restore order. Once he did, he showed the Hertford number eight a yellow card.
United were starting to look more dangerous and were level nine minutes before half time. Kane Farrell’s free kick from the right hand side was not properly dealt with by the Hertford defence, allowing Lee Bilcock the opportunity to nod home from close range.
It was the start of a frantic period of play that turned the game on its head shortly before the break.
Moments after the equaliser, Ndovi was bowled over right on the edge of the penalty area when clean through on goal. Whether or not the foul occurred inside or outside the box was debateable, but after consultation with his linesman Mr Jessup opted to award a free kick rather than a penalty. With it, he also showed a second yellow card to Hertford’s Jay Lovell.
In the last minute before the interval, United did get their first spot-kick of the day. More good work by Iwediuno ended with him pulling the ball back for Sturniolo, who was tripped by a Blues defender. Farrell stepped up, and though his low effort was well saved by Purdue, the Biggleswade wing-back converted the rebound to give Colas’ side the lead.
There was still time for Iwediuno to go through one on one against the Hertford shot-stopper, but Purdue once more came to his team’s rescue and the half ended 2-1 to the home side.
The opening stages of the second period passed without much incident, but United were awarded another chance to extend their lead on 56 minutes. After Ndovi did well to find Iwediuno, the striker’s goalbound effort was ruled to have been blocked by the hand of Sharman, prompting Mr Jessup to point to the spot for a second time.
This time it was Sturniolo who assumed responsibility for the kick, but as with Farrell’s attempt Purdue again guessed correctly and pushed the ball away to his left.
Farrell dragged a shot just wide and Iwediuno headed over as the home side went in search of the goal that would have put the match beyond Hertford’s reach, but in truth they did not do enough to stretch the ten men.
A physical but determined Blues team began to commit more players forward in their attempts to force an equaliser. Home goalkeeper Tom Wyant did brilliantly to turn substitute Ben Andreos’ shot onto the crossbar from point blank range, while Glenn Draper headed straight at the shot-stopper from the resulting corner when he should have done better.
The leveller did come, though, five minutes from time. Summers escaped the attention of the United defenders around him before firing a low shot past Wyant that went in off the woodwork, sparking jubilation among the travelling fans.
More controversy followed in the dying stages as both teams chased a winner. Another feisty challenge resulted in another brawl between the teams, which ended with Ferrigno being given his marching orders. It left the Blues needing to see out the final seconds with just nine players.
United could have won it right at the death when Antonio Mitri poked wide after a goalmouth scramble, but Hertford hung on to claim a draw and a share of the points.
United head to Cockfosters in the SSML Premier on Saturday.