WILL Hatfield was inches from fulfilling a life-long ambition on Tuesday night.
The ex-Leeds trainee, who joined the club at eight before being released at 19, had shrugged off a hip injury to take his place on the bench for Stanley’s Capital One Cup clash against his former club.
Hatfield never made a first-team appearance for Leeds but remains a regular visitor – he still has a season ticket. And with 15 minutes left he was finally handed the chance to run out at Elland Road.
With Leeds in front after a clinical first-half brace by Souleymane Doukara, it looked as though Stanley were set for a repeat of the 2-0 defeat they suffered on their only previous visit, in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in 2009.
Hatfield had other ideas though. In the 84th minute he cut the ball back for James Gray to halve the deficit and set up a grandstand finish.
Then three minutes later came the moment Hatfield has dreamt about all those years he’s been sat in the Elland Road stands.
Gray’s knock-down found Hatfield unmarked in the six-yard box but with Leeds keeper Stuart Taylor bearing down on him, Hatfield poked it just wide of the far post.
The 22-year-old midfielder hasn’t scored for Stanley since April 2013 yet was inches from sending the tie into extra-time. And against a Leeds side which had visibly tired and had been reduced to 10 men in the 89th minute, it would have taken a brave man to bet against Accy going on to complete an upset.
“Will’s a Leeds boy and he was here for years,” said manager James Beattie. “By his own admission, he was maybe offside, but that’s not going to stop that moment haunting him, I would have thought. But he got that opportunity and it was nice to see him on the pitch again."
Beattie went with a more attacking line-up after Saturday’s defeat by Southend, bringing in James Alabi to partner Gray up front while new signing Jordan Mustoe came in for his debut at left-back in a 4-4-2.
Leeds made six changes to the side which lost 2-0 at Millwall and, as expected, they dominated possession early on. However, Stanley weren’t afraid to try their luck when they did venture into the Leeds half.
Piero Mingoia hit a 25-yard volley too close to Taylor while Kal Naismith blazed over after cutting in from the right.
Leeds’ first sight of goal came when Doukara caught the Stanley defence in possession and Nicky Ajose fired wide from a tight angle.
So having looked solid during the opening stages, it was a big disappointment for Beattie to see his side concede such a soft opener in the 19th minute.Gaetano Berardi played a low ball in from the right for Doukara, who had run across the edge of the box, but no-one tracked his run so the striker had time to take a touch before firing into the bottom corner on the turn.
Stanley didn’t let their heads go down, however, and although Josh Windass air-kicked when trying to volley goalwards from inside the box, the Reds kept the pressure on. They worked the ball back to Windass, who squirmed round two defenders before dragging a right-footed shot wide from 16 yards.
Naismith, the subject of a bid from Bury the night before, was perhaps trying a bit too hard and was a bit too ambitious in the 38th minute, though, as he took on his man in the centre circle. Leeds nicked it off him and made him pay.
Lewis Cook immediately played the ball forward for Doukara, who poked it through Dean Winnard’s legs to go through on goal before again giving Luke Simpson no chance, firing high past the Stanley keeper.
Naismith was replaced at half-time by defender Rob Atkinson, which at first looked like damage limitation by Stanley. Not so.
While they now had three centre-halves, full-backs Mustoe and Adam Buxton had licence to push forward whenever possible and as the second half wore on, the Reds began to have more joy in the Leeds half.
Striker Matt Smith sent two efforts off target for the hosts although Stanley had two good openings in quick succession. Buxton intercepted a Leeds pass in their own half before whipping in a right-wing cross but Gray mistimed his header and barely connected. Mingoia then won a free-kick on the right and Windass’ outswinger was headed narrowly over by Atkinson.
Nicky Hunt almost bundled the ball in from a free-kick while Alabi showed strength and skill to turn his man and beat another, only to hit a tame shot straight at Taylor.
Doukara lashed a shot well wide in the 79th minute but then it was all Stanley. Mustoe saw two low crosses cleared while Gray was denied by a last-ditch tackle.
Tom Aldred then found himself trapped in the corner on the left but engineered a pass inside to sub Hatfield, who got to the byline before pulling back for Gray. Although his shot hit a defender on the line, it still went in off the post.
Hatfield went agonisingly close to an equaliser after Gray knocked down Winnard’s deep cross before Berardi was shown a straight red card for a reckless chest-high challenge on Windass.
Moments later Atkinson headed Windass’ corner back across goal and it would have been a certain goal if Hatfield was six inches taller.
With five minutes of stoppage time indicated, Stanley still had hope, but the nearest they went to a late leveller was when Gray headed Mustoe’s cross straight at Taylor.
Stanley: Simpson 7, Buxton 7, Winnard 7, Aldred 8, Mustoe 7, Naismith 6 (Atkinson 46, 8), Hunt 7 (Hatfield 75, 7), Windass 8, Mingoia 8, Gray 7, Alabi 6. Subs: Bowerman, Liddle, Martin, McCartan, Lynch. Attendance: 13,407.