Sexy football

The game: Enfield Town v. Dulwich Hamlet.
The ground: the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
The conditions: nocturnal, moody and sensational. A bit like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Enticing. Exhilarating. Mouthwatering. Sorry, but this artisan pork pie I’m eating really is top notch. Fortuitously, these same adjectives are apt to describe Tuesday night’s match up between Enfield Town and Dulwich Hamlet. Having seen both teams before, knowing that both sides like to play open, attacking football, I was filled with a childlike giddiness as I trooped across the shady Enfield playing fields and toward the home ground. Hamlet were seven places above Enfield in the league, but Town went into the fixture with their recent trouncing of league leaders Maidstone fresh in the memory; altogether, the game promised to be a full-on footballing feast.

With the mass of Enfield Ultras and Hamlet’s sizeable ‘Rabble’ filling out opposite ends of the pitch, the off-field entertainment was just as promising. Heralded by the vying tunes of ‘Edgar Kail in my heart’ and ‘All you need is Town’, the match kicked off; straightaway, both sides looked to establish passing patterns. After some early precision from the home side, striker Liam Hope fired high over the crossbar from a good position; then, after Tyler Campbell and Corey Whitely combined with their accustomed flair, the latter saw his low strike saved by Hamlet keeper Phil Wilson. Enfield had made a strong start. Soon, however, the away side started to stifle them.

Hamlet’s wide men, Nyren Clunis and Luke Wanadio, began to run the wings almost unopposed; their pace and acceleration caused massive problems for Town’s defence. Seemingly inspired by the away fans’ frank musings on Tooting, Mitcham and Leatherhead, they tightened their grip on the pitch with a succession of corners and menacing free kicks. In the sixteenth minute, one corner was played short to Hamlet midfielder Ashley Carew, who set up teammate Xavier Vidal on the edge of the box; his shot was deflected toward three free players in Pink & Blue, but the offside flag was raised. Though Town threatened to score from a corner at the other end – defender Taylor Hastings heading wide – the momentum was with Dulwich. This showed when, in the twenty-first minute, a long ball from the back put Nyren Clunis speeding through on goal. Home keeper Nathan McDonald charged off his line, made himself big and saved the initial shot bravely; unluckily for him, the deflection flew into the path of away striker Serge Makofo, who slipped the ball into the net.

After the opener, Hamlet seemed inspired. In the twenty-second minute, a mistake from Town’s Claudiu Vilcu gave the away side a free kick twenty yards out; this went close, but was pinged just over by Vidal. Powerful running from Nyren Clunis caused chaos on the left; this earned him some bold comparisons to Lionel Messi from the Rabble. Two cut backs and a nifty shot from Luke Wanadio received a chorus of Supergrass-based chanting as well as a cacophonous cry of ‘Sexy football!’; the save from McDonald was equally deserving of praise. Then, after a great cross from Wanadio, Vidal should have scored; his scuffed shot from five yards was blocked, before the rebound was walloped out onto the running track. It felt as if the away side might strike again.

In the thirty-fourth minute, they very nearly did. First Vidal and Wanadio found themselves two on one, but the former overhit the final ball. Then, within seconds, Michael Abnett, Carew and Makofo all went close; Abnett’s drive was denied by an astounding save, Carew’s shot cleared off the line and Makofo’s curler put a touch wide of the post. Town needed to recover, and quickly.

To their credit, they did manage to re-establish themselves and see out the rest of the half. Bar a bobbling shot from Carew in the thirty-eighth minute – again, saved well by Nathan McDonald – Hamlet’s chances were limited; meanwhile, Campbell and Whitely tried hard to get Town back into the game, the former winning a couple of positive free kicks, both fired high by Nathan Livings. The half came to a close with the away team one-nil up and, though it could have been more, Enfield’s revival towards the end meant there was still all to play for; as I sloped off to the Butler’s Bar, my childlike giddiness was in no way diminished.

The next forty-five minutes saw Enfield improve markedly. Though the first action of the half saw Makofo curl just wide of the home net once more, Town soon began to express themselves alike. In the fiftieth minute, Whitely won a long ball from Vilcu out on the left, cruised past his marker and fired low at the advancing Wilson; the ball almost squirmed between the away keeper’s legs, but he managed to stop it. An away counter saw McDonald keep out Abnett, while a home attack saw a stinging Whitely free kick cleared; the open, attacking football was irrepressible. In the fifty-sixth minute, a blistering run from Wanadio led to McDonald stopping yet another strike, before the Enfield keeper saved – and held – the header from the subsequent corner. I was convinced a goal was coming at this point, but the scorer was anyone’s guess.

The end to end football continued with barely a pause. Whitely and Campbell were everywhere for Enfield, Clunis and Wanadio likewise for Dulwich; Whitely and Wanadio were both denied yet again. Some settled passing saw fewer chances over the next ten minutes, but both sides showed plenty of quality. Hamlet manager Gavin Rose then brought on Harry Ottaway, and the forward’s first contribution was to win a central free kick on the edge of the Enfield box; this brought perhaps the best save of the match from McDonald, who palmed Ashley Carew’s wicked, dipping attempt away to safety.

Over the last twenty minutes, Enfield really started to push for a goal. Whitely was inches away from being put through in the seventy-seventh minute, only to be cut out by defender Frazer Shaw. Campbell and Whitely started to exert sustained pressure on Hamlet’s back four, while the former blazed over after a clever short-corner routine. The away side never stopped posing a threat, of course; only another act of goalkeeping heroism kept out Clunis in the eightieth minute. Still, the home fans sang Corey Whitely’s name in the hope of an equaliser; it was not so far-fetched a hope.

Frustratingly for the Towners, it was not to be. Great running from Enfield enforcer Stanley Muguo created another chance for Campbell, but he could not get his effort on target. At the other end, Hamlet substitute Albert Jarrett shot wide. In the eighty-ninth minute, an Enfield corner was cleared, before Vilcu nearly worked an opportunity for Whitely; the crucial through ball was overdone, and comfortably collected by Wilson. That was the last chance of the match, and a merited result for the visitors was decided – somehow – by a single goal. The Rabble were jubilant in victory, the Town fans gracious in defeat; result or no result, it had been sensational.

Result: Enfield Town 0 Dulwich Hamlet 1.
My MoM: Clunis and Wanadio were devastating at times, while Whitely and Campbell fought back tenaciously. However, Nathan McDonald was outstanding throughout; the Enfield stopper gets top plaudit.
Best fans: nothing to decide between the two in terms of noise, passion and all-round support. Nonetheless, the Rabble ought to be commended for coming in numbers and matching the Town fans at home; from what I’ve seen, that’s no mean feat.

Sexy football

You win some, you Lewes some

The game: Wingate & Finchley v. Lewes.
The ground: The Harry Abrahams Stadium.
The conditions: brighter than my citrus wallpaper.

As the afternoon sunlight poured through the windowed sides of The Harry Abrahams Stadium’s grandstand, I settled down to watch the ‘Blues’ of Wingate & Finchley face off against the ‘Rooks’ of Lewes. The away side may have won the last six meetings between the two, yet the home crowd had reason to be confident at kick off; with Finchley seventh in the table and Lewes eighteenth, the Blues seemed well positioned to turn their fortunes in this fixture around.

The game started slowly. In the second minute, Lewes were given the first opportunity of the match with a promising free kick from twenty yards; this was fired high over the crossbar and onto the rugby pitches behind the home net. Both teams spent the next fifteen minutes trying to find their feet; Karl Oliyide made some loping runs for the Blues as teammates David Knight and Richard Graham combined well on the right wing, but there was little end product; Lewes looked less threatening, but had the majority of the possession. After nineteen minutes, there had been no saves for either keeper to make. In the twentieth minute, there was a goal.

A clipped midfield pass put Knight through on goal; the Blues’ forward then ran thirty yards to the opposition box and, though the Lewes defence managed to force him out right, he slipped a precise shot in at the near post. Rooks’ keeper Rikki Banks got something on it, and probably should have kept it out; nevertheless, Knight did well to get the shot on target, and got his reward.

With the home team ahead, the pace of the game improved considerably. In the twenty-first minute, Oliyide was sent lolloping away into the box after some good home passing; his thumping drive at goal was just blocked by Lewes’ defender Chris Breach. Snappish tackles started going in all over the pitch, while Finchley’s final ball rapidly improved; in the twenty-seventh, a tantalising Knight cross nearly found the Blues’ number nine, Rob Laney, unmarked, only to be cleared by the faintest of touches from the covering defender. Lewes were not playing badly on the ball, yet they created very little; the away team lacked a cutting edge, their forward line especially. Finchley were far more incisive, Knight, Oliyide and attacker Tommy Tejan-Sie all combining nicely. After a few wayward shots from Knight, they were rewarded once more.

In the thirty-fifth minute, after Oliyide had won the ball back from Lewes in the Blues’ half, some good pass-and-move football led to a quick home counter attack on the left. The Rooks’ defence was caught cold and, after a keen pass from left to right found the oncoming Oliyide in space ten yards out, the Blues’ eleven calmly fired the ball back across Banks and into the top left. This was by far the best move of the game, and deserved the impressive finish. Since Oliyide was to come off only four minutes later having suffered a knock, it also signalled his last contribution of the match; not a bad way to bow out.

Tejan-Sie had a low shot saved by Banks not long after, while the Blues continued to make progress on the right flank; Lewes seemed to be floundering in the minutes before half time. The home side couldn’t take further advantage, however; two-nil at the half, and it was time for a non-alcoholic beverage in ‘The Wingate’.

The start of the second half was much the same as the start of the first; bar a few testing crosses, neither team made much happen. In the fifty-fifth minute, Rob Laney hit a skimming shot at Banks, but the away keeper collected this up safely. In the fifty-seventh, Knight fired a shot just over Banks’ crossbar; again, the pace was picking up. The home side were not satisfied with a two-goal lead, continuing with their direct attacking play. Likewise, Lewes were still muted in attack; substitute Arron Hopkinson did provide some fleeting threat with several good runs down the left flank, but no real chances were carved out.

In the sixty-second minute, Finchley should have been three-nil up. Some tricky running by Knight tormented the Lewes defenders; having sped twenty five yards to the opposition by-line, his dangerous cross was then cleared for a corner. This was played short to Tejan-Sie, who turned in the box and hammered the ball into the net. Celebrations ensued amongst Blues fans and players alike, yet the linesman had raised his flag; after some deliberation between officials, the goal was disallowed for offside. To put it bluntly, this was a ridiculous decision. Tejan-Sie’s onside position was clear to everyone in the ground bar the referee and linesman, and especially clear to the irate Finchley Ultras – one of whom could only express his rage by a distinct cry of ‘LOUD NOISES!’

Happily for the home support, this mistake did not affect the result. The game turned a bit tense after this, snappish tackles becoming snappish fouls; Rooks’ defender Ollie Rowe scythed down Tejan-Sie with particular aplomb at in the sixty-ninth, but no card was produced. The last twenty minutes saw Lewes ramp up possession, but their lack of creativity continued. Meanwhile, the Blues remained incisive; several one on ones were carved out, but the third goal eluded them.

In the eighty-sixth minute, there was almost a spectacular home finish to the game; Knight raced down the left flank before his accurate cross fell to Laney, who attempted an ambitious overhead kick. This was strong and on target; it may well have gone in were it not for a brave block from Lewes’ defender Sam Cole – using his face. After this painful-looking incident, Knight and substitute Gavin Suddell almost managed to pass the ball into the Rooks’ net, but Banks kept them out. Four minutes of added time then passed by quietly; the comfortable home win was complete, while the Blues’ bogey team were well beaten.

Result: Wingate & Finchley 2 Lewes 0.
My MoM: Karl Oliyide. Only on for forty-odd minutes but ran directly, scored and created opportunities; the home side’s attack wasn’t quite the same without him.
Best fans: the Finchley Ultras. ‘LOUD NOISES!’

You win some, you Lewes some

The boys are back in Town

The game: Enfield Town v. Canvey Island.
The ground: the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
The conditions: colder than the shady side of my ice cream maker.

It was a chill Tuesday night in North London, and I found myself back in Enfield – back at that art-deco beauty, the QEII. Though there was still no house piano player (a wildly unnecessary expense for a fan-owned club, on reflection), the pre-game atmosphere was very much positive for the visit of the ‘Gulls’ from Canvey Island; with a history of high scores and late winners in this fixture, with Town still in the running for a play-off spot and Canvey struggling badly, there was a strong sense of home anticipation in the ground.

The game began, and it was all Enfield. In the third minute, the effervescent Corey Whitely ghosted a perfect through ball to Tyler Campbell, but the latter had just strayed offside. In the fifth, after a thumping foul by Canvey defender Josh Banton on Campbell, a free kick from the left was very nearly turned in at the far post by Town’s Joe Stevens; he couldn’t quite latch on to the ball, however. Though both Jay Curran and Enoch Showunmi were showing glimpses of attacking promise for the away side – the former even skimming a free header past the post in the eighth minute, after a quick counter – Canvey were laboured in the midfield; Enfield seemed like the only side with a final ball. It was no surprise that the home team scored first, in the twelfth; after a good passing move had been ended by another foul out on the left, a precise free kick was taken down nicely by recent arrival Claudiu Vilcu, who then stroked a low shot into the back of the net.

Just as I was preparing to watch a comfortable Enfield victory, the Gulls turned the game on its head. Four minutes after the first goal, some nonchalant one twos between the Enfield defenders led to striker Showunmi stealing a loose pass; from just under twenty yards, he then fired an arrow of a shot past home keeper Nathan McDonald. The equaliser was definitely against the run of play, but the finish was sublime. The home side’s momentum was checked.

The next twenty five minutes were more level; even though Town continued to shade the play, Canvey put themselves about, Showunmi especially; regularly dropping back to help the midfield out with his physicality, he caused Enfield all sorts of problems. Still, Town had almost all the chances. In the twenty-second minute, the home team nearly scored from a corner, captain Mark Kirby making a decent connection on the volley; this was pushed away by Gulls’ keeper Tim Brown, and eventually cleared. A minute later, a quickly-taken free kick gave Corey Whitely a chance to fire at goal from the right, but this was also saved. In the twenty-ninth, Whitely got a low shot away from a central position; Brown diverted this into the path of the onrushing Campbell, but the Town winger was just offside once more. The game then took on a to-and-fro character, both sides attacking without creating clear openings.

Showunmi continued to impress for Canvey, Whitely, Campbell and tough tackler Stanley Muguo for Enfield; the half seemed pretty much settled. Then, in the forty-fifth minute, the Gulls changed the game once more; an attack on the left saw a weighted cross fall right at the feet of Jay Curran, who tapped in to put the visitors ahead. As the referee played on for an inexplicable six minutes of additional time, the home side were heavily rocked by this; they had already let Canvey bear down on goal several times when, in the last additional minute, the ball broke for Curran to go one on one with McDonald; he could only put his shot wide of the Enfield post. It was a let off for Town, who could have gone from supremacy to a two-goal deficit in just over half an hour; as they trudged off the pitch and I reached for my pre-packed dinner of vegetable crisps, I wondered if they would be able to find a response.

If there were any worries amongst the Town fans, they didn’t show; reminding the players of their status as ‘champions of Europe’ (winners of The Supporters Direct Cup) once they re-emerged, the singing section struck up a proper performance. Accordingly, so did the team; from the first minute of the second half they passed tidily, attacked keenly, fought hard and dictated the tempo. In the forty-eighth minute, Campbell burst forward and unleashed a curling shot toward the top left corner of goal; Brown made an excellent fingertip save to keep him out. The resulting short corner went to Whitely, who then jinked past two Canvey defenders before thundering another shot at goal; this was only just blocked. In the fiftieth, a Whitely skimmer crept centimetres wide of the post after the slightest of saves from the away keeper. The next corner was nearly tapped in by Muguo, but was desperately cleared; this led to a foul on the edge of the box and a promising Enfield free kick – the leveller was clearly coming.

It wasn’t coming just yet; the free kick hit the wall before the ball was ultimately hoofed away. Canvey’s attackers seemed entirely cut off at this point, and the siege of the away box was only interrupted by the fifty-sixth minute introduction of Enfield’s brand-new forward Bobby Devyne for Jon Constant. It did not take him long to contribute; three minutes later he rounded Brown, yet couldn’t quite control the ball for a tap in. Devyne, Whitely and Campbell combined instinctively; in the sixty-fourth minute, Whitely was sent slaloming away on the left by Campbell before going close again, while in the sixty-seventh Devyne was sent away on the right, only to be fouled. With the new man an attacking catalyst, the inevitable happened after another five minutes of pressure; Campbell rushed into the box from the left, his initial shot was pushed out by the beleaguered Brown, but Devyne slotted the rebound from the edge of the area. The home fans went spare. Hot drinks went everywhere.

Somehow, a winner felt certain. It nearly came in the eighty-third minute, when a Devyne shot also trickled past the post after a slight save. Canvey tried to slow the play to a standstill, but they couldn’t avert what everyone behind the goal was expecting. In the last minute of normal time, great running by Whitely and Devyne led to midfielder Nathan Livings having a chance from fifteen yards; his scooped shot fell crashing into the away net. The subsequent scenes were absolutely mental. Town now had to hold on.

Hold on they did; a few minutes of extra time passed with minimal pressure from the dejected Gulls, and the whistle went. Bouncing up and down, bellowing out a chorus of ‘Bradley Quinton’s Blue and White Army’, the Enfield fans saw all their pre-match anticipation realised; what a comeback from Town, and what a game.

Result: Enfield Town 3 Canvey Island 2.
My MoM: a special mention for besieged Canvey keeper Tim Brown, but Enfield’s new man Bobby Devyne gets the luxury accolade; though teammates Corey Whitely and Tyler Campbell were excellent too, this was an outstanding, scoring debut.
Best fans: the Blue and White Army. Champions of Europe.

The boys are back in Town

Let’s all go to Betty’s

The game: Harrogate Town v. Boston United.
The ground: The CNG Stadium.
The conditions: sunny, after snow; ground liberally dusted like a Betty’s Victoria Sponge.

Having decided, after a period of reflection, that my non-league football experiences were a bit too London-centric, I yesterday boarded a train to the farthest, harshest north – to Harrogate. Arriving in the civic town centre and almost instantly stumbling into Betty’s Tea Rooms, I soon realised that this experience was perhaps not to be as harsh as I had imagined. Wiping away the crumbs of a delicious ‘fat rascal’ and draining the dregs of my Earl Grey, I set out on my pilgrimage to the Wetherby Road and The CNG Stadium, home of Harrogate Town; my pilgrimage coincided with that of some actual ‘Pilgrims’ – the players, staff and fans of Lincolnshire’s finest, Boston United.

Queuing for a ticket outside the stadium, there were a few pessimistic grumbles amongst the home fans; with Boston sixth in the table and Harrogate hovering just about the relegation zone – and in poor form – there was definitely cause for concern. Once the game had begun, this concern quickly vanished. On a pitch dusted by snow, Harrogate started well. Though nobody seemed sure of their feet, Town’s players were still much the sharper; wide man Ryan Fallowfield made most of the early running, while midfielder (and new signing) Cecil Nyoni seemed to be everywhere at once in an athletic, combative start. Their sharpness paid off when, in the eleventh minute, after a good passing move, Fallowfield was given the freedom of the right wing; speeding past the covering defender and into the box, he neatly set up Harrogate’s Andy Gascoigne to curl a first-time strike past the away keeper, Joel Dixon. One-nil Harrogate.

The Pilgrims tried to establish some possession after this, yet were constantly hustled off the ball by Harrogate’s midfielders – Nyoni especially. The home team were pressing from the front, too. In the nineteenth minute, Harrogate striker Paul Clayton won the ball out on the left before swiftly going on the attack; he raced past the panicked-looking Boston defence, round Dixon and possibly just over the by-line, before cutting a pass back for the incoming Fallowfield to smash into the net from three yards. Neither the referee nor the linesman saw anything wrong with the goal, and so it stood; two-nil Harrogate, with the home side pretty much rampant.

After seeming almost shocked to see their side playing so positively, the Town fans now got into their stride; chanting, jumping and banging on a massive great drum, they seemed quite pleased by events on the pitch. Harrogate continued to boss the game, though Boston had their first real chance in the twenty-third minute, full back Liam Marrs making a run on the right before firing low at advancing Town keeper Peter Crook; the ball squirmed under Crook’s outstretched arm, yet he did enough to keep it out. The game gradually slowed down on the increasingly choppy pitch, both teams exchanging half chances over the next twenty minutes; self-assured Harrogate forward Jordan Thewlis shone in this period with his persistent running, even if he couldn’t find a third goal to finish off the contest.

Then, right at the end of the half, Boston had a sudden burst of energy. First, Pilgrims’ striker Mark Jones stung Crook’s palms with a vicious drive; the home keeper managed to push this away to his right. From the resulting corner, the ball was almost scrambled into the back of the net, but not quite. The away fans behind the goal were adamant it had crossed the line, but the referee disagreed; no goals for Boston at the stroke of half time, but a sign that they did have some fight left in them.

The early part of the second half saw the away side play some better stuff. Controlling the midfield adequately, successfully establishing time on the ball, they seemed somewhat renewed by the break in play; by the fiftieth minute, Crook had already been forced into a couple of neat saves. Harrogate seemed content to play on the counter, and this almost paid off in the fifty-sixth when, after some quick passing, Town defender Luke Shiels crossed for Paul Clayton to head hard at the Pilgrims’ keeper; Dixon held onto the ball and saved well, however. The pitch was deteriorating badly in the slush and the game slackened accordingly, Boston’s increasing influence bringing little by way of opportunities. Thankfully, there was absolutely no slackening from the stands; with a rousing chorus of ‘Let’s all go to Betty’s’ reminding me to revisit that warm, cake-filled emporium before my departure, the home fans were distraction enough.

In the sixty-third minute, Harrogate should have put things to bed. Breaking fast, the home side manoeuvred the ball to scorer Fallowfield, almost on the penalty spot; from there, he blazed high over crossbar. This was the only real chance of the next twenty five minutes. As Boston maintained some measure of composure, as Harrogate countered on occasion – usually via speedy substitute Dominic Rowe – the game seemed to be moving toward a relatively comfortable home win. Nyoni continued to impress, inspiring the home defence with more by way of robust tackling, while Paul Clayton won every header – defensive and offensive – that he was asked to. With commitment like theirs, there could only be one outcome, surely.

As in the first half, Boston left it late to produce some drama. From an eighty-eighth-minute corner, Mark Jones put a precise header into the back of the home net. The tension was palpable; having gone from entertaining themselves by celebrating pretend goals to seeing their side concede an actual one, the Town fans banged their drum in trepidation. Clayton was now back in the home box, thumping away Boston long balls; Nyoni was now tackling like a madman; in the ninety-second minute, rapid Rowe even had a chance to finally finish the game off when put through one on one with Dixon, only to skew his finish wide of the post. Luckily for him, a last, arduous minute passed without Harrogate conceding.

The home team deserved the much-needed win, despite making it difficult for themselves at the end. In celebration, then, it was back to Betty’s for an Eccles cake and a slice of Victoria Sponge; well, that was certainly my celebration.

Result: Harrogate Town 2 Boston United 1.
My MoM: Ryan Fallowfield got a goal and an assist, Paul Clayton an assist – plus kudos for his tenacity – but new man Cecil Nyoni was the key player; imposing himself on the midfield while full of defensive discipline, he took the game to Boston.
Best fans: Town. Banged their drum all day. Pretended to score a remarkable number of goals. Shared my taste for baked goods, in the main.

Let’s all go to Betty’s

Leiston they deserved?

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Leiston.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: dark and wet; just the way I like my Fairtrade espressos.

For those fans who can afford to throng the corporate megadomes of England’s top clubs, Tuesday nights are evocative of glamorous European ties. Perhaps watching on as the marketable giants of Manchester City take on the merchandisable titans of Futbol Club Barcelona, perhaps attempting a chant before sipping at an aggressively tepid Foster’s, they might think they’re experiencing all that midweek football has to offer them – the pinnacle of after-work sport. Little do they know of Champion Hill, original ‘Hamlet Lager’ and Tuesday night match ups between Dulwich Hamlet and Suffolk heavyweights Leiston. Little do they know of Gavin Rose’s Pink and Blue Army – and little do the Pink and Blue Army care.

This Tuesday’s game was definitely one to experience; it was lively throughout, despite the topsy-turvy quality of the football being played. Hamlet started the better of the two teams in what was a fairly disjointed opening, working the flanks as they tried to feel their way into the game; winger Luke Wanadio quickly asserted himself out on the right, whipping in some early crosses that Leiston’s defence did well to clear. Then, out of an abrupt and surprising counterattack in the ninth minute, the away team went a goal up. A long ball from right to left was controlled by Leiston’s number eleven, Tom Winter, who charged past his marker and toward goal before setting up striker Danny Block; sweeping it into the net from a perfect position, Block finished with ease. Hamlet’s defenders looked bemused at being caught out so casually. They certainly could have done better.

It was at this point that the Pink and Blue Army started to make an impression on me. When one’s team has gone behind, it is customary to stop singing for at least a few moments; Hamlet’s hardcore fans behind the goal (known as ‘The Rabble’) had clearly never been familiarised with this convention. Pledging noisy allegiance to manager Gavin Rose without pause, they stirred their team into an instant response; more dangerous crosses started to pepper the Leiston box from both wings. Soon Hamlet’s midfielders established some consistent possession and passing rhythm across the pitch. A couple of free kicks tested Leiston’s keeper Danny Gay, but were confidently saved. Wanadio really started to run the Leiston defence ragged by the twentieth minute mark, impressing with his fancy footwork. The home team seemed to be growing in confidence.

After a bit more of the same – Hamlet controlling the play, Leiston defending – things suddenly became frantic. In the twenty-ninth minute, the home fans called for a penalty as Leiston’s centre backs doubled up on Hamlet’s Nyren Clunis inside the box; the hard-fought tussle that ensued saw Clunis go down, yet the referee let play continue – as seemed fair. In the thirtieth, Wanadio tricked his way past his marker and powered in yet another cross from the right; this fell to Hamlet striker Xavier Vidal, whose powerful shot toward goal was blocked by a hand. Again, calls for a penalty echoed round Champion Hill. Again, the referee refused to give one; this too seemed fair, as the incident looked more like ball to hand than handball.

Hamlet were pressing hard for the equaliser by now; two quick penalty calls seemed to unnerve the Leiston defenders, who started to sit off and invite more pressure. As such, it was not a surprise when the home side eventually equalised in the thirty-ninth minute. A short-corner routine straight from the training ground saw Hamlet’s Ashley Carew tee up teammate Vidal on the edge of the Leiston box. His resulting drive, aided by a significant deflection, ended up nestled in the bottom right-hand corner of the goal. The Pink and Blue Army almost leapt out of the stadium, as they had every right to do. Their team seemed to be in the ascendancy; as the last five or six minutes of play sank into predictable end-of-half skirmishing, I strongly backed Hamlet to go on and win it.

A couple of ‘Hamlet Lagers’ later, and the teams were back out. The home team had a chance almost straightaway, Wanadio skinning Leiston’s left back before firing in a ball that forward Harry Ottaway almost – almost – skimmed into the net. As Wanadio continued to cause havoc with his runs, dribbles and impish skills, the Pink and Blue Army harmonised their famous Chaka Khan cover (‘Ain’t no team like / Dulwich Hamlet / makes me happy /makes me feel this way’); the home mood seemed pretty positive. Though the game felt a little more even than it had been in the first half – Leiston now more threatening on the break – Hamlet were still on top of things. Then, out of another abrupt counter, they conceded once more.

In the fifty-seventh minute, the away team won a corner. Completely unmarked, Leiston’s number ten, Craig Parker, leathered a free header past home keeper Phil Wilson. It was a case of déjà vu for the bemused Hamlet defence. Meanwhile, it was a case of déjà vu for me as the Pink and Blue Army went on singing regardless, this time a song about Champion Hill looking like Tuscany; I strongly disagreed yet, considering Leiston’s goal, I did not feel it was the right time to ask what this meant.

The rest of the game was dominated by Hamlet. Leiston’s defence were holding out, yet it looked as if the home team would at least get another equaliser; their chances were numerous. In the fifty-ninth minute, Vidal received a good lay off from Ottaway before firing fractionally wide of the far post. In the sixty-second minute, Hamlet failing to score seemed almost unbelievable; Vidal was put through on goal by a scooped ball from Carew, his first shot was saved, then he skied the rebound over the crossbar from about four yards. ‘The Rabble’ were ever-more vocal in their support and yet, with continual near misses from all sorts of positions, it started to feel as if it just wasn’t Hamlet’s night. The fans sang a Dulwich-themed version of ‘Karma Chameleon’ anyway, of course; on the pitch, however, the only things coming and going were goalscoring opportunities.

Wanadio shone over the last twenty minutes, as did substitute winger Albert Jarrett, on for Jordan Hibbert. Nevertheless, however many good crosses they whipped in, the equaliser would not come. Ottaway was put through on goal by Wanadio in the eightieth and eighty-second minutes, but had strayed offside on both occasions. In the eighty-eighth, an almighty scramble in the Leiston goalmouth saw away keeper Gay clamber to keep Vidal out, while a couple of minutes later Wanadio beat the keeper with a snap shot but fired narrowly wide; he merited a goal, but couldn’t quite manage it.

A late home corner was headed over, and the game came to a close. Hamlet could consider themselves a little unlucky to lose, but a hardy Leiston performance saw the away team take their chances, and a glamorous three points.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 1 Leiston 2.
My MoM: Luke Wanadio (Dulwich Hamlet). Deserved something for his efforts; should never have been on the losing side with that much flair.
Best Fans: the Pink and Blue Army. Could well have charted in ’83. Looked at Dulwich, and saw Tuscany.

Leiston they deserved?

Enfield of dreams

The game: Enfield Town v. Hendon.
The ground: the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
The conditions: windier than a seaside staycation.

The Queen Elizabeth II Stadium is my sort of ground. With its Art Deco front, spiral staircase and ‘Butler’s Bar’, the main stand is a house piano player away from being a 1930s nightclub; looking out over the exposed pitch, confined running track and three windswept shed stands that make up the rest of the stadium, it’s a genuinely unique spot – and a luxury one. Though yesterday’s match with Hendon was yet another North London derby for the Ryman League (there are roughly forty eight in any one league season), my impression of the ground filled me with hope for a sporting game of gentlemen’s football; on the pitch – as off it – I was not disappointed.

From the first whistle, both the home ‘Towners’ and away ‘Greens’ tried to keep the ball on the turf and play good, passing stuff. Tactically, this may have had something to do with the absolute gale that was blowing; still, it made for enjoyable watching. Both teams looked sharp in the opening ten minutes, while there was plenty of pace to the game; Enfield soon started to assert some home dominance with a succession of corners and probing shots, but Hendon’s defence managed well. Slightly against the run of play, Hendon then had the best chance of the initial exchanges. In the fifteenth minute, Greens’ striker Peter Dean ran on to a rare long pass into the Enfield box and, striking the ball on the half-volley, his determined shot was acrobatically saved by Town keeper Nathan McDonald. High-scoring Leon Smith thought he had tapped the visitors ahead from the resulting corner, but – to the relief of the home fans – his effort was ruled out for offside.

Over the next few minutes, Enfield returned the favour with several hard drives at goal, all well saved by the Greens’ man between the sticks, Ben McNamara. The quick passing being attempted by both teams made the game open and exciting, while a goal for either side seemed imminent; this appeared to galvanise both sets of fans, but the Towners in particular, most of whom sang an Enfield-themed version of rock-and-roll classic ‘Twist and Shout’ from this point until the end of the first half (and possibly back into the clubhouse). By the half hour mark, Enfield’s forwards had fired straight across the face of goal three or four times from reasonable positions; the home pressure seemed to be mounting, even if Hendon were just about holding out.

When, after another five minutes of probing, an Enfield goal still hadn’t come, the pace of the game inevitably slowed. The play was still watchable, but competitive tackling in the midfield characterised the rest of the first-half action; there were no more chances of note. Just before the referee blew for half-time, a mistimed slash on the ankles of Enfield’s energetic number nine, Corey Whitely, resulted in a booking for Hendon’s Elliot Braithwaite; indicative of the late, close-quarters battling, this was the last incident before the break. Surprisingly goalless, the teams left the pitch. Naturally, I went straight to the Butler’s Bar for a handmade sandwich and an independently-brewed ale.

The beginning of the second half heralded a return to high-tempo football, as well as high-volume singing from the Town fans; serenading their team with a stirring chorus of ‘All You Need Is Town’ (to the tune of ‘All You Need Is Love’), they picked up the tunes where they had left off – or possibly hadn’t left off. Their team responded accordingly, dominating with early possession. Then, in the fifty-third minute, Corey Whitely made a storming run to the edge of the Hendon box only to be brought down by Greens’ defender Charlie Goode, at the cost of a caution. Taking the free kick himself, the Towners’ nine could only fire into the wall; nevertheless, his attacking ambition was impressive.

Whitely was on target again a couple of minutes later, his shot well saved by McNamara. With the forward’s nippy runs dragging the Hendon defence to and fro across the pitch, Enfield started to assert full supremacy; likewise, nothing seemed to come off for the Greens in their attempts to work the ball toward the Town goal. A succession of shots and mazy dribbles by Town players – midfielder Tyler Campbell especially – left Hendon really clinging on to the game; by the sixtieth minute, the Greens were being forced into fouls all around their box, one of which particularly annoyed the constantly-jinking Campbell and led to some audible verbals – all part of the building home tension. By the seventieth minute, having watched their team pump free kicks into the Hendon box to no avail, the Enfield fans had to sing through the stress.

Finally, in the eighty-second minute, after constant Enfield pressure, the deadlock was broken. Whitely went on his best run of the match, charging from the halfway line to the edge of the Hendon box. Closed out by two Greens’ defenders, he then squared the ball to fellow forward Liam Hope, who slotted into the bottom left from about ten yards. Celebrating in front of the ballistic home faithful, the entire Town team seemed elated. Then it was quickly back to their half to defend the late lead.

As it turned out, that wasn’t too difficult a task. Though Hendon tried to threaten the Enfield goal, winning a few corners and free kicks themselves, they couldn’t carve out any real chances; with Leon Smith man-marked for the entire second half the danger had gone out of their forward line, while tiredness laboured their attacks. A bit of cautious passing around the corner flags, and Enfield got the result they wanted; a really enjoyable game ended with fewer goals than it deserved, but a fair and gentlemanly outcome.

Result: Enfield Town 1 Hendon 0.
My MoM: Tyler Campbell grew into the second half, Liam Hope scored the goal, but Corey Whitely was by far and away the best player on the pitch. Ran directly, pressed from the front, put in some strong tackles and got an assist; his contribution was the difference.
Best fans: the Towners. Probably still singing now. Varied repertoire.

Enfield of dreams

Dagger to the heart

The game: Dagenham & Redbridge v. Bury.
The ground: Victoria Road.
The conditions: torrential rain, followed by a Biblical eclipse at half three. Not conducive to great football.

Having pushed through the home-end turnstiles at Dag & Red’s Victoria Road, the first thing that caught my eye was the imposing bulk of the Traditional Builders Stand. Hulking at the far end of the pitch, silhouetted against the rainy, grey sky, the sight of it very much set the tone for the football I was about to watch; firm and resolute, yet far from attractive, this was going to be one for the old-fashioned tradesmen.

Finding myself a sheltered spot on the terraces with the untraditional non-builders, I warmed up with a Tetley’s tea (the terrace café was out of Earl Grey) and waited for the game to kick off. With the Daggers second-bottom of League Two and their opponents, Bury, in a somewhat disappointing eighth place, the 1,877 fans in attendance seemed a little muted, even as the teams came out onto the pitch; having turned out in numbers despite the weather, both home ‘Daggers’ and away ‘Shakers’ seemed to have their spirits dampened by the reality of a cold, wet Saturday afternoon’s scrapping – with no guarantee of a decent result.

The first half certainly didn’t lift any spirits. After the two teams exchanged early shots, both well saved, the game settled down into a to-and-fro pattern of head tennis, bonce badminton and forehead fives; the ball was in the air for the majority of the play. Bury were a bit more willing to pass the ball along the ground and, as a result, were more incisive at times, but really there was little between the sides; the conditions only made matters worse, as exemplified by the various slips, slides and saucy tackles that went on between the constant midfield headers. The Daggers’ fans’ frustration soon became audible, especially when their nervous-looking players tried to work the ball up the pitch purely by means of multiple throw-ins; when, in about the fortieth minute, a fellow luxury fan cried angrily for the team to ‘pass and move’, there was a ripple of exasperated laughter all around. Both teams were livelier in the closing ten minutes but, rightly, the sides went back to their respective dressing-rooms goalless.

I spent half time leaning on the red terrace railing, eating a rather delicious Cumberland sausage sour-dough bap (or ‘jumbo hot dog’, as it was advertised) and looking out on the sodden pitch, pondering whether I would ever see a goal again in my life; at this point darkness descended upon Dagenham, which seemed a bad omen. The teams were soon back out on the pitch. I did not have high hopes for the second half; nor did the Daggers’ fans, from what I could overhear.

Thankfully, our pessimism was quickly dispelled. The second half seemed to pick up where the first had left off, before a fiftieth-minute foul on winger Ashley Hemmings gave Dagenham a decent attacking free kick from the left. Though Bury cleared the first delivery with ease, the ball came back to Billy Bingham on the edge of the area. Punting a high ball over a static Bury defence he found Rhys Murphy nipping in behind; the Daggers’ striker (formerly of Arsenal – very luxury) then rifled a shot past the keeper and in.

The relief in the general celebrations said everything about the Daggers’ precarious league position. However, that relief was put on hold for the next forty minutes, during which Dagenham had to defend doggedly to preserve their lead. Bury were sparked into life by conceding, on the pitch at least – the travelling fans seemed justifiably underwhelmed by the scoreline. Still their team came at Dagenham, trying to get even; constant clearances and a succession of impressive saves by Daggers’ keeper Mark Cousins frustrated them. It may not have been vintage viewing but, as the Bury pressure mounted, as balls were zipped around the Daggers’ box before being committedly cleared out into the carpark, the game actually felt half-enjoyable as proper, lower-league fare.

By the eightieth minute, Bury were desperate for a goal. The tempo picked up considerably. In the eighty-first, controversy beckoned as the Shakers’ Danny Rose was booked for a dive in the Daggers’ box; the referee’s decision looked about right, while I found the whole thing quite comforting – it put me in mind of many a pleasant afternoon spent at Stamford Bridge. Cousins made a strong save from a Bury free kick in the eighty-third, much to the praise of the home crowd, now in full voice. When a shot was then cleared off the Dagenham line and the rebound again saved by Cousins, the fans were practically roaring their team on to the much-needed win; a couple of tense but well-defended corners later, and they got it.

A loud, proud and tense five minutes capped off a decent final forty; the game definitely improved as it went on. A dagger to the heart of Bury’s promotion hopes, and a genuine lift for Dag & Red; that was the conclusion of The Luxury Fan as he trundled out of Dagenham East, and along his endless tube journey back home.

Result: Dagenham & Redbridge 1 Bury 0.
My MoM: though Rhys Murphy got the Dagenham goal, Mark Cousins made several crucial saves and made sure of the win – the home team’s keeper is my man of the match.
Best fans: the Daggers. Wanted to see pass and move football in torrential rain. Fans after my own heart.

Dagger to the heart

More flags than fans

The game: Hendon v. Wingate & Finchley.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: put me in mind of Keats’ ‘maturing sun’; really rather nice.

It was the weekend after Christmas, and the North London derby was about to kick off. No, not that North London derby; a ticket to that North London derby costs eighty-odd pounds which I am unwilling (and unable) to pay – even as a fan of luxury football. Rather, the far-more-reasonably-priced derby between ‘The Greens’ of Hendon and ‘The Blues’ of Wingate & Finchley was the game about to kick off; with an attendance of 337, including a vocal travelling contingent of ‘Finchley ultras’, the Earlsmead Stadium was absolutely rocking.

With the supporters in blue belting out a rowdy rendition of their anthem ‘More Flags than Fans’, the referee got the game underway. Within the first minute there was an epic scrum in the Hendon box, Finchley making their intentions clear; this was to be an ambitious away performance. Unfortunately, it was all a bit too ambitious; after a decent Finchley attack in the fifth minute, Hendon broke away and – helped by lacklustre tackling, non-existent tracking and a horrendous defensive mix-up between defender and goalkeeper – grabbed the opening goal, prolific forward Leon Smith tapping in for his first of the day.

As starts to a Premier League fan’s first Ryman League experience go, this was truly low-quality – chaotic, exhilarating, low-quality football. The game settled down a little after the goal, the main excitement over the next twenty minutes coming from the referee falling over and the ball being belted into somebody’s garden – not something I have ever seen at the Emirates, nor at White Hart Lane. Finchley recovered reasonably well from going a goal behind, slightly edging the midfield slugging match that ensued. However, on the half-hour mark, they were again undone by a lethal Hendon counterattack; with the Greens stringing together a nice passing move – quite unusual on the day – the ball was worked into the middle of the Finchley box, before Leon Smith got his brace with a high drive into the back of the net.

Understandably, the Finchley players seemed quite frustrated with the way the game was going. Following an innocuous tackle out on the right, there was a bit of old-school argy bargy between the two sets of players, accompanied by traditional shouts of ‘I’ll give it to ya’ and ‘Leave it, mate, leave it’; the referee soon calmed things down, and so the half came to a close without further incident. With the late-afternoon sun shining on the Ryman’s advertising boards and the temperature dropping, everyone then progressed to the warmth of the clubhouse bar; I was keen to get my traditional half-time mocha and dough balls but – having been informed by the barman that the Earlsmead doesn’t supply either – I went back to the pitch with a Bovril and a Twix.

Finchley came out in the second half with renewed purpose; for the first time since the opening minute they really dominated the game. This dominance was rewarded when, in the fifty-first minute, Karl Oliyide pulled one back for the visitors with by far the best individual goal of the match; having charged in from the left and toward Hendon’s goal, he curled a genuine beauty into the top-right corner. The Finchley fans went wild, flags waving in celebration. The home crowd seemed anxious. At this point it appeared to be – game on!

Unfortunately for Finchley’s comeback hopes, the game soon descended into bitter controversy. After another twenty minutes of scrapping, the Blues’ Marc Weatherstone was turned on the edge of his box by the nippy Kezie Ibe; the Finchley defender tugged at his opponent’s shirt in the area and – though Ibe attempted to play on – the foul was clear to see. The penalty was awarded, fairly. However, Weatherstone did not appear to be the last man between Ibe and the goal when the foul was committed, with another defender covering; nevertheless, the referee gave him his marching orders. The away fans howled with fury. The penalty was stuck away by Hendon’s Sam Murphy. The away fans howled louder.

Down to ten men, Finchley held on admirably. They were not helped in this endeavour by the referee’s decision to reduce them to nine men, especially since he sent off Ahmet Rifat for a really quite excellent tackle. Still Finchley avoided conceding again, despite a late flurry of chances for Hendon; spurred on by the indignant cries of the Blue Army, many of whom were openly disobeying the Earlsmead’s ‘This is a family club: please moderate your language’ signs, the game finished evenly despite the visitors’ two-man disadvantage.

Hendon fans went home happy, Finchley fans less so – even if the result was probably about right. The overall standard of football was far from luxury but, having seen four goals, two sendings off and the regurgitated results of a Bovril-and-Twix lunch, I certainly found it exciting; wandering off into the night with a gourmet meal and a nice glass of Shiraz in mind, The Luxury Fan left satisfied.

Result: Hendon 3 Wingate & Finchley 1.
My MoM: Leon Smith (Hendon); scored his team’s first two goals, but was also physical, surprisingly speedy and good on the ball.
Best fans: the Finchley ultras. Probably had more fans than flags. Refused to moderate their language.

More flags than fans