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.