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.