Draw and order

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Metropolitan Police.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: sunny and temperate; even more like Tuscany than usual.

I awoke, and the day had finally arrived. This was the day of my pilgrimage, my philosophical journey, my spiritual awakening. This was the day that I voyaged to The Vale, to the home of Wealdstone Football Club, to the temple of the man who brought the joy of non-league football to so many. Indeed, this was the day I walked the same hallowed terraces as that very man. This was the day I encountered the Wealdstone Raider.

Or that’s what I thought, at least. As I rattled down the Metropolitan Line, I just so happened to check my ageing smartphone for match updates; there, on my clunking Twitter app, was some information that panicked me to the core – the match at The Vale was postponed! The referee had declared a lack of bounce in the pitch, apparently. Digging the end of his pogo stick out of the damp earth, he had then called the game off.

Leaping out of the train doors at Finchley Road station, I did the only thing I could do; I jogged over to the Jubilee Line platform and, one tube ride and an overground jaunt later, I arrived at East Dulwich. It was the first time I had seen Champion Hill by daylight, and it looked quite resplendent in the sun. With free entry for LGBT fans and an itinerant group of Clapton Ultras also in attendance, I certainly wasn’t the only one enjoying the unseasonal weather in south-east London; an eventual crowd of 1,459 inspired a (strictly independent, anti-corporate) festival vibe.

After a few adverse results for both, this was a league fixture that neither Hamlet nor the visiting Met Police could afford to lose; despite the thirteen-point gap in third-placed Hamlet’s favour, the Met had four games in hand on the Pink & Blues. It was no surprise that the start of the match was a little cagey, then; though the away side were quite obliging in terms of possession, the opening twenty minutes were unusually disjointed from the home side; no tangible chances were created by either team.

In the twenty-third minute, the visitors carved out the first opportunity. From a free kick on the left, the Met’s Charlie Collins sent a gorgeous, curving delivery into the box; forward Joe Turner got his head to this, but nodded just wide of the post. Three minutes later, another Met free kick was allowed to bobble around in the area, only to be cleared wildly at the last moment; the away side clearly fancied themselves from the set piece, while Hamlet needed to improve at defending the aerial ball.

In the thirtieth minute, great running from Luke Wanadio gave Pink & Blues’ striker Tom Derry a chance; receiving the ball in the Met box with his back to goal, he pivoted and smashed a shot over the crossbar. Then, in the thirty-third, Hamlet won a free kick of their own. Twenty-five yards from goal, this was sized up by Ashley Carew; he struck his shot well, but it was saved and held by stand-in away keeper Craig King.

The Met soon had a couple more set-piece opportunities, defender Steve Sutherland and attacker Elliot Taylor heading narrowly over in quick succession. In the meantime, Hamlet gradually began to take control of open play; Wanadio and overlapping full back Michael Abnett terrorised the right wing on several occasions, not least in the forty-first minute when the former set up Jack Dixon to lash a strike toward the left side of the net – this was kept out by King at full stretch.

After a couple of half chances for Wanadio and Hamlet midfielder Jordan Hibbert, the first half came to a close at nil-nil. Hamlet had found their rhythm somewhat but, with the Met a perpetual threat from dead ball situations, the game was still very much in the balance; fifteen minutes and one trip to the Champion Hill burger stand sped by, then it was time to see whether either team could tip the scales in their favour.

Wanadio started the second half by straightaway tormenting the opposition; in the fifty-first minute, an agile run on the right and a couple of mesmeric step overs saw him come close to assisting Harry Ottaway, only for the final ball to be cut out. In addition to his attacking flair, the Pink & Blues’ number seven pinched the ball back from the Met’s midfield at every given opportunity. He was certainly giving it everything.

All the same, a patchy period of play ensued. Clearly looking to up his side’s tempo, Hamlet manager Gavin Rose completely changed his front line; Xavier Vidal, Dean McDonald and Albert Jarrett came on, while Ottaway, Derry and Wanadio went off. If I was disappointed to see the last of those leave the field, I certainly wasn’t let down by his replacement. Jarrett’s first act was to scamper away on the left before teeing up Vidal just outside the box; though the latter’s shot was saved by Craig King, Rose’s substitutions were already paying attacking dividends.

In the seventy-third minute, a cross from Charlie Collins was nearly turned into the home goal; Hamlet keeper Phil Wilson did well to save this low to his left. After this, the Pink & Blues went all out. Ten minutes of possession and half chances saw the pressure build on the Met. Then, in the eighty-fifth minute, Jarrett won a central free kick in an ideal position twenty yards out. Once more, Ashley Carew sized the ball up. Once more, he failed to score; this time his fizzing strike went just wide.

Three minutes later, Carew found himself in space on the left. Slashing the ball across the area, he found Vidal at the back post; the striker’s point-blank header was stopped by a reflex save from King, who then frenziedly scrabbled the ball out to safety. A flurry of corners ensued, several of which went equally close to winning it for the home side. In the end, however, none of them found the back of the Met net.

Hamlet had probably played the better football, but the visitors were good for the draw; nobody seemed too displeased with the result. Personally, I was just happy to watch a game. On a suitably bouncy pitch, of course.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 0 Metropolitan Police 0.
My MoM: Luke Wanadio. Stick a step over in your pipe and smoke it, Ryman League!
Best fans: Hamlet (and Clapton) fans. Turned up in numbers. Brought rainbow flags. Chanted at the police. A few Welsh miners and it could have been the final scene of Pride.

Draw and order

The Bantam menace

The game: Leyton Orient v. Bradford City.
The ground: Brisbane Road.
The conditions: crisper than a packet of lightly sea-salted Tyrrells.

On Wednesday evening, with a pinching wind propelling me down Leyton High Street, I scampered my way toward Brisbane Road and my first ever match in League One. Joining a crowd of O’s fans on the way, walking beside a couple of blokes arguing about jellied eels – not a crude caricature, that actually happened – it felt like I was getting the proper Orient experience well before I reached the stadium; swept along, huddled amongst the red-and-white bobble hats, I was as ready as anyone for the midweek visit of Bradford City’s battling Bantams.

Orient and Bradford came into the game on the back of very different seasons. While the home side, struggling badly under recently-appointed boss Fabio Liverani, languished second-bottom of the third tier prior to the start of play, the away side were looking to promotion via the play offs; complimented by a stunning cup run and tussling victories against the luxury of Chelsea and Sunderland, the Bantams’ league campaign was shaping up to be another Phil Parkinson masterclass. Nevertheless, the home fans were far from deterred by the formidable opposition. Brisbane Road was filled to the residential flats with supporters, while strident cries of ‘East, East, East London!’ met the 644-strong travelling contingent at the gate.

For the first twenty minutes of the match, it was hard to figure out how Orient were a team teetering on the brink of relegation; sharp football saw them take the game to Bradford. Though the away side showed their hunger at the set piece early on – a few menacing free kicks just cleared by the O’s – it only took seven minutes for the home side to register a decent shot at goal; from their own free kick, the ball fell to Dean Cox on the edge of the box; his arcing shot was saved and held by Bantams’ stopper Jordan Pickford.

In the fifteenth minute, after some open football from both teams, a flowing attack came exceptionally close to yielding up an O’s goal. Pinging the ball up the pitch, Orient bore down on Pickford’s net; a lofted ball to the left side of the box then found both Chris Dagnall and the magnificently-bearded Romain Vincelot rushing forward. The latter struck it first, smashing his shot off the underside of the crossbar – but not over the line. On the rebound, striker David Mooney fired low from five yards; his effort was desperately blocked by Bantams’ defender James Meredith, before the resulting corner was cleared.

The O’s must have found it hard to believe that they hadn’t gone one up at this point; little wonder, then, that they seemed positively stunned when they conceded just over five minutes later. A perfect long ball by Bradford midfielder Mark Yeates found a gaping hole between the Orient centre backs, into which burst Bantams’ forward James Hanson. Volleying from eighteen yards, his strike also thundered off the underside of the crossbar – and into the back of the net.

To a roaring verse of ‘He used to work in the Co-op!’ (Hanson did, indeed, once work in the Co-op), the away side suddenly took control of the game; the goal had come against the run of play yet they capitalised on it with purpose. Though Vincelot went close again in the twenty-fourth minute, an Orient corner landing him with a free header – saved by Pickford – Bradford were generally keener all over the pitch; winning a multitude of corners and free kicks (much to the home fans’ frustration), their set-piece menace was repeatedly made apparent.

Regrettably for the O’s, this didn’t stop them succumbing to it. In the thirty-first minute, Felipe Morais floated a left-sided free kick into the Orient area; Hanson, completely unmarked, headed in his second goal at the near post. The O’s fans were practically hissing with rage at the non-existent defending, while the Bantams launched into another Co-op chorus and a roaring chant of ‘Parkinson is the special one’; a match that had started so well for the home side had rapidly become a bit of a disaster.

Orient did cling on until half time without conceding again, despite another good chance for Hanson and a storming long-range effort from Morais. By the sound of their groans at the break the O’s supporters found it all rather predictable, yet I was a little surprised with how the first half had gone; either way, I went off to buy a hot beverage in a polystyrene cup, then briefly got lost in the South Stand’s maze-like system of urinals.

Thankfully, I did emerge just in time for the resumption of play. The second half started slowly; though Orient seemed to have regrouped somewhat, Bradford shrewdly broke up any positive home moves. Then, in the fifty-second minute, the away side had a chance to finish the game as a contest. After a swift counterattack, substitute striker Francois Zoko – on for Hanson – was put through on goal; racing into the box, his scuffed shot was saved by O’s goalie Alex Cisak. The loose ball was struck well by Bantams’ midfielder Billy Clarke, but his shot was palmed up into the air by Cisak and eventually cleared. The keeper had kept Orient in it.

Nonetheless, they couldn’t exploit this reprieve. Though the home side showed bursts of attacking potential, they failed to pressurise Bradford for anything more than a few minutes; Bradley Pritchard shot high and wide from a good position in the sixty-sixth minute, Dagnall nodded a free header well wide just afterward, but nothing really came off. Meanwhile, the Orient back four were always vulnerable; in the seventy-fifth, Bradford’s Andy Halliday ran the entire length of the right wing before cutting inside his marker with ease and blasting at goal; Cisak kept him out, but this didn’t exempt the defence from the fans’ wrath.

Orient’s last chance came in the eighty-second minute, Shane Lowry thumping a free kick on target only to see Pickford save at full stretch. After that, a string of half chances for Bradford closed out the match; bellowing out songs for both the BBC and Wembley until the very end, the away fans were clearly pretty happy with the performance.

The South Stand boos gave quite the opposite impression; bright start aside, the O’s had been well beaten. The Bantams can keep on aspiring to Wembley, but Orient need to aspire first and foremost to League One’s twentieth spot; two very different seasons roll onward.

Result: Leyton Orient 0 Bradford City 2.
My MoM: James Hanson. He used to work in the Co-op.
Best fans: the Bantams. Suitably grateful to the Co-op.

The Bantam menace

Wooda, shoulda, coulda

The game: Boreham Wood v. Concord Rangers.
The ground: Meadow Park.
The conditions: grey, rainy and grim. Then sunny. Then rainy again. All the weathers.

It was Valentine’s Day, and love was in the air. I don’t know who for, however, because I was busy wandering the streets of southern Hertfordshire, bound for Boreham Wood’s Meadow Park and a heady dose of non-league football. The home side were top of the table going into Saturday’s match, while their opponents, Concord Rangers (or ‘the Beach Boys’), were a mere seven points off the play-off places – with two games in hand. Little wonder, then, that the majority of pre-match chat around the ground was focused on the romance of promotion; both sets of fans were clearly longing for a dreamy three points.

On the pitch, the focus seemed to be a little less romantic; from the first whistle, two well-drilled defences nullified their respective attacks almost in their entirety. Boreham Wood had a good early effort through striker Junior Morias – saved by Concord’s on-loan Arsenal keeper, Josh Vickers – and Beach Boy Gary Ogilvie went close from long range, but apart from that the opening twenty-five minutes were all about the collective hustle; energetic pressing led to persistent tackles, fouls and turnovers from both sides, while time on the ball was at an absolute premium.

In the twenty-seventh minute, Concord carved out a great opportunity. Having won a corner, the ball was played short to recent England C addition Alex Woodyard; his low cross found midfielder Taylor Miles in a perfect position on the edge of the Boreham Wood box, but he ballooned his first-time shot high and wide. This seemed to kick the home side into action; urged on from the touchline by forthright manager Ian Allinson, they started to dominate possession and step up in attack. Suddenly, the chances came flooding in.

First, Morias won a free kick in a dangerous position out on the left; taking this himself, his shot at goal took a deflection off the wall and spun inches wide of the post. From the resulting corner, Josh Vickers misjudged his punch; Wood’s Luke Garrard pounced at the near post, only to slice wide under pressure from the scrambling keeper. Then, in the thirty-fifth minute, high-scoring Wood forward Lee Angol broke away down the right wing before crossing for Morias to slot home; unfortunately for the latter, his shot was badly scuffed. Teammate Matthew Whichelow latched on to the loose ball, but his strike was saved superbly by the onrushing Vickers; had the Concord stopper not reacted quickly, this would surely have found the back of the net.

In the fortieth minute, home keeper James Russell was called upon to keep out a low Ogilvie free kick. Then, three minutes later, it was back to Vickers to show off his ability; this he did with by far the best save of the match. A perfect through ball from Morias put Angol through one on one – and in miles of space. Angol took a touch and readied himself for the finish; in the second it took him to do so, Vickers flung himself in front of the strike and bravely battered the ball away.

The half came to an end with a promising Wood free kick being fired straight into the Concord wall; this rather frustrated the home supporters near to me, one of whom punctured the quiet of the break with some language that will haunt my Valentine’s Days forevermore. Heart-shaped chocolates will turn to ash in my mouth, plush roses will wilt and die in my garden; thankfully my half-time pint was unaffected, so no real harm done.

The game resumed with the defences dominant once more; the first chance of the half was not until the fifty-fifth minute, when a home corner was blasted over Vickers’ crossbar by Wood defender Josh Hill. A couple of minutes later, a good passing move from the away side saw forward Sam Collins shoot wide from fifteen yards, before a Wood counterattack gave Whichelow a chance to fire at goal from similar distance; this was just blocked.

Wood tried to build on their possession, but Concord were obstinate. Morias had another chance in the sixty-seventh minute, but fired high; the dynamic Whichelow had another on-target shot blocked in the seventy-first. Lee Angol was Wood’s most threatening attacker, but even he couldn’t summon up a goal; with the clock ticking on the three points, the tension ramped up.

In the seventy-fourth, Angol set up Graeme Montgomery on the left of the Concord box; another chance went begging as he could only fluff his shot wide. Five minutes later, the Beach Boys could have won it; a poor pass out from the Wood defence gave substitute Harry Elmes an opportunity, but he curled a cultured effort past the upright.

The final chance of the match came in the eighty-third, and it was for Concord. Having won the ball with a toe-to-toe tackle twenty yards from the home net, Taylor Miles fired an explosive, swerving shot at goal; James Russell palmed this away to safety. After that, the pace inevitably slowed; tired legs told, and it finished goalless.

In the end, it was a game for the goalkeepers; both made crucial saves to secure the draw. It was not necessarily a dreamy result, but both sides could be relatively happy with a diligent point; for Wood and the Beach Boys alike, the romance of promotion lives on.

Result: Boreham Wood 0 Concord Rangers 0.
My MoM: Josh Vickers. Had the hardest saves to make; made them in style. Full of potential.
Best fans: Wood fans. This heart-shaped chocolate tastes awful.

Wooda, shoulda, coulda

Let’s all do the conga

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Stonewall FC.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: look, night rainbows!

As twilight fell over south-east London, the mood soared at Champion Hill; the long-anticipated, high-profile friendly between Dulwich Hamlet and Stonewall FC was about to get underway. With Hamlet fans having campaigned long and hard against discrimination in football, this match represented a real statement of support from club hierarchy and staff (not to mention the matchday sponsors, Unison and Hope Not Hate); the organisation of such a fixture was, and is, a real credit to everyone involved – as recognised by the attendant FA.

Equally, all those connected with Stonewall FC put in massive effort to make this game happen. It was a brave decision for the Stonewall management and players to take on Hamlet, considering that they play their football several tiers below the Pink & Blues; if the match was perhaps a bit daunting for those on the pitch, the Stonewall fans certainly weren’t fazed – gathering at the other end of the pitch to The Rabble, they may well have been the first away fans this season to start off the singing.

For the first fifteen minutes of the game, there was not much between the two teams; as The Rabble drummed, jumped and waved their rainbow banners, as the Stonewall fans pulled some synchronised shapes, the action on the pitch was similarly competitive. Hamlet had plenty of time on the ball – as was to be expected – but the Stonewall players were compact and snappy with their challenges; in the third minute, a good tackle in the middle of the park set the away side off on the counter, before forward Craig Rice fired high from the left side of the box.

A couple of minutes later, and Hamlet got their first chance. Nifty winger Albert Jarrett won a free kick just outside the Stonewall area; the subsequent delivery saw defender Michael Kamara thump a free header inches past the upright. Soon afterward, Hamlet midfielder Kershaney Samuels sent a shot whistling wide. Still, Stonewall were not without ideas; Nasar Nakhli and captain Doug Edward showed glimpses of attacking potential in the twelfth minute, though they were eventually cut out by the home defence.

The first goal came four minutes later, and it was for Hamlet. Jarrett sliced through his markers on the left wing before storming into the area; his cross-come-shot was fumbled by away keeper Mateusz Brzoska, and the rebound was prodded in by striker Dean McDonald. With Stonewall reeling from this, the home side then got another in the nineteenth minute; after Brzoska had saved a cracking strike from Hamlet’s Mu Maan, the same player then had another shot at goal from twenty-five yards; this screamed its way into the back of the net, leaving the Stonewall stopper with no chance.

Refusing to fold, Stonewall stepped up their play. Nakhli was again at the heart of their attack, though their front men couldn’t quite find that ruthless final ball. Brzoska saved a low strike from McDonald in the twenty-fourth minute, but for a while after that the Stonewall defence stifled the opposition; the next home chance was not until ten minutes later, when Hamlet’s Jordan Hibbert tried his luck from twenty yards, only to watch on as Brzoska palmed out his plunging shot.

In the thirty-sixth, a great cross from Craig Rice nearly fell perfectly for the surging Doug Edward to head in; home keeper Oshane Brown punched this away at the very last second. A minute later, and it was Hamlet’s turn to go close; striker Harry Ottaway fired just wide, before Brzoska saved another Hibbert effort, this time a deceptive, bouncing shot. Bar a right-wing run by Dean McDonald which I can only adequately describe as labyrinthine (this set up a wayward Ottaway header), there were no more incidents before the break. The half finished two-nil to the home side, but Stonewall had shown real resilience in their response.

With the Stonewall fans singing ‘We’re going to win 3-2!’ and a human conga line dancing its way round the pitch (‘I’m exhausted!’ cried one delirious-looking Hamlet fan), the teams raced back out onto the pitch. The away fans’ ambitious prediction was soon dispelled by another Hamlet goal; after Brzoska had failed to hang on to a sharp Samuels strike, McDonald got his second with an angled shot into the roof of the net. This was then compounded in the fifty-first minute, when Maan completed his brace from close range to make in four-nil. Once again, Stonewall had to rally.

The underdogs’ commitment at this point in the game was commendable, and they defended tenaciously for the next twenty-five minutes; in the sixty-first, substitute John Brookes had their best chance of the match when he struck a looping shot just a little too hard across the home goal. Eventually, however, the Pink & Blues’ superior fitness started to tell. Hamlet substitute Josh Fernandes sent a gorgeous, curling effort toward Brzoska’s net in the seventy-fifth minute; only an excellent full-stretch save kept him out. Unfortunately for the not-yet-recovered Stonewall defence, the ball was recycled back into the box at speed; Daniel Whitman could only head an attempted clearance onto the underside of his own crossbar, and Kameiko Pope-Campbell stooped to nod in Hamlet’s fifth.

The scoring was concluded in the eighty-seventh minute, when Shawn McCoulsky was accidentally felled in the box by a high boot from Stonewall’s Michael Kearney. After Kearney had apologetically helped McCoulsky to his feet, Hamlet’s Osman Proni stroked the penalty home; a few minutes more, and the final whistle went.

Six-nil was a bit harsh on Stonewall, who were difficult to play against for the majority of the game; still, the score didn’t really matter. Both sides were clapped off to choruses of ‘We love you Stonewall, we do!’ before players, management and fans alike all gathered in the bar afterward in a show of sporting spirit; a warm and amicable fixture ended but, for Hamlet and Stonewall FC, a new footballing friendship began.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 6 Stonewall FC 0.
My MoM: Dean McDonald. Forget the two goals; that first-half run fragmented my mind.
Best fans: everyone’s ticket, raffle and programme money went to the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Elton John is the best fan.

Let’s all do the conga

Between Thurrock and a hard place

The game: Hendon v. East Thurrock United.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: dry and mild; just the way I like my Pinot Grigio.

Monday night football is always a bit of a luxury. Sunday’s pub roast feels like a distant memory, the grimmest working weekday has crept slowly by, your boss has just given you your first deadline and then – wait, what’s this?! – you’re having a pint, watching sport and fraternising with other humans, none of whom want to talk about corporate synergy. Add a relatively temperate climate to all this, and the whole thing feels like a real treat; no wonder, then, that the Earlsmead hosted a fair few fans for Monday’s potentially pivotal contest between the ‘Greens’ of Hendon and the ‘Rocks’ of East Thurrock United.

With the sides so close in the Ryman League table – and in direct competition for a play-off spot – this was always going to be a tight affair. The opening ten minutes were even, both teams feeling out the opposition; the torn-up turf made it difficult for either side to play expansive football, and the majority of the early attacks petered out. Still, it only took twelve minutes for a goal to come. A fairly innocuous cross found the Rocks’ top scorer, Sam Higgins, in the Hendon box; his on-target header was palmed back into a dangerous area by home stopper Ben McNamara, and this mistake was duly punished – the ball thrashed into the net by United’s Kye Ruel.

The next fifteen minutes saw Hendon up the pace in response. Tony Taggart and Andre Da Costa combined well on the left, Dave Diedhiou and Kezie Ibe on the right; working the flanks well, they looked to set up the industrious Leon Smith at every opportunity. Still, the momentum hadn’t entirely swung their way. In the twenty-third minute, after a beautiful cross-field ball from the Rocks’ Ross Parmenter, forward Mitchell Gilbey was sent through one on one with McNamara; a brilliantly-executed, last-ditch tackle from Diedhiou was the only thing that stopped him tucking a second away. Had the tackle been mistimed, the Hendon full back would have conceded a penalty and almost certainly seen red. Fine margins.

In the twenty-fifth minute, a rapid Hendon move saw Leon Smith surge into the Rocks’ box; he set up the overlapping Da Costa on his left, but the Portuguese midfielder could only crack a shot high across the away net. Three minutes later, Smith was at the heart of another attack, chesting down a long ball before firing at United’s keeper David Hughes; his shot was deflected just wide for a Hendon corner.

It was from this corner that the home side equalised. A perfect delivery fell to the feet of Greens’ defender Charlie Goode; with his back to goal, he then swivelled and slammed a shot past Hughes. After the jubilant home celebrations had died down, both sides were restricted to strikes from distance and half chances. Tony Taggart impressed for Hendon in defence and attack, bombing up and down the left wing, while Rocks’ goalscorer Ruel also stood out, going close on a couple of occasions; neither could influence the scoreline, however, and it remained level at the break.

The second half was far more pragmatic. Both teams began with endeavour, but few openings were created. Things did briefly burst into life in the fifty-eighth minute, when Diedhiou, high up the pitch, blasted a twenty-yard effort at goal which Hughes only just tipped over the bar; the Greens then nearly scored once more from the ensuing corner, Elliott Brathwaite’s swipe from five yards parried safely away. A couple of minutes later, Ben McNamara made up for his earlier error by keeping out a Ross Parmenter strike. After this, chances were even scarcer.

Another small burst of action around the seventy-minute mark saw Sam Higgins fire straight at McNamara from twelve yards, before a Hendon counterattack led to a corner which Charlie Goode headed over from close range. Both teams made themselves hard to break down, both were well organised, but the bobbling, divot-laden pitch simply would not oblige the attackers. Hendon substitute Aaron Morgan had a shot saved in the seventy-seventh minute, before Higgins saw a strong drive pushed out by McNamara ten minutes later. Without further ado, the whistle went.

The teams were equals on the night, and a draw was exactly the right result. There won’t be much separating Greens and Rocks at the end of the season, on this evidence; happily for me, there are plenty more Monday match ups to watch before then.

Result: Hendon 1 East Thurrock United 1.
My MoM: Tony Taggart (Hendon). Contributed well in attack without foregoing his defensive duties. All-action.
Best fans: we all went to Monday night football. We are all the best fans.

Between Thurrock and a hard place

Hive got chills, they’re multiplying

The game: Barnet v. Woking.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: unforgettably chilling, like the thought of a world without quinoa.

Teeth chattering, knees knocking, I walked the wintry walk up Camrose Avenue and toward Barnet’s new home, The Hive. Despite my fondness for the Bees’ old Underhill Stadium – a ground I attended quite a few times, long before writing as The Luxury Fan – it was hard not to be impressed by the modern set up upon arrival; with a state-of-the-art bar, an immaculate pitch and – most importantly – a substantial, two-thousand-strong crowd, the whole place gave the impression of a club very much on the rise.

This is, of course, precisely what Barnet are. Saturday’s fixture saw the table-topping Bees take on promotion-chasing Woking in a critical Conference clash; with the home side looking to pull away from the chasing pack and the away ‘Cards’ looking to push for a play-off place, this was a high-stakes match at the summit of non-league football. The importance of a three-point haul was certainly not lost on either set of supporters; both vied vocally from the start. The latter even leapt about incessantly in pre-match expectation – or possibly just to stay warm.

On the field, things started at pace. Barnet’s John Akinde and Woking’s Scott Rendell – the two top scorers in the league – worked early openings, but couldn’t get shots away. In the seventh minute, Akinde then burst forward on the left wing, galloped into the opposition’s box and cut the ball back for the waiting Lee Cook, only for the Bees’ midfielder to slip before he could strike. Barnet’s passing was more assured than Woking’s and they started to influence the game accordingly, but the away side seemed in no way cowed by the league leaders’ confident play; readily attacking on the break, nippy midfielder Charles Banya was a particular nuisance to the home defence. In the fifteenth minute, it was his running that set Rendell up on the edge of the home box; from there, the Woking striker looped a shot just over Graham Stack’s crossbar.

This perhaps served as a warning against overconfidence for the Bees. They certainly started to work even harder from this point on, Akinde especially; with Barnet’s number nine winning every high ball, spreading play and continually working the left wing, his versatile talents were clear to see. In the twenty-first minute, he won a couple of corners in quick succession; pumped in by Cook, both bobbled perilously close to the away net before being desperately cleared. Then, in the twenty-sixth minute, Akinde and Cook made the crucial contributions of the match.

Having found himself in space out on the left, Cook slid a great ball through to Akinde, who had drifted cleverly across the Woking box; collecting the ball and turning to fire at static away keeper Jake Cole, he gave Cards’ defender Joe McNerney no choice but to attempt a last ditch tackle. Flattening Akinde without getting anything on the ball, McNerney didn’t argue with the resulting penalty call. He was rather more irate about the red card that the referee produced, as were the away fans behind the goal; this double punishment might have felt a little harsh but, then again, Akinde had definitely been denied a goalscoring opportunity.

With McNerney sent off, Akinde tucked the penalty away to Cole’s left. The Woking fans, though still happy to jump about, were all the more livid. This only spurred Barnet on; they proceeded to dominate the depleted Cards for the rest of the half. Akinde, Cole, midfielder Luisma and striker Charlie McDonald all went close one after another, last-gasp away defending the only thing keeping the score at one-nil. The best home chance then came in the forty-first minute, when Akinde won a free kick on the left; lashed into the Woking box by Cole, this was headed inches over by Bees’ centre back Jack Saville. The away side proceeded to hold out until half time.

Though the first half had left Barnet with a massive advantage, Woking’s sustained resistance suggested that the result was not as secure as it might have seemed. Unfortunately for the away side, they soon made resistance much harder for themselves. With Akinde and McDonald starting the second half well, both surging up the Woking flanks, the away defence must have felt the intense pressure; still, there was no excuse for them conceding their second. In the fiftieth minute, under mild harassment from Akinde, Cards’ defender Joey Jones horribly skewed his back pass to Jake Cole; this bobbled past the away keeper, onto the post, and in. As Jones dropped his head in horror, home fans and players celebrated with glee. Now, surely, the Bees had won it.

For the next half an hour, there was no real suggestion otherwise. As the Barnet fans sang their best promotion numbers – the Woking fans were still jumping, it should be said – the Bees buzzed ceaselessly around the away net. Cards’ midfielder Josh Payne had a vicious shot saved by Stack in the fifty-fourth minute, but apart from that the home side dominated; Akinde had a series of good chances, while Curtis Weston had two stinging drives palmed away by Cole in the seventy-first. Three minutes later, and the irrepressible Akinde should have made it three-nil. One on one with Cole after a defensive error in the Woking back line, he dragged the keeper wide of goal; having done the hard work, he then blasted his effort well over.

In the seventy-ninth minute, it suddenly appeared as if this miss might come back to haunt the home side. Sprinting from the middle of the pitch, Cards’ substitute Yemi Odubade squeezed between the Barnet centre backs before caning a shot past Stack; the Barnet keeper got a hand to it, but it was impossible to keep out. The ten men of Woking were rejuvenated, while the home side were rattled. A heroic Woking comeback felt possible.

For the last ten minutes, the away side turned the game on its head; frantically seeking an equaliser, they played at their maximum. In the eighty-first minute, Odubade fired low but wide from the edge of the box. In the eighty-second, Scott Rendell tangled with the generally faultless Andy Yiadom in the box, but no penalty was given; though dicey, this was probably the right call. Barnet manager Martin Allen brought on defender David Stephens in the eighty-ninth, and this did shore things up somewhat. Nevertheless, as their fans carried on bounding about, Woking mustered one last chance; from a corner, Josh Payne fired a gliding volley just a little too high.

Full time saw Barnet claim the win, though Woking had put up a valiant fight to the end. Another step on the long road to promotion for the Bees, and an encouraging late performance for the Cards; shivering madly now in the arctic evening air, I zipped my Barbour up to the top and headed home.

Result: Barnet 2 Woking 1.
My MoM: John Akinde. Pace, physicality and hard work; a bold individual showing.
Best fans: Woking’s Red & White Army. Bouncy. Angry. Bouncy.

Hive got chills, they’re multiplying

Police on my back

The game: Enfield Town v. Metropolitan Police.
The ground: the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
The conditions: drizzlier than a delicious lemon cake.

With a bitter gale whipping the terraces and rain slanting down from the flat, granite sky, Saturday’s fixture between Enfield Town and Metropolitan Police was – much like Luther, Broadchurch or any other good drama involving the force – set to a pretty bleak backdrop. The weather didn’t exactly bode well for smooth, stylish football yet, with the Met occupying a coveted play-off spot only nine points ahead of Town, both sides needed to produce some strong stuff; munching on my homemade spelt bap prior to kick off, I foresaw a tough and gritty game.

For the first twenty minutes or so, the home side actually managed to defy the elements and play with familiar panache; as a result, they were well on top. Tyler Campbell instantly set about the opposition’s defence, running, passing and jinking his way around the away box; in the third minute he set up Nathan Livings twelve yards out, but the young midfielder’s sweet volley was kept out by Met stopper Stuart Searle. In the sixth minute, a good cross from Town defender Ricky Gabriel dropped right to Campbell’s feet; the gifted number seven then drilled wide from close range – a rare lapse from him.

Though Town’s star man Corey Whitely was unusually quiet, the team continued to menace Searle’s net. Bar a few attempted (but largely unsupported) breaks from Met winger Bradley Hudson-Odoi, Enfield held onto the ball unopposed; with Bobby Devyne, Livings and Campbell all full of early energy, the away back four struggled. This was exemplified in the fifteenth minute when, having been turned by some tricky skill, Met defender Will Salmon tugged down Town’s Joe Stevens in the box; no penalty was given, but this was a very risky approach indeed. However, a few wayward shots later, Town’s initial élan began to fade. The game soon became about grinding the opposition down; only by working hard in the gruelling conditions might either team prosper.

The Met’s first real chance came from a twentieth minute free kick out on the right; this was headed well over the crossbar. In the twenty-third minute, Met midfielder Ryan James won the ball high up the pitch and, bursting into the home box from the left, fired low at Town keeper Nathan McDonald; this was confidently saved. The away side were definitely getting better, though the game was not; constant fouls and free kicks for both teams broke up the majority of play. Half chances were exchanged, but neither keeper was called upon to make a save; the real action was in the crunching slide tackles slicing through the middle third of the pitch, most of which elicited deafening siren noises from the home crowd.

In the thirty-fifth minute, there was another penalty shout for Enfield. After a decent passing move initiated by Campbell, Whitely nicked the ball past Will Salmon and into the box. As he went to cut the ball back from the by-line, Salmon seemed to clip his heels from behind. Though Whitely, Campbell and the Town fans all appealed vociferously, the referee laughed this incident off. Again, this was a risky approach from the Met defender, one that might well have seen a spot kick granted.

The next ten minutes were devoid of chances; the Town fans sang some inventive police-related chants, and a hard-fought half came to an end. It would have taken an optimistic supporter to predict a goal fest to come but, conversely, there was a sense that a single moment of genius – or luck – could win it; there was still drama in the game.

After a few minutes of second half scrapping, Enfield had the best chance yet. A Met corner was cleared to Campbell, who went racing away down the right wing. Searle stormed off his line and was promptly rounded, leaving the net wide open; Campbell then pinged a perfect pass to Nathan Livings on the edge of the box, only for Livings to pump his shot high over the bar. Heads fell into hands on and off the pitch. That might well have been the crucial chance.

It certainly looked that way for the next forty-odd minutes. There were some threatening set pieces, quite a few bookings and many more half chances, but hardly any clear-cut opportunities; the Met went closest in the seventy-fourth minute from a stinging Joe Turner effort, but McDonald was equal to it. Campbell worked tirelessly for Enfield, but a scoreless draw seemed inevitable. A goal just would not come.

Then, in the eighty-eighth minute, Town won a free kick out on the left. The initial delivery was cleared by the Met’s massed defence, but the ball fell to substitute Darnell Wynter fifteen yards out; from there, he hooked an inch-perfect volley past the static Searle and in. Bradley Quinton’s Barmy Army went, well, barmy. That moment of genius had been coming after all; a few more minutes battling, and an unforgiving game ended with an agreeable result for the home side.

Result: Enfield Town 1 Metropolitan Police 0.
My MoM: Tyler Campbell. Hardest worker on the pitch, and always full of intent.
Best fans: the Town fans. ‘Nee-naw, nee-naw!’

Police on my back