Devon knows I’m miserable now

The game: Exeter City v. Morecambe.
The ground: St James Park.
The conditions: absolutely bloody miserable.

It’s jolly tiring, this whole sport writing lark. Everyone needs a break every now and then. After months and months of lower-league football, I decided to take my leave from it all; a little staycation by the seaside was required, so I leapt on a train and adventured to the distant city of Exeter.

I made an itinerary on my way there, planning out my holiday from the beautiful game with pleasure. I could visit the grand medieval cathedral. I could enjoy a half pint of Abbott Ale in The Ship Inn, a Tudor public house with a prestigious nautical history. I could even attend a life class at the renowned Exeter University, indulging my artistic talents at only the 154th-ranked higher education facility in the world.

Inevitably, come three o’ clock on Saturday, I had done none of those things. Rather, I found myself plodding away in the pouring rain, en route to Exeter City’s St James Park for the home side’s match up with Morecambe. The football had called to me, and I had answered. Goodbye cathedral. Goodbye historical half pint. Goodbye life class.

Pushing through the turnstiles and finding myself a spot on the ‘Big Bank’ – an impressive terrace indeed – I readied myself for some mid-table League Two fare. The resident ‘Grecians’ had an outside chance of a sought-after play-off spot coming into the game, while the visiting ‘Shrimps’ would be desperate for three points after a three-match winless run; there may not have been automatic promotion or relegation at stake, yet this would still be a hard-fought fixture.

Exeter started brightly, good early play seeing midfielder Tom McCready curling a shot straight at Morecambe keeper Andreas Arestidou; not long afterwards, Grecians’ wide man Lee Holmes paced up the left flank and rocketed a low cross through the box – nobody could get a touch on it. To encouraged cries of ‘We are Ex-eter!’ the home side pressed Morecambe from all sides. In the twelfth minute, after the Shrimps’ Aaron Wildig had been dispossessed in the midfield, McCready charged up the middle of the park before lashing a shot just wide of the upright. It felt like the home pressure might soon pay off.

In the fifteenth, Exeter forward Tom Nichols won a corner; the delivery fell straight to Christian Ribeiro, but the defender could only nod his free header over the crossbar. This miss would straightaway prove costly. Having been on the back foot so far, Morecambe suddenly worked a great move and a great goal. Latching on to an accurate goal kick, Wildig charged up the left before squaring the ball for Andrew Fleming on the edge of the box; Fleming then slipped overlapping full back Aaron McGowan through, watching on as his teammate placed the ball past home keeper James Hamon. Goal.

After some slightly hot-headed celebrations in front of the home fans – the atmosphere from here on out was a wrathful one – Morecambe’s players took advantage of their surprise lead. Defender Ryan Edwards had two chances to double their advantage from set pieces, heading inches wide on both occasions. Jamie Devitt then fired narrowly over from long distance. The Grecians were living dangerously.

At the other end, the home side were now struggling to create clear-cut chances; sterile possession made little impact on the resolute Morecambe back line. In the thirty-seventh minute, the Grecians did have a penalty shout after Nichols went down under pressure from Alex Kenyon; there wasn’t much in this and referee Michael Bull waved play on, much to the rage of the St James Park faithful.

Nichols had one more shot before the break, a misplaced Shrimps’ pass giving him the opportunity to shoot low across the box – and wide. Bull then brought the first half to a close, berated off the pitch by a chorus of boos. I went off to get some wasabi peas, before coming back with an unidentifiable meat pasty.

Exeter needed to recapture their initial verve after the restart and – whatever Paul Tisdale said to them at half time – they gradually did so. In the first few minutes of the second period, Ribeiro and McCready both made snappy forays forward after classy passing – their eventual efforts were easy for Arestidou, but the home threat was evident once more. Devitt then had Morecambe’s only real chance of the half, receiving a neat pass from Fleming on the right before setting himself and firing a whisker wide of Hamon’s far post. This scare only spurred the Grecians on.

In the fifty-sixth minute, Exeter substitute Alex Nicholls made a storming run down the right before turning Morecambe’s Mark Hughes on the edge of the box and curling a sumptuous effort just over. Ten minutes later, after a long and unbroken spell encamped around the Shrimps’ area, the home side worked another good opening; Tom Nichols jinked past two defenders before smashing a low shot toward the bottom right – this was just cleared by a mass of Morecambe bodies.

In the seventieth, Exeter had another good opportunity. Nichols made yet another strong run up the left before dinking in a cross for substitute David Wheeler, who looped his glancing header a fraction too high. One further spell of pressure, and the Grecians finally had the ball in the back of the net. A tidy Holmes free kick was headed onto the bar by striker Graham Cummins; Wheeler nipped in to nod home the rebound from a couple of yards, the only problem being that he was marginally offside.

The fury on the Big Bank may now have been at a volcanic level, yet the stand was about to erupt into pure delight. At last, in the eightieth minute, Exeter equalised. Tom Nichols put the cross in. Alex Nicholls controlled it, completely unmarked. Turning on his heel, he steered his shot past the onrushing Arestidou. The net rippled. Pasty crusts rained down. Joy.

The Grecians went for the win in the last ten, Ryan Harley’s long shot from twenty yards almost skimming the bar before Nichols’ umpteenth weighted cross gave Cummins the chance to head wide. Some late Morecambe long balls challenged the home defence, but Exeter had all the possession. There was still time for late drama, the excellent Nichols receiving a straight red for an off-the-ball incident that I didn’t really see. Luckily for him, it didn’t cost the home side; a few minutes more, and things ended all square.

Exeter had played the more positive football, while Morecambe had won a shrewd point away from home; considered in isolation, there were obvious positives for both sides to take away from the match. However, for the Grecians, this draw probably signalled the end to hopes of a realistic play-off push. Time for an extended club holiday. Time to think about next season.

Result: Exeter City 1 Morecambe 1.
My MoM: Tom Nichols (Exeter City). Involved throughout, always dangerous, got an assist. Then got sent off. But still.
Best fans: the Grecians. Pasty rain!

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Devon knows I’m miserable now

Breaking new ground

The game: Hendon v. Corinthian-Casuals.
The ground: Silver Jubilee Park.
The conditions: brrrr.

When television pundits talk about ‘the magic of the cup’, they are almost invariably not referring to the London Senior Cup. This is quite unfair considering that – more so than the cynical sponsorship exercise that is the Milk/Littlewoods/Rumbelows/Coca-Cola/Worthington/Carling/Capital One Cup and its increasingly anodyne FA counterpart – the London Senior Cup can be more than a little enchanting; it was especially so this Thursday evening, when Hendon competed with Corinthian-Casuals for a spot in its semi-final.

Perhaps the most magical aspect of the fixture was the fact that this was the Greens’ first competitive match at their soon-to-be new home, Silver Jubilee Park. Having roved from one non-league ground to another since the departure from Claremont Road in 2009, having journeyed through Northwood, Staines, Wembley and – most recently – Harrow, this game marked the moment that Hendon Football Club finally returned to (West) Hendon itself; the club might still have to see out the current league campaign at the Earlsmead, but the cup tie with Casuals was an opportunity to remind the supporters of what truly local games feel like.

The significance of the match brought in a bumper attendance, and there was a great sense of eagerness before kick off; the clubhouse and adjoining stand were absolutely rammed with Greens’ fans while a singing section gathered early behind the away goal – their presence was notably marked by a banner which simply read: ‘Hendon Loyal’. Nonetheless, despite being a Ryman South side, Casuals were not about to bow to the occasion. Hendon’s opponents had not come this far in the cup by chance; the Greens would have to be at their best to mark their homecoming with a win.

For the opening half an hour, the two sides were evenly matched; open, end-to-end football flowed freely on the artificial 3G surface – a far cry from the Earlsmead’s pockmarked battlefield of a pitch. Hendon created their first opening in the sixth minute, bold running by Aaron Morgan and a good cross in from the left finding Max McCann five yards out; from there, the Greens’ midfielder could only slice his shot over the crossbar. Casuals then came straight back at them; tricky feet by Mahrez Bettache saw him slip past Casey Maclaren and into the box, but his stinging effort was chested away by Elliott Brathwaite.

After Casuals’ forward Jamie Byatt had run thirty yards unopposed and blasted over the crossbar, Hendon’s Andre Da Costa was next to take aim; Greens’ striker Leon Smith held the ball up well to the right of the box before cushioning a pass for Da Costa to rifle low at goal – Casuals’ stopper Danny Bracken saved this confidently. Several long-range efforts were exchanged before, in the fifteenth minute, the visitors nearly opened the scoring. Maclaren couldn’t clear a long ball into the box, and this was seized upon by lively attacker Max Austin. One on one with Ben McNamara, Austin rather snatched at his shot; Hendon’s keeper dived to his left and spanked it away to safety.

In the twenty-fifth minute, Casuals had another great chance to put themselves ahead. Ross Defoe ran directly at the Hendon centre backs and, caught ball watching, they completely failed to track a clever run by Bettache; Defoe skidded a cute ball through the Greens’ back line to set his teammate away. Just as Bettache was about to slot past McNamara, Maclaren then redeemed his earlier mistake by making the tackle of the match. Getting back and timing his slide perfectly, he left the Casuals’ number eight striking at thin air before thumping the ball away.

This goal-saving intervention was to prove quite decisive. Four minutes later, Hendon went ahead. A goal kick sent Morgan steaming off down the left once more, then all the way round the Casuals’ retreating backline and in behind. Bearing down on goal, he rattled a cross-cum-shot across the goalmouth; in a cruel twist of fate, it was would-be goalscorer Bettache who got the inevitable touch on it, blasting it into his own goal via the underside of the crossbar. One-nil Hendon, and it was a Corinthian-Casuals player with the first competitive home goal at Silver Jubilee Park.

In the thirty-third minute, Casuals could have drawn level with a freak shot; Bettache, desperate to atone, went straight for goal from a corner – and smashed the crossbar. If nothing was paying off for poor Bettache, everything was going Morgan’s way. In the thirty-sixth, Hendon’s number eleven won a free kick on the edge of the away area; controlling the subsequent delivery by Smith and playing a neat one two with defender James Fisher, Morgan burst past a static Casuals’ defence and tucked past Bracken. Two-nil, with Morgan involved in pretty much everything.

The game looked to be decided moments later. On another foray forward, Fisher combined with Morgan on the right. Morgan then sliced the Casual’s back four apart with a through ball for Smith; the Hendon striker dummied, rounded the forsaken Bracken and tapped in from a yard out.

The stunned Casuals managed not to concede again before the break, just about rallying themselves beneath the home bombardment. The away side could have been forgiven for looking bemused at the stroke of half time; having not played badly at all, they were already staring defeat in the face. Meanwhile, the Greens’ fans looked positively overjoyed. So far, so good.

The second half started well for the Greens, Leon Smith racing through almost immediately and attempting to chip Bracken for his second – this time the Casuals’ keeper kept him out. After that, the visitors showed that they had somewhat changed tack; rather than trying to outplay Hendon, they contented themselves with breaking up the Greens’ attacks while staying tight and compact at the back.

This had the desired effect for a while; the home side seemed far less fluent. In the seventy-first minute, Casuals even pulled one back; a quick break after a Hendon dispossession saw winger Juevan Spencer clip a good ball to Bettache – the midfielder finally got his goal, dinking skilfully over the onrushing McNamara before stroking into the back of the net.

The Greens weren’t finished, however. The game was well and truly over as a contest when, just over ten minutes later, substitutes Lee O’Leary and Kezie Ibe passed the ball between themselves almost into the Casuals’ net; it was Ibe who got the eventual finish, firing across Bracken and in. A few minutes later, Danny Dudley fouled Ibe to allow Morgan to put a gloss on the scoreline; sweeping the ball into the side of the net from the spot, this capped off an excellent individual showing from the Greens’ forward.

It ended five-one to Hendon and, even if the score was a little harsh on Casuals, this was indicative of just how majestic the Greens had been on the night. Not only had they won their cup tie, they had shown a glimpse of the club’s footballing future in Hendon. The future looks bright. What a homecoming.

Result: Hendon 5 Corinthian-Casuals 1.
My MoM: Aaron Morgan. Two goals and a forced own goal make a hat-trick, of sorts. Add an assist to that. Monstered it.
Best fans: Greens’ fans. Have followed their team all over, now following them home. ‘Hendon Loyal’.

Breaking new ground

The prodigal Tons

The game: Clapton v. London Bari.
The ground: The Old Spotted Dog.
The conditions: dark and dry; just the way I like my oven-baked beetroot wedges.

Historical landmark. Political space. Home to some of the nation’s liveliest Ultras. Venue for one of the country’s rawest groundshare rivalries. As a Stadio Calcistico, it’s as famous as they come. You know it, I know it – we all revere it. It is, undeniably, the San Siro. The San Siro of the Essex Senior League.

The Old Spotted Dog bears several noticeable differences to Milan’s iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, of course. The clubhouse has seen better days. One end of the ground is pretty much derelict. A blue double-decker bus, an industrial shipping container, some old tyres and a pile of rubble occupy a corner of the pitch. The main stand is called ‘the Scaffold’. It is quite literally a scaffold. All of this makes the Dog one of the most joyously ramshackle non-league grounds I have so far witnessed.

With the Scaffold Brigada – Clapton’s hardcore support – out in force for Tuesday evening’s Dog derby with resident rivals London Bari, the rickety setting came to life long before a football had been kicked in earnest. Chants inspired by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Desmond Dekker and the somewhat-less-seminal Shanks & Bigfoot rocked the Scaffold, anti-fascist refrains vied with some pretty candid censure of their opponents (one ditty to the disarmingly upbeat tune of the Super Mario theme was particularly blunt), Tyskie lager was consumed and serenaded in equal measure, while pennants and protest banners – one quickly confiscated – were draped and taped over the railing between fans and turf. As the players came out onto the pitch, the Ultras’ roars were thunderous. Kick off was still a couple of minutes away, but the whole ‘best fans’ thing was a foregone conclusion.

On the field, the ‘Tons’ made a fast start. In the second minute, a weak throw from Bari keeper George Hearson was snaffled up Fahad Nyanja; the Clapton attacker went one on one with the retreating Hearson, only for Simpson Mpalampa to get back and hastily cut him out. Five minutes later, Andy Mott won a free kick on the edge of the Bari box. Taking this himself, he fired well over the crossbar – an early sighter.

Straightaway, Bari carved out a great chance in response. Fleet-footed wide man Junior Decker received a pass on the half way line before racing down the left flank, beating his man and reaching the by-line; from there, he clipped a precise cross back for striker Tobi Adesina to head home, only for the number nine to nod inches over. Then, in the sixteenth minute, Decker slipped a ball through the Clapton back four and found Adesina once more; with Tons’ keeper Bobby Constantine stranded and the defence in disarray, he could only slide his shot past the post.

This miss provoked much mockery from the sidelines, including a brief burst of ‘Chuckle Chuckle Bari!’ that would probably have brought tears of happiness to Paul and Barry Chuckle’s ageing eyes; however, there was a hint of nervousness in the laughter – Bari were looking dangerous. The Tons’ players revived the Scaffold’s confidence in the twentieth minute when, after playing a clever one two with Shomari Barnwell, Mott volleyed narrowly wide of the upright. In what was becoming an open and even half, an incisive passing move by Bari then set Andy Greenslade up for a fifteen-yard effort from the left; the shot was heading toward the far corner, but Constantine saw it early and got down well to make the save.

In the twenty-ninth minute, the scoring was suddenly opened. A long ball from the back bounced kindly for Barnwell who – despite vociferous Bari calls for offside – calmly rounded the advancing Hearson and netted with apparent ease. The Scaffold went absolutely mad, the Ultras leaping about in Tyskie-fuelled abandon. The initial deadlock was broken. Advantage Clapton.

This advantage lasted all of three minutes. In the thirty-second, a quick Bari counter saw Adegoke Adetunji zoom off down the right wing. Whipping in a low cross, his ball through bodies found Decker sliding in at the far post; he prodded home to bring Bari level before nonchalantly jogging past the Scaffold and flashing the crestfallen Ultras a cheeky grin.

This certainly didn’t stop the singing for long, but it did give Bari the edge. Moments after the restart, Adesina latched on to a long pass of his own; skipping past Jake Stevens and going head to head with Constantine, his weighted chip over the keeper fell a yard away from the goal line – the ball then looped up and cleared the crossbar by a whisker. If this was something of a let off for Clapton, it was nothing compared to the number nine’s chance on the stroke of half time. After a spell of possession for Bari, Decker sent Adesina through the Tons’ back line once more. He dragged the ball past Constantine but, faced with a gaping goal, his low shot was weak; defender Jamie Lyndon dived in and thrashed this away. Adesina didn’t give up, galloping to his right to gobble up the rebound. Still he was denied; in an act of defensive heroism, Lyndon scrabbled over to block this too – Constantine then hoofed the ball clear, and the referee blew.

Another Tyskie (and possibly a whisky) later, and the second half was underway. Both sides seemed to be keeping it much tighter at the back but, consequently, the game was a bit less expansive; it took until the sixty-first minute for another opportunity to come along, this time for the Tons’ Troy Ricketts – his ten-yard snapshot across the face of goal was palmed out by Hearson. Then, in the sixty-ninth, the ever-threatening Decker won a corner for Bari. The delivery bobbled in the Clapton area and fell to Adesina, but his side-footed effort was blocked on the line and battered away; try as he might, it just wasn’t his night in front of goal.

Bari edged the last twenty minutes, but nothing much came off for either side late on; Cornelio Fonseca came closest to finding a winner, blasting over from twenty yards after Adesina had turned provider. Apart from that effort, it was the action amongst the fans that really captured my attention; chanting in disdain of new, lager-prohibiting ground rules, heading loose balls and generally making an admirable racket, they maintained the mood right until the last.

The match ended one-all and – even if Bari had the better chances – the draw was probably about right. The Clapton Ultras applauded their adversaries off to generous cheers of ‘Well played Bari!’ before both sets of players showed their reciprocal appreciation of the Scaffold; bragging rights were shared in the Dog derby, while a great night was had by all.

Result: Clapton 1 London Bari 1.
My MoM: Junior Decker. Inspired by the lyrics of Desmond Dekker. Double Decker. Decker2. Goal.
Best fans: the Clapton Ultras. Forza Clapton. Forza Chuckle.

The prodigal Tons

Thurrock around the clock

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. East Thurrock United.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: cloudier than a pint of London murky.

The term ‘ground hopper’ gets thrown around a lot. Some people are natural ground hoppers, nomadic fans forever wandering the endless footballing desert. Others ground hop consistently, reliably peripatetic, never quite satisfied. Then there are the not-quite-hoppers. The not-quite-hoppers are partial to revisiting stadiums. They like a bit of adventure but, conversely, they don’t mind familiar surroundings. They grow fond of a guest ale, they get used to a certain standard of pre-match falafel wrap and, by god, they’re not going to leave it all behind to get a two-hour train to Bognor Regis. As you may have already guessed, I fall in to the latter group. No offence intended, Bognor.

It was back to Champion Hill on Saturday and, having met up for a drink and a chat with the fine gentlemen of the Forward The Hamlet podcast, it was soon time to watch a team with whom I’ve evidently become well acquainted. Curiously, Hamlet found themselves on an unfamiliar run coming into their game with the ‘Rocks’ of East Thurrock United; the home team were in the midst of a late-season slump, bottom of the Ryman League form table with no wins in their last five competitive matches – and no score in four of those. The Rocks weren’t in great form themselves, but they arrived at Champion Hill with their most recent result a confidence-boosting one-nil win against Hampton & Richmond Borough. The visitors would surely be looking to capitalise on Hamlet’s slump and win again; for Gavin Rose’s men, the need to rediscover their own confidence (especially in front of goal) was pressing.

It was perhaps an excessive sense of urgency that led to Hamlet conceding in only the third minute. Trying to play out from the back after an early foray forward by United, Ethan Pinnock was dispossessed on the edge of his own area by nimble Rocks’ striker Mitchell Gilbey; dribbling round Phil Wilson, Gilbey practically walked the ball into the net to make it one-nil to the away side. The Rabble had barely had time to assemble at this point and a mood of mild deflation pervaded the ground. The pressure on the Pink & Blues was only intensified.

Hassled by United’s energetic front men, Hamlet’s defence seemed doubly nervous in possession. Happily for the home fans, the attackers soon showed their determination to step up. In the eighth minute, after strong running and a great final ball from new signing Joe ‘The Tank’ Benjamin, player-coach Kevin James almost poked in from four yards; Rocks’ keeper David Hughes nicked the ball off his outstretched boot at the very last second. Nyren Clunis went close moments afterward, before a pacey attacking run by Albert Jarrett was cut out ten yards from goal. Hamlet’s desire was obvious enough, and the Rabble began to reciprocate their efforts. Even so, the team looked far from settled; United could have gone two ahead five minutes later, forward Sam Higgins sending Ellis Brown clear on the right only for the latter to chip his shot well wide from fifteen yards.

The Pink & Blues did get on the scoresheet soon enough. In the eighteenth minute, Hamlet midfielder Ashley Carew collected a pass almost on the centre spot. From there, he stroked a brilliant through ball in between the Rocks’ centre backs for the surging James to chase. United defender Ben Wood managed to get back and win the challenge, but in doing so he sliced the ball past the stranded Hughes and in. The dubious goals panel wasn’t required. One-all.

If this felt like a turning point for Hamlet, the feeling didn’t last long. In what was becoming a frantic opening twenty, the home side were behind again only seconds after the restart; a long ball forward was allowed to bounce and fall to Gilbey who, scampering to the right of goal, drilled a low shot into the far corner of the net.

The rest of the half saw Hamlet make a succession of chances almost without reply, yet put nothing away. In the twenty-second minute, a cross from Benjamin found Jarrett just outside the Rocks’ box; the Pink & Blues wide man fired just wide of the upright. Two minutes later, James won a free kick twenty yards out; Jarrett took responsibility once more, this time bending an effort inches over the crossbar. Clunis had an attempt on target in the thirty-first – saved by Hughes – before Benjamin nutmegged United defender Paul Goodacre and saw a shot of his own ricochet back off the hoardings. There were positive signs in the home play, but nobody could find a finish. One wayward blast from Rocks’ midfielder Nicky Symons later, and the referee signalled for the break.

It had been the ultimate half of frustration for Hamlet; defensive errors had seen them concede while attacking endeavour had gone unrewarded. Considering recent struggles, it felt as if the Pink & Blues would have to give an extraordinary account of themselves in the second period to get anything out the game. As it happened, that’s exactly what they did.

For a regulation forty-five minutes, the home side that re-emerged from the dressing room played really good football. They looked tighter, brighter and more effective all over the pitch; clever moves and early efforts from Benjamin and Jarrett set the fresh tone before, in the sixty-first minute, Carew made a vital contribution to haul them level.

Hurtling fifteen yards unchallenged and bursting into the area, the number eight’s run was unceremoniously halted by the onrushing Hughes; the referee awarded a penalty without hesitation. Jumping up and taking it himself, Carew thrashed a perfect side-footed spot kick to the keeper’s left. What ensued behind the goal was probably a public order offence. In a good way.

To the jubilant choruses of the Dead Kennedys-inspired ‘Dulwich Hamlet Über Alles’, the home side now went for the jugular. The Tank instantly won a foul in a central position twenty-five yards out; the uncontainable Carew went for goal with the free kick, smashing a dipping effort narrowly past the post. The game was broken up after an innocuous-looking clash between Higgins and Wilson in the box, the latter receiving lengthy on-field treatment. However, the Pink & Blues weren’t put off by the impromptu delay; in the eighty-second minute, mere moments after play had resumed, Hamlet substitute Luke Wanadio won a corner which defender Terrell Forbes nearly nodded into the net – his goal-bound header was smashed away by a combination of Hughes and Rocks’ defender Tom Stephen.

Then, in the ninetieth minute, Hamlet looked to have won it. Wanadio played a ball to Benjamin in a dangerous position just inside the United area; the luckless Wood steamed in with a tackle, getting nothing of the ball and all of the man – penalty. Carew stepped up again, went the same way and got exactly the same result. Three-two to the Pink & Blues, and the turnaround appeared complete.

Regrettably for the home side, they stuttered in injury time; those seemingly distant first-half nerves crept up on them once more. It was five agonising minutes after Carew’s second penalty when the defence allowed Rocks’ substitute Ross Parmenter an absolute age on the ball; from twelve yards, he pinged an angled shot past Wilson to deny Hamlet the win.

It was mixed emotions for both sides at full time; mistakes defined the match. The Rabble were ebullient as always at the final whistle, but their side’s confidence has a way to go yet; with six league fixtures left before play offs, the clock’s ticking.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 3 East Thurrock United 3.
My MoM: Mitchell Gilbey (East Thurrock United); took his two goals really well and played a part in the build up to Parmenter’s strike.
Best fans: Hamlet fans. Always über. Also, hosted the Football Beyond Borders charity afterward. Check them out.

Thurrock around the clock

Green, green grass of home

The game: Hendon v. Canvey Island.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: foggier than my memory after a night on the Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

By the misty glow of the Earlsmead’s floodlights, to the sound of cooing from the main stand’s resident family of pigeons, the Greens of Hendon and the Gulls of Canvey Island emerged from their respective dressing rooms and jogged out onto the clumpy pitch. This was a big night for Hendon, and the substantial home crowd knew it. Though their team was perched up in second place and unbeaten in seven league matches, fixture congestion meant that this was the side’s third game in only five days. A win against mid-table Canvey would almost guarantee them a spot in the coveted top three, while it might even leave them within striking distance of first-placed Maidstone United; however, collective fatigue was a real worry – a worry that Canvey were ready to exploit.

Despite their recent exertions, Greens’ manager Gary McCann went with pretty much his strongest starting line up; there was to be no shying away from the game. This set the tone for the evening. From the start, both sides worked incredibly hard all over the pitch – both sides grafted for a win.

What the first fifteen minutes lacked in clear-cut chances, it made up for in determination; this was two teams going directly at each other, and it made for compelling viewing. In amongst the tight spaces and tough tackles, Andre Da Costa made some strong attacking runs for Hendon while the hulking Enoch Showunmi muscled and tussled his way past the Greens’ back four; neither could quite find a final ball or an obvious opening, but the intent was more than apparent.

While the game remained level, things soon started to liven up at either end of the pitch. In the eighteenth minute, Hendon’s Kezie Ibe received the ball in the middle of the park before finding Aaron Morgan running in behind the Gulls’ defence; one on one but under pressure from defender Steven Smith, Morgan’s shot was straight at oncoming Canvey keeper Tim Brown. A minute later, a Hendon move broke down and Showunmi broke away; putting winger Jack Simmons through on goal, he could only watch on as his teammate’s low shot from the left was saved and collected by the safe hands of Ben McNamara.

At this point, a Hemel Hempstead scouting party arrived. Sitting right below the main stand’s pigeons, they were quickly informed by a home supporter that they might want to move and avoid being covered in a hefty amount of bird excrement. This may seem like a strange observation to make in the middle of a match report, yet the act of kindness touched me. Good on you, Hendon fan. Good on you.

Back to the game. In the twenty-fourth minute, Canvey’s Jay Curran carved out yet another one on one; his neat through ball allowed the overlapping Smith to bear down on McNamara, yet the centre back couldn’t find the required finish – his curling effort went well wide. A few minutes later, Simmons played a one two with Showunmi on the left before bursting through the Greens’ back line himself; his effort was almost identical to Smith’s.

If Hendon’s back four looked somewhat lethargic at this point, it was Charlie Goode who re-energised them and allowed his side to build from the back; making tackles, interceptions and vital clearances over and over again, his endeavour was magnificent. Accordingly, Hendon came back at the visitors. In the thirty-first minute, a direct Greens’ free kick was palmed into the middle of the box by Brown; Morgan thumped this straight back at goal, only to see his effort headed away by Canvey’s Josh Banton. A couple of minutes later, a Greens corner fell for Morgan on the edge of the box; firing through the crowd of yellow shirts, his shot was also cleared.

In the thirty-sixth, Hendon’s Oliver Sprague almost scored an absolute screamer. With Da Costa having made plenty of space for him with another good run down the left flank, Sprague teed himself up from twenty yards and hit a beautiful effort with the outside of his foot – this was always bending away from the net, yet it was still only a few inches wide of the top-left corner. Canvey then had the last chance of the half. In the forty-third minute, Showunmi set Curran off on a blistering run toward the Hendon box. Pressured by the covering Goode, Curran’s low attempt was saved at the legs of McNamara.

There was no added time at the end of a frenetic first period, and that said it all. Tired or not, both teams had battled, both teams had created and both teams had made it a constant, uninterrupted contest; the two sides left the field on an even footing and, despite the numerous opportunities, this felt about right.

The second half started in much the same fashion. Early half chances were exchanged, Canvey’s George Sykes going closest in the fifty-third minute with a twenty yard drive which took some saving from McNamara. Tight defending at both ends of the pitch saw about ten footballs smashed away into the night – the Earlsmead could do with some netting, or something – while scraps in both penalty areas suggested that the game was perhaps becoming a bit untidy. Indeed, it was a bit of untidiness in Canvey’s area which heralded a decisive opener.

In the sixty-first minute, Ibe won a corner for Hendon. The delivery in was glanced toward the net by Elliott Brathwaite, before Brown punched it away. Unfortunately for the Canvey keeper the ball fell to Morgan, who picked Kevin Maclaren out amongst the converging Gulls’ players; from ten yards, the Greens’ number six fired a thumping shot past the helpless away keeper. The home side were ahead.

With the Green Army the loudest they’d been all season, Hendon nearly grabbed another straightaway. Morgan and Ibe combined well before the latter found Da Costa charging into the box on the left; his venomous effort was pushed over the bar by the slightest of fingertip saves from Brown. Then, in the sixty-eighth minute, Goode almost scored with another glancing header; Banton was once more on hand to head this clear of goal.

For the last twenty minutes of the match, the visibly exhausted home players had to perform a valiant rearguard action; Canvey regrouped and threw everything they had at Hendon, fighting fiercely for an equaliser. Sykes, Curran, Harrison Chatting and bustling full back Dave Collis all went close, yet the Greens simply refused to concede. The home side could even have finished the game off when, in the eighty-fourth minute, Brown’s desperate challenge on Hendon substitute Leon Smith left Casey Maclaren staring down an empty net from thirty yards; the away keeper’s blushes were spared thanks to the spectacular, Beckham-esque long shot that ensued going well wide of the target.

Despite a late barrage of long balls and a few dicey moments, Hendon held on to the lead and the win. Having been given a hard game by their opponents, the Greens’ unbeaten run was deservedly preserved; consequently, as a late-night fog descended on the Earlsmead, their promotion hopes began to seem a whole lot more distinct.

Result: Hendon 1 Canvey Island 0.
My MoM: Charlie Goode (Hendon). A committed, spirited defensive display.
Best fans: the Green Army. Exciting times to be a Hendon fan, and they made it known. Bonus marks for pigeon awareness.

Green, green grass of home

The Belgians are coming

The game: Enfield Town v. Leatherhead.
The ground: the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
The conditions: het was koud!

‘Goedemorgen, Enfield!’ That was the cry that could (probably) be heard all through EN1 on Saturday morning. Arriving at the QEII early on a bracing day in North London, a large group of Belgian football fans got an atmosphere going long before a player had set foot on the pitch. These were supporters of YB SK Beveren, fans of a lower-league club from East Flanders and – ever since their fateful meeting in the 2013 Supporters Direct Cup – firm friends of Towners everywhere.

Having crossed the Channel solely for the purpose of renewing amicable ties with their English counterparts, the Beveren fans were ready for revelry; with the Butler’s Bar open early, beer flowing freely and a hog roast in the main stand, they were welcomed with open arms by their hosts. Indeed, it was only after a good deal of hearty singing and happy reminiscing that thoughts started to turn toward the possibility of watching some mid-afternoon football.

In addition to their Belgian visitors, Town were also hosting the ‘Tanners’ of Leatherhead in a mid-table match up of serious importance for both sides’ late play off pushes. While Enfield’s inconsistent flair had kept them in the hunt for a pop at promotion, the away side topped the Ryman League form table going into the game and had been steadily accruing points for some time. A win for either team might put an end to the other’s ambitions; this was certainly as big an occasion on the pitch as it was off it.

The play was pretty average at the start; the first ten minutes were notable only for a pair of unusually early bookings, one to Leatherhead striker Carl Rook for a remarkably late challenge on Mark Kirby, the other to Claudio Vilcu for booting Rook round the ear in retaliation. Nevertheless, as the sides tried to find their feet, the noise from the sidelines grew more and more ear-splitting; with the sound of ‘Enfield, everybody!’ and the mad swirling of specially prepared half scarves bidding them on from behind the away goal, the Town players suddenly seemed inspired.

First, in the twelfth minute, Aryan Tajbakhsh played a great ball through to Corey Whitely. Effortlessly rolling his marker out on the right, Enfield’s number nine got a low shot away at goal; there wasn’t enough power in this, however, and Leatherhead keeper Louis Wells saved and held. Five minutes later, Tajbakhsh dragged skilfully past an opponent before unleashing Jordan Lockie on the same flank. Receiving a good return pass, Enfield’s eight flicked the ball up on the edge of the box and volleyed just wide.

In the twenty-first, Tajbakhsh played a short free kick to Bobby Devyne on the left of the Leatherhead area; holding the ball up well, Devyne then teed up Stanley Muguo to blast well over the bar. Moments later, Whitely won a free kick on the right. Pumped in perfectly by Ryan Doyle, this fell to Kirby five yards out; belting at goal, the Town defender saw his shot frantically blocked.

Town were well on top by this point, while the Beveren-Enfield faithful kept roaring them on. Leatherhead did carve out a chance in the twenty-sixth minute, fall back Becka Kah Dembele curling over from twenty yards. Still, Enfield came straight back at them. After Muguo had battled to win a corner, Tajbakhsh’s half-cleared delivery fell to Whitely almost on the penalty spot. His fierce shot at goal was pushed out by Wells, before Vilcu scuffed his follow up from five yards into the away keeper’s grateful grasp.

Not long after that, Whitely was presented with two golden opportunities. In the thirty-third minute, after the irrepressible Tajbakhsh had flicked the ball nonchalantly over Leatherhead’s Matt Smart and played a flighted ball straight to him on the left, he cut inside before smashing straight at Wells; despite an initial fumble, this was batted away at the second attempt. A minute later, a deflected Devyne shot came to Whitely twenty yards out. Picking out the top right corner, he was only denied by another Wells save; this time the Tanners’ stopper had to dive at full stretch to palm the ball away – just.

With Whitely and Devyne having several more efforts saved before the break, Leatherhead might have felt lucky to still be in the game. Even so, they did create the last chance of the half, and it was a good one. Out of nothing, a free kick delivery found forward Vasieleious Karagiannis unmarked five yards out. Only home keeper Nathan McDonald’s brave decision to fling his face in front of Karagiannis’ shot stopped Town from going behind on the stroke of half time, well against the run of play.

This scare definitely didn’t dampen half-time spirits. Eating my tasty hog bap in the bustling bar, brushed by still-spinning scarves and buffeted by tuneful strains in both English and Flemish, it was hard not to get caught up in the jubilant mood. I mean, it was a really tasty hog bap.

Once everyone was reassembled behind the goal, the game recommenced. Just as I was musing that, despite their dominant first half, Enfield could do with improving their finishing, a dinked ball from the kick off saw Corey Whitely ghost in behind the sleeping Leatherhead defence and roll past Wells for an instant breakthrough goal.

Naturally, this was the cue for beer-stained shirts to start whirling about amongst the scarves; Towners and Beveren fans alike bounded about, kit half off, in complete and utter euphoria. After ten minutes of Enfield pressure, it then got even better for them. With Devyne afforded a huge amount of space in the middle of the pitch, he ran at the Tanners’ back four before slipping Whitely through once more. Sprinting into the area, he was clearly tripped by Leatherhead’s Jerry Nnamani. Penalty to Enfield. Scenes.

Facing up to a building wall of noise, Ryan Doyle stepped up. Giving Wells the eyes, he tucked home before leaping into the now-screaming crowd in appreciation; eventually extricated by his teammates, Doyle then proceeded to pour the entirety of a fan’s pint over his head – gurning with mild insanity as he did so, this felt like an appropriate tribute to the support.

In the sixty-eighth minute, Leatherhead saw another of their rare chances go begging; Karagiannis worked himself into a position to shoot on the left, but McDonald patted his strike down calmly before collecting. Once more, Town straightaway made an opportunity at the other end of the pitch. Tajbakhsh set Whitely off on the left, received another return ball, saw his shot from five yards blocked and then watched on as the sumptuous move ended with Doyle’s strike cleared off the line by Tanners’ defender Adam Green. That should really have been the end of it.

Happily for the Towners and their guests, they didn’t have long to wait before the game was effectively finished as a contest. After another five minutes, Bobby Devyne received the ball on the left, ran thirty yards unchallenged, cut inside and slotted home. In the prolonged madness that ensued, I barely even noticed Leatherhead’s Kiernan Hughes-Mason receiving his marching orders.

A few minutes before time, Paul Semakula pulled one back for the visitors after a bit of defensive complacency from Town; the loss of the clean sheet must have annoyed McDonald considerably after such a strong display, but the result was never under threat. It ended with an excellent three-one win for Town and, as the Enfield-Beveren fans rejoiced, Bradley Quinton brought his players over to gratefully salute what was surely the crowd of the season. Enfield might just make those play offs yet; whether the season is extended or not, this game was one to remember.

Result: Enfield Town 3 Leatherhead 1.
My MoM: Corey Whitely was outstanding, scoring the first and winning the penalty for the second. Nonetheless, Aryan Tajbakhsh is my man of the match; his creativity was at the centre of almost every successful Enfield attack.
Best fans: Beveren fans. Loved in North London. The undisputed pride of the Belgian Fourth Provincial League.

The Belgians are coming

Harrow, is it me you’re looking for?

The game: Harrow Borough v. Maidstone United.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: pleasantly warm, like a good bowl of Waitrose’s Keralan chicken soup.

How unusual. It was a Saturday and I found myself in the familiar surroundings of the Earlsmead Stadium, yet I was watching two sides for the first time. Having previously seen groundshare partners Hendon play at the Earlsmead, I now primed myself for a match between the ground’s traditional occupants – relegation-threatened Harrow Borough – and Ryman League leaders Maidstone United; the away side were certainly the firm favourites going into the game, yet Harrow’s recent five-one victory over Wingate & Finchley suggested that they might still have a few cards up their (bright red) sleeves.

With a miniature beer festival going on in the bar and an unseasonable warmth out on the terraces, the large Maidstone contingent seemed understandably relaxed as the game kicked off. This didn’t last long. Straightaway their side toiled on the infamously cloddy Earlsmead pitch, while the home team were far less affected; the opening fifteen minutes were fairly uneventful, but Harrow were definitely more confident in possession. The stands reverberated with the songs of the Black & Amber Army, yet it was the home side that fashioned the first meaningful chance of the game; speedy wide man Kamaron English showed great close control to weave in and out of the Maidstone back line before dragging a low shot wide from fifteen yards.

It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but Harrow were doing all the hard work; winning free kicks and aerial balls over and over again, they totally disrupted the champions elect and even started to build up a jerky sort of pressure. As such, it felt deserved when they went ahead in the twenty-seventh minute. Pressing from the front with urgency, English dispossessed Maidstone’s Jamie Coyle before threading a ball through for Harrow striker Marc Charles-Smith to go one on one. Keeping his cool in front of the advancing Lee Worgan, Charles-Smith rolled a low shot past the away keeper and in.

Harrow weren’t fazed by taking an unaccustomed lead; diligent team effort saw Maidstone persistently frustrated, while English continued to provide the home side with a skilful individual outlet on the left. In the thirty-sixth minute, he was once more at the heart of a promising Harrow attack; after a free kick delivery was cleared out of the away area, Harrow’s number eleven volleyed at goal from twenty yards – a deflection sent his shot just over the crossbar.

In the forty-fourth, Maidstone finally fashioned their first chance of the match. Forward Billy Bricknell broke up the pitch at pace before seeing a fierce shot blocked; the rebound came to Jack Parkinson, who scuffed wide. The Maidstone fans had been singing their team on throughout, but this weak attempt seemed to rile them somewhat; with a mass of amber shirts trudging off to the bar a couple of minutes early, the players couldn’t help but get the message that they had played a pretty poor first half.

Several regional light ales later, and a very different game was underway. Though Harrow’s Ryan Hope missed an excellent chance in the forty-ninth minute, bursting into the area before zipping a shot wide, Maidstone quickly started to look like table toppers. Midfielder James Rogers saw a low shot saved by home stopper Nick Jupp in the fifty-first minute. Three minutes later, a good move saw Parkinson fire over from the edge of the box. Suddenly, Maidstone were everywhere.

A rapid succession of chances paid off soon enough. In the sixtieth minute, having slipped in behind the Harrow defence, Bricknell was set up in space; with Jupp only just off his line, he executed an inch-perfect dinked finish over the keeper. One-all, and Maidstone had plenty of time to try and win it; deafened by the sound of Kentish singing and partially blinded by one supporter’s dazzling amber mohican, it felt as if Harrow might well be about to collapse.

Creditably enough, the home side did no such thing. Maidstone continued to grow in stature as the match went on, but the diligence which had characterised Harrow’s first forty-five (especially from the ever-pressing English and Charles-Smith) saw them hold out for a point; despite almost total possession and chances for Shane Huke, Frannie Collin and racy substitute Matt Bodkin, the away side couldn’t find a way through.

Overall then, a proverbial game of two halves. Again, it wasn’t pretty, yet both sides came away with a positive point; with close rivals Margate losing at home to Enfield, the draw put Maidstone a lofty eight points clear at the summit – meanwhile, for Harrow, a decent performance and result in the sun might well brighten up their season come April.

Result: Harrow Borough 1 Maidstone United 1.
My MoM: Kamaron English (Harrow). Technical even on the rugged surface, hard-working without the ball, got an assist.
Best fans: the Black & Amber Army. At least one mohican. Kentish punk vibes.

Harrow, is it me you’re looking for?

Us got to be kidding me

The game: Sutton United v. Bromley.
The ground: The Borough Sports Ground.
The conditions: frostbitten. I am typing this with my last remaining finger.

It was a cold, cold Tuesday evening in Sutton, and I was bumping, jolting and rattling my way down Gander Green Lane on the chilly 413 bus. Coming to my journey’s end outside The Borough Sports Ground (or simply ‘Gander Green Lane’) and stepping out into the night, I realised that this, this very spot, was the furthest south I’d ever been in London – or possibly in my life.

For a moment, it was sort of like that bit of Lord of the Rings when the little men with the hairy feet worry about how far they’ve gone from home. Poignant, basically. However, rather than going on a mystical quest to save the earth, I was planning to watch the ‘Us’ of Sutton United take on the ‘Ravens’ of Bromley. Less poignant but, despite the rapidly falling temperature, also considerably less perilous.

With the visitors top of the table before kick off, they had their own sort of peril to contend with; Bromley couldn’t afford to drop points with Borehamwood so close behind them in the table, while mid-table Sutton would be keen to upset their local rivals’ title chances. The pressure at the top certainly seemed to get to the Ravens, who were on the back foot from the first whistle. With only four minutes on the clock, Us striker Dan Fitchett darted onto a long ball before rocketing a shot at Alan Julian; diving to his left, the away keeper just managed to push this out.

Establishing prolonged possession, Sutton built on their fast start. Both full backs began to maraud up and down the flanks, left back Dale Binns especially; several early half chances were created from accurate crosses in, with Bedsente Gomis and Fitchett the targets. Then, in the twelfth minute, Fitchett won the ball high up the pitch before teeing Gomis up on the edge of the box; his hard drive was palmed away by Julian, but Bromley’s stopper seemed anything but comfortable.

With the away fans roaring the wavering Ravens on from behind the home goal, they did manage to fashion a chance of their own five minutes later. After a foul on young forward Bradley Goldberg, a quick free kick caught the Sutton defence napping; Louis Dennis nipped in behind before unleashing a stinging shot on target, yet he was denied by home stopper Aaron Howe. Still, the Sutton pressure soon resumed; Fitchett had two decent efforts at goal almost immediately, one a rising strike on the turn and the other a looping shot over the bar.

The league leaders were certainly trying to take control of the game, but nothing was quite working for them; oddly bitty going forward, they struggled to counterattack even on the occasions that Sutton ceded them the ball. This was most obvious when, in the twenty-ninth minute, a Ravens counter broke down in the final third and led to an instant breakaway by the Us. Attacking midfielder Ricky Wellard dashed up the right flank and into the area before shooting low at Julian; his shot was blocked by a covering defender, but the ball then came to Gomis to power into the net from five yards. One-nil Sutton.

It was a merited lead for the home side, and it could have swiftly increased. After a great run and cross from Binns, Fitchett was only denied a headed goal by a last-second intervention from Bromley’s Jack Holland. From the consequent corner, the Us’ Michael Spillane floated his own header inches wide. A couple more half chances came and went for Gomis before, in the forty-first minute, Binns went for goal himself; tearing up the left wing for the umpteenth time, he cut inside, slipped between two defenders and flicked a dipping shot toward the far post – Julian did really well to get down low and make the save.

That brought the half to a close, and I shuddered my way to Rose’s Tea Hut for the most necessary cup of cha I’ve ever bought in my life. Using its meagre heat to partially defrost my hands, I reflected on an excellent first-half display from Sutton; from what I’d seen so far, the league upset seemed well and truly on.

Play soon recommenced, and the away side looked to make an instant impression. In the forty-seventh minute, Ravens defender Joe Anderson broke away on the left before firing a speculative, swerving shot toward the near post; this almost wrong footed Howe, but the Us keeper managed to recover and keep it out. Three minutes later, Goldberg won a free kick on the right which Anderson thumped straight down the middle of goal; again Howe kept him out, yet Bromley’s intent was far more apparent.

That said, Sutton still looked good. In the fifty-second, Gomis found himself free in the middle of the park; dragging two Bromley defenders out wide, he then made acres of space for midfielder Kieron Forbes with an audacious backheeled pass. Forbes knocked the ball well ahead of him and, sprinting on, hit a pinpoint, first-time shot toward the far corner of the net. With the save of the match, Julian leapt to his right and brushed this round the post with his fingertips.

Both sides made chances over the next fifteen minutes, but there was nothing on target; more than anything, the game became about which set of fans could wind up the opposition keeper most effectively. The Bromley fans were the clear winners in this endeavour; though both keepers’ kicking became increasingly erratic, Aaron Howe seemed to have been wholly put off by the whistling, hooting and chanting behind him – in an otherwise level period he made a number of uneasy mistakes.

In the seventy-first minute, out of very little, one of these mistakes told. Coming out to collect a long Anderson cross from the left, Howe misjudged the flight of the ball and fumbled; towering Ravens striker Jamie Slabber prodded in to equalise before running to high five a surging wall of elated away support.

After this, the game was turned on its head completely. Bar some good play from Binns and Fitchett to set up Forbes in the Ravens’ area – he shot an inch too high – it was suddenly all Bromley. In the eighty-first minute, after a mix up in the Us’ back line, Goldberg stole in behind to go one on one with Howe; chipping the keeper, his finessed effort bounced back off the crossbar before being smashed away. Ravens wide man Moses Ademola was everywhere at once, seeing several on-target shots only just blocked, while Danny Waldren had a thunderous effort of his own deflected out for a corner; delivered in by Ademola, this too was prodded in by the unmarked Slabber. Two-one to the visitors.

An understandably staggered Sutton side had no answer to this; Bromley could have made it three-one in the eighty-ninth, but Howe made a reflex save to keep out Goldberg from five yards. Playing it shrewdly to the corner flag, Bromley then saw out the game; the referee blew, and the turnaround was complete.

It was, in the end, the league leaders who upset the footballing odds; up until the first goal, Sutton had certainly played the better stuff. Nevertheless, a win in difficult circumstances is the sort of thing title tilts are made of; however harsh it might be on the Us, the Ravens swooped when it mattered.

Result: Sutton United 1 Bromley 2.
My MoM: Dale Binns (Sutton). A storming, buccaneering first half from the left back; his second half was a little more muted, but still a top performance.
Best fans: Bromley. In the battle of goalkeeping distraction, they won.

Us got to be kidding me

Saint nobody got time for that

The game: St Albans City v. Wealdstone.
The ground: Clarence Park.
The conditions: drab and soggy; just the way I like my wholemeal breakfast muffins.

St Albans is a place of history. It has Roman ruins. It has a grand old cathedral. It has several converted former hat-making factories, remnants of its past as a prominent hub for hat making. More importantly, it hosts a venerable non-league football club and an equally venerable non-league ground.

Clarence Park, the ground in question, was packed to its leafy perimeter for Saturday’s bout between the ‘Saints’ of St Albans City and the ‘Stones’ of Wealdstone FC. Though this might have looked like a mid-table fixture at first glance, neither side was comfortably clear of the Conference South drop zone at the start of play; the incentive of climbing the table combined with the two sides’ own history – this was the Stones’ first visit to Clarence Park since 1971 – made this a very intriguing match up indeed.

Things got interesting on the pitch after only a couple of minutes. I was still making my way to a suitable spot on the terraces when Wealdstone won a quick corner. The initial delivery in was cleared, but only as far as the Stones’ veteran striker Jefferson Louis; peeling away from his marker, he then drove a shot across goal and into the top right corner of the net.

The Saints barely touched the ball for the next ten minutes; stunned by conceding so early on, they could have let the game slip away before it had even begun in earnest. As the Wealdstone fans sang jubilantly on the sidelines, a sweet free kick into the City area gave visiting defender Tom Hamblin a free header at goal – this was saved and held by home keeper Joe Welch – before Stones forward Scott Davies fired just over the crossbar.

City urgently needed to kick themselves into gear; to their credit, they soon did. In the thirteenth minute, Saints defender Howard Hall jinked his way past several Wealdstone players before setting up Jamal Lowe twelve yards out; his thumping hit toward the top right was almost identical to that of the opening goal, bar the fact that Stones keeper Luke Chambers made a diving, fingertip save to keep it out. This chance seemed to galvanise the home side, who started to play some free-flowing football. The pitch was damp, Wealdstone were hardy, but City got into their stride regardless; Sam Corcoran and John Frendo combined well, both getting shots away at goal, while Jamal Lowe was especially lively in attack.

In the twenty-fifth minute, the Saints had the ball in the back of the net. Frendo won a free kick out on the right and the resulting delivery was nodded down for defender James Kaloczi to toe-poke in; unfortunately for the home side, Kaloczi was narrowly offside. A minute later, Corcoran side-footed agonisingly wide from ten yards having been teed up by full back Lee Chappell; this was a golden opportunity, one which should have seen the resurgent Saints go level.

The home team had more opportunities to come. In the twenty-ninth minute Frendo worked the ball to Lowe out on the left; the Saints’ attacker cut inside before putting his curling shot inches too high. Moments later, a City long-throw routine forced Wealdstone’s Wes Parker to nod just wide of his own post. The home pressure seemed to be unrelenting.

In what was becoming a topsy-turvy affair, the Stones then forcefully regained the momentum and retained it until the break. Louis had a couple of good attempts at goal, but the best chance of this period fell for Davies. In the forty-first minute, having whipped in a Wealdstone corner himself, a partial home clearance came back to him as he sprinted toward the edge of the box; his low shot at goal was pushed back into the danger area by Welch, before City’s Michael Malcolm hoofed the ball away. The two sides seemed understandably breathless after all this ebb and flow. The first half came to a close with Wealdstone leading one-nil but, considering the number of chances St Albans had created, the game was certainly still up for grabs.

Once the local kids’ teams had cleared the pitch (some of their shooting practise put me, as a grown man, to shame), the sides were back out and ready to go once more. Early strikes were exchanged in a sign of more to and fro to come, Louis firing right across goal after a Wealdstone surge and Corcoran forcing Luke Chambers into another excellent save at the other end. Then, suddenly, it seemed as if the away side had snatched it. Charging up his favoured flank in the fifty-fourth minute, Wealdstone left back Ryan Watts sent a long cross looping over the Saints’ area; this was headed back toward goal by teammate Jonny Wright, before falling perfectly for Louis to twist and blast a rising shot past the helpless home keeper and in. Two-nil to Wealdstone. But not for long.

Five minutes later, St Albans finally got a goal. Out of nowhere, substitute and debutant Jake Nicholson popped up on the Wealdstone left and got a shot on target; this was deflected straight to Frendo, who stuck out a leg and tucked the ball away. The manner of the goal was fortuitous, but the scoreline now better reflected the character of the game; the home side would surely do everything to get their equaliser.

In the sixty-first, Lowe won the Saints a corner after some sharp running; this was whipped right onto Darren Locke’s head, but the home defender could only power the ball over. Not long afterward, the confident Nicholson snapped a free kick toward the top left corner; once again, Luke Chambers was there to stop it.

After this, the game was rather inopportunely broken up by a lengthy injury to the referee; as he clutched his hamstring to gleeful cries of ‘Off! Off! Off!’ from both sets of fans, I couldn’t help but pity the prone official. The Wealdstone supporters, noisy all game, took the lull as an opportunity to divide into two groups and then chant raucously at each other. I definitely admired this as an inventive way to pass the time.

The referee recovered, and the game continued. Extra time was guaranteed, but the home side seemed impatient nonetheless; pouring forward, they encamped themselves around the Wealdstone box for a prolonged stint. This impatience was, in the end, their decisive undoing. Breaking away on the counterattack, Jefferson Louis outpaced the entire City team, racing away down the right wing while resisting Omar Beckles’ ragged attempts to dispossess him; arriving at the byline, the Stones’ striker cut a tidy pass back into the Saints’ box for Scott Davies to slot home and make it three-one.

St Albans did have chances after this, but it was too late to cut a two-goal deficit; efforts from Corcoran, Nicholson and fellow substitute Jack Green went close but the game had turned conclusively Wealdstone’s way. The match was closer than the final score would suggest, yet the Saints weren’t able to pull off a miracle on the day; the winners, meanwhile, will be happy to have made another historic Conference South season more likely.

Result: St Albans City 1 Wealdstone 3.
My MoM: Jefferson Louis. Two goals and an assist at thirty-six years of age. Showing the kids how it’s done.
Best fans: the Stones. Brought two lots of fans. All they care about is Wealdstone FC.

Saint nobody got time for that