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

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