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.