The merchant of Menace

The game: Peckham Town v. Halls Athletic.
The ground: The Menace Arena.
The conditions: increasingly cool, just like the fresh-baked focaccia I’ve got on the worktop.

There was a chill breeze blowing through SE21 as I strolled through Dulwich Village and towards the home of Peckham Town – the club ominously nicknamed ‘the Menace’. Arriving at the leafy borders of The Menace Arena, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was nothing ominous about the place at all; a developing non-league ground with a bowls club bar and a tidy pitch, it was the perfect spot to watch a bit of late-season Kent County League Division One West football – free of charge, to boot.

Owing to the postponement of several winter matches, Peckham were in the midst of some major fixture congestion going into the game with struggling Halls Athletic; after an already-hectic month, this was to be the first of three league games in just over a week. Nonetheless, the Menace were only four points off top spot with a game in hand on leaders Halstead United; win against Halls, and they’d go into the last two matches of the season with a very good chance of snatching the title.

The match didn’t exactly start as planned for the home side. After only a couple of minutes, a Halls hoof was pumped forward to giant, blonde Viking-striker Connor O’Flynn; he brought the ball down deftly to the left of goal before smashing a neat finish into the far corner of the net. As the Halls players celebrated, a small but determined group of attendant Peckham Ultras got songs going for the Menace, completely undeterred. The home players seemed similarly unruffled. Before long, they were well on top.

Transitioning quickly from pass-and-move attack to harrying defence, the Menace settled themselves down steadily; bar a seventh-minute blast over the bar from nimble Halls forward Craig Farmer, it was almost all Peckham from this point onward. In the twelfth minute, Menace forward Rotimi Oladunni combined with Bolaji Olatunde before making the first of many ghosting runs through the Halls defence; he eventually dragged a shot wide from fifteen yards. Not long afterward, Oladunni charged up the left flank before looping a cross in for star frontman Schaveize ‘Troy’ Williams. Rising above his marker, Williams headed over the bar from close range.

With the Menace attackers combining well up front, chance after chance came the home side’s way. In the seventeenth, Taiwo Ikponosa rocketed a long-range effort just over the crossbar. A minute later, burly winger Michael Jeff exchanged passes with Ali Amisu before crossing in for Oladunni to belt past the upright; Peckham’s number nine nodded a Jeff corner high just after.

In the twenty-ninth, the home side could have conceded again through a freak effort from Halls full back Robbie Foreman; he hit the post with a swerving cross from the left, but the ball bounced out and was cleared. That was the closest Halls had come since the opener, and it prompted a well-deserved Peckham equaliser. Just over five minutes later, with Oladunni, Williams and Matthew Cusack all having seen opportunities go begging, Jeff took aim from ten yards. Visiting keeper Ray Marshall managed to save his smarting shot, but could only push the ball back into the danger zone. Williams reacted fastest, latching on to the loose ball. Marshall clobbered him. Penalty.

Menace midfielder Lukmon Mojeed stepped up, then pinged the spot kick into the bottom left. The Peckham Ultras went ballistic, so much so that the referee ordered them to move from behind the away goal. Bloody hooligans.

Cusack had the last chance of the first forty-five, anticipating a sweet chipped pass from Oladunni before volleying across the face of goal. The referee then signalled for the break at one-all; as the sides rested and had their team talks on the turf, I pondered whether or not Peckham could climb closer to the league summit over the course of the second half.

They did so not five minutes after the restart. A great run by Oladunni wreaked havoc on the Halls back four; as he burst into the right of the area, Marshall rushed off his line and nicked the ball off his toe with a sprawling challenge. Unfortunately for the beleaguered keeper, the deflection came straight to Williams fifteen yards out. From there, he finished with a nonchalant lob over several scrambling bodies. Two-one to the Menace.

The Peckham dominance continued over the next twenty minutes, even if Craig Farmer’s endeavour did create the odd chance for Halls. Jeff continued to boss his wing, Williams looked ever on the verge of scoring while Oladunni’s running was at the heart of everything the Menace did going forward. Fittingly, it was Oladunni who scored his side’s third in the sixty-ninth. The number nine floated past a couple of markers on the edge of the box, slid the ball through Halls defender Louis Glazebrook’s legs and fired low under Marshall. That looked to have wrapped things up.

Peckham did get a scare ten minutes from time. The home side had perhaps become a tad complacent when a long ball fell to Halls midfielder David Stevens in the box; he headed onto the post from five yards before following up with a clean strike over clambering home goalie Tope Okeowo. Three-two. Halls piled on the belated pressure, and this very nearly paid off in the eighty-ninth. A corner delivery fell to Farmer almost on the penalty spot, yet he could only crash a half volley against the woodwork. The unlikely comeback wasn’t to be. The Menace held on for the win.

An entertaining game ended with an amicable exchange of views between the officials and one mildly peeved fan, a trip back to the clubhouse and a good chat with both the Ultras and highly hospitable Peckham chairman Bryan Hall. All in all, then, it was an excellent evening of football. More importantly, it was an excellent result for the title-chasing Menace.

Result: Peckham Town 3 Halls Athletic 2.
My MoM: Rotimi Oladunni (Peckham Town). The merchant of Menace.
Best fans: the Peckham Ultras. Menace to society. But not really.

The merchant of Menace

Best be beelieving

The game: Barnet v. Gateshead.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: highly nebulous, much like the future of the Conference title at kick off.

It was five o’ clock on Saturday afternoon, and I had just arrived at The Hive for the biggest game in Barnet’s recent history and the last of the regular Conference season. While the Bees were about to face the mid-table ‘Tynesiders’ of Gateshead knowing that a win would guarantee them the league title, close rivals Bristol Rovers – only a point behind the league leaders – were readying to pounce on any slip by Martin Allen’s men in their own fixture against Alfreton Town. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher.

With a capacity, ground record 5,233 in attendance, the pre-match atmosphere was quite unprecedented. Flags and banners abounded, the stands lurched with fans, all four sides of the ground chanted for promotion in unison – tight at the top as it was, there was an indubitable air of belief about the place. The teams soon emerged to thunderous cheers and then – after an immaculately-observed minute’s silence on the anniversary of the Bradford City fire – a huge round of applause and appreciation shook the stadium to its foundations. The two sides formed up. The whistle screeched over the din.

Barnet certainly took confidence from the support; the home side started very much on the front foot. In fact, having had all the initial possession, they should have scored in the fifth minute; Barnet striker Michael Gash pressured Gateshead keeper Adam Bartlett into shanking a clearance straight to main man John Akinde; the Bees’ number nine raced to the by-line before squaring for Curtis Weston five yards out, but he saw his snatched effort scrambled off the line.

A minute later, Mauro Vilhete found midfielder Conor Clifford on the edge of the box; he pumped a shot over the crossbar. The lively Vilhete teed up Weston just after that, but his effort was much the same. The home supporters were crying out for their side to take an early lead when the Tynesiders quickly counterattacked in the tenth and Alex Rodman unleashed a low shot on target; Graham Stack had this well covered, yet it was a reminder that the visiting outfit might just have a sting in the tail. Barnet settled, reorganised and almost immediately had the ball in the back of the net via the boot of Andy Yiadom – unfortunately for the Bees, he had quite clearly fouled Gateshead defender James Curtis prior to stroking in.

It had been a lightning-fast start; Barnet rather sensibly calmed things down for a while after that. Bar a shot wide from Tynesider Josh Gillies, the Bees totally stifled the opposition. Playing keep ball amongst themselves, they edged closer and closer to the away area. Soon enough, they held a stranglehold on the final third.

Inevitably, this led to the opening goal. The visitors were struggling to relieve the pressure; in the twenty-fifth minute, Gateshead’s Jamie Chandler couldn’t help but foul the rampant Akinde fifteen yards out. From there, set-piece specialist Sam Togwell chipped a sweet ball over the defence. He found Vilhete completely unmarked; Barnet’s number sixteen leapt high and – momentarily suspended in flight – then nestled his close-range header in the far corner of the net.

The crowd reacted with boggle-eyed delirium. The Bees swarmed Vilhete in euphoria and relief. Nonetheless, even as ‘We’re on the pitch – if we go up!’ rang in their ears, the home players managed to regain their concentration and reorganise once more. In the thirty-second, after Akinde had held a long ball up just outside the area, Clifford smashed another shot just over the bar. Four minutes later, with Akinde again the architect, Weston took aim from twelve yards; he ballooned an effort against the woodwork. Hands on heads.

There were a couple of nervous moments just before the half, the Tynesiders spurning two passable opportunities. First, in the fortieth minute, Stack sliced a goal kick straight to Gateshead forward Kevin Sainte-Luce thirty yards out; with the Bees’ keeper off his line, Sainte-Luce couldn’t get an early shot away – he was eventually cut out by Bondz N’Gala. Then, just before the break, Sainte-Luce found Matty Pattison in space twenty yards out. Pattison sent a swerving shot at goal, but Stack redeemed his earlier mistake by saving and holding well.

The referee brought the half to an end, this the signal for 5,233 people to frantically check their phones for the Bristol Rovers score. The murmur went round. Rovers had gone in 3-0 up. Barnet absolutely had to see out the win.

Their chances of doing so were massively increased four minutes after the restart. A long kick forward from Stack was taken down by Akinde, who then skilfully won a corner on the left. Togwell fired in a perfect delivery and found Gash leaping highest; his glancing header was saved superbly, yet the rebound fell for Vilhete to smash in from a couple of yards. Pandemonium.

Gateshead should have pulled one back immediately, forward Carl Finnegan heading a cross downward at pace for what looked a certain goal; Stack made the save of the match to keep him out, stretching low to his right to palm the ball to safety. Despite the fact that the home stopper was still to charge off his line like a lunatic a couple of times before the end of play, this was a crucial intervention. Barnet were back in the groove not long afterward, Gash going close before Yiadom glanced another Togwell-delivered corner onto the underside of the bar.

The last half-an-hour was a little dicey at times, the Bees allowing Gateshead considerably more time on the ball – even if neither side was exceptionally threatening. Sainte-Luce caused the Barnet defence some problems, not least in the seventy-third minute when he dinked a pass to Chandler on the edge of the home box; he belted his header just high.

Martin Allen brought Jack Saville on for the last ten minutes, shoring up his back line with an extra man; this was a shrewd move and shut down any hopes of a Gateshead comeback. The visitors did see the Bees’ net bulge in the eighty-sixth via a volley from substitute Jon Shaw, yet the Tynesiders’ number nine had run far too early and been caught well offside. Now, as the game edged toward its close, the fans edged nearer to the pitch. A glitter cannon went off on the South Terrace. The party was almost in full swing.

The referee blew. The pitch was instantly awash with a sea of amber and black. Players were mobbed, kids were held aloft, whirling mosh pits tumbled across the luxurious turf – all in wondrous delight. Gateshead had played their part on the day, but Barnet were worthy winners of the match. More importantly, regardless of an eventual seven-nil victory for Bristol Rovers, the Bees were worthy champions of the Conference. Time to celebrate in style.

Result: Barnet 2 Gateshead 0.
My MoM: Togwell deserves high praise for his two set-piece assists, but the top accolade must of course go to Mauro Vilhete. Hero goals.
Best fans: Barnet fans. I cannot condone pitch invasions. But nice pitch invasion.

Best be beelieving

Tyskie business

The game: London Bari v. Clapton.
The ground: The Old Spotted Dog.
The conditions: comfortably lukewarm; just the way I like my mulled quince cider.

Stepping out of Plaistow tube station and into the balmy evening air, I frolicked past the dappled West Ham Park and toward The Old Spotted Dog for only my second ever trip to the home of Clapton FC. For the sake of the game I was about to watch, The Dog was to serve as the ‘home’ of groundshare partners London Bari; this was the reverse Dog derby, a double header for me and – to put it mildly – a ruddy exciting fixture at the very end of the Essex Senior League season. The Scaffold awaited.

With neither side having to worry about promotion or relegation, the game was all about the bragging rights – and the support. The Clapton Ultras arrived early, got chants going, passed the Tyskie around and generally readied themselves for an hour-and-a-half of good-natured Bari baiting. The teams soon emerged, Bari in home red and Clapton in their yellow-and-blue visitors’ strip. ‘We’re following Clapton away!’ reverberated merrily from the sidelines.

For the first ten minutes or so, Clapton played the better stuff. With the whistle just gone, Shomari Barnwell held up a long ball twenty yards out before laying a pass off to Jake Stevens; the Tons’ wide man arrowed a shot narrowly past the upright. With five minutes on the clock, Barnwell won a corner which was quickly taken; Daniel Aggio teed up midfielder James Briggs on the edge of the box before a deflection took his zipping effort just wide – cue Joy Division-inspired choruses of ‘Briggs, Briggs will tear you apart – again’. Moments afterward, Abraham Jairette sent Aggio away through the middle of the dusty, arid pitch. Clapton’s number six saw his on-target attempt cleared a couple of yards out. The Tons seemed ascendant.

Bari came back at them quickly enough, however. A decent attack in the twelfth saw striker Tobi Adesina fire just over from twenty yards. A couple of minutes later, Bari’s Neal Athanaze burst past Daniel Kiely on the right before squaring for winger Junior Decker; his effort from just inside the area went wide. The home side put real pressure on the Tons’ back four, and this soon paid off. In the eighteenth, a long ball was chipped forward to Decker out on the left. He squeezed in behind the muddled defence, scooted to the edge of the area and from there – Clapton keeper Pape Diagne was hesitating well off his line – lobbed the ball into the back of the net. One-nil.

Bari could have made it two only a few minutes after the restart; with Clapton now in disarray Louis Ohase played in the overlapping Athanaze on the right – his low shot at goal was saved by Diagne. The home team established a passing tempo across the pitch and – bar a thirtieth minute toe poke for Barnwell – it looked to be all them. Decker, Adesina and Andy Greenslade went close one after another. Then, in the fortieth minute, an injury temporarily stopped play.

This disturbed Bari’s rhythm. A couple of minutes after the resumption, Briggs received the ball in the centre of midfield. From there, he stroked a beautiful pass to the onrushing Stevens out on the right; Clapton’s wide man sprinted to the by-line, chipped in a cute cross unchallenged and found Barnwell leaping above his marker – the Tons’ number nine nodded a looping header over home goalie George Hearson and in. One-all.

The last few minutes of the half went by without incident and the referee signalled for the break. Clapton’s equaliser had come somewhat against the run of play, yet nobody in the Scaffold minded; Briggs was serenaded, a Smiths-styled ‘Panic on the Streets of Bari’ pealed out and then everyone grabbed their spare tinnies and headed to the grassy bank behind the away goal. I trotted along too, munching thoughtfully on my homemade pickle and brie sandwich.

The second period was far more even from the off. Two minutes in, Barnwell picked out Briggs ten yards from goal; he snapped a shot past the post. Five minutes later, Bari substitute Darryl Morson went close with an ambitious, twenty-yard curler. The two sides took turns to trouble their respective keepers, various speculative efforts keeping Hearson and Diagne leaping this way and that. Still, for a good twenty-five minutes, neither team could actually force a save. The game had seemingly become an unpredictable shooting session.

As time ticked on, it was Clapton who managed to recover some proper incisiveness. In the seventy-ninth minute, Briggs pinged a clever pass to Barnwell on the right; the Tons’ striker weaved his way past a couple of defenders before firing a low ball back at Briggs – his attempt almost shaved the crossbar on its way over. Not long afterward, Barnwell drew a foul from Bari’s Peter Wilcox twenty yards out on the left. Briggs stood over the ball. Briggs looked up to see Hearson busy mustering his defence. Briggs heard the official’s signal. Briggs smashed a free kick in at the near post, past Hearson’s despairing dive.

The Ultras bellowed. Everyone jumped. I fell in some nettles. Clapton reorganised. A stunned Bari could only muster one more chance before the end of the match, a corner in the eighty-seventh falling for Tony Cookey – he headed over. The Tons saw the rest of the match out.

Clapton’s players came over to celebrate with the fans at the end, leading both the chanting and mad pogoing on the pitch. Bari could feel a little aggrieved having lost despite playing so well early on, yet Clapton had successfully snatched their opportunities. So, with the Ultras’ songs filling the cooling night air, the Essex Senior League campaign came even closer to its close.

Result: London Bari 1 Clapton 2.
My MoM: Shomari Barnwell deserves special mention for a dynamic display, but it was James Briggs who truly tore them apart – again.
Best fans: the Clapton Ultras. ‘A win away, a win away, a win away, a win away’.

Tyskie business

Rabble yell

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Maidstone United.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: cheerier than my disposition after a healthy portion of baked kale chips.

This was it. The final Hamlet home game of the season. My last visit to Champion Hill for some time. The all-ticketed, high-demand fixture between Dulwich and league leaders Maidstone United. The day that the latter could be crowned champions of the Ryman Premier League.

With all four sides of the ground absolutely swamped by fans – there were over 900 Stones’ supporters present, while the official attendance figure was a capacity (and record) 3,000 – the atmosphere was magnificent; singing rang out all around the pitch long before kick off, a sea of Pink & Blue splashing noisily against an ocean of Black & Amber throughout. While the visitors knew that, should Hendon lose their game against Grays Athletic, Maidstone would be promoted as title winners come quarter-to-five, the home faithful were well aware that Hamlet’s own chance of promotion – their play-off spot – was not quite safe. The importance of the match wasn’t lost on anyone. Soon enough the players jogged out. The crashing of the Rabble’s drums greeted them.

The opening ten minutes set a cagey tone. Both sides seemed happy enough to contest the ball almost exclusively in the air; this may have been an impromptu tactical adaption to the burger boxes, amber balloons, pink streamers and assorted debris littering the playing surface, yet it still limited the two sides creatively. Maidstone had the first chance of the match in the twelfth minute, diligent midfielder Matt Bodkin cutting in from the left before curling a shot at goal – Phil Wilson (‘Phil! Phil! Phil!’) saved this comfortably. Hamlet responded a couple of minutes later, Jack Dixon dragging a shot wide having been teed up by Ash Carew on the edge of the box. The teams were cautiously feeling each other out. Edgy stuff.

Edgy soon became niggly. Maidstone striker Jay May and Hamlet defender Matt Drage engaged in a running battle in and around the home area; May nearly bested his marker in the nineteenth minute after Drage had let a long ball bounce in the box, but the Stones’ number nine saw his fierce low shot at goal blocked. Dixon was cautioned not long after that for an unsubtle tug on Bodkin, before both sides won – and wasted – a series of free kicks.

Then, just as the game was starting to look a little leaden, the home side created a great opportunity to open the scoring. Xavier Vidal made a darting run through the midfield. Looking up as he reached the centre circle, he slotted a sweet ball through the Maidstone back line. Perhaps distracted by an offside Luke Wanadio, the Stones’ defenders stayed entirely still as Harry Ottaway romped past them to collect the pass. Hamlet’s number nine bore down on the net but, facing the maniacal charge of away keeper Lee Worgan, allowed himself to be pushed wide. From there, his cross to the unmarked Vidal was overhit. The chance was missed. Maidstone regrouped.

The away side waited until the thirty-fifth minute to make reply; May made a run out right only to cross for advancing defender Steve Watt, who fired low from a couple of yards – Wilson made the point-blank save with his feet, pounding the ball away with the full force of his heroic frame. Maidstone ceded Hamlet possession after that, yet the home side seemed wary of this deceptively dangerous tack; clearly determined not to be caught on the counter, Carew and Vidal saw out the rest of the half playing Pink & Blue keep ball between themselves.

Judging by the noisy renditions of the Maidstone-themed ‘Hey Jude’ and the Hamlet-flavoured ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ that greeted the half-time whistle, very few onlookers had been put off by a scoreless first forty-five. As I summoned up my inner Joe ‘The Tank’ Benjamin and muscled my way over to and back from the bar, Hamlet lager in hand, I reflected that – if anything – even more spectators had snuck in to the ground over the course of the break. Now it was time to see whether the teams could offer them a goal.

There was absolutely no sign of this happening until just after the sixtieth minute; the sides remained guarded, the ball in the clear blue sky. In the sixty-third, Vidal found left back Frazer Shaw on an overlapping run into the Maidstone area; Shaw put his first-time effort past the post. Moments later, the Stones pelted up the other end of the pitch and won a corner; the delivery went straight to Shane Huke at the near post, but he could only dink a weak attempt into the side netting.

Pink confetti started to rain down amongst the loud, proud, swaggering dandies behind the away goal, the Stones’ support started to party pitchside at the news that Hendon and Grays were deadlocked, yet the players kept things sober and serious – the caginess continued right until the last. Maidstone substitute Ben Greenhalgh put an inviting, low ball into the box in the seventy-third, but nobody could get on the end of it. Vidal combined with Wanadio five minutes later, firing at the top left from ten yards only for Worgan to save and hold. In the eighty-sixth minute, away right-back Craig Stone leathered a long ball to forward Billy Bricknell; his snapshot soared over Phil Wilson’s bar. Matt Bodkin then had the last chance of the game, scurrying in from the right before cracking an effort wide. Game over.

It ended nil-nil, yet soon the news came that Hendon had drawn with Grays by the same scoreline; though still not a mathematical certainty, Maidstone had basically won the league. Their fans charged onto the Champion Hill turf to cuddle the players, before coming over to clap the waiting Rabble. Hamlet’s fans were generous to a (wo)man, congratulating their opponents wholeheartedly. Maidstone fans may soon get the chance to congratulate them right back.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 0 Maidstone United 0.
My MoM: Xavier Vidal (Dulwich Hamlet). On a tough day for the creatives, he created the most. Uninhibited.
Best fans: a footballing friendship was born at this game. Let’s not ruin the moment.

Rabble yell

Rover the hill?

The game: Leyton Orient v. Doncaster Rovers.
The ground: Brisbane Road.
The conditions: warmer than my pre-match ciabatta toastie.

The last time I visited Brisbane Road was on an unforgiving evening in the middle of February. That night, hunched beneath my Barbour, surrounded by a mass of red-and-white knit caps, I spent the entire game shivering uncontrollably in the bitter, bitter wind. It would be fair to say that the weather was much improved for my latest Orient outing. Leyton high street was all shorts and T-shirts, the Coronation Gardens were full of disposable barbecues and countless four packs of Żubr lager while, in the stadium itself, the private verandas of the inbuilt flats were packed with blokes wearing novelty sunglasses and sipping on Coronas. I could only admire the advent of the great British summer. In April.

The O’s had themselves improved since February; while they had languished second-bottom of the table before, they were now out of the relegation places – albeit only on goal difference. Naturally, Orient’s match up with Doncaster Rovers was still a crucial one. Three points for the home side against mid-table Donny would allow them to shake off the desperate, clinging clubs in the drop zone. Anything less might see those clubs clamber to safety above them.

Orient certainly started the brighter. There were no clear-cut chances until just after the twenty-minute mark, yet the O’s took control of possession early on and repeatedly menaced Donny’s flanks with prompt attacks. Chris Dagnall and Andrea Dossena combined well on the left, while Jobi McAnuff made himself a constant nuisance on the same wing; in the fourteenth minute, having robbed Reece Wabara out on the touchline, McAnuff rollicked into the area and went down under pressure from centre back Rob Jones – play was rightly waved on, yet the danger he posed to Doncaster was quite apparent.

Just over five minutes later, the O’s had a great chance to open the scoring. Orient’s on-loan Swansea forward Ryan Hedges hurtled down the right flank before cutting the ball back to Scott Cuthbert; the defender thumped a cross to the far post where Dossena was waiting in a perfect position five yards out. From there, the Italian winger side-footed an effort back across goal. Unfortunately for him, his shot rolled past the upright. He should really have tucked it away.

Another brilliant opportunity went begging not long after that. In the twenty-sixth, after Mathieu Baudry had cut out Donny striker Curtis Main with a superb last-ditch tackle, Marvin Bartley was the next O’s player to set off on a strong run down the right. He smashed a cross in to the near post for striker Darius Henderson, who scuffed a shot at goal from point-blank range; this was kept out by a stunning reflex save from Donny keeper Stephen Bywater. So close.

Though the South stand was now rocking with barking cries of ‘Orient! Orient!’, there was a palpable air of nervousness at the failure of the home side to convert. The fans’ nerves were not helped by the mistakes which had begun to creep into the O’s game. In the thirty-third minute, Hedges slalomed past two away defenders and into the box; he then chose to pass to the double-marked Henderson rather than shoot from ten yards – the ball was cleared. Soon enough, an otherwise-stifled Doncaster started to make opportunities of their own. Midfielder Harry Middleton sliced through the middle of the pitch before seeing a vicious goalbound effort blocked five yards out. James Coppinger was next to catch Orient cold, bursting past two markers on the right before teeing up Main in the middle; the striker’s looping shot was well saved by Orient stopper Alex Cisak.

Main had Donny’s best first-half chance in the forty-second minute, receiving a sweet pass from the tricky Kyle Bennett before sweeping a shot over the crossbar from just outside the box. In the end, neither side could break the deadlock before the break. Still, the warning signs were there for Orient. Their sunny start had faded somewhat. Come the restart, they had to be bright once more.

This they were not. Doncaster were revitalised at the resumption of play; it only took four minutes for them to register a shot on target, Bennett jinking his way to the edge of the area before sending a curling effort toward the top right – Cisak acrobatically pushed this to safety. Orient laboured, yet Donny – Bennett especially – had newfound flair; Rovers’ number twenty-three drew a foul from Orient’s Josh Wright in the fifty-third minute before quickly chipping the free kick to Main in the box – his deft nod was blocked on the line by the scrambling Cuthbert.

In the fifty-sixth minute, the deadlock was broken. Bennett won the free kick out on the right. Sending in another accurate delivery, he found Rob Jones towering above everybody; the defender’s header traced its way into the bottom corner of the net. One-nil to the visitors, and a joyful chorus of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ (with the word ‘Gold’ imaginatively replaced by ‘Jones’) from the away section. The Orient fans were understandably crestfallen. Time for the O’s to try to salvage a result.

Though Doncaster could have doubled their lead in the sixty-fifth when sinewy substitute Jonson Clarke-Harris muscled past Baudry and drove low at goal – Cisak got down well to save – Orient did fashion something of a rally late on. After Henderson had won the home side a corner in the seventy-third, a great delivery fell for defender Shane Lowry; his downward header looked sure to go in, only for Bywater to pull off another astounding stop. A few minutes later, Josh Wright collected a good pass on the edge of the box before turning on his heel and slapping a shot toward the top right. Bywater was equal to this too, diving to his left to tip it over the bar.

The O’s had total possession after this, yet couldn’t use it to good effect; aimless long ball after aimless long ball was pumped up the pitch, only to be cleared by Rovers’ solid centre backs. One punt forward did fall for Orient substitute Jay Simpson, but his attempt was easy for the magnificent Bywater. Five minutes of added time were punctuated only by more long balls and one final away effort from Bennett; Cisak saved the angled shot with his fingertips, and the whistle went.

There were cries of rage in the stands at the finish; the O’s hadn’t lived up to their initial promise, while Donny had capitalised when it counted. Results elsewhere meant that Orient were still clear of the dreaded drop at full time. It remains to be seen for how much longer that’s the case.

Result: Leyton Orient 0 Doncaster Rovers 1.
My MoM: a special mention for Donny goalkeeper Stephen Bywater, but fullest praise to Kyle Bennett; increasingly creative, elegant on the ball and poised at the set piece – hence the goal.
Best fans: the away fans had the best song (‘Jones! Jones! Always believe in Rob Jo-ones!’), yet the O’s were the best fans; suffering, supporting, suffering, supporting.

Rover the hill?

Beeasy like Sunday morning

The game: Barnet v. Halifax Town.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: shall I compare it to a summer’s day? Yes, yes I shall.

Bar the Championship, the Conference has surely been England’s tightest league at the top this season. At two-thirty on Saturday afternoon, as I gambolled over to The Hive in the warm sun, there was only a point separating first and second in the table – Barnet and Bristol Rovers respectively – while third-placed Grimsby Town sat a mere three off the summit. So late in the campaign, with three games to go, none of these sides could afford let things slide.

I was, of course, about to watch the ‘Bees’ of Barnet; the league leaders were looking to avoid a slip up against the ‘Shaymen’ of Halifax Town. The home fans may have been buzzing prior to kick off, but I still suspected that the Bees might be feeling the strain of this game; the reverse fixture had been a one-all draw at The Shay, yet Town’s improved position and proximity to the play offs meant they now had more motivation than ever to get a result.

I need not have been concerned for the home side. I had barely ducked under the railings of the home terrace when Bees’ wide man Mauro Vilhete opened the scoring; a scrappy clearance in the away area fell to Vilhete, who then sliced a shot over away keeper Matt Glennon and into the top corner. The main stand roared.

Town tried to work their way back into it with some wide play, yet Barnet’s Andy Yiadom and Elliott Johnson were absolutely superb in the full-back positions; likewise, imposing centre back David Stephens stood out in his successful stifling of the Shaymen. The Bees began to boss possession, then had a flurry of chances to get their second. In the ninth minute, a quickly-taken free kick set Johnson off down the left; he hit an inch-perfect cross to the waiting Bondz N’Gala, yet the defender’s shot was blocked a couple of yards out. Five minutes later, Vilhete made a foray down the right before cutting inside and taking the shot on himself. This was deflected an inch past the upright.

League top scorer John Akinde had a couple of quick opportunities, as did forward Michael Gash. The game was interrupted in the twenty-first minute as Town’s Graham Hutchison came off with an injury, but Barnet showed no sign of letting up after this unexpected pause; midfielder Conor Clifford straightaway made an inroad into the Town area, teeing up the onrushing Curtis Weston to fire just wide; a minute later, Clifford cut in from the left before smashing the joint of crossbar and post.

The best response to all this that the visitors could muster came from Scott McManus; in the twenty-ninth, the Halifax left back took a thirty-yard pot shot which flew high and wide. After that, the Bees came straight back at their opponents. Akinde might have had a penalty having burst into the box past Town defender Marc Roberts; he was brought down in a tangle of legs, but the referee waved play on. After a relatively quiet ten minutes of continued home dominance, Gash and Clifford then combined well on the left before the latter pinged a pass to Akinde on the edge of the box; his shot was uncharacteristically wild, soaring over the bar.

The game was edging toward half time, and it looked as if the Shaymen might get away with only a one-goal deficit at the break. Then, in the forty-fourth minute, under pressure from the advancing Yiadom, McManus attempted to play a short back pass to his keeper from the left. He found the lurking Akinde instead; Barnet’s number nine coolly slotted the ball between Glennon’s legs to give the Bees a two-goal lead and claim his thirty-first of the season.

As the home choruses of ‘To the Football League, we’re on our way!’ pealed out, the first half came to a close. Barnet had made it look easy, while Halifax badly needed to improve in the second forty-five. In the meantime, I badly needed to run off and watch The Grand National. Needless to say, my horses performed atrociously.

Conversely, the Shaymen managed to perform quite well for the opening fifteen of the second period; much tighter at the back and far more organised as a unit, they ceded the ball to Barnet without seeming in such immediate and constant danger as they had previously. Nevertheless, the Bees did get a third goal. In the sixty-first minute, Yiadom weaved through the Town defence and into the right side of the area; from there, his low cross found Weston – Barnet’s number eight slotted home from five yards.

The rest of the game consisted of home attacks and dogged away defending. Halifax’s James Bolton saw his powerful drive blocked after a Danny Schofield-delivered corner in the sixty-sixth, but apart from that it was all Barnet; Akinde and Vilhete played a flourishing one two in the area moments later – the latter fired high – before Clifford, Gash and fresh substitute Charlie MacDonald all had chances of their own.

The last ten minutes saw the Bees’ Spanish midfielder Luisma come on for an impressive little cameo. As the home fans cheerfully olé-d their side’s every touch, Luisma could have scored twice; first from a stinging drive – well saved by Glennon – and then from a crafted shot just past the near post. Still, the Shaymen refrained from conceding again. To the Bees’ joy and the visitors’ relief, the final whistle soon went.

Barnet had certainly played like champions, while Town had been bested fair and square. With Grimsby falling to Wrexham, the Bees’ win signalled the end of the three-way Conference title race. With Bristol Rovers beating Southport, it’s now a two-way sprint.

Result: Barnet 3 Halifax Town 0.
My MoM: Mauro Vilhete was excellent throughout, but Andy Yiadom gets the nod; superb at right back, got an assist on one of his many raiding runs forward.
Best fans: the Bees. Olé! Olé! Olé!

Beeasy like Sunday morning

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Hill)

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Enfield Town.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: picnic weather! Pass the teacakes!

Easter Monday, and the sun was beaming warmly for my first double header of the season. Waddling into Champion Hill all full of delicious, high-quality cocoa egg, I was greeted by the sight of 1,204 fans in shorts and sunglasses, a commendable Enfield contingent included, and two familiar teams about to kick off a high-stakes match in the race to the Ryman League play offs; the fourth-placed Pink & Blues hosted the fifth-placed Blue & Whites with the visitors only a single point behind them – summer wardrobes aside, the next ninety minutes would be as far from relaxing (or ‘chillaxing’, to the kids) as it was possible to get.

To add to the home tension, Hamlet had not escaped their poor form since my last visit for the game with East Thurrock United; a subsequent loss against Wingate & Finchley and a draw with relegation-threatened Witham Town meant there had now been no Hamlet win in eight fixtures. By contrast, Enfield were in fine fettle; having finally found some real consistency, I expected Bradley Quinton’s men to look confident of a result from the off.

This was not quite the case. The opening ten minutes were lively from both sides. The Towners thought they might have had a penalty shout in the fifth minute; wide man Joe Stevens went down in the box under a risky challenge from Jordan Hibbert, but the referee waved play on. A minute later, Town striker Bobby Devyne broke free of Hamlet’s back four and almost played Corey Whitely through; the pass was slightly overhit, and the chance went begging. Hamlet came back at them with determination, the powerful Ashley Carew charging through the midfield before smashing at goal from twenty yards – his shot flew just wide. Carew had another chance soon enough, but his low drive was blocked a couple of yards from the line. It was an end-to-end start. High drama.

After the early exchanges, however, Hamlet suddenly took command of the game. Carew imposed himself on the centre of the pitch, front man Harry Ottaway started to boss the Town back four and the Pink & Blue pressure started to build around the away area. This quickly paid off when, in the sixteenth minute, Luke Wanadio cut in from the right and capered into the Enfield box; he was brought down by an extremely risky challenge from Town’s Ricky Gabriel – so risky, in fact, that the penalty award was a formality. Carew stepped up. The net bulged. One-nil.

Enfield tried to come back at the home side, yet seemed to be playing inside themselves somewhat. They had a chance to level in the twentieth minute, Whitely volleying an inch wide after a half clearance from Ethan Pinnock. Another opportunity came and went five minutes later, Ryan Doyle firing a free kick straight at Phil Wilson – the Hamlet goalkeeper perhaps put him off with his terrifying, Phantom of the Opera-esque face mask, a haunting remnant of the East Thurrock game and his aerial challenge with league top scorer Sam Higgins.

Despite the travelling Towners behind the goal treating the ground to a vocal rendition of the full Enfield songbook, those efforts were as close to a first-half rally as their side were going to come. The home team soon cranked up the pressure once more. In the thirty-second, Harry Ottaway latched on to a ball from Wanadio before sending a stinging shot just over the crossbar. In the thirty-ninth, after almost ten minutes of total Hamlet possession, Wanadio was sent clear only for a last ditch tackle by Town defender Claudio Vilcu to deny him. Then, in the forty-third minute, Hamlet got their second. Albert Jarrett stole a loose pass out on the left before bombing up the wing. Darting into the area, he picked out forward Xavier Vidal with precision; Vidal side footed past stranded away keeper Nathan McDonald to effortlessly extend the home lead.

This was pretty much the last act of the half. The form table was in danger of being defied. All Hamlet had to do now was hold on. All I needed to do now was get a tasty bratwurst.

It was clear right from the start of the second half that the visitors were ready to rally in earnest. Two minutes after the restart, Enfield enforcer Stanley Mugou won the ball on the halfway line before thumping a pass up to Whitely; Town’s talented number nine raced forward – and fired just wide.

Wanadio, Ottaway and Jarrett all attempted tricky moves at the other end of the pitch, yet Enfield’s defence seemed much wilier; nothing came off for the Pink & Blues. Meanwhile, just as Carew had done for Hamlet in the first period, Muguo began to muscle the midfield; in the fifty-sixth minute, a strong run from Town’s number six made space for Nathan Livings fifteen yards out – his ambitious effort was always rising.

After a battling spell in which neither side could really create clear-cut chances, the away team then made a breakthrough. In the sixty-eighth minute, Joe Stevens nipped up the right flank before clipping a cross into the Hamlet area. A scrappy clearance fell perfectly for Livings, who blasted into the top left via Wilson’s clawing grasp. The home nerves were palpable. The threat of yet another lost lead loomed.

For the last twenty minutes, as Enfield sought their equaliser, as Rabble and Towners sang their hearts out alike, the tension mounted to unbearable levels. Every touch was met with a wince, every refereeing decision with a chorus of howls and yet, still, one Hamlet fan was kind enough to offer me a teacake with trembling hand outstretched. Now that’s hospitality.

In the end, the away side couldn’t find a leveller. They weren’t helped in their endeavour by a bizarre straight red for substitute Michael Kalu after a bit of unremarkable argy bargy, yet Hamlet still had to weather a late Town storm. Weather it they did. The win was theirs.

The Rabble burst out into songs about smoking cigars and reading Shakespeare, while the gracious Town fans remained behind to clap off the sides and make more of a racket themselves. The teams were well-matched on the day, the fans were well-matched on the day and, by my reckoning, both deserve their valiant campaigns to end in a bid at promotion – for the moment, though, the stage is set for Hamlet.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 2 Enfield Town 1.
My MoM: Ashley Carew (Dulwich Hamlet). Won the midfield duel at just the right time, made the penalty look easy.
Best fans: the Rabble were brilliant as always – and thanks for the teacake – but ‘best fans’ goes to the Towners this time; numerous, noisy and generous in defeat.

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Hill)

Don and dusted

The game: AFC Wimbledon v. Northampton Town.
The ground: The Cherry Red Records Stadium.
The conditions: dreary, dour and prone to spitting. Not dissimilar to Jonny Evans.

Good Friday is a significant date in the calendar. As everyone in England knows, it marks the beginning of four-day weekend in which we all devour obscene amounts of milk chocolate, venerate grotesque man-sized rabbits and drink egregious quantities of Montepulciano. This is not its only significance, of course.

For the footballing community, Good Friday also heralds a welcome round of weekday fixtures. Amongst them this Easter was a mid-table League Two clash which – much like egg-shaped confectionary – I found strangely impossible to resist; the ‘Dons’ of AFC Wimbledon hosted the ‘Cobblers’ of Northampton Town at The Cherry Red Records Stadium (i.e. Kingsmeadow), both sides still hoping to set off on a late-season run and possibly, just possibly, steal into a play-off place.

With a more-than-healthy holiday crowd of 4,667 turning out for the game, the ground was absolutely packed at kick off. Despite the dismal weather, the atmosphere was equally impressive; while the home fans and the substantial travelling contingent got the singing going on the terraces, Dons’ mascot Haydon the Womble leapt about riotously on the sidelines, hyping fans up, high fiving people indiscriminately and punching the air with such force that he almost lost his giant foam head on several occasions.

The start of the match wasn’t quite as enthusing. Though John-Joe O’Toole and the spritely James Gray made two prompt chances for the visitors – striker Ricky Holmes failed to convert either – both sides struggled to find early fluency. Multiple long free kicks were exchanged around the twenty-minute mark, Northampton centre back Ryan Cresswell nodding just over prior to Dons’ midfielder Jake Reeves almost lobbing away keeper Matt Duke having snaffled up a shanked clearance. Apart from that, the play was all about defensive endeavour. Dons’ right back Barry Fuller stood out as particularly committed in this, snuffing out each and every attack on his flank with gusto.

In the twenty-eighth minute, O’Toole latched on to a long goal kick just outside the Wimbledon box; from there, he thumped his shot high. Moments later, Dons’ forward Craig Tanner received a long ball from home stopper Ross Worner in almost exactly the same manner; deftly nipping past Cresswell and defensive partner Zander Diamond, Tanner could only tickle the side netting with a shot that was weak and wide.

In the thirty-seventh, the Cobblers’ Lee Collins and Joel Byrom combined well on the left; the latter crossed in for the waiting Gray, but Northampton’s number fourteen could only head straight at Worner. There was little incident after this and referee Chris Sarginson soon signalled for the break. The muted reaction from the fans was understandable; well, it was to me at least – Haydon the Womble was having none of it, resolutely refusing to halt his manic gesticulating until everyone had shuffled off to the Gourmet Burger van.

Thankfully, the second half was a completely different affair to the first. The home side came quickest out of the blocks, wide man Sean Rigg winning an instant free kick which defender Adedeji Oshilaja almost headed in; the ball was frantically scrambled away at the last. Three minutes later, iconic striker and former Cobbler Ade ‘The Beast’ Akinfenwa – kept quiet up until now – found Tanner in space on the edge of the away area; the Dons’ number twenty-seven smashed a vicious shot toward the top left, one which Matt Duke did exceptionally well to save.

The Dons’ kept pressing Northampton, getting their reward before long. In the fifty-eighth minute, a long free kick fell to Akinfenwa five yards out; he nodded the ball down for Rigg who then poked home past the helpless Duke. The ground suddenly came to life. Haydon went totally feral.

It was only about to get better for Wimbledon. A couple of minutes later, Fuller played a sweet cross-field ball to The Beast out on the left. With not a marker in sight, Akinfenwa took this down, picked his pass and teed up Tanner on the edge of the box; his shot was saved. Happily for the home team, the rebound came straight back to Akinfenwa who played an almost identical pass to the unmarked Jake Reeves; this was powered into the back of the net to double the Dons’ advantage.

Tanner could have made it three-nil straight after the restart; the rampant Akinfenwa dinked a ball over the Northampton defence which his teammate then volleyed onto the crossbar. However, the match was soon to take another exhilarating turn. In the sixty-sixth minute, some quick Cobblers’ passing ended with Gray receiving the ball ten yards out before curling it into the top right. Cue mad celebrations in front of the away fans. They clearly felt a result was back on.

The Wimbledon defence seemed paralysed by the reversal; Holmes waltzed past Dons’ defender Jake Goodman in the sixty-eighth minute, firing low only to see Worner fall uncomfortably on his shot and save. Northampton drew level barely a minute afterward. Lax marking from an away free kick allowed Gray a free header. Leaping like a claret salmon, he clobbered the ball in via the post and Worner’s outstretched fingertips. I was stunned, mainly because the match had inexplicably produced four goals in quick succession.

Everything became tighter again after the equaliser; the sides seemed more interested in redeeming their respective moments of defensive carelessness than opening the game up further. The Dons probably had the best chances to win it, Tanner smashing over in the eighty-third minute, Oshilaja glancing high from a corner and substitute Adebayo Azeez firing just wide at the death, yet a draw felt a fair result by the end. Even Haydon seemed pretty content at the final whistle, fist bumping players in a manner that – compared to his earlier antics – was really quite serene.

Two very different halves of football made for a surprisingly good game, all things considered. Happy enough with my Easter fixture, I hopped on a 131 bus and lumbered my way homeward. My happiness soon turned to pure delight. There was egg-shaped confectionary to be eaten.

Result: AFC Wimbledon 2 Northampton Town 2.
My MoM: Ade Akinfenwa (Wimbledon). Came alive in the second half, got two assists and could have had a third had Tanner’s volley gone in. Beast.
Best fans: Haydon the Womble is the best fan. Uncle Bulgaria would be proud. Or possibly a bit frightened. Or both.

Don and dusted