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.