The game: Boreham Wood v. Whitehawk.
The ground: Meadow Park.
The conditions: mild and refreshing, just the way I like my craft ales.
On last visiting Meadow Park, I was one of perhaps 200 spectators – home and away – dispersed through the ground. It was rainy. It was February. Boreham Wood played out a tight nil-nil with Concord Rangers. A modest day of football, all in all.
The contrast with the day of the Conference South play-off final couldn’t have been more marked. Over 2,000 fans were packed into the ground, including a couple of hundred raucous, joyful Whitehawk Ultras. As the sun peeked reluctantly through the clouds, the Wood and Whitehawk prepared to play the most important match of their respective seasons – one which would elevate the victor to the heady heights of the newly-branded National League. The expectation was colossal, the atmosphere febrile. This was the big one.
Some Wood supporters got a bit overexcited at kick off, with several flares set off in the crush of the home terraces barely thirty seconds into the game; one of these ended up on the pitch itself, scorching the turf as a steward tried tentatively to flick it away without giving himself a nasty burn. At the other end, the Whitehawk Ultras blew on vuvzelas, banged a big kettle drum and jumped in unison; the away end was a whir of red scarves and pogoing supporters from the off, all of them singing ‘We have more fun than you!’ at the tops of their voices. They did indeed look like they were having fun.
If the off-field antics were as wild as they could get, the action on the pitch was somewhat more restrained. There were no chances of note in the first fifteen, both sides playing disciplined, well-drilled stuff; Whitehawk attempted a bit of intricate one-touch football, Wood tried to be more direct, yet neither side showed too much threat early on. The first opportunity came in the seventeenth minute, falling for Whitehawk defender Osei Sankofa; a long free kick found him climbing highest in the box, but he could only nod a bouncing header down past the post.
The home side came back at their Brightonian opponents straightaway. In the nineteenth, stocky Wood striker Junior Morais fired straight at Whitehawk keeper Craig Ross from fifteen yards; Ross made a comfortable save. Five minutes later, as the visiting Ultras went totally spare singing ‘Let’s all have a party!’, Morais took down a long ball on the left and set up league top scorer Lee Angol just outside the area; he in turn squared to Sam Cox, who thrashed well over from a good position. The travelling fans were much relieved. Their party continued.
They had cause to be relieved several more times before the end of the half. Wood’s attack, spearheaded by Angol, started to ramp up their efforts. In the thirty-fourth, Angol and wide man Graeme Montgomery combined in midfield before the former cracked twenty-yard whistler just wide of the upright. Not long after that, Angol charged through the centre of the park before winning a foul from Whitehawk’s Marvin Hamilton – this at the cost of a caution. Wood’s rampant nine stepped up to take the free kick, then whipped a curling shot an inch over the crossbar. So close. So far.
Angol made one more chance before the break, galloping past three markers and into the box before firing wide of the near post. The referee then blew up, the game still scoreless. The Whitehawk defenders took a breather. I ate a homemade prawn sandwich. It felt as if the match might be gradually edging Wood’s way.
As the second half got underway, it became clear that the outlook wasn’t quite as simple as that. Whitehawk’s passing play seemed much the sharper, while they created a great chance after only four minutes; Nick Arnold whipped in a cross for front man Danny Mills, yet he couldn’t direct his free header on target. After ten minutes of controlled possession, the visitors should then have opened the scoring. Midfielder Sam Deering jinked his way about the pitch and up to the right side of the box, dragging the Wood defenders with him. He then sent striker Jake Robinson clear on the left. Robinson shot across the face of goal, but too close to Wood keeper James Russell. Saved.
This would soon come back to haunt Steven King’s side. In the sixty-seventh minute, Angol’s powerful running won Wood another free kick right in front of goal. Wood’s nine stepped up once more. This time he fired low. The wall parted. The bottom right bulged. One-nil!
Once the stewards had wrestled several more billowing flairs off the rejoicing Wood Army, Whitehawk were then faced with twenty minutes in which to draw level. They almost did so in the seventy-fourth, Argentine midfielder Sergio Torres chesting a long ball down for Robinson – this time he could only leather a shot into the hoardings. Then, in the eightieth minute, Whitehawk’s John Paul Kissock skipped into the home area. He was brought down in a tangle with Wood full back Ben Herd. Sam Deering took the penalty. He slammed it in. One-all, and the Ultras leapt for joy. The visitors had equalised. Now could they snatch the win?
The answer was: no, not quite. In the final minute of regulation time, Deering played a free kick short to Robinson on the left. He slashed a low cross through the box. Sankofa got a toe on it, a mere five yards out. Somehow, the ball was sliced over the bar. The Wood Army winced.
Cruelly, Whitehawk were once more punished for a missed opportunity. The game went to extra time, and two minutes in Wood went back ahead; Angol glanced a header to the feet of Morais, and the number ten hooked the ball through a crowded box and into the net. The terraces exploded. Would the Wood see it out?
Indeed they would. The rest of extra time saw Ian Allinson’s team defend with all their usual commitment, while a series of niggly fouls from both sides slowed things right down – much to Wood’s benefit. Whitehawk had two opportunities through Deering before, seven minutes from the end, substitute Ahmed Abdulla arrowed a screaming shot agonisingly close. Despite plenty of endeavour, that was it. Cries for promotion rose all around me.
The final whistle went, and the customary pitch invasion commenced; Whitehawk’s Craig Ross did appear to take a knee to the back in all the commotion, an unfortunate and unpleasant moment in an otherwise cheerful home outburst. The away side may have been despondent at the last, yet their Ultras stayed bounding about, chanting and lauding the players long after the finish. There was certainly lots to lift Whitehawk spirits. Still, it’s Boreham Wood who go up.
Result (AET): Boreham Wood 2 Whitehawk 1.
My MoM: Lee Angol (Boreham Wood). Forceful and direct. Scored one goal, assisted another. Sharp haircut.
Best fans: the Whitehawk Ultras. Enviable levels of fun. Minus mark for vuvuzelas.