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.

Advertisement
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

Devon knows I’m miserable now

The game: Exeter City v. Morecambe.
The ground: St James Park.
The conditions: absolutely bloody miserable.

It’s jolly tiring, this whole sport writing lark. Everyone needs a break every now and then. After months and months of lower-league football, I decided to take my leave from it all; a little staycation by the seaside was required, so I leapt on a train and adventured to the distant city of Exeter.

I made an itinerary on my way there, planning out my holiday from the beautiful game with pleasure. I could visit the grand medieval cathedral. I could enjoy a half pint of Abbott Ale in The Ship Inn, a Tudor public house with a prestigious nautical history. I could even attend a life class at the renowned Exeter University, indulging my artistic talents at only the 154th-ranked higher education facility in the world.

Inevitably, come three o’ clock on Saturday, I had done none of those things. Rather, I found myself plodding away in the pouring rain, en route to Exeter City’s St James Park for the home side’s match up with Morecambe. The football had called to me, and I had answered. Goodbye cathedral. Goodbye historical half pint. Goodbye life class.

Pushing through the turnstiles and finding myself a spot on the ‘Big Bank’ – an impressive terrace indeed – I readied myself for some mid-table League Two fare. The resident ‘Grecians’ had an outside chance of a sought-after play-off spot coming into the game, while the visiting ‘Shrimps’ would be desperate for three points after a three-match winless run; there may not have been automatic promotion or relegation at stake, yet this would still be a hard-fought fixture.

Exeter started brightly, good early play seeing midfielder Tom McCready curling a shot straight at Morecambe keeper Andreas Arestidou; not long afterwards, Grecians’ wide man Lee Holmes paced up the left flank and rocketed a low cross through the box – nobody could get a touch on it. To encouraged cries of ‘We are Ex-eter!’ the home side pressed Morecambe from all sides. In the twelfth minute, after the Shrimps’ Aaron Wildig had been dispossessed in the midfield, McCready charged up the middle of the park before lashing a shot just wide of the upright. It felt like the home pressure might soon pay off.

In the fifteenth, Exeter forward Tom Nichols won a corner; the delivery fell straight to Christian Ribeiro, but the defender could only nod his free header over the crossbar. This miss would straightaway prove costly. Having been on the back foot so far, Morecambe suddenly worked a great move and a great goal. Latching on to an accurate goal kick, Wildig charged up the left before squaring the ball for Andrew Fleming on the edge of the box; Fleming then slipped overlapping full back Aaron McGowan through, watching on as his teammate placed the ball past home keeper James Hamon. Goal.

After some slightly hot-headed celebrations in front of the home fans – the atmosphere from here on out was a wrathful one – Morecambe’s players took advantage of their surprise lead. Defender Ryan Edwards had two chances to double their advantage from set pieces, heading inches wide on both occasions. Jamie Devitt then fired narrowly over from long distance. The Grecians were living dangerously.

At the other end, the home side were now struggling to create clear-cut chances; sterile possession made little impact on the resolute Morecambe back line. In the thirty-seventh minute, the Grecians did have a penalty shout after Nichols went down under pressure from Alex Kenyon; there wasn’t much in this and referee Michael Bull waved play on, much to the rage of the St James Park faithful.

Nichols had one more shot before the break, a misplaced Shrimps’ pass giving him the opportunity to shoot low across the box – and wide. Bull then brought the first half to a close, berated off the pitch by a chorus of boos. I went off to get some wasabi peas, before coming back with an unidentifiable meat pasty.

Exeter needed to recapture their initial verve after the restart and – whatever Paul Tisdale said to them at half time – they gradually did so. In the first few minutes of the second period, Ribeiro and McCready both made snappy forays forward after classy passing – their eventual efforts were easy for Arestidou, but the home threat was evident once more. Devitt then had Morecambe’s only real chance of the half, receiving a neat pass from Fleming on the right before setting himself and firing a whisker wide of Hamon’s far post. This scare only spurred the Grecians on.

In the fifty-sixth minute, Exeter substitute Alex Nicholls made a storming run down the right before turning Morecambe’s Mark Hughes on the edge of the box and curling a sumptuous effort just over. Ten minutes later, after a long and unbroken spell encamped around the Shrimps’ area, the home side worked another good opening; Tom Nichols jinked past two defenders before smashing a low shot toward the bottom right – this was just cleared by a mass of Morecambe bodies.

In the seventieth, Exeter had another good opportunity. Nichols made yet another strong run up the left before dinking in a cross for substitute David Wheeler, who looped his glancing header a fraction too high. One further spell of pressure, and the Grecians finally had the ball in the back of the net. A tidy Holmes free kick was headed onto the bar by striker Graham Cummins; Wheeler nipped in to nod home the rebound from a couple of yards, the only problem being that he was marginally offside.

The fury on the Big Bank may now have been at a volcanic level, yet the stand was about to erupt into pure delight. At last, in the eightieth minute, Exeter equalised. Tom Nichols put the cross in. Alex Nicholls controlled it, completely unmarked. Turning on his heel, he steered his shot past the onrushing Arestidou. The net rippled. Pasty crusts rained down. Joy.

The Grecians went for the win in the last ten, Ryan Harley’s long shot from twenty yards almost skimming the bar before Nichols’ umpteenth weighted cross gave Cummins the chance to head wide. Some late Morecambe long balls challenged the home defence, but Exeter had all the possession. There was still time for late drama, the excellent Nichols receiving a straight red for an off-the-ball incident that I didn’t really see. Luckily for him, it didn’t cost the home side; a few minutes more, and things ended all square.

Exeter had played the more positive football, while Morecambe had won a shrewd point away from home; considered in isolation, there were obvious positives for both sides to take away from the match. However, for the Grecians, this draw probably signalled the end to hopes of a realistic play-off push. Time for an extended club holiday. Time to think about next season.

Result: Exeter City 1 Morecambe 1.
My MoM: Tom Nichols (Exeter City). Involved throughout, always dangerous, got an assist. Then got sent off. But still.
Best fans: the Grecians. Pasty rain!

Devon knows I’m miserable now

Breaking new ground

The game: Hendon v. Corinthian-Casuals.
The ground: Silver Jubilee Park.
The conditions: brrrr.

When television pundits talk about ‘the magic of the cup’, they are almost invariably not referring to the London Senior Cup. This is quite unfair considering that – more so than the cynical sponsorship exercise that is the Milk/Littlewoods/Rumbelows/Coca-Cola/Worthington/Carling/Capital One Cup and its increasingly anodyne FA counterpart – the London Senior Cup can be more than a little enchanting; it was especially so this Thursday evening, when Hendon competed with Corinthian-Casuals for a spot in its semi-final.

Perhaps the most magical aspect of the fixture was the fact that this was the Greens’ first competitive match at their soon-to-be new home, Silver Jubilee Park. Having roved from one non-league ground to another since the departure from Claremont Road in 2009, having journeyed through Northwood, Staines, Wembley and – most recently – Harrow, this game marked the moment that Hendon Football Club finally returned to (West) Hendon itself; the club might still have to see out the current league campaign at the Earlsmead, but the cup tie with Casuals was an opportunity to remind the supporters of what truly local games feel like.

The significance of the match brought in a bumper attendance, and there was a great sense of eagerness before kick off; the clubhouse and adjoining stand were absolutely rammed with Greens’ fans while a singing section gathered early behind the away goal – their presence was notably marked by a banner which simply read: ‘Hendon Loyal’. Nonetheless, despite being a Ryman South side, Casuals were not about to bow to the occasion. Hendon’s opponents had not come this far in the cup by chance; the Greens would have to be at their best to mark their homecoming with a win.

For the opening half an hour, the two sides were evenly matched; open, end-to-end football flowed freely on the artificial 3G surface – a far cry from the Earlsmead’s pockmarked battlefield of a pitch. Hendon created their first opening in the sixth minute, bold running by Aaron Morgan and a good cross in from the left finding Max McCann five yards out; from there, the Greens’ midfielder could only slice his shot over the crossbar. Casuals then came straight back at them; tricky feet by Mahrez Bettache saw him slip past Casey Maclaren and into the box, but his stinging effort was chested away by Elliott Brathwaite.

After Casuals’ forward Jamie Byatt had run thirty yards unopposed and blasted over the crossbar, Hendon’s Andre Da Costa was next to take aim; Greens’ striker Leon Smith held the ball up well to the right of the box before cushioning a pass for Da Costa to rifle low at goal – Casuals’ stopper Danny Bracken saved this confidently. Several long-range efforts were exchanged before, in the fifteenth minute, the visitors nearly opened the scoring. Maclaren couldn’t clear a long ball into the box, and this was seized upon by lively attacker Max Austin. One on one with Ben McNamara, Austin rather snatched at his shot; Hendon’s keeper dived to his left and spanked it away to safety.

In the twenty-fifth minute, Casuals had another great chance to put themselves ahead. Ross Defoe ran directly at the Hendon centre backs and, caught ball watching, they completely failed to track a clever run by Bettache; Defoe skidded a cute ball through the Greens’ back line to set his teammate away. Just as Bettache was about to slot past McNamara, Maclaren then redeemed his earlier mistake by making the tackle of the match. Getting back and timing his slide perfectly, he left the Casuals’ number eight striking at thin air before thumping the ball away.

This goal-saving intervention was to prove quite decisive. Four minutes later, Hendon went ahead. A goal kick sent Morgan steaming off down the left once more, then all the way round the Casuals’ retreating backline and in behind. Bearing down on goal, he rattled a cross-cum-shot across the goalmouth; in a cruel twist of fate, it was would-be goalscorer Bettache who got the inevitable touch on it, blasting it into his own goal via the underside of the crossbar. One-nil Hendon, and it was a Corinthian-Casuals player with the first competitive home goal at Silver Jubilee Park.

In the thirty-third minute, Casuals could have drawn level with a freak shot; Bettache, desperate to atone, went straight for goal from a corner – and smashed the crossbar. If nothing was paying off for poor Bettache, everything was going Morgan’s way. In the thirty-sixth, Hendon’s number eleven won a free kick on the edge of the away area; controlling the subsequent delivery by Smith and playing a neat one two with defender James Fisher, Morgan burst past a static Casuals’ defence and tucked past Bracken. Two-nil, with Morgan involved in pretty much everything.

The game looked to be decided moments later. On another foray forward, Fisher combined with Morgan on the right. Morgan then sliced the Casual’s back four apart with a through ball for Smith; the Hendon striker dummied, rounded the forsaken Bracken and tapped in from a yard out.

The stunned Casuals managed not to concede again before the break, just about rallying themselves beneath the home bombardment. The away side could have been forgiven for looking bemused at the stroke of half time; having not played badly at all, they were already staring defeat in the face. Meanwhile, the Greens’ fans looked positively overjoyed. So far, so good.

The second half started well for the Greens, Leon Smith racing through almost immediately and attempting to chip Bracken for his second – this time the Casuals’ keeper kept him out. After that, the visitors showed that they had somewhat changed tack; rather than trying to outplay Hendon, they contented themselves with breaking up the Greens’ attacks while staying tight and compact at the back.

This had the desired effect for a while; the home side seemed far less fluent. In the seventy-first minute, Casuals even pulled one back; a quick break after a Hendon dispossession saw winger Juevan Spencer clip a good ball to Bettache – the midfielder finally got his goal, dinking skilfully over the onrushing McNamara before stroking into the back of the net.

The Greens weren’t finished, however. The game was well and truly over as a contest when, just over ten minutes later, substitutes Lee O’Leary and Kezie Ibe passed the ball between themselves almost into the Casuals’ net; it was Ibe who got the eventual finish, firing across Bracken and in. A few minutes later, Danny Dudley fouled Ibe to allow Morgan to put a gloss on the scoreline; sweeping the ball into the side of the net from the spot, this capped off an excellent individual showing from the Greens’ forward.

It ended five-one to Hendon and, even if the score was a little harsh on Casuals, this was indicative of just how majestic the Greens had been on the night. Not only had they won their cup tie, they had shown a glimpse of the club’s footballing future in Hendon. The future looks bright. What a homecoming.

Result: Hendon 5 Corinthian-Casuals 1.
My MoM: Aaron Morgan. Two goals and a forced own goal make a hat-trick, of sorts. Add an assist to that. Monstered it.
Best fans: Greens’ fans. Have followed their team all over, now following them home. ‘Hendon Loyal’.

Breaking new ground

The prodigal Tons

The game: Clapton v. London Bari.
The ground: The Old Spotted Dog.
The conditions: dark and dry; just the way I like my oven-baked beetroot wedges.

Historical landmark. Political space. Home to some of the nation’s liveliest Ultras. Venue for one of the country’s rawest groundshare rivalries. As a Stadio Calcistico, it’s as famous as they come. You know it, I know it – we all revere it. It is, undeniably, the San Siro. The San Siro of the Essex Senior League.

The Old Spotted Dog bears several noticeable differences to Milan’s iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, of course. The clubhouse has seen better days. One end of the ground is pretty much derelict. A blue double-decker bus, an industrial shipping container, some old tyres and a pile of rubble occupy a corner of the pitch. The main stand is called ‘the Scaffold’. It is quite literally a scaffold. All of this makes the Dog one of the most joyously ramshackle non-league grounds I have so far witnessed.

With the Scaffold Brigada – Clapton’s hardcore support – out in force for Tuesday evening’s Dog derby with resident rivals London Bari, the rickety setting came to life long before a football had been kicked in earnest. Chants inspired by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Desmond Dekker and the somewhat-less-seminal Shanks & Bigfoot rocked the Scaffold, anti-fascist refrains vied with some pretty candid censure of their opponents (one ditty to the disarmingly upbeat tune of the Super Mario theme was particularly blunt), Tyskie lager was consumed and serenaded in equal measure, while pennants and protest banners – one quickly confiscated – were draped and taped over the railing between fans and turf. As the players came out onto the pitch, the Ultras’ roars were thunderous. Kick off was still a couple of minutes away, but the whole ‘best fans’ thing was a foregone conclusion.

On the field, the ‘Tons’ made a fast start. In the second minute, a weak throw from Bari keeper George Hearson was snaffled up Fahad Nyanja; the Clapton attacker went one on one with the retreating Hearson, only for Simpson Mpalampa to get back and hastily cut him out. Five minutes later, Andy Mott won a free kick on the edge of the Bari box. Taking this himself, he fired well over the crossbar – an early sighter.

Straightaway, Bari carved out a great chance in response. Fleet-footed wide man Junior Decker received a pass on the half way line before racing down the left flank, beating his man and reaching the by-line; from there, he clipped a precise cross back for striker Tobi Adesina to head home, only for the number nine to nod inches over. Then, in the sixteenth minute, Decker slipped a ball through the Clapton back four and found Adesina once more; with Tons’ keeper Bobby Constantine stranded and the defence in disarray, he could only slide his shot past the post.

This miss provoked much mockery from the sidelines, including a brief burst of ‘Chuckle Chuckle Bari!’ that would probably have brought tears of happiness to Paul and Barry Chuckle’s ageing eyes; however, there was a hint of nervousness in the laughter – Bari were looking dangerous. The Tons’ players revived the Scaffold’s confidence in the twentieth minute when, after playing a clever one two with Shomari Barnwell, Mott volleyed narrowly wide of the upright. In what was becoming an open and even half, an incisive passing move by Bari then set Andy Greenslade up for a fifteen-yard effort from the left; the shot was heading toward the far corner, but Constantine saw it early and got down well to make the save.

In the twenty-ninth minute, the scoring was suddenly opened. A long ball from the back bounced kindly for Barnwell who – despite vociferous Bari calls for offside – calmly rounded the advancing Hearson and netted with apparent ease. The Scaffold went absolutely mad, the Ultras leaping about in Tyskie-fuelled abandon. The initial deadlock was broken. Advantage Clapton.

This advantage lasted all of three minutes. In the thirty-second, a quick Bari counter saw Adegoke Adetunji zoom off down the right wing. Whipping in a low cross, his ball through bodies found Decker sliding in at the far post; he prodded home to bring Bari level before nonchalantly jogging past the Scaffold and flashing the crestfallen Ultras a cheeky grin.

This certainly didn’t stop the singing for long, but it did give Bari the edge. Moments after the restart, Adesina latched on to a long pass of his own; skipping past Jake Stevens and going head to head with Constantine, his weighted chip over the keeper fell a yard away from the goal line – the ball then looped up and cleared the crossbar by a whisker. If this was something of a let off for Clapton, it was nothing compared to the number nine’s chance on the stroke of half time. After a spell of possession for Bari, Decker sent Adesina through the Tons’ back line once more. He dragged the ball past Constantine but, faced with a gaping goal, his low shot was weak; defender Jamie Lyndon dived in and thrashed this away. Adesina didn’t give up, galloping to his right to gobble up the rebound. Still he was denied; in an act of defensive heroism, Lyndon scrabbled over to block this too – Constantine then hoofed the ball clear, and the referee blew.

Another Tyskie (and possibly a whisky) later, and the second half was underway. Both sides seemed to be keeping it much tighter at the back but, consequently, the game was a bit less expansive; it took until the sixty-first minute for another opportunity to come along, this time for the Tons’ Troy Ricketts – his ten-yard snapshot across the face of goal was palmed out by Hearson. Then, in the sixty-ninth, the ever-threatening Decker won a corner for Bari. The delivery bobbled in the Clapton area and fell to Adesina, but his side-footed effort was blocked on the line and battered away; try as he might, it just wasn’t his night in front of goal.

Bari edged the last twenty minutes, but nothing much came off for either side late on; Cornelio Fonseca came closest to finding a winner, blasting over from twenty yards after Adesina had turned provider. Apart from that effort, it was the action amongst the fans that really captured my attention; chanting in disdain of new, lager-prohibiting ground rules, heading loose balls and generally making an admirable racket, they maintained the mood right until the last.

The match ended one-all and – even if Bari had the better chances – the draw was probably about right. The Clapton Ultras applauded their adversaries off to generous cheers of ‘Well played Bari!’ before both sets of players showed their reciprocal appreciation of the Scaffold; bragging rights were shared in the Dog derby, while a great night was had by all.

Result: Clapton 1 London Bari 1.
My MoM: Junior Decker. Inspired by the lyrics of Desmond Dekker. Double Decker. Decker2. Goal.
Best fans: the Clapton Ultras. Forza Clapton. Forza Chuckle.

The prodigal Tons

Thurrock around the clock

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.

Thurrock around the clock

Green, green grass of home

The game: Hendon v. Canvey Island.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: foggier than my memory after a night on the Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

By the misty glow of the Earlsmead’s floodlights, to the sound of cooing from the main stand’s resident family of pigeons, the Greens of Hendon and the Gulls of Canvey Island emerged from their respective dressing rooms and jogged out onto the clumpy pitch. This was a big night for Hendon, and the substantial home crowd knew it. Though their team was perched up in second place and unbeaten in seven league matches, fixture congestion meant that this was the side’s third game in only five days. A win against mid-table Canvey would almost guarantee them a spot in the coveted top three, while it might even leave them within striking distance of first-placed Maidstone United; however, collective fatigue was a real worry – a worry that Canvey were ready to exploit.

Despite their recent exertions, Greens’ manager Gary McCann went with pretty much his strongest starting line up; there was to be no shying away from the game. This set the tone for the evening. From the start, both sides worked incredibly hard all over the pitch – both sides grafted for a win.

What the first fifteen minutes lacked in clear-cut chances, it made up for in determination; this was two teams going directly at each other, and it made for compelling viewing. In amongst the tight spaces and tough tackles, Andre Da Costa made some strong attacking runs for Hendon while the hulking Enoch Showunmi muscled and tussled his way past the Greens’ back four; neither could quite find a final ball or an obvious opening, but the intent was more than apparent.

While the game remained level, things soon started to liven up at either end of the pitch. In the eighteenth minute, Hendon’s Kezie Ibe received the ball in the middle of the park before finding Aaron Morgan running in behind the Gulls’ defence; one on one but under pressure from defender Steven Smith, Morgan’s shot was straight at oncoming Canvey keeper Tim Brown. A minute later, a Hendon move broke down and Showunmi broke away; putting winger Jack Simmons through on goal, he could only watch on as his teammate’s low shot from the left was saved and collected by the safe hands of Ben McNamara.

At this point, a Hemel Hempstead scouting party arrived. Sitting right below the main stand’s pigeons, they were quickly informed by a home supporter that they might want to move and avoid being covered in a hefty amount of bird excrement. This may seem like a strange observation to make in the middle of a match report, yet the act of kindness touched me. Good on you, Hendon fan. Good on you.

Back to the game. In the twenty-fourth minute, Canvey’s Jay Curran carved out yet another one on one; his neat through ball allowed the overlapping Smith to bear down on McNamara, yet the centre back couldn’t find the required finish – his curling effort went well wide. A few minutes later, Simmons played a one two with Showunmi on the left before bursting through the Greens’ back line himself; his effort was almost identical to Smith’s.

If Hendon’s back four looked somewhat lethargic at this point, it was Charlie Goode who re-energised them and allowed his side to build from the back; making tackles, interceptions and vital clearances over and over again, his endeavour was magnificent. Accordingly, Hendon came back at the visitors. In the thirty-first minute, a direct Greens’ free kick was palmed into the middle of the box by Brown; Morgan thumped this straight back at goal, only to see his effort headed away by Canvey’s Josh Banton. A couple of minutes later, a Greens corner fell for Morgan on the edge of the box; firing through the crowd of yellow shirts, his shot was also cleared.

In the thirty-sixth, Hendon’s Oliver Sprague almost scored an absolute screamer. With Da Costa having made plenty of space for him with another good run down the left flank, Sprague teed himself up from twenty yards and hit a beautiful effort with the outside of his foot – this was always bending away from the net, yet it was still only a few inches wide of the top-left corner. Canvey then had the last chance of the half. In the forty-third minute, Showunmi set Curran off on a blistering run toward the Hendon box. Pressured by the covering Goode, Curran’s low attempt was saved at the legs of McNamara.

There was no added time at the end of a frenetic first period, and that said it all. Tired or not, both teams had battled, both teams had created and both teams had made it a constant, uninterrupted contest; the two sides left the field on an even footing and, despite the numerous opportunities, this felt about right.

The second half started in much the same fashion. Early half chances were exchanged, Canvey’s George Sykes going closest in the fifty-third minute with a twenty yard drive which took some saving from McNamara. Tight defending at both ends of the pitch saw about ten footballs smashed away into the night – the Earlsmead could do with some netting, or something – while scraps in both penalty areas suggested that the game was perhaps becoming a bit untidy. Indeed, it was a bit of untidiness in Canvey’s area which heralded a decisive opener.

In the sixty-first minute, Ibe won a corner for Hendon. The delivery in was glanced toward the net by Elliott Brathwaite, before Brown punched it away. Unfortunately for the Canvey keeper the ball fell to Morgan, who picked Kevin Maclaren out amongst the converging Gulls’ players; from ten yards, the Greens’ number six fired a thumping shot past the helpless away keeper. The home side were ahead.

With the Green Army the loudest they’d been all season, Hendon nearly grabbed another straightaway. Morgan and Ibe combined well before the latter found Da Costa charging into the box on the left; his venomous effort was pushed over the bar by the slightest of fingertip saves from Brown. Then, in the sixty-eighth minute, Goode almost scored with another glancing header; Banton was once more on hand to head this clear of goal.

For the last twenty minutes of the match, the visibly exhausted home players had to perform a valiant rearguard action; Canvey regrouped and threw everything they had at Hendon, fighting fiercely for an equaliser. Sykes, Curran, Harrison Chatting and bustling full back Dave Collis all went close, yet the Greens simply refused to concede. The home side could even have finished the game off when, in the eighty-fourth minute, Brown’s desperate challenge on Hendon substitute Leon Smith left Casey Maclaren staring down an empty net from thirty yards; the away keeper’s blushes were spared thanks to the spectacular, Beckham-esque long shot that ensued going well wide of the target.

Despite a late barrage of long balls and a few dicey moments, Hendon held on to the lead and the win. Having been given a hard game by their opponents, the Greens’ unbeaten run was deservedly preserved; consequently, as a late-night fog descended on the Earlsmead, their promotion hopes began to seem a whole lot more distinct.

Result: Hendon 1 Canvey Island 0.
My MoM: Charlie Goode (Hendon). A committed, spirited defensive display.
Best fans: the Green Army. Exciting times to be a Hendon fan, and they made it known. Bonus marks for pigeon awareness.

Green, green grass of home