I Wood do anything for love (but I won’t do that)

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.

I Wood do anything for love (but I won’t do that)

Us got to be kidding me

The game: Sutton United v. Bromley.
The ground: The Borough Sports Ground.
The conditions: frostbitten. I am typing this with my last remaining finger.

It was a cold, cold Tuesday evening in Sutton, and I was bumping, jolting and rattling my way down Gander Green Lane on the chilly 413 bus. Coming to my journey’s end outside The Borough Sports Ground (or simply ‘Gander Green Lane’) and stepping out into the night, I realised that this, this very spot, was the furthest south I’d ever been in London – or possibly in my life.

For a moment, it was sort of like that bit of Lord of the Rings when the little men with the hairy feet worry about how far they’ve gone from home. Poignant, basically. However, rather than going on a mystical quest to save the earth, I was planning to watch the ‘Us’ of Sutton United take on the ‘Ravens’ of Bromley. Less poignant but, despite the rapidly falling temperature, also considerably less perilous.

With the visitors top of the table before kick off, they had their own sort of peril to contend with; Bromley couldn’t afford to drop points with Borehamwood so close behind them in the table, while mid-table Sutton would be keen to upset their local rivals’ title chances. The pressure at the top certainly seemed to get to the Ravens, who were on the back foot from the first whistle. With only four minutes on the clock, Us striker Dan Fitchett darted onto a long ball before rocketing a shot at Alan Julian; diving to his left, the away keeper just managed to push this out.

Establishing prolonged possession, Sutton built on their fast start. Both full backs began to maraud up and down the flanks, left back Dale Binns especially; several early half chances were created from accurate crosses in, with Bedsente Gomis and Fitchett the targets. Then, in the twelfth minute, Fitchett won the ball high up the pitch before teeing Gomis up on the edge of the box; his hard drive was palmed away by Julian, but Bromley’s stopper seemed anything but comfortable.

With the away fans roaring the wavering Ravens on from behind the home goal, they did manage to fashion a chance of their own five minutes later. After a foul on young forward Bradley Goldberg, a quick free kick caught the Sutton defence napping; Louis Dennis nipped in behind before unleashing a stinging shot on target, yet he was denied by home stopper Aaron Howe. Still, the Sutton pressure soon resumed; Fitchett had two decent efforts at goal almost immediately, one a rising strike on the turn and the other a looping shot over the bar.

The league leaders were certainly trying to take control of the game, but nothing was quite working for them; oddly bitty going forward, they struggled to counterattack even on the occasions that Sutton ceded them the ball. This was most obvious when, in the twenty-ninth minute, a Ravens counter broke down in the final third and led to an instant breakaway by the Us. Attacking midfielder Ricky Wellard dashed up the right flank and into the area before shooting low at Julian; his shot was blocked by a covering defender, but the ball then came to Gomis to power into the net from five yards. One-nil Sutton.

It was a merited lead for the home side, and it could have swiftly increased. After a great run and cross from Binns, Fitchett was only denied a headed goal by a last-second intervention from Bromley’s Jack Holland. From the consequent corner, the Us’ Michael Spillane floated his own header inches wide. A couple more half chances came and went for Gomis before, in the forty-first minute, Binns went for goal himself; tearing up the left wing for the umpteenth time, he cut inside, slipped between two defenders and flicked a dipping shot toward the far post – Julian did really well to get down low and make the save.

That brought the half to a close, and I shuddered my way to Rose’s Tea Hut for the most necessary cup of cha I’ve ever bought in my life. Using its meagre heat to partially defrost my hands, I reflected on an excellent first-half display from Sutton; from what I’d seen so far, the league upset seemed well and truly on.

Play soon recommenced, and the away side looked to make an instant impression. In the forty-seventh minute, Ravens defender Joe Anderson broke away on the left before firing a speculative, swerving shot toward the near post; this almost wrong footed Howe, but the Us keeper managed to recover and keep it out. Three minutes later, Goldberg won a free kick on the right which Anderson thumped straight down the middle of goal; again Howe kept him out, yet Bromley’s intent was far more apparent.

That said, Sutton still looked good. In the fifty-second, Gomis found himself free in the middle of the park; dragging two Bromley defenders out wide, he then made acres of space for midfielder Kieron Forbes with an audacious backheeled pass. Forbes knocked the ball well ahead of him and, sprinting on, hit a pinpoint, first-time shot toward the far corner of the net. With the save of the match, Julian leapt to his right and brushed this round the post with his fingertips.

Both sides made chances over the next fifteen minutes, but there was nothing on target; more than anything, the game became about which set of fans could wind up the opposition keeper most effectively. The Bromley fans were the clear winners in this endeavour; though both keepers’ kicking became increasingly erratic, Aaron Howe seemed to have been wholly put off by the whistling, hooting and chanting behind him – in an otherwise level period he made a number of uneasy mistakes.

In the seventy-first minute, out of very little, one of these mistakes told. Coming out to collect a long Anderson cross from the left, Howe misjudged the flight of the ball and fumbled; towering Ravens striker Jamie Slabber prodded in to equalise before running to high five a surging wall of elated away support.

After this, the game was turned on its head completely. Bar some good play from Binns and Fitchett to set up Forbes in the Ravens’ area – he shot an inch too high – it was suddenly all Bromley. In the eighty-first minute, after a mix up in the Us’ back line, Goldberg stole in behind to go one on one with Howe; chipping the keeper, his finessed effort bounced back off the crossbar before being smashed away. Ravens wide man Moses Ademola was everywhere at once, seeing several on-target shots only just blocked, while Danny Waldren had a thunderous effort of his own deflected out for a corner; delivered in by Ademola, this too was prodded in by the unmarked Slabber. Two-one to the visitors.

An understandably staggered Sutton side had no answer to this; Bromley could have made it three-one in the eighty-ninth, but Howe made a reflex save to keep out Goldberg from five yards. Playing it shrewdly to the corner flag, Bromley then saw out the game; the referee blew, and the turnaround was complete.

It was, in the end, the league leaders who upset the footballing odds; up until the first goal, Sutton had certainly played the better stuff. Nevertheless, a win in difficult circumstances is the sort of thing title tilts are made of; however harsh it might be on the Us, the Ravens swooped when it mattered.

Result: Sutton United 1 Bromley 2.
My MoM: Dale Binns (Sutton). A storming, buccaneering first half from the left back; his second half was a little more muted, but still a top performance.
Best fans: Bromley. In the battle of goalkeeping distraction, they won.

Us got to be kidding me

Wooda, shoulda, coulda

The game: Boreham Wood v. Concord Rangers.
The ground: Meadow Park.
The conditions: grey, rainy and grim. Then sunny. Then rainy again. All the weathers.

It was Valentine’s Day, and love was in the air. I don’t know who for, however, because I was busy wandering the streets of southern Hertfordshire, bound for Boreham Wood’s Meadow Park and a heady dose of non-league football. The home side were top of the table going into Saturday’s match, while their opponents, Concord Rangers (or ‘the Beach Boys’), were a mere seven points off the play-off places – with two games in hand. Little wonder, then, that the majority of pre-match chat around the ground was focused on the romance of promotion; both sets of fans were clearly longing for a dreamy three points.

On the pitch, the focus seemed to be a little less romantic; from the first whistle, two well-drilled defences nullified their respective attacks almost in their entirety. Boreham Wood had a good early effort through striker Junior Morias – saved by Concord’s on-loan Arsenal keeper, Josh Vickers – and Beach Boy Gary Ogilvie went close from long range, but apart from that the opening twenty-five minutes were all about the collective hustle; energetic pressing led to persistent tackles, fouls and turnovers from both sides, while time on the ball was at an absolute premium.

In the twenty-seventh minute, Concord carved out a great opportunity. Having won a corner, the ball was played short to recent England C addition Alex Woodyard; his low cross found midfielder Taylor Miles in a perfect position on the edge of the Boreham Wood box, but he ballooned his first-time shot high and wide. This seemed to kick the home side into action; urged on from the touchline by forthright manager Ian Allinson, they started to dominate possession and step up in attack. Suddenly, the chances came flooding in.

First, Morias won a free kick in a dangerous position out on the left; taking this himself, his shot at goal took a deflection off the wall and spun inches wide of the post. From the resulting corner, Josh Vickers misjudged his punch; Wood’s Luke Garrard pounced at the near post, only to slice wide under pressure from the scrambling keeper. Then, in the thirty-fifth minute, high-scoring Wood forward Lee Angol broke away down the right wing before crossing for Morias to slot home; unfortunately for the latter, his shot was badly scuffed. Teammate Matthew Whichelow latched on to the loose ball, but his strike was saved superbly by the onrushing Vickers; had the Concord stopper not reacted quickly, this would surely have found the back of the net.

In the fortieth minute, home keeper James Russell was called upon to keep out a low Ogilvie free kick. Then, three minutes later, it was back to Vickers to show off his ability; this he did with by far the best save of the match. A perfect through ball from Morias put Angol through one on one – and in miles of space. Angol took a touch and readied himself for the finish; in the second it took him to do so, Vickers flung himself in front of the strike and bravely battered the ball away.

The half came to an end with a promising Wood free kick being fired straight into the Concord wall; this rather frustrated the home supporters near to me, one of whom punctured the quiet of the break with some language that will haunt my Valentine’s Days forevermore. Heart-shaped chocolates will turn to ash in my mouth, plush roses will wilt and die in my garden; thankfully my half-time pint was unaffected, so no real harm done.

The game resumed with the defences dominant once more; the first chance of the half was not until the fifty-fifth minute, when a home corner was blasted over Vickers’ crossbar by Wood defender Josh Hill. A couple of minutes later, a good passing move from the away side saw forward Sam Collins shoot wide from fifteen yards, before a Wood counterattack gave Whichelow a chance to fire at goal from similar distance; this was just blocked.

Wood tried to build on their possession, but Concord were obstinate. Morias had another chance in the sixty-seventh minute, but fired high; the dynamic Whichelow had another on-target shot blocked in the seventy-first. Lee Angol was Wood’s most threatening attacker, but even he couldn’t summon up a goal; with the clock ticking on the three points, the tension ramped up.

In the seventy-fourth, Angol set up Graeme Montgomery on the left of the Concord box; another chance went begging as he could only fluff his shot wide. Five minutes later, the Beach Boys could have won it; a poor pass out from the Wood defence gave substitute Harry Elmes an opportunity, but he curled a cultured effort past the upright.

The final chance of the match came in the eighty-third, and it was for Concord. Having won the ball with a toe-to-toe tackle twenty yards from the home net, Taylor Miles fired an explosive, swerving shot at goal; James Russell palmed this away to safety. After that, the pace inevitably slowed; tired legs told, and it finished goalless.

In the end, it was a game for the goalkeepers; both made crucial saves to secure the draw. It was not necessarily a dreamy result, but both sides could be relatively happy with a diligent point; for Wood and the Beach Boys alike, the romance of promotion lives on.

Result: Boreham Wood 0 Concord Rangers 0.
My MoM: Josh Vickers. Had the hardest saves to make; made them in style. Full of potential.
Best fans: Wood fans. This heart-shaped chocolate tastes awful.

Wooda, shoulda, coulda