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.

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Green, green grass of home

The boys are back in Town

The game: Enfield Town v. Canvey Island.
The ground: the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
The conditions: colder than the shady side of my ice cream maker.

It was a chill Tuesday night in North London, and I found myself back in Enfield – back at that art-deco beauty, the QEII. Though there was still no house piano player (a wildly unnecessary expense for a fan-owned club, on reflection), the pre-game atmosphere was very much positive for the visit of the ‘Gulls’ from Canvey Island; with a history of high scores and late winners in this fixture, with Town still in the running for a play-off spot and Canvey struggling badly, there was a strong sense of home anticipation in the ground.

The game began, and it was all Enfield. In the third minute, the effervescent Corey Whitely ghosted a perfect through ball to Tyler Campbell, but the latter had just strayed offside. In the fifth, after a thumping foul by Canvey defender Josh Banton on Campbell, a free kick from the left was very nearly turned in at the far post by Town’s Joe Stevens; he couldn’t quite latch on to the ball, however. Though both Jay Curran and Enoch Showunmi were showing glimpses of attacking promise for the away side – the former even skimming a free header past the post in the eighth minute, after a quick counter – Canvey were laboured in the midfield; Enfield seemed like the only side with a final ball. It was no surprise that the home team scored first, in the twelfth; after a good passing move had been ended by another foul out on the left, a precise free kick was taken down nicely by recent arrival Claudiu Vilcu, who then stroked a low shot into the back of the net.

Just as I was preparing to watch a comfortable Enfield victory, the Gulls turned the game on its head. Four minutes after the first goal, some nonchalant one twos between the Enfield defenders led to striker Showunmi stealing a loose pass; from just under twenty yards, he then fired an arrow of a shot past home keeper Nathan McDonald. The equaliser was definitely against the run of play, but the finish was sublime. The home side’s momentum was checked.

The next twenty five minutes were more level; even though Town continued to shade the play, Canvey put themselves about, Showunmi especially; regularly dropping back to help the midfield out with his physicality, he caused Enfield all sorts of problems. Still, Town had almost all the chances. In the twenty-second minute, the home team nearly scored from a corner, captain Mark Kirby making a decent connection on the volley; this was pushed away by Gulls’ keeper Tim Brown, and eventually cleared. A minute later, a quickly-taken free kick gave Corey Whitely a chance to fire at goal from the right, but this was also saved. In the twenty-ninth, Whitely got a low shot away from a central position; Brown diverted this into the path of the onrushing Campbell, but the Town winger was just offside once more. The game then took on a to-and-fro character, both sides attacking without creating clear openings.

Showunmi continued to impress for Canvey, Whitely, Campbell and tough tackler Stanley Muguo for Enfield; the half seemed pretty much settled. Then, in the forty-fifth minute, the Gulls changed the game once more; an attack on the left saw a weighted cross fall right at the feet of Jay Curran, who tapped in to put the visitors ahead. As the referee played on for an inexplicable six minutes of additional time, the home side were heavily rocked by this; they had already let Canvey bear down on goal several times when, in the last additional minute, the ball broke for Curran to go one on one with McDonald; he could only put his shot wide of the Enfield post. It was a let off for Town, who could have gone from supremacy to a two-goal deficit in just over half an hour; as they trudged off the pitch and I reached for my pre-packed dinner of vegetable crisps, I wondered if they would be able to find a response.

If there were any worries amongst the Town fans, they didn’t show; reminding the players of their status as ‘champions of Europe’ (winners of The Supporters Direct Cup) once they re-emerged, the singing section struck up a proper performance. Accordingly, so did the team; from the first minute of the second half they passed tidily, attacked keenly, fought hard and dictated the tempo. In the forty-eighth minute, Campbell burst forward and unleashed a curling shot toward the top left corner of goal; Brown made an excellent fingertip save to keep him out. The resulting short corner went to Whitely, who then jinked past two Canvey defenders before thundering another shot at goal; this was only just blocked. In the fiftieth, a Whitely skimmer crept centimetres wide of the post after the slightest of saves from the away keeper. The next corner was nearly tapped in by Muguo, but was desperately cleared; this led to a foul on the edge of the box and a promising Enfield free kick – the leveller was clearly coming.

It wasn’t coming just yet; the free kick hit the wall before the ball was ultimately hoofed away. Canvey’s attackers seemed entirely cut off at this point, and the siege of the away box was only interrupted by the fifty-sixth minute introduction of Enfield’s brand-new forward Bobby Devyne for Jon Constant. It did not take him long to contribute; three minutes later he rounded Brown, yet couldn’t quite control the ball for a tap in. Devyne, Whitely and Campbell combined instinctively; in the sixty-fourth minute, Whitely was sent slaloming away on the left by Campbell before going close again, while in the sixty-seventh Devyne was sent away on the right, only to be fouled. With the new man an attacking catalyst, the inevitable happened after another five minutes of pressure; Campbell rushed into the box from the left, his initial shot was pushed out by the beleaguered Brown, but Devyne slotted the rebound from the edge of the area. The home fans went spare. Hot drinks went everywhere.

Somehow, a winner felt certain. It nearly came in the eighty-third minute, when a Devyne shot also trickled past the post after a slight save. Canvey tried to slow the play to a standstill, but they couldn’t avert what everyone behind the goal was expecting. In the last minute of normal time, great running by Whitely and Devyne led to midfielder Nathan Livings having a chance from fifteen yards; his scooped shot fell crashing into the away net. The subsequent scenes were absolutely mental. Town now had to hold on.

Hold on they did; a few minutes of extra time passed with minimal pressure from the dejected Gulls, and the whistle went. Bouncing up and down, bellowing out a chorus of ‘Bradley Quinton’s Blue and White Army’, the Enfield fans saw all their pre-match anticipation realised; what a comeback from Town, and what a game.

Result: Enfield Town 3 Canvey Island 2.
My MoM: a special mention for besieged Canvey keeper Tim Brown, but Enfield’s new man Bobby Devyne gets the luxury accolade; though teammates Corey Whitely and Tyler Campbell were excellent too, this was an outstanding, scoring debut.
Best fans: the Blue and White Army. Champions of Europe.

The boys are back in Town