Two slices of honey roast Hamlet

The game: Enfield Town v. Dulwich Hamlet.
The ground: the QEII.
The conditions: windier than myself after a mung bean salad (with extra lentils).

Easter weekend is a time of reflection. It is a time of profound religiosity. A time to think about our many and varied sins, while eating lots of chocolate and sending unwarranted abuse to the people who run Cadbury’s official Twitter account.

However, most importantly of all, it’s also a ruddy good time to catch up on non-league football. With work commitments suspended for four whole days, I found myself with time on my hands come Saturday afternoon.

And how did I spend that time? I spent it watching Enfield Town take on Dulwich Hamlet, obviously.

Both Town and Hamlet have suffered mixed fortunes of late. While the Pink & Blues were top of the league at Christmas, mixed form (and too many draws, in particular) had seen them drop down to fifth ahead of the big game at the QEII. Town, after a strong run in the mid-season, had also stuttered in their previous few fixtures.

As such, the two teams were now in direct contention for a play-off berth. The pre-match tension was heightened accordingly.

Ignoring the pre-match tension, I rocked up in EN1 and immediately trotted up to the Butler’s Bar for a pint of Redemption pale ale. By kick off, the ground had filled out nicely. Home and away fans had assumed their positions at opposite ends of the pitch. The dulcet parps of a local brass band filled the air. The stage had been set for the heady melodrama that is – the football!

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With both sides preferring to play a clever, passing game, the wet and windy conditions didn’t really favour anyone. Nonetheless, it was Enfield that started by far the brighter of the two sides. With five minutes on the clock, Tyler Campbell broke away down the right before teeing up Corey Whitely in the middle of the box; his effort was well blocked by Ethan Pinnock. A half chance for Stanley Muguo came a few minutes later, but he could only shank a shot into the arms of Hamlet keeper Preston Edwards from the edge of the box.

Near the fifteen minute mark, Town carved out the first clear-cut opportunity of the match. The effervescent Whitely got in behind Hamlet’s defence and galloped toward goal from the left. With Dulwich defenders sprinting back to catch him, he clipped a beautiful cross straight to Bobby Devyne. Unfortunately, his strike partner could only blast over the crossbar from eight yards. Hands on heads for Town.

That sense of frustration only grew when, just over ten minutes later, the visitors went ahead. A scrappy period had seen the game level out a little, before Dulwich suddenly broke forward in numbers. A Nyren Clunis cross from the right bobbled in the box before falling for Jack Dixon, who rifled low into the corner of the net. The travelling Hamlet fans went wild.

Moments afterward, that elation turned sour. Having picked up a yellow card for handball early on, Hamlet defender Matt Drage was caught dawdling on the ball by Campbell. Sticking out a leg, Drage brought his opponent down right in front of his own box. The second yellow was inevitable. Hamlet were down to ten.

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Despite all this sudden drama, the rest of the half was fairly subdued. The best chance fell for Hamlet’s new signing (and debutant) Dipo Akinyemi just before half time; after a strong run into the box he opened up his body and fired a yard past the far post. Soon enough, the whistle went.

The Butler’s Bar was out of Redemption, so I had to have a Fosters. Ugh.

Back to the game, and it didn’t take long for ten-man Hamlet to forfeit their narrow lead. Two minutes after the restart, an Enfield corner came straight to Mark Kirby only a few yards out. He couldn’t miss.

While the home end exploded into jubilant celebration, the Rabble didn’t even break song. That clearly steeled the team because, much like their supporters, they refused to be cowed by the setback.

In fact, despite their one-man deficit, it was Hamlet who were to score next.

In the fifty-fifth minute, Akinyemi controlled a long ball in the middle of the park before sending Clunis away down the right wing. Sprinting past his markers, Nyren pinged a floated ball to the back post where – having made up the ground in no time – Dipo was on hand to nod home.

It was 2-1 to Dulwich and, though chants of “Nyren Clunis, makes Messi look shite” were fully justified, Akinyemi deserved a hefty chunk of praise for his all-action role in the goal. Now, Gavin Rose’s men just had to hang on.

Enfield had other ideas, however.

The home pressure built from that point onward, while the depleted visitors looked increasingly stretched at the back. In the sixty-third minute, after Jordan Hibbert gave away a clumsy foul just outside the Hamlet area, Whitely’s curling free kick hit the bottom of the post. Five minutes later, Edwards was forced into a double save from Tyler Campbell and Bobby Devyne respectively. The latter’s shot came from barely a yard out – the visiting keeper deserved huge credit for his efforts.

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A string of saves from Edwards was the only thing which kept Hamlet ahead after that. In the seventieth minute, Devyne ran at Hamlet’s centre backs before unleashing Whitely to the left of the box; his fierce effort was smothered and saved. Two minutes later, Hamlet old boy Harry Ottaway sent a looping header towards the top corner – only for Edwards to pluck it out of the air like a parakeet swooping for a juicy ladybird.

On the eightieth minute mark, Devyne had a gilt-edged chance to equalise when he capitalised on a defensive mistake by Dulwich and went clear through. He fired wide with the goal gaping.

Two minutes later, though, Hamlet were finally breached. Another defensive mistake saw Edwards come early for a loose ball. Whitely got there first, skipped around the keeper and slotted a cool finish low into the net. Could Enfield kick on and win it?

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The answer, in short, was: no. Though Edwards palmed away a vicious Whitely shot in the eighty-ninth minute, the game was relatively calm for the final stretch. With rain now coming down in sheets and both sides exhausted from their exertions, the players seemed fairly satisfied with the scoreline. The final whistle went.

Though Town fans might be disappointed not to have nabbed all three points when facing ten men, the draw was a fair result in the end. Entertaining despite the conditions, full of fighting spirit and with plenty of quality on show, the game was a good measure of the two teams at this point in the season.

Will Town and Hamlet meet once more in the play offs? I can only hope.

Result: Enfield Town 2 Dulwich Hamlet 2.
My MoM: Corey Whitely is surely one of the most dangerous players in the division, but Nyren Clunis was similarly excellent on the day. Two assists for Clunis edge him narrowly ahead.
Best fans: Both sang all afternoon, both braved wind and rain to support the sides. I’m not going to choose between them, and you can’t make me.

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Two slices of honey roast Hamlet

Lux redux

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Needham Market
The ground: Champion Hill
The conditions: Hurricane Desmond, which I hereby rename Hurricane Jeremy.

After a long summer, and a similar length autumn, and a much shorter winter (it’s only 7 days old, after all), The Luxury Fan has returned. There have been many luxury adventures between this – my first report of the 2015/16 season – and my last writing, yet rest assured my ardour for football is undimmed. I am still a patron of non-league bars, I still have a taste for slightly posh half-time snacks and I am, above all, still a Premier League fan on a lower-league budget.

Oh, and I’m still fond of watching the odd game at Toscana, the home of Dulwich Hamlet – Champion Hill.

It was somewhat inevitable that I’d commence the current campaign by journeying to the finest football ground in all of the London Borough of Southwark. Having spent many an enjoyable afternoon at Champion Hill last season, I decided that my comeback would coincide with Hamlet’s key clash with Needham Market. Needless to say, it was ruddy lovely to be back in SE22.

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In my absence, things had been going really rather well for Gavin Rose’s men; they topped the Ryman League at kick off, with the visitors mired at the other end of the table. At first, the match reflected the respective standings of the two sides. However, that wasn’t to last.

Dulwich made all the early running, retaining the ball well and passing with their usual aplomb. Nyren Clunis and Rhys Murrell-Williamson initially ran Needham ragged out on the wings, while the formidable Ash Carew probed from the centre. Still, the Pink & Blues could only really create half chances for the first twenty minutes or so. Carew and Clunis both had on-target shots deflected, yet nobody really tested away stopper Daniel Gay.

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Not until he had to save a low zinger from Carew, that is. Cutting in from the right, the hulking midfielder fired low and hard toward the bottom corner. Gay got down and pushed it round the post. Just.

Despite a few decent forays from lively Needham forward Jordan Patrick, Hamlet remained on top for the rest of the first half. Patrick did combine with fellow attacker Jay Davies to fire over the bar in the twenty-fifth minute, but he was quickly answered by several narrow misses from Albert Jarrett (on for the injured Osei Sankofa). Hamlet’s Danny Waldren had a few chances of his own not long afterward, but both his mid-range shots went wide. The constant pressure on the Needham box was only relieved by the half-time whistle. I then mulled over a spirited first-half with a delicious pint of ‘Gorgon’s Alive!’ golden ale and a burger, which I’m reliably informed was made with grass-fed beef.

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I must admit that, having joined ‘The Rabble’ for the second half, I saw rather less of the action after the resumption of play; the home fans have got a lot taller since my last visit, it seems. Nonetheless, it quickly became apparent that the match had taken on a more even character. Though goalscoring chances were few and far between, Needham were far more willing to take the game to their hosts – and it soon paid off.

In the fifty-ninth minute, the deadlock was suddenly broken. Needham played a classic counter up the pitch, a cross came in from the left and Jay Davies rose highest to nod past Phil Wilson and into the back of the net. Though the home fans stayed as vocal as ever, there was a mild sense of disbelief at the away goal. It was time for Hamlet to respond – but could they?

The answer was: they tried really hard, but ultimately no.

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Though it took them a little while to shake off the shock of conceding, the last twenty minutes of the game saw the Pink & Blues create numerous openings. Waldren fired wide from the edge of the box. Ethan Pinnock slammed a shot over the bar from a decent corner, perhaps inadvertently distracted by the jangling of Rabble keys behind the goal. Murrell-Williamson had a brilliant chance in the eighty-first minute, shooting an inch too high from a great position to the right of the box. In the eighty-ninth, Ash Carew even rattled the crossbar with a thunderous twenty-yard effort.

But there was no equaliser to be found.

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At the final whistle, it was 1-0 to Needham; though something of a smash-and-grab, the visitors should certainly be praised for an organised performance and plenty of gutsy defending. While Hamlet were clearly disappointed not to get anything from the game, defeats for their nearest rivals kept them top to soften the blow.

I myself had a splendid day out, and a truly luxury one at that. After a couple of post-match ales, it was time for a slightly hazy trip back home from East Dulwich. I’ll be back soon, though. Very soon indeed.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 0 Needham Market 1.
My MoM: Ash Carew. At the heart of Hamlet’s best moves. Crossbar rattler.
Best fans: The Rabble. Particularly enjoyed some new Christmas chants (‘Good tidings we bring / To Gavin our king / You wish you were Dulwich Hamlet / And top of the league’).

Lux redux

Gate expectations

The game: Hendon v. Margate.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: nice and hot; reminded me that I must book a mini break.

A season’s hard slog. The elation of victories, the bitter taste of defeats. Forty-six sapping league fixtures played each. A tough play-off semi-final overcome. Through it all, through every high and low, Hendon and Margate had been working toward a single purpose. That purpose was to win this match, the Ryman Premier play-off final, and gain promotion to the prestigious Conference South. This was the climax of their respective campaigns. Now, at this late and momentous hour, only one club could triumph.

With 1,228 fans rammed into the Earlsmead – Margate’s impressive travelling contingent included – the atmosphere befitted the occasion; the Gate’s Blue & White Army and Hendon’s Green equivalent assembled behind the goals before kick off, supporters jostling for space on the sun-soaked terraces and rivalling each other with songs, drums and air horns from the off. The home section of the ground had most cause to be confident pre-match; as they had been in the semi-final, the long-unbeaten Greens were certainly favourites to win out. However, the away fans showed no signs of anxiety as the players walked out onto the pitch. The roar from the Margate end was ear-splitting. The contest was about to begin in earnest.

For the first ten minutes, neither side was particularly fluent; Margate midfielder Charlie Allen did have a good chance in the fifth minute – firing over the crossbar from ten yards – yet it was an otherwise cautious start to proceedings. In the twelfth minute, Gate striker Ryan Moss was booked for a traditional non-league tackle on Oliver Sprague; some puffed out chests and insistent pushing followed, suggesting things might be about to flare up a little. All the same, nobody could have predicted what was to happen next.

In the fifteenth, Hendon forward Aaron Morgan tussled with Gate right back Tambeson Eyong over an innocuous middle-third ball. Morgan seemed to put in a robust challenge in the tangle of legs, Eyong going down hard. The referee was surrounded by both sets of players. He hesitated, then produced the straight red card. Morgan’s hands went to his head. Devastation.

This decision seemed a bit harsh to me, though my position was perhaps not the best; whether it was objectively justified or not, it’s bound to divide fan opinion for years to come. Either way, it certainly gave Margate the momentum. Profiting from the extra man on the overlap, the Gate’s attackers started to bombard the Greens’ net with crosses and shots. In the twenty-first minute, full back Sam Rents saw a stinging effort desperately blocked. Five minutes later, with Hendon’s back four overworked and overstretched, a scuffed clearance fell to Allen just outside the box. His half volley was curling away from Greens’ keeper Ben McNamara, yet somehow the man between the home sticks managed to claw it to temporary safety. Still, there was little respite. The Gate kept on coming.

Margate midfielder Kane Wills had two long-range drives at goal around the thirtieth-minute mark. McNamara saved both. In the thirty-fourth, Eyong proved himself indifferent to the boos from the sidelines as he cut in from the right and unleashed a low stinger toward the near post. McNamara saved again. For a while, with the keeper in such fine fettle, it felt as if Hendon’s goal might just hold out against the prolonged Blue & White assault. Then, in the fortieth minute, Margate finally broke the home side down.

It took a beautiful team move to do so. First Wills played a neat pass to wide man Lewis Taylor on the left flank. Taylor in turn sent striker Freddie Ladapo rampaging his way into the left side of the area. Beating a couple of markers, Ladapo cut a clean cross across the face of goal. This was met by the waiting Moss. With several Hendon defenders converging on him, he turned on his ankle and popped the ball into the bottom right. Absolute madness amongst the Margate fans. One-nil.

The Gate could have doubled their lead on the stroke of half time; Taylor burst toward goal, this time from the right, but his shot was saved by McNamara – as were a couple of follow ups from Moss and Ladapo. Greens’ centre back Charlie Goode eventually cleared, and that was the last significant act of the first forty-five. The two sides went back to the dressing rooms with very different prospects. Hendon would have to do something drastic after the break to change theirs.

To their great credit, the ten men gave absolutely everything to find a leveller in the second half. Getting hold of the ball themselves, they began to match Margate across the pitch. Their newfound impetus almost paid off in the fifty-second minute, midfielder Lee O’Leary latching onto a long free kick in the away area before snapping a shot at goal; this was blocked a couple of yards out. The Gate were largely restricted to pot shots in reply, though Rents soon sent one mid-range whistler just past the upright.

Hendon continued to battle, but they struggled to make space for themselves; it took fifteen minutes of hard-fought hustle before they created another clear-cut opportunity. This opportunity was a good one, however. In the sixty-ninth, Dave Diedhiou sliced through the middle of the park before rolling the perfect pass to Leon Smith five yards out. Much to the home supporters’ dismay, the tightly-marked Smith could only blast over the crossbar. There wouldn’t be many better chances than that.

Smith continued to cause Margate’s defence problems, especially so in the seventy-seventh when it took a crucial hooked clearance from Charlie Wassmer to stop the Greens’ fourteen from going through one on one. Even so, the last good chance of the game fell to fellow substitute Tony Taggart. In the eighty-sixth, a long Hendon free kick was pumped forward in desperation. Taggart seized upon the ball as it bobbled in the crowded goalmouth. His shot was half blocked, half saved a yard from the line. The clearance was made. Margate played shrewdly to the corners. Time ticked away. The final whistle went.

Margate’s fans charged onto the pitch to celebrate with the jubilant players, while Hendon’s fans and staff looked on dejectedly. It was a cruel end to the season for the hosts, especially having gone so long undefeated. Nonetheless, the Gate capitalised on the day. They happily join Maidstone in the Conference South. Hendon remain a Ryman Premier side. For now.

Result: Hendon 0 Margate 1.
My MoM: Ben McNamara (Hendon). Could not have done more to keep Margate out. The scrambling triple save just before half time a particular highlight.
Best fans: the Gate’s Blue & White Army. A significant portion of Margate’s total population in attendance. Overjoyed at the close, and rightly so.

Gate expectations

Police, Police, Police, let me get what I want

The game: Hendon v. Metropolitan Police.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: warm but moist; just the way I like my pistachio slices.

Finally. It was a rainy Thursday evening in Harrow and – long after its original scheduling – Hendon’s Ryman Premier play-off semi-final was about to take place. The postponement, owing to the FA and Ryman League’s prevarication in docking points from potential opponents Enfield Town, was entirely unnecessary and unwelcome for the sides involved; likewise, Enfield’s last-minute punishment for an administrative error dating back to January made for a truly cruel end to the campaign for their management, players and fans alike. Nonetheless, wrangle ended, here the long-awaited play off was. The Greens were to play Metropolitan Police for a place in the final. The pre-match anticipation was plain.

In the few weeks since the end of the regular season Met Police had triumphed in the Surrey Senior Cup; with Hendon crowned London Senior Cup winners just a day later, this game was a straight fight between two clubs with a fresh taste for winners’ medals. Having finished second in the league standings, Hendon had to be the firm favourites before kick off. Still, I had a sneaking suspicion that the Met would be very tricky adversaries. As it was, my suspicion was quickly proved right.

The away side made a fast start. After only a couple of minutes, physical Met wide man Bradley Hudson-Odoi won a long ball to the left of the area before squaring to midfielder Charlie Collins ten yards out; he fired narrowly wide. Five minutes later, after a little spell of Hendon pressure, the Met carved out another good opportunity. Joe Turner made a strong run through the middle of the park, eventually teeing up fellow forward Jake Reid on the edge of the box. He thumped a shot straight at Greens’ stopper Ben McNamara. Saved. Held.

Come the eleventh minute, it was the home side’s turn to go close. Hendon striker Aaron Morgan went on a strong run of his own only to be brought down twenty yards from goal. Andre Da Costa – something of a free kick specialist – stood over the ball. He then curled it onto the top of the crossbar. The terraces gasped.

It was shaping up to be an even and open game, both teams playing with plenty of offensive ambition. It was, however, the Greens’ defence which made the first slip up. In the seventeenth, as they attempted to usher the ball out of their area, Hendon defenders Charlie Goode and Sam Flegg got their feet horribly mixed up; Joe Turner nipped in and won the ball, before seemingly being tripped by Flegg. With no decision given, Turner leapt up and fired at goal. His shot was blocked in a tangle of bodies. The referee then signalled for a penalty – whether for the trip or for a handball was unclear.

Collins took the spot kick, stroking in to McNamara’s left. One-nil to the Met. As the Hendon fans behind the goal made their heartening voices heard, it was up to the hosts to come back at the visitors. This was no easy task; the away side were tenacious from front to back, Hudson-Odoi and Reid particularly impressive in their energetic harassment of the Greens’ defence.

That said, Hendon did manage to gradually wrest away their opponents’ momentum. A few imposing tackles from Goode – atonement for his earlier error – stabilised the back four. It was Goode who then thumped a long ball forward for Morgan in the thirty-first minute; the Greens’ number nine set off on a direct run before unleashing a stinging shot at goal – this was deflected over the bar by the Met’s ironically-named defender Billy Crook.

The corner produced Hendon’s equaliser. Sam Murphy put in a great delivery. Casey Maclaren leapt highest amongst the seething mass of defenders. He belted a header into the back of the net. The crowd erupted. The Green Army’s klaxons blared.

The Met did have several good chances to go back ahead before the break. In the thirty-seventh minute, Hudson-Odoi got around Flegg before releasing Reid to the left of the box; the Met striker galloped at goal but – faced with an ever-narrowing angle – shot straight at a relieved-looking McNamara. Turner volleyed wide after a corner was only half cleared a couple of minutes later. Hudson-Odoi then got a shot in himself, again making space on the left before stinging McNamara’s palms from five yards. The resulting corner was cleared. A few probing home attacks later, and a well-fought half came to an end.

It was hard to predict which side might score next but, once the second half was underway, it didn’t take long to find out. Only two minutes in, Murphy sent another sweet corner delivery into the Met box. This was shanked away, but the ball was collected by Da Costa just outside the area. From there, he sent a sumptuous curler rippling past away keeper Stuart Searle. Cries of ‘Gary McCann’s Green & White Army’ filled the wet night sky. Dreamland for Hendon.

After that, the game settled down into a pattern of anxious Met pressure and lightning counterattacks from the Greens. Though the away team did go close in the fifty-fourth through midfielder Nikki Ahamed – his low shot was safely pushed out by McNamara – this dynamic played into Hendon hands. The home opportunities were numerous from here on out. In the fifty-seventh, Oliver Sprague broke into the box and curled a shot past the far post with the outside of his boot. Morgan and Ibe both went close. Then, in the sixty-sixth minute, Murphy broke away on the right before putting Morgan through one on one. The latter’s first shot looped over Searle and was scrambled off the line. Morgan then followed up with an angled drive toward the roof of the net. Searle stuck out a hand to save.

Ten minutes more like this, and things were made very difficult for the Met. Defender Rob Bartley was sent off for clumsily bringing down Da Costa as he bore down on Searle’s goal from thirty yards; Bartley may well have been the last man, but whether or not this was a clear goalscoring opportunity was up for debate.

The ten men did have the ball in the back of the net in the eighty-fifth, but the goal was chalked off for a robust foul on McNamara. Then came a pretty unambiguous red card decision. Perhaps put off by the persistent klaxon parping behind him, Searle rushed off his line and fisted the ball away from the onrushing Murphy – a yard outside the box. He duly got his marching orders. The nine men saw off a few more Hendon attacks, but the home side were now happy to keep possession. Before long, the final whistle went.

A highly eventful game ended with Hendon through to the final; despite the last forty-five going in the Greens’ favour, it had been a damned difficult game for them – one in which the Met had certainly done themselves proud. The Greens will now entertain Margate at the Earlsmead after the Kentish side narrowly beat Dulwich Hamlet in the corresponding fixture. The winner of that game will go on to entertain in the Conference South next season. I’ll be watching. May the best side win.

Result: Hendon 2 Metropolitan Police 1.
My MoM: Hudson-Odoi was excellent in the first half, Charlie Goode didn’t put a foot wrong after his early error, but the accolade goes to Andre Da Costa. That finish.
Best fans: Hendon fans. I really should not find ninety minutes of klaxon distraction funny. But I do.

Police, Police, Police, let me get what I want

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)

Jeffinitely, maybe

The game: Peckham Town v. Bexley.
The ground: The Menace Arena.
The conditions: erratic and unpredictable, just like myself after eight pints of Veltins.

It was the evening before Election Day, and a crucial question was about to be put to the British people. That question was: who is going to win this season’s Kent County League Division One West title? First-placed Halstead United? Second-placed Bexley, level on points with the leaders? Or third-placed Peckham Town, only a point behind both? With Peckham and Bexley about to contest the last match of the campaign at The Menace Arena, the answer would soon be apparent.

As the Menace Ultras arrived in unprecedented numbers and started singing about their dislike of Dulwich Village, their contempt for Long Lane and their approval of Bryan Hall’s considerable height – it’s not often that the club chairman gets his own tune – Peckham kicked off on the Arena’s uphill slope. Despite a touch of panic in the Menace’s back line during the earliest exchanges, it was the home side that took the lead in the eighth minute; brawny wide man Michael Jeff won a corner, delivered the ball in and found the head of defender Michael Keen at the near post – he nodded in.

The goal preceded some more good chances for Peckham. In the twelfth minute, front men Rotimi Oladunni and Schaveize Williams combined well just outside the area; the latter fired wide from fifteen yards. A minute later, a good pass from Menace midfielder Ali Amisu set Matthew Cusack away on the right side of the box; he also dragged his low effort wide.

Bexley should have equalised moments afterward. A long ball forward broke for striker Tom Peck ten yards out; his driven shot was saved brilliantly by Peckham stopper Tope Okeowo. Josh Armfield followed up on the rebound, but Okeowo made the double save at his near post. The resulting corner was cleared. The keeper had kept Peckham ahead.

After that, the half settled down into a well-fought midfield wrangle. Bexley midfielder Joe Neil put himself about quite a bit, resulting in several bouts of mild chest shoving; Menace full back Bolaji Olatunde was just as up for the contest, impressing as he battled all comers out on the right. The Menace did create a couple of half chances before the break, Cusack, Williams and Taiwo Ikponosa firing high or wide one after the other. There were no more goals to be had, however; the referee blew up at one-nil, before everyone desperately tried to find some information on the Halstead game. All attempts were unsuccessful. The Kent County League Division One West needs an app, or something.

The beginning of the second half was somewhat choppy. Peckham nearly scored via a forty-ninth minute free kick, won by Jeff after some powerful running through the middle of the park; Jeff took it himself, saw his shot deflected to Williams, then could only watch on as his teammate smashed wide of the near post. The next ten minutes constituted a succession of fouls on both sides, before Bexley’s Josh Armfield pinged a decent attempt just over the crossbar from fifteen yards.

In the sixty-second, Peckham let a great chance to double their advantage slip. Jeff charged up the right before cutting inside and bamboozling the Bexley defence; he then played a perfect pass to Williams, who found himself completely clear on the left. Bearing down on away goalie Sam Armfield, his timing was just a split second out. His attempted chip was too close to the keeper. Saved. Sighs of relief on the visitors’ bench.

These became howls of anguish within five minutes. The chance seemed to re-energise the Menace, who suddenly got on top of the game. After a cool dispossession on the left, Peckham’s Dwayne Simpson dribbled down the touchline before leathering a cross over the Bexley back four; Williams rushed through, controlled and – despite futile cries of offside from his opponents – tucked away to Sam Armfield’s left. Two-nil, and the home side looked to have won the tenacious tussle.

Bexley did give the Menace a scare in the seventy-fourth, though it was entirely of the home side’s own making. An innocuous away corner was floated into the box, before Lukmon Mojeed gave the officials a decision to make with a rather obvious handball. The decision was a penalty. Alex Legge stepped up and slotted it home. Two-one.

To the relief of the anxious Ultras, this only revitalised the Menace once more. Williams stepped up his play, bullying the Bexley centre backs, while Jeff continued to influence the game from the wing. Indeed, it was his influence that eventually wrapped things up for good; in the eighty-fourth minute, he traded passes with Amisu on the right before playing a sweet cross-field ball to substitute Sulyman Bah – Peckham’s number seven zoomed to the left of goal before rocketing a shot across Sam Armfield and into the back of the net. Celebrations with the Menace faithful ensued. For all they knew, Peckham might have won the league.

At the final whistle, it sadly transpired that this wasn’t the case. Phoenix Sports had ceded three points to Halstead, meaning that the latter ended the season as champions; Bryan Hall shared commiserations with the fans, before the players came over to dance, sing and generally have a jolly with the soon-cheery Ultras. The joy was temporarily marred by some unnecessary and vaguely homophobic jibes from a couple of Bexley players, but their comments were mainly ignored in favour of toasting a good season for the Menace – and a second-placed finish at Bexley’s expense. On the whole, another top game at the Menace Arena. Next season, top spot.

Result: Peckham Town 3 Bexley 1.
My MoM: Michael Jeff (Peckham Town). Two assists. Jeffinitely the main man.
Best fans: the Menace Ultras. The Kent County League Division One West has never known anything like it.

Jeffinitely, maybe

The merchant of Menace

The game: Peckham Town v. Halls Athletic.
The ground: The Menace Arena.
The conditions: increasingly cool, just like the fresh-baked focaccia I’ve got on the worktop.

There was a chill breeze blowing through SE21 as I strolled through Dulwich Village and towards the home of Peckham Town – the club ominously nicknamed ‘the Menace’. Arriving at the leafy borders of The Menace Arena, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was nothing ominous about the place at all; a developing non-league ground with a bowls club bar and a tidy pitch, it was the perfect spot to watch a bit of late-season Kent County League Division One West football – free of charge, to boot.

Owing to the postponement of several winter matches, Peckham were in the midst of some major fixture congestion going into the game with struggling Halls Athletic; after an already-hectic month, this was to be the first of three league games in just over a week. Nonetheless, the Menace were only four points off top spot with a game in hand on leaders Halstead United; win against Halls, and they’d go into the last two matches of the season with a very good chance of snatching the title.

The match didn’t exactly start as planned for the home side. After only a couple of minutes, a Halls hoof was pumped forward to giant, blonde Viking-striker Connor O’Flynn; he brought the ball down deftly to the left of goal before smashing a neat finish into the far corner of the net. As the Halls players celebrated, a small but determined group of attendant Peckham Ultras got songs going for the Menace, completely undeterred. The home players seemed similarly unruffled. Before long, they were well on top.

Transitioning quickly from pass-and-move attack to harrying defence, the Menace settled themselves down steadily; bar a seventh-minute blast over the bar from nimble Halls forward Craig Farmer, it was almost all Peckham from this point onward. In the twelfth minute, Menace forward Rotimi Oladunni combined with Bolaji Olatunde before making the first of many ghosting runs through the Halls defence; he eventually dragged a shot wide from fifteen yards. Not long afterward, Oladunni charged up the left flank before looping a cross in for star frontman Schaveize ‘Troy’ Williams. Rising above his marker, Williams headed over the bar from close range.

With the Menace attackers combining well up front, chance after chance came the home side’s way. In the seventeenth, Taiwo Ikponosa rocketed a long-range effort just over the crossbar. A minute later, burly winger Michael Jeff exchanged passes with Ali Amisu before crossing in for Oladunni to belt past the upright; Peckham’s number nine nodded a Jeff corner high just after.

In the twenty-ninth, the home side could have conceded again through a freak effort from Halls full back Robbie Foreman; he hit the post with a swerving cross from the left, but the ball bounced out and was cleared. That was the closest Halls had come since the opener, and it prompted a well-deserved Peckham equaliser. Just over five minutes later, with Oladunni, Williams and Matthew Cusack all having seen opportunities go begging, Jeff took aim from ten yards. Visiting keeper Ray Marshall managed to save his smarting shot, but could only push the ball back into the danger zone. Williams reacted fastest, latching on to the loose ball. Marshall clobbered him. Penalty.

Menace midfielder Lukmon Mojeed stepped up, then pinged the spot kick into the bottom left. The Peckham Ultras went ballistic, so much so that the referee ordered them to move from behind the away goal. Bloody hooligans.

Cusack had the last chance of the first forty-five, anticipating a sweet chipped pass from Oladunni before volleying across the face of goal. The referee then signalled for the break at one-all; as the sides rested and had their team talks on the turf, I pondered whether or not Peckham could climb closer to the league summit over the course of the second half.

They did so not five minutes after the restart. A great run by Oladunni wreaked havoc on the Halls back four; as he burst into the right of the area, Marshall rushed off his line and nicked the ball off his toe with a sprawling challenge. Unfortunately for the beleaguered keeper, the deflection came straight to Williams fifteen yards out. From there, he finished with a nonchalant lob over several scrambling bodies. Two-one to the Menace.

The Peckham dominance continued over the next twenty minutes, even if Craig Farmer’s endeavour did create the odd chance for Halls. Jeff continued to boss his wing, Williams looked ever on the verge of scoring while Oladunni’s running was at the heart of everything the Menace did going forward. Fittingly, it was Oladunni who scored his side’s third in the sixty-ninth. The number nine floated past a couple of markers on the edge of the box, slid the ball through Halls defender Louis Glazebrook’s legs and fired low under Marshall. That looked to have wrapped things up.

Peckham did get a scare ten minutes from time. The home side had perhaps become a tad complacent when a long ball fell to Halls midfielder David Stevens in the box; he headed onto the post from five yards before following up with a clean strike over clambering home goalie Tope Okeowo. Three-two. Halls piled on the belated pressure, and this very nearly paid off in the eighty-ninth. A corner delivery fell to Farmer almost on the penalty spot, yet he could only crash a half volley against the woodwork. The unlikely comeback wasn’t to be. The Menace held on for the win.

An entertaining game ended with an amicable exchange of views between the officials and one mildly peeved fan, a trip back to the clubhouse and a good chat with both the Ultras and highly hospitable Peckham chairman Bryan Hall. All in all, then, it was an excellent evening of football. More importantly, it was an excellent result for the title-chasing Menace.

Result: Peckham Town 3 Halls Athletic 2.
My MoM: Rotimi Oladunni (Peckham Town). The merchant of Menace.
Best fans: the Peckham Ultras. Menace to society. But not really.

The merchant of Menace

Best be beelieving

The game: Barnet v. Gateshead.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: highly nebulous, much like the future of the Conference title at kick off.

It was five o’ clock on Saturday afternoon, and I had just arrived at The Hive for the biggest game in Barnet’s recent history and the last of the regular Conference season. While the Bees were about to face the mid-table ‘Tynesiders’ of Gateshead knowing that a win would guarantee them the league title, close rivals Bristol Rovers – only a point behind the league leaders – were readying to pounce on any slip by Martin Allen’s men in their own fixture against Alfreton Town. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher.

With a capacity, ground record 5,233 in attendance, the pre-match atmosphere was quite unprecedented. Flags and banners abounded, the stands lurched with fans, all four sides of the ground chanted for promotion in unison – tight at the top as it was, there was an indubitable air of belief about the place. The teams soon emerged to thunderous cheers and then – after an immaculately-observed minute’s silence on the anniversary of the Bradford City fire – a huge round of applause and appreciation shook the stadium to its foundations. The two sides formed up. The whistle screeched over the din.

Barnet certainly took confidence from the support; the home side started very much on the front foot. In fact, having had all the initial possession, they should have scored in the fifth minute; Barnet striker Michael Gash pressured Gateshead keeper Adam Bartlett into shanking a clearance straight to main man John Akinde; the Bees’ number nine raced to the by-line before squaring for Curtis Weston five yards out, but he saw his snatched effort scrambled off the line.

A minute later, Mauro Vilhete found midfielder Conor Clifford on the edge of the box; he pumped a shot over the crossbar. The lively Vilhete teed up Weston just after that, but his effort was much the same. The home supporters were crying out for their side to take an early lead when the Tynesiders quickly counterattacked in the tenth and Alex Rodman unleashed a low shot on target; Graham Stack had this well covered, yet it was a reminder that the visiting outfit might just have a sting in the tail. Barnet settled, reorganised and almost immediately had the ball in the back of the net via the boot of Andy Yiadom – unfortunately for the Bees, he had quite clearly fouled Gateshead defender James Curtis prior to stroking in.

It had been a lightning-fast start; Barnet rather sensibly calmed things down for a while after that. Bar a shot wide from Tynesider Josh Gillies, the Bees totally stifled the opposition. Playing keep ball amongst themselves, they edged closer and closer to the away area. Soon enough, they held a stranglehold on the final third.

Inevitably, this led to the opening goal. The visitors were struggling to relieve the pressure; in the twenty-fifth minute, Gateshead’s Jamie Chandler couldn’t help but foul the rampant Akinde fifteen yards out. From there, set-piece specialist Sam Togwell chipped a sweet ball over the defence. He found Vilhete completely unmarked; Barnet’s number sixteen leapt high and – momentarily suspended in flight – then nestled his close-range header in the far corner of the net.

The crowd reacted with boggle-eyed delirium. The Bees swarmed Vilhete in euphoria and relief. Nonetheless, even as ‘We’re on the pitch – if we go up!’ rang in their ears, the home players managed to regain their concentration and reorganise once more. In the thirty-second, after Akinde had held a long ball up just outside the area, Clifford smashed another shot just over the bar. Four minutes later, with Akinde again the architect, Weston took aim from twelve yards; he ballooned an effort against the woodwork. Hands on heads.

There were a couple of nervous moments just before the half, the Tynesiders spurning two passable opportunities. First, in the fortieth minute, Stack sliced a goal kick straight to Gateshead forward Kevin Sainte-Luce thirty yards out; with the Bees’ keeper off his line, Sainte-Luce couldn’t get an early shot away – he was eventually cut out by Bondz N’Gala. Then, just before the break, Sainte-Luce found Matty Pattison in space twenty yards out. Pattison sent a swerving shot at goal, but Stack redeemed his earlier mistake by saving and holding well.

The referee brought the half to an end, this the signal for 5,233 people to frantically check their phones for the Bristol Rovers score. The murmur went round. Rovers had gone in 3-0 up. Barnet absolutely had to see out the win.

Their chances of doing so were massively increased four minutes after the restart. A long kick forward from Stack was taken down by Akinde, who then skilfully won a corner on the left. Togwell fired in a perfect delivery and found Gash leaping highest; his glancing header was saved superbly, yet the rebound fell for Vilhete to smash in from a couple of yards. Pandemonium.

Gateshead should have pulled one back immediately, forward Carl Finnegan heading a cross downward at pace for what looked a certain goal; Stack made the save of the match to keep him out, stretching low to his right to palm the ball to safety. Despite the fact that the home stopper was still to charge off his line like a lunatic a couple of times before the end of play, this was a crucial intervention. Barnet were back in the groove not long afterward, Gash going close before Yiadom glanced another Togwell-delivered corner onto the underside of the bar.

The last half-an-hour was a little dicey at times, the Bees allowing Gateshead considerably more time on the ball – even if neither side was exceptionally threatening. Sainte-Luce caused the Barnet defence some problems, not least in the seventy-third minute when he dinked a pass to Chandler on the edge of the home box; he belted his header just high.

Martin Allen brought Jack Saville on for the last ten minutes, shoring up his back line with an extra man; this was a shrewd move and shut down any hopes of a Gateshead comeback. The visitors did see the Bees’ net bulge in the eighty-sixth via a volley from substitute Jon Shaw, yet the Tynesiders’ number nine had run far too early and been caught well offside. Now, as the game edged toward its close, the fans edged nearer to the pitch. A glitter cannon went off on the South Terrace. The party was almost in full swing.

The referee blew. The pitch was instantly awash with a sea of amber and black. Players were mobbed, kids were held aloft, whirling mosh pits tumbled across the luxurious turf – all in wondrous delight. Gateshead had played their part on the day, but Barnet were worthy winners of the match. More importantly, regardless of an eventual seven-nil victory for Bristol Rovers, the Bees were worthy champions of the Conference. Time to celebrate in style.

Result: Barnet 2 Gateshead 0.
My MoM: Togwell deserves high praise for his two set-piece assists, but the top accolade must of course go to Mauro Vilhete. Hero goals.
Best fans: Barnet fans. I cannot condone pitch invasions. But nice pitch invasion.

Best be beelieving

Tyskie business

The game: London Bari v. Clapton.
The ground: The Old Spotted Dog.
The conditions: comfortably lukewarm; just the way I like my mulled quince cider.

Stepping out of Plaistow tube station and into the balmy evening air, I frolicked past the dappled West Ham Park and toward The Old Spotted Dog for only my second ever trip to the home of Clapton FC. For the sake of the game I was about to watch, The Dog was to serve as the ‘home’ of groundshare partners London Bari; this was the reverse Dog derby, a double header for me and – to put it mildly – a ruddy exciting fixture at the very end of the Essex Senior League season. The Scaffold awaited.

With neither side having to worry about promotion or relegation, the game was all about the bragging rights – and the support. The Clapton Ultras arrived early, got chants going, passed the Tyskie around and generally readied themselves for an hour-and-a-half of good-natured Bari baiting. The teams soon emerged, Bari in home red and Clapton in their yellow-and-blue visitors’ strip. ‘We’re following Clapton away!’ reverberated merrily from the sidelines.

For the first ten minutes or so, Clapton played the better stuff. With the whistle just gone, Shomari Barnwell held up a long ball twenty yards out before laying a pass off to Jake Stevens; the Tons’ wide man arrowed a shot narrowly past the upright. With five minutes on the clock, Barnwell won a corner which was quickly taken; Daniel Aggio teed up midfielder James Briggs on the edge of the box before a deflection took his zipping effort just wide – cue Joy Division-inspired choruses of ‘Briggs, Briggs will tear you apart – again’. Moments afterward, Abraham Jairette sent Aggio away through the middle of the dusty, arid pitch. Clapton’s number six saw his on-target attempt cleared a couple of yards out. The Tons seemed ascendant.

Bari came back at them quickly enough, however. A decent attack in the twelfth saw striker Tobi Adesina fire just over from twenty yards. A couple of minutes later, Bari’s Neal Athanaze burst past Daniel Kiely on the right before squaring for winger Junior Decker; his effort from just inside the area went wide. The home side put real pressure on the Tons’ back four, and this soon paid off. In the eighteenth, a long ball was chipped forward to Decker out on the left. He squeezed in behind the muddled defence, scooted to the edge of the area and from there – Clapton keeper Pape Diagne was hesitating well off his line – lobbed the ball into the back of the net. One-nil.

Bari could have made it two only a few minutes after the restart; with Clapton now in disarray Louis Ohase played in the overlapping Athanaze on the right – his low shot at goal was saved by Diagne. The home team established a passing tempo across the pitch and – bar a thirtieth minute toe poke for Barnwell – it looked to be all them. Decker, Adesina and Andy Greenslade went close one after another. Then, in the fortieth minute, an injury temporarily stopped play.

This disturbed Bari’s rhythm. A couple of minutes after the resumption, Briggs received the ball in the centre of midfield. From there, he stroked a beautiful pass to the onrushing Stevens out on the right; Clapton’s wide man sprinted to the by-line, chipped in a cute cross unchallenged and found Barnwell leaping above his marker – the Tons’ number nine nodded a looping header over home goalie George Hearson and in. One-all.

The last few minutes of the half went by without incident and the referee signalled for the break. Clapton’s equaliser had come somewhat against the run of play, yet nobody in the Scaffold minded; Briggs was serenaded, a Smiths-styled ‘Panic on the Streets of Bari’ pealed out and then everyone grabbed their spare tinnies and headed to the grassy bank behind the away goal. I trotted along too, munching thoughtfully on my homemade pickle and brie sandwich.

The second period was far more even from the off. Two minutes in, Barnwell picked out Briggs ten yards from goal; he snapped a shot past the post. Five minutes later, Bari substitute Darryl Morson went close with an ambitious, twenty-yard curler. The two sides took turns to trouble their respective keepers, various speculative efforts keeping Hearson and Diagne leaping this way and that. Still, for a good twenty-five minutes, neither team could actually force a save. The game had seemingly become an unpredictable shooting session.

As time ticked on, it was Clapton who managed to recover some proper incisiveness. In the seventy-ninth minute, Briggs pinged a clever pass to Barnwell on the right; the Tons’ striker weaved his way past a couple of defenders before firing a low ball back at Briggs – his attempt almost shaved the crossbar on its way over. Not long afterward, Barnwell drew a foul from Bari’s Peter Wilcox twenty yards out on the left. Briggs stood over the ball. Briggs looked up to see Hearson busy mustering his defence. Briggs heard the official’s signal. Briggs smashed a free kick in at the near post, past Hearson’s despairing dive.

The Ultras bellowed. Everyone jumped. I fell in some nettles. Clapton reorganised. A stunned Bari could only muster one more chance before the end of the match, a corner in the eighty-seventh falling for Tony Cookey – he headed over. The Tons saw the rest of the match out.

Clapton’s players came over to celebrate with the fans at the end, leading both the chanting and mad pogoing on the pitch. Bari could feel a little aggrieved having lost despite playing so well early on, yet Clapton had successfully snatched their opportunities. So, with the Ultras’ songs filling the cooling night air, the Essex Senior League campaign came even closer to its close.

Result: London Bari 1 Clapton 2.
My MoM: Shomari Barnwell deserves special mention for a dynamic display, but it was James Briggs who truly tore them apart – again.
Best fans: the Clapton Ultras. ‘A win away, a win away, a win away, a win away’.

Tyskie business

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?