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.

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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