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.

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

Breaking new ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking new ground

Green, green grass of home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green, green grass of home

Between Thurrock and a hard place

The game: Hendon v. East Thurrock United.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: dry and mild; just the way I like my Pinot Grigio.

Monday night football is always a bit of a luxury. Sunday’s pub roast feels like a distant memory, the grimmest working weekday has crept slowly by, your boss has just given you your first deadline and then – wait, what’s this?! – you’re having a pint, watching sport and fraternising with other humans, none of whom want to talk about corporate synergy. Add a relatively temperate climate to all this, and the whole thing feels like a real treat; no wonder, then, that the Earlsmead hosted a fair few fans for Monday’s potentially pivotal contest between the ‘Greens’ of Hendon and the ‘Rocks’ of East Thurrock United.

With the sides so close in the Ryman League table – and in direct competition for a play-off spot – this was always going to be a tight affair. The opening ten minutes were even, both teams feeling out the opposition; the torn-up turf made it difficult for either side to play expansive football, and the majority of the early attacks petered out. Still, it only took twelve minutes for a goal to come. A fairly innocuous cross found the Rocks’ top scorer, Sam Higgins, in the Hendon box; his on-target header was palmed back into a dangerous area by home stopper Ben McNamara, and this mistake was duly punished – the ball thrashed into the net by United’s Kye Ruel.

The next fifteen minutes saw Hendon up the pace in response. Tony Taggart and Andre Da Costa combined well on the left, Dave Diedhiou and Kezie Ibe on the right; working the flanks well, they looked to set up the industrious Leon Smith at every opportunity. Still, the momentum hadn’t entirely swung their way. In the twenty-third minute, after a beautiful cross-field ball from the Rocks’ Ross Parmenter, forward Mitchell Gilbey was sent through one on one with McNamara; a brilliantly-executed, last-ditch tackle from Diedhiou was the only thing that stopped him tucking a second away. Had the tackle been mistimed, the Hendon full back would have conceded a penalty and almost certainly seen red. Fine margins.

In the twenty-fifth minute, a rapid Hendon move saw Leon Smith surge into the Rocks’ box; he set up the overlapping Da Costa on his left, but the Portuguese midfielder could only crack a shot high across the away net. Three minutes later, Smith was at the heart of another attack, chesting down a long ball before firing at United’s keeper David Hughes; his shot was deflected just wide for a Hendon corner.

It was from this corner that the home side equalised. A perfect delivery fell to the feet of Greens’ defender Charlie Goode; with his back to goal, he then swivelled and slammed a shot past Hughes. After the jubilant home celebrations had died down, both sides were restricted to strikes from distance and half chances. Tony Taggart impressed for Hendon in defence and attack, bombing up and down the left wing, while Rocks’ goalscorer Ruel also stood out, going close on a couple of occasions; neither could influence the scoreline, however, and it remained level at the break.

The second half was far more pragmatic. Both teams began with endeavour, but few openings were created. Things did briefly burst into life in the fifty-eighth minute, when Diedhiou, high up the pitch, blasted a twenty-yard effort at goal which Hughes only just tipped over the bar; the Greens then nearly scored once more from the ensuing corner, Elliott Brathwaite’s swipe from five yards parried safely away. A couple of minutes later, Ben McNamara made up for his earlier error by keeping out a Ross Parmenter strike. After this, chances were even scarcer.

Another small burst of action around the seventy-minute mark saw Sam Higgins fire straight at McNamara from twelve yards, before a Hendon counterattack led to a corner which Charlie Goode headed over from close range. Both teams made themselves hard to break down, both were well organised, but the bobbling, divot-laden pitch simply would not oblige the attackers. Hendon substitute Aaron Morgan had a shot saved in the seventy-seventh minute, before Higgins saw a strong drive pushed out by McNamara ten minutes later. Without further ado, the whistle went.

The teams were equals on the night, and a draw was exactly the right result. There won’t be much separating Greens and Rocks at the end of the season, on this evidence; happily for me, there are plenty more Monday match ups to watch before then.

Result: Hendon 1 East Thurrock United 1.
My MoM: Tony Taggart (Hendon). Contributed well in attack without foregoing his defensive duties. All-action.
Best fans: we all went to Monday night football. We are all the best fans.

Between Thurrock and a hard place