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

Rabble yell

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Maidstone United.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: cheerier than my disposition after a healthy portion of baked kale chips.

This was it. The final Hamlet home game of the season. My last visit to Champion Hill for some time. The all-ticketed, high-demand fixture between Dulwich and league leaders Maidstone United. The day that the latter could be crowned champions of the Ryman Premier League.

With all four sides of the ground absolutely swamped by fans – there were over 900 Stones’ supporters present, while the official attendance figure was a capacity (and record) 3,000 – the atmosphere was magnificent; singing rang out all around the pitch long before kick off, a sea of Pink & Blue splashing noisily against an ocean of Black & Amber throughout. While the visitors knew that, should Hendon lose their game against Grays Athletic, Maidstone would be promoted as title winners come quarter-to-five, the home faithful were well aware that Hamlet’s own chance of promotion – their play-off spot – was not quite safe. The importance of the match wasn’t lost on anyone. Soon enough the players jogged out. The crashing of the Rabble’s drums greeted them.

The opening ten minutes set a cagey tone. Both sides seemed happy enough to contest the ball almost exclusively in the air; this may have been an impromptu tactical adaption to the burger boxes, amber balloons, pink streamers and assorted debris littering the playing surface, yet it still limited the two sides creatively. Maidstone had the first chance of the match in the twelfth minute, diligent midfielder Matt Bodkin cutting in from the left before curling a shot at goal – Phil Wilson (‘Phil! Phil! Phil!’) saved this comfortably. Hamlet responded a couple of minutes later, Jack Dixon dragging a shot wide having been teed up by Ash Carew on the edge of the box. The teams were cautiously feeling each other out. Edgy stuff.

Edgy soon became niggly. Maidstone striker Jay May and Hamlet defender Matt Drage engaged in a running battle in and around the home area; May nearly bested his marker in the nineteenth minute after Drage had let a long ball bounce in the box, but the Stones’ number nine saw his fierce low shot at goal blocked. Dixon was cautioned not long after that for an unsubtle tug on Bodkin, before both sides won – and wasted – a series of free kicks.

Then, just as the game was starting to look a little leaden, the home side created a great opportunity to open the scoring. Xavier Vidal made a darting run through the midfield. Looking up as he reached the centre circle, he slotted a sweet ball through the Maidstone back line. Perhaps distracted by an offside Luke Wanadio, the Stones’ defenders stayed entirely still as Harry Ottaway romped past them to collect the pass. Hamlet’s number nine bore down on the net but, facing the maniacal charge of away keeper Lee Worgan, allowed himself to be pushed wide. From there, his cross to the unmarked Vidal was overhit. The chance was missed. Maidstone regrouped.

The away side waited until the thirty-fifth minute to make reply; May made a run out right only to cross for advancing defender Steve Watt, who fired low from a couple of yards – Wilson made the point-blank save with his feet, pounding the ball away with the full force of his heroic frame. Maidstone ceded Hamlet possession after that, yet the home side seemed wary of this deceptively dangerous tack; clearly determined not to be caught on the counter, Carew and Vidal saw out the rest of the half playing Pink & Blue keep ball between themselves.

Judging by the noisy renditions of the Maidstone-themed ‘Hey Jude’ and the Hamlet-flavoured ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ that greeted the half-time whistle, very few onlookers had been put off by a scoreless first forty-five. As I summoned up my inner Joe ‘The Tank’ Benjamin and muscled my way over to and back from the bar, Hamlet lager in hand, I reflected that – if anything – even more spectators had snuck in to the ground over the course of the break. Now it was time to see whether the teams could offer them a goal.

There was absolutely no sign of this happening until just after the sixtieth minute; the sides remained guarded, the ball in the clear blue sky. In the sixty-third, Vidal found left back Frazer Shaw on an overlapping run into the Maidstone area; Shaw put his first-time effort past the post. Moments later, the Stones pelted up the other end of the pitch and won a corner; the delivery went straight to Shane Huke at the near post, but he could only dink a weak attempt into the side netting.

Pink confetti started to rain down amongst the loud, proud, swaggering dandies behind the away goal, the Stones’ support started to party pitchside at the news that Hendon and Grays were deadlocked, yet the players kept things sober and serious – the caginess continued right until the last. Maidstone substitute Ben Greenhalgh put an inviting, low ball into the box in the seventy-third, but nobody could get on the end of it. Vidal combined with Wanadio five minutes later, firing at the top left from ten yards only for Worgan to save and hold. In the eighty-sixth minute, away right-back Craig Stone leathered a long ball to forward Billy Bricknell; his snapshot soared over Phil Wilson’s bar. Matt Bodkin then had the last chance of the game, scurrying in from the right before cracking an effort wide. Game over.

It ended nil-nil, yet soon the news came that Hendon had drawn with Grays by the same scoreline; though still not a mathematical certainty, Maidstone had basically won the league. Their fans charged onto the Champion Hill turf to cuddle the players, before coming over to clap the waiting Rabble. Hamlet’s fans were generous to a (wo)man, congratulating their opponents wholeheartedly. Maidstone fans may soon get the chance to congratulate them right back.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 0 Maidstone United 0.
My MoM: Xavier Vidal (Dulwich Hamlet). On a tough day for the creatives, he created the most. Uninhibited.
Best fans: a footballing friendship was born at this game. Let’s not ruin the moment.

Rabble yell

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Hill)

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Enfield Town.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: picnic weather! Pass the teacakes!

Easter Monday, and the sun was beaming warmly for my first double header of the season. Waddling into Champion Hill all full of delicious, high-quality cocoa egg, I was greeted by the sight of 1,204 fans in shorts and sunglasses, a commendable Enfield contingent included, and two familiar teams about to kick off a high-stakes match in the race to the Ryman League play offs; the fourth-placed Pink & Blues hosted the fifth-placed Blue & Whites with the visitors only a single point behind them – summer wardrobes aside, the next ninety minutes would be as far from relaxing (or ‘chillaxing’, to the kids) as it was possible to get.

To add to the home tension, Hamlet had not escaped their poor form since my last visit for the game with East Thurrock United; a subsequent loss against Wingate & Finchley and a draw with relegation-threatened Witham Town meant there had now been no Hamlet win in eight fixtures. By contrast, Enfield were in fine fettle; having finally found some real consistency, I expected Bradley Quinton’s men to look confident of a result from the off.

This was not quite the case. The opening ten minutes were lively from both sides. The Towners thought they might have had a penalty shout in the fifth minute; wide man Joe Stevens went down in the box under a risky challenge from Jordan Hibbert, but the referee waved play on. A minute later, Town striker Bobby Devyne broke free of Hamlet’s back four and almost played Corey Whitely through; the pass was slightly overhit, and the chance went begging. Hamlet came back at them with determination, the powerful Ashley Carew charging through the midfield before smashing at goal from twenty yards – his shot flew just wide. Carew had another chance soon enough, but his low drive was blocked a couple of yards from the line. It was an end-to-end start. High drama.

After the early exchanges, however, Hamlet suddenly took command of the game. Carew imposed himself on the centre of the pitch, front man Harry Ottaway started to boss the Town back four and the Pink & Blue pressure started to build around the away area. This quickly paid off when, in the sixteenth minute, Luke Wanadio cut in from the right and capered into the Enfield box; he was brought down by an extremely risky challenge from Town’s Ricky Gabriel – so risky, in fact, that the penalty award was a formality. Carew stepped up. The net bulged. One-nil.

Enfield tried to come back at the home side, yet seemed to be playing inside themselves somewhat. They had a chance to level in the twentieth minute, Whitely volleying an inch wide after a half clearance from Ethan Pinnock. Another opportunity came and went five minutes later, Ryan Doyle firing a free kick straight at Phil Wilson – the Hamlet goalkeeper perhaps put him off with his terrifying, Phantom of the Opera-esque face mask, a haunting remnant of the East Thurrock game and his aerial challenge with league top scorer Sam Higgins.

Despite the travelling Towners behind the goal treating the ground to a vocal rendition of the full Enfield songbook, those efforts were as close to a first-half rally as their side were going to come. The home team soon cranked up the pressure once more. In the thirty-second, Harry Ottaway latched on to a ball from Wanadio before sending a stinging shot just over the crossbar. In the thirty-ninth, after almost ten minutes of total Hamlet possession, Wanadio was sent clear only for a last ditch tackle by Town defender Claudio Vilcu to deny him. Then, in the forty-third minute, Hamlet got their second. Albert Jarrett stole a loose pass out on the left before bombing up the wing. Darting into the area, he picked out forward Xavier Vidal with precision; Vidal side footed past stranded away keeper Nathan McDonald to effortlessly extend the home lead.

This was pretty much the last act of the half. The form table was in danger of being defied. All Hamlet had to do now was hold on. All I needed to do now was get a tasty bratwurst.

It was clear right from the start of the second half that the visitors were ready to rally in earnest. Two minutes after the restart, Enfield enforcer Stanley Mugou won the ball on the halfway line before thumping a pass up to Whitely; Town’s talented number nine raced forward – and fired just wide.

Wanadio, Ottaway and Jarrett all attempted tricky moves at the other end of the pitch, yet Enfield’s defence seemed much wilier; nothing came off for the Pink & Blues. Meanwhile, just as Carew had done for Hamlet in the first period, Muguo began to muscle the midfield; in the fifty-sixth minute, a strong run from Town’s number six made space for Nathan Livings fifteen yards out – his ambitious effort was always rising.

After a battling spell in which neither side could really create clear-cut chances, the away team then made a breakthrough. In the sixty-eighth minute, Joe Stevens nipped up the right flank before clipping a cross into the Hamlet area. A scrappy clearance fell perfectly for Livings, who blasted into the top left via Wilson’s clawing grasp. The home nerves were palpable. The threat of yet another lost lead loomed.

For the last twenty minutes, as Enfield sought their equaliser, as Rabble and Towners sang their hearts out alike, the tension mounted to unbearable levels. Every touch was met with a wince, every refereeing decision with a chorus of howls and yet, still, one Hamlet fan was kind enough to offer me a teacake with trembling hand outstretched. Now that’s hospitality.

In the end, the away side couldn’t find a leveller. They weren’t helped in their endeavour by a bizarre straight red for substitute Michael Kalu after a bit of unremarkable argy bargy, yet Hamlet still had to weather a late Town storm. Weather it they did. The win was theirs.

The Rabble burst out into songs about smoking cigars and reading Shakespeare, while the gracious Town fans remained behind to clap off the sides and make more of a racket themselves. The teams were well-matched on the day, the fans were well-matched on the day and, by my reckoning, both deserve their valiant campaigns to end in a bid at promotion – for the moment, though, the stage is set for Hamlet.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 2 Enfield Town 1.
My MoM: Ashley Carew (Dulwich Hamlet). Won the midfield duel at just the right time, made the penalty look easy.
Best fans: the Rabble were brilliant as always – and thanks for the teacake – but ‘best fans’ goes to the Towners this time; numerous, noisy and generous in defeat.

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Hill)

Thurrock around the clock

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. East Thurrock United.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: cloudier than a pint of London murky.

The term ‘ground hopper’ gets thrown around a lot. Some people are natural ground hoppers, nomadic fans forever wandering the endless footballing desert. Others ground hop consistently, reliably peripatetic, never quite satisfied. Then there are the not-quite-hoppers. The not-quite-hoppers are partial to revisiting stadiums. They like a bit of adventure but, conversely, they don’t mind familiar surroundings. They grow fond of a guest ale, they get used to a certain standard of pre-match falafel wrap and, by god, they’re not going to leave it all behind to get a two-hour train to Bognor Regis. As you may have already guessed, I fall in to the latter group. No offence intended, Bognor.

It was back to Champion Hill on Saturday and, having met up for a drink and a chat with the fine gentlemen of the Forward The Hamlet podcast, it was soon time to watch a team with whom I’ve evidently become well acquainted. Curiously, Hamlet found themselves on an unfamiliar run coming into their game with the ‘Rocks’ of East Thurrock United; the home team were in the midst of a late-season slump, bottom of the Ryman League form table with no wins in their last five competitive matches – and no score in four of those. The Rocks weren’t in great form themselves, but they arrived at Champion Hill with their most recent result a confidence-boosting one-nil win against Hampton & Richmond Borough. The visitors would surely be looking to capitalise on Hamlet’s slump and win again; for Gavin Rose’s men, the need to rediscover their own confidence (especially in front of goal) was pressing.

It was perhaps an excessive sense of urgency that led to Hamlet conceding in only the third minute. Trying to play out from the back after an early foray forward by United, Ethan Pinnock was dispossessed on the edge of his own area by nimble Rocks’ striker Mitchell Gilbey; dribbling round Phil Wilson, Gilbey practically walked the ball into the net to make it one-nil to the away side. The Rabble had barely had time to assemble at this point and a mood of mild deflation pervaded the ground. The pressure on the Pink & Blues was only intensified.

Hassled by United’s energetic front men, Hamlet’s defence seemed doubly nervous in possession. Happily for the home fans, the attackers soon showed their determination to step up. In the eighth minute, after strong running and a great final ball from new signing Joe ‘The Tank’ Benjamin, player-coach Kevin James almost poked in from four yards; Rocks’ keeper David Hughes nicked the ball off his outstretched boot at the very last second. Nyren Clunis went close moments afterward, before a pacey attacking run by Albert Jarrett was cut out ten yards from goal. Hamlet’s desire was obvious enough, and the Rabble began to reciprocate their efforts. Even so, the team looked far from settled; United could have gone two ahead five minutes later, forward Sam Higgins sending Ellis Brown clear on the right only for the latter to chip his shot well wide from fifteen yards.

The Pink & Blues did get on the scoresheet soon enough. In the eighteenth minute, Hamlet midfielder Ashley Carew collected a pass almost on the centre spot. From there, he stroked a brilliant through ball in between the Rocks’ centre backs for the surging James to chase. United defender Ben Wood managed to get back and win the challenge, but in doing so he sliced the ball past the stranded Hughes and in. The dubious goals panel wasn’t required. One-all.

If this felt like a turning point for Hamlet, the feeling didn’t last long. In what was becoming a frantic opening twenty, the home side were behind again only seconds after the restart; a long ball forward was allowed to bounce and fall to Gilbey who, scampering to the right of goal, drilled a low shot into the far corner of the net.

The rest of the half saw Hamlet make a succession of chances almost without reply, yet put nothing away. In the twenty-second minute, a cross from Benjamin found Jarrett just outside the Rocks’ box; the Pink & Blues wide man fired just wide of the upright. Two minutes later, James won a free kick twenty yards out; Jarrett took responsibility once more, this time bending an effort inches over the crossbar. Clunis had an attempt on target in the thirty-first – saved by Hughes – before Benjamin nutmegged United defender Paul Goodacre and saw a shot of his own ricochet back off the hoardings. There were positive signs in the home play, but nobody could find a finish. One wayward blast from Rocks’ midfielder Nicky Symons later, and the referee signalled for the break.

It had been the ultimate half of frustration for Hamlet; defensive errors had seen them concede while attacking endeavour had gone unrewarded. Considering recent struggles, it felt as if the Pink & Blues would have to give an extraordinary account of themselves in the second period to get anything out the game. As it happened, that’s exactly what they did.

For a regulation forty-five minutes, the home side that re-emerged from the dressing room played really good football. They looked tighter, brighter and more effective all over the pitch; clever moves and early efforts from Benjamin and Jarrett set the fresh tone before, in the sixty-first minute, Carew made a vital contribution to haul them level.

Hurtling fifteen yards unchallenged and bursting into the area, the number eight’s run was unceremoniously halted by the onrushing Hughes; the referee awarded a penalty without hesitation. Jumping up and taking it himself, Carew thrashed a perfect side-footed spot kick to the keeper’s left. What ensued behind the goal was probably a public order offence. In a good way.

To the jubilant choruses of the Dead Kennedys-inspired ‘Dulwich Hamlet Über Alles’, the home side now went for the jugular. The Tank instantly won a foul in a central position twenty-five yards out; the uncontainable Carew went for goal with the free kick, smashing a dipping effort narrowly past the post. The game was broken up after an innocuous-looking clash between Higgins and Wilson in the box, the latter receiving lengthy on-field treatment. However, the Pink & Blues weren’t put off by the impromptu delay; in the eighty-second minute, mere moments after play had resumed, Hamlet substitute Luke Wanadio won a corner which defender Terrell Forbes nearly nodded into the net – his goal-bound header was smashed away by a combination of Hughes and Rocks’ defender Tom Stephen.

Then, in the ninetieth minute, Hamlet looked to have won it. Wanadio played a ball to Benjamin in a dangerous position just inside the United area; the luckless Wood steamed in with a tackle, getting nothing of the ball and all of the man – penalty. Carew stepped up again, went the same way and got exactly the same result. Three-two to the Pink & Blues, and the turnaround appeared complete.

Regrettably for the home side, they stuttered in injury time; those seemingly distant first-half nerves crept up on them once more. It was five agonising minutes after Carew’s second penalty when the defence allowed Rocks’ substitute Ross Parmenter an absolute age on the ball; from twelve yards, he pinged an angled shot past Wilson to deny Hamlet the win.

It was mixed emotions for both sides at full time; mistakes defined the match. The Rabble were ebullient as always at the final whistle, but their side’s confidence has a way to go yet; with six league fixtures left before play offs, the clock’s ticking.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 3 East Thurrock United 3.
My MoM: Mitchell Gilbey (East Thurrock United); took his two goals really well and played a part in the build up to Parmenter’s strike.
Best fans: Hamlet fans. Always über. Also, hosted the Football Beyond Borders charity afterward. Check them out.

Thurrock around the clock

Draw and order

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Metropolitan Police.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: sunny and temperate; even more like Tuscany than usual.

I awoke, and the day had finally arrived. This was the day of my pilgrimage, my philosophical journey, my spiritual awakening. This was the day that I voyaged to The Vale, to the home of Wealdstone Football Club, to the temple of the man who brought the joy of non-league football to so many. Indeed, this was the day I walked the same hallowed terraces as that very man. This was the day I encountered the Wealdstone Raider.

Or that’s what I thought, at least. As I rattled down the Metropolitan Line, I just so happened to check my ageing smartphone for match updates; there, on my clunking Twitter app, was some information that panicked me to the core – the match at The Vale was postponed! The referee had declared a lack of bounce in the pitch, apparently. Digging the end of his pogo stick out of the damp earth, he had then called the game off.

Leaping out of the train doors at Finchley Road station, I did the only thing I could do; I jogged over to the Jubilee Line platform and, one tube ride and an overground jaunt later, I arrived at East Dulwich. It was the first time I had seen Champion Hill by daylight, and it looked quite resplendent in the sun. With free entry for LGBT fans and an itinerant group of Clapton Ultras also in attendance, I certainly wasn’t the only one enjoying the unseasonal weather in south-east London; an eventual crowd of 1,459 inspired a (strictly independent, anti-corporate) festival vibe.

After a few adverse results for both, this was a league fixture that neither Hamlet nor the visiting Met Police could afford to lose; despite the thirteen-point gap in third-placed Hamlet’s favour, the Met had four games in hand on the Pink & Blues. It was no surprise that the start of the match was a little cagey, then; though the away side were quite obliging in terms of possession, the opening twenty minutes were unusually disjointed from the home side; no tangible chances were created by either team.

In the twenty-third minute, the visitors carved out the first opportunity. From a free kick on the left, the Met’s Charlie Collins sent a gorgeous, curving delivery into the box; forward Joe Turner got his head to this, but nodded just wide of the post. Three minutes later, another Met free kick was allowed to bobble around in the area, only to be cleared wildly at the last moment; the away side clearly fancied themselves from the set piece, while Hamlet needed to improve at defending the aerial ball.

In the thirtieth minute, great running from Luke Wanadio gave Pink & Blues’ striker Tom Derry a chance; receiving the ball in the Met box with his back to goal, he pivoted and smashed a shot over the crossbar. Then, in the thirty-third, Hamlet won a free kick of their own. Twenty-five yards from goal, this was sized up by Ashley Carew; he struck his shot well, but it was saved and held by stand-in away keeper Craig King.

The Met soon had a couple more set-piece opportunities, defender Steve Sutherland and attacker Elliot Taylor heading narrowly over in quick succession. In the meantime, Hamlet gradually began to take control of open play; Wanadio and overlapping full back Michael Abnett terrorised the right wing on several occasions, not least in the forty-first minute when the former set up Jack Dixon to lash a strike toward the left side of the net – this was kept out by King at full stretch.

After a couple of half chances for Wanadio and Hamlet midfielder Jordan Hibbert, the first half came to a close at nil-nil. Hamlet had found their rhythm somewhat but, with the Met a perpetual threat from dead ball situations, the game was still very much in the balance; fifteen minutes and one trip to the Champion Hill burger stand sped by, then it was time to see whether either team could tip the scales in their favour.

Wanadio started the second half by straightaway tormenting the opposition; in the fifty-first minute, an agile run on the right and a couple of mesmeric step overs saw him come close to assisting Harry Ottaway, only for the final ball to be cut out. In addition to his attacking flair, the Pink & Blues’ number seven pinched the ball back from the Met’s midfield at every given opportunity. He was certainly giving it everything.

All the same, a patchy period of play ensued. Clearly looking to up his side’s tempo, Hamlet manager Gavin Rose completely changed his front line; Xavier Vidal, Dean McDonald and Albert Jarrett came on, while Ottaway, Derry and Wanadio went off. If I was disappointed to see the last of those leave the field, I certainly wasn’t let down by his replacement. Jarrett’s first act was to scamper away on the left before teeing up Vidal just outside the box; though the latter’s shot was saved by Craig King, Rose’s substitutions were already paying attacking dividends.

In the seventy-third minute, a cross from Charlie Collins was nearly turned into the home goal; Hamlet keeper Phil Wilson did well to save this low to his left. After this, the Pink & Blues went all out. Ten minutes of possession and half chances saw the pressure build on the Met. Then, in the eighty-fifth minute, Jarrett won a central free kick in an ideal position twenty yards out. Once more, Ashley Carew sized the ball up. Once more, he failed to score; this time his fizzing strike went just wide.

Three minutes later, Carew found himself in space on the left. Slashing the ball across the area, he found Vidal at the back post; the striker’s point-blank header was stopped by a reflex save from King, who then frenziedly scrabbled the ball out to safety. A flurry of corners ensued, several of which went equally close to winning it for the home side. In the end, however, none of them found the back of the Met net.

Hamlet had probably played the better football, but the visitors were good for the draw; nobody seemed too displeased with the result. Personally, I was just happy to watch a game. On a suitably bouncy pitch, of course.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 0 Metropolitan Police 0.
My MoM: Luke Wanadio. Stick a step over in your pipe and smoke it, Ryman League!
Best fans: Hamlet (and Clapton) fans. Turned up in numbers. Brought rainbow flags. Chanted at the police. A few Welsh miners and it could have been the final scene of Pride.

Draw and order