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

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

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

Enfield of dreams

The game: Enfield Town v. Hendon.
The ground: the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
The conditions: windier than a seaside staycation.

The Queen Elizabeth II Stadium is my sort of ground. With its Art Deco front, spiral staircase and ‘Butler’s Bar’, the main stand is a house piano player away from being a 1930s nightclub; looking out over the exposed pitch, confined running track and three windswept shed stands that make up the rest of the stadium, it’s a genuinely unique spot – and a luxury one. Though yesterday’s match with Hendon was yet another North London derby for the Ryman League (there are roughly forty eight in any one league season), my impression of the ground filled me with hope for a sporting game of gentlemen’s football; on the pitch – as off it – I was not disappointed.

From the first whistle, both the home ‘Towners’ and away ‘Greens’ tried to keep the ball on the turf and play good, passing stuff. Tactically, this may have had something to do with the absolute gale that was blowing; still, it made for enjoyable watching. Both teams looked sharp in the opening ten minutes, while there was plenty of pace to the game; Enfield soon started to assert some home dominance with a succession of corners and probing shots, but Hendon’s defence managed well. Slightly against the run of play, Hendon then had the best chance of the initial exchanges. In the fifteenth minute, Greens’ striker Peter Dean ran on to a rare long pass into the Enfield box and, striking the ball on the half-volley, his determined shot was acrobatically saved by Town keeper Nathan McDonald. High-scoring Leon Smith thought he had tapped the visitors ahead from the resulting corner, but – to the relief of the home fans – his effort was ruled out for offside.

Over the next few minutes, Enfield returned the favour with several hard drives at goal, all well saved by the Greens’ man between the sticks, Ben McNamara. The quick passing being attempted by both teams made the game open and exciting, while a goal for either side seemed imminent; this appeared to galvanise both sets of fans, but the Towners in particular, most of whom sang an Enfield-themed version of rock-and-roll classic ‘Twist and Shout’ from this point until the end of the first half (and possibly back into the clubhouse). By the half hour mark, Enfield’s forwards had fired straight across the face of goal three or four times from reasonable positions; the home pressure seemed to be mounting, even if Hendon were just about holding out.

When, after another five minutes of probing, an Enfield goal still hadn’t come, the pace of the game inevitably slowed. The play was still watchable, but competitive tackling in the midfield characterised the rest of the first-half action; there were no more chances of note. Just before the referee blew for half-time, a mistimed slash on the ankles of Enfield’s energetic number nine, Corey Whitely, resulted in a booking for Hendon’s Elliot Braithwaite; indicative of the late, close-quarters battling, this was the last incident before the break. Surprisingly goalless, the teams left the pitch. Naturally, I went straight to the Butler’s Bar for a handmade sandwich and an independently-brewed ale.

The beginning of the second half heralded a return to high-tempo football, as well as high-volume singing from the Town fans; serenading their team with a stirring chorus of ‘All You Need Is Town’ (to the tune of ‘All You Need Is Love’), they picked up the tunes where they had left off – or possibly hadn’t left off. Their team responded accordingly, dominating with early possession. Then, in the fifty-third minute, Corey Whitely made a storming run to the edge of the Hendon box only to be brought down by Greens’ defender Charlie Goode, at the cost of a caution. Taking the free kick himself, the Towners’ nine could only fire into the wall; nevertheless, his attacking ambition was impressive.

Whitely was on target again a couple of minutes later, his shot well saved by McNamara. With the forward’s nippy runs dragging the Hendon defence to and fro across the pitch, Enfield started to assert full supremacy; likewise, nothing seemed to come off for the Greens in their attempts to work the ball toward the Town goal. A succession of shots and mazy dribbles by Town players – midfielder Tyler Campbell especially – left Hendon really clinging on to the game; by the sixtieth minute, the Greens were being forced into fouls all around their box, one of which particularly annoyed the constantly-jinking Campbell and led to some audible verbals – all part of the building home tension. By the seventieth minute, having watched their team pump free kicks into the Hendon box to no avail, the Enfield fans had to sing through the stress.

Finally, in the eighty-second minute, after constant Enfield pressure, the deadlock was broken. Whitely went on his best run of the match, charging from the halfway line to the edge of the Hendon box. Closed out by two Greens’ defenders, he then squared the ball to fellow forward Liam Hope, who slotted into the bottom left from about ten yards. Celebrating in front of the ballistic home faithful, the entire Town team seemed elated. Then it was quickly back to their half to defend the late lead.

As it turned out, that wasn’t too difficult a task. Though Hendon tried to threaten the Enfield goal, winning a few corners and free kicks themselves, they couldn’t carve out any real chances; with Leon Smith man-marked for the entire second half the danger had gone out of their forward line, while tiredness laboured their attacks. A bit of cautious passing around the corner flags, and Enfield got the result they wanted; a really enjoyable game ended with fewer goals than it deserved, but a fair and gentlemanly outcome.

Result: Enfield Town 1 Hendon 0.
My MoM: Tyler Campbell grew into the second half, Liam Hope scored the goal, but Corey Whitely was by far and away the best player on the pitch. Ran directly, pressed from the front, put in some strong tackles and got an assist; his contribution was the difference.
Best fans: the Towners. Probably still singing now. Varied repertoire.

Enfield of dreams

More flags than fans

The game: Hendon v. Wingate & Finchley.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: put me in mind of Keats’ ‘maturing sun’; really rather nice.

It was the weekend after Christmas, and the North London derby was about to kick off. No, not that North London derby; a ticket to that North London derby costs eighty-odd pounds which I am unwilling (and unable) to pay – even as a fan of luxury football. Rather, the far-more-reasonably-priced derby between ‘The Greens’ of Hendon and ‘The Blues’ of Wingate & Finchley was the game about to kick off; with an attendance of 337, including a vocal travelling contingent of ‘Finchley ultras’, the Earlsmead Stadium was absolutely rocking.

With the supporters in blue belting out a rowdy rendition of their anthem ‘More Flags than Fans’, the referee got the game underway. Within the first minute there was an epic scrum in the Hendon box, Finchley making their intentions clear; this was to be an ambitious away performance. Unfortunately, it was all a bit too ambitious; after a decent Finchley attack in the fifth minute, Hendon broke away and – helped by lacklustre tackling, non-existent tracking and a horrendous defensive mix-up between defender and goalkeeper – grabbed the opening goal, prolific forward Leon Smith tapping in for his first of the day.

As starts to a Premier League fan’s first Ryman League experience go, this was truly low-quality – chaotic, exhilarating, low-quality football. The game settled down a little after the goal, the main excitement over the next twenty minutes coming from the referee falling over and the ball being belted into somebody’s garden – not something I have ever seen at the Emirates, nor at White Hart Lane. Finchley recovered reasonably well from going a goal behind, slightly edging the midfield slugging match that ensued. However, on the half-hour mark, they were again undone by a lethal Hendon counterattack; with the Greens stringing together a nice passing move – quite unusual on the day – the ball was worked into the middle of the Finchley box, before Leon Smith got his brace with a high drive into the back of the net.

Understandably, the Finchley players seemed quite frustrated with the way the game was going. Following an innocuous tackle out on the right, there was a bit of old-school argy bargy between the two sets of players, accompanied by traditional shouts of ‘I’ll give it to ya’ and ‘Leave it, mate, leave it’; the referee soon calmed things down, and so the half came to a close without further incident. With the late-afternoon sun shining on the Ryman’s advertising boards and the temperature dropping, everyone then progressed to the warmth of the clubhouse bar; I was keen to get my traditional half-time mocha and dough balls but – having been informed by the barman that the Earlsmead doesn’t supply either – I went back to the pitch with a Bovril and a Twix.

Finchley came out in the second half with renewed purpose; for the first time since the opening minute they really dominated the game. This dominance was rewarded when, in the fifty-first minute, Karl Oliyide pulled one back for the visitors with by far the best individual goal of the match; having charged in from the left and toward Hendon’s goal, he curled a genuine beauty into the top-right corner. The Finchley fans went wild, flags waving in celebration. The home crowd seemed anxious. At this point it appeared to be – game on!

Unfortunately for Finchley’s comeback hopes, the game soon descended into bitter controversy. After another twenty minutes of scrapping, the Blues’ Marc Weatherstone was turned on the edge of his box by the nippy Kezie Ibe; the Finchley defender tugged at his opponent’s shirt in the area and – though Ibe attempted to play on – the foul was clear to see. The penalty was awarded, fairly. However, Weatherstone did not appear to be the last man between Ibe and the goal when the foul was committed, with another defender covering; nevertheless, the referee gave him his marching orders. The away fans howled with fury. The penalty was stuck away by Hendon’s Sam Murphy. The away fans howled louder.

Down to ten men, Finchley held on admirably. They were not helped in this endeavour by the referee’s decision to reduce them to nine men, especially since he sent off Ahmet Rifat for a really quite excellent tackle. Still Finchley avoided conceding again, despite a late flurry of chances for Hendon; spurred on by the indignant cries of the Blue Army, many of whom were openly disobeying the Earlsmead’s ‘This is a family club: please moderate your language’ signs, the game finished evenly despite the visitors’ two-man disadvantage.

Hendon fans went home happy, Finchley fans less so – even if the result was probably about right. The overall standard of football was far from luxury but, having seen four goals, two sendings off and the regurgitated results of a Bovril-and-Twix lunch, I certainly found it exciting; wandering off into the night with a gourmet meal and a nice glass of Shiraz in mind, The Luxury Fan left satisfied.

Result: Hendon 3 Wingate & Finchley 1.
My MoM: Leon Smith (Hendon); scored his team’s first two goals, but was also physical, surprisingly speedy and good on the ball.
Best fans: the Finchley ultras. Probably had more fans than flags. Refused to moderate their language.

More flags than fans