Gate expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gate expectations

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