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’).

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Lux redux

Rover the hill?

The game: Leyton Orient v. Doncaster Rovers.
The ground: Brisbane Road.
The conditions: warmer than my pre-match ciabatta toastie.

The last time I visited Brisbane Road was on an unforgiving evening in the middle of February. That night, hunched beneath my Barbour, surrounded by a mass of red-and-white knit caps, I spent the entire game shivering uncontrollably in the bitter, bitter wind. It would be fair to say that the weather was much improved for my latest Orient outing. Leyton high street was all shorts and T-shirts, the Coronation Gardens were full of disposable barbecues and countless four packs of Żubr lager while, in the stadium itself, the private verandas of the inbuilt flats were packed with blokes wearing novelty sunglasses and sipping on Coronas. I could only admire the advent of the great British summer. In April.

The O’s had themselves improved since February; while they had languished second-bottom of the table before, they were now out of the relegation places – albeit only on goal difference. Naturally, Orient’s match up with Doncaster Rovers was still a crucial one. Three points for the home side against mid-table Donny would allow them to shake off the desperate, clinging clubs in the drop zone. Anything less might see those clubs clamber to safety above them.

Orient certainly started the brighter. There were no clear-cut chances until just after the twenty-minute mark, yet the O’s took control of possession early on and repeatedly menaced Donny’s flanks with prompt attacks. Chris Dagnall and Andrea Dossena combined well on the left, while Jobi McAnuff made himself a constant nuisance on the same wing; in the fourteenth minute, having robbed Reece Wabara out on the touchline, McAnuff rollicked into the area and went down under pressure from centre back Rob Jones – play was rightly waved on, yet the danger he posed to Doncaster was quite apparent.

Just over five minutes later, the O’s had a great chance to open the scoring. Orient’s on-loan Swansea forward Ryan Hedges hurtled down the right flank before cutting the ball back to Scott Cuthbert; the defender thumped a cross to the far post where Dossena was waiting in a perfect position five yards out. From there, the Italian winger side-footed an effort back across goal. Unfortunately for him, his shot rolled past the upright. He should really have tucked it away.

Another brilliant opportunity went begging not long after that. In the twenty-sixth, after Mathieu Baudry had cut out Donny striker Curtis Main with a superb last-ditch tackle, Marvin Bartley was the next O’s player to set off on a strong run down the right. He smashed a cross in to the near post for striker Darius Henderson, who scuffed a shot at goal from point-blank range; this was kept out by a stunning reflex save from Donny keeper Stephen Bywater. So close.

Though the South stand was now rocking with barking cries of ‘Orient! Orient!’, there was a palpable air of nervousness at the failure of the home side to convert. The fans’ nerves were not helped by the mistakes which had begun to creep into the O’s game. In the thirty-third minute, Hedges slalomed past two away defenders and into the box; he then chose to pass to the double-marked Henderson rather than shoot from ten yards – the ball was cleared. Soon enough, an otherwise-stifled Doncaster started to make opportunities of their own. Midfielder Harry Middleton sliced through the middle of the pitch before seeing a vicious goalbound effort blocked five yards out. James Coppinger was next to catch Orient cold, bursting past two markers on the right before teeing up Main in the middle; the striker’s looping shot was well saved by Orient stopper Alex Cisak.

Main had Donny’s best first-half chance in the forty-second minute, receiving a sweet pass from the tricky Kyle Bennett before sweeping a shot over the crossbar from just outside the box. In the end, neither side could break the deadlock before the break. Still, the warning signs were there for Orient. Their sunny start had faded somewhat. Come the restart, they had to be bright once more.

This they were not. Doncaster were revitalised at the resumption of play; it only took four minutes for them to register a shot on target, Bennett jinking his way to the edge of the area before sending a curling effort toward the top right – Cisak acrobatically pushed this to safety. Orient laboured, yet Donny – Bennett especially – had newfound flair; Rovers’ number twenty-three drew a foul from Orient’s Josh Wright in the fifty-third minute before quickly chipping the free kick to Main in the box – his deft nod was blocked on the line by the scrambling Cuthbert.

In the fifty-sixth minute, the deadlock was broken. Bennett won the free kick out on the right. Sending in another accurate delivery, he found Rob Jones towering above everybody; the defender’s header traced its way into the bottom corner of the net. One-nil to the visitors, and a joyful chorus of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ (with the word ‘Gold’ imaginatively replaced by ‘Jones’) from the away section. The Orient fans were understandably crestfallen. Time for the O’s to try to salvage a result.

Though Doncaster could have doubled their lead in the sixty-fifth when sinewy substitute Jonson Clarke-Harris muscled past Baudry and drove low at goal – Cisak got down well to save – Orient did fashion something of a rally late on. After Henderson had won the home side a corner in the seventy-third, a great delivery fell for defender Shane Lowry; his downward header looked sure to go in, only for Bywater to pull off another astounding stop. A few minutes later, Josh Wright collected a good pass on the edge of the box before turning on his heel and slapping a shot toward the top right. Bywater was equal to this too, diving to his left to tip it over the bar.

The O’s had total possession after this, yet couldn’t use it to good effect; aimless long ball after aimless long ball was pumped up the pitch, only to be cleared by Rovers’ solid centre backs. One punt forward did fall for Orient substitute Jay Simpson, but his attempt was easy for the magnificent Bywater. Five minutes of added time were punctuated only by more long balls and one final away effort from Bennett; Cisak saved the angled shot with his fingertips, and the whistle went.

There were cries of rage in the stands at the finish; the O’s hadn’t lived up to their initial promise, while Donny had capitalised when it counted. Results elsewhere meant that Orient were still clear of the dreaded drop at full time. It remains to be seen for how much longer that’s the case.

Result: Leyton Orient 0 Doncaster Rovers 1.
My MoM: a special mention for Donny goalkeeper Stephen Bywater, but fullest praise to Kyle Bennett; increasingly creative, elegant on the ball and poised at the set piece – hence the goal.
Best fans: the away fans had the best song (‘Jones! Jones! Always believe in Rob Jo-ones!’), yet the O’s were the best fans; suffering, supporting, suffering, supporting.

Rover the hill?

Let’s all go to Betty’s

The game: Harrogate Town v. Boston United.
The ground: The CNG Stadium.
The conditions: sunny, after snow; ground liberally dusted like a Betty’s Victoria Sponge.

Having decided, after a period of reflection, that my non-league football experiences were a bit too London-centric, I yesterday boarded a train to the farthest, harshest north – to Harrogate. Arriving in the civic town centre and almost instantly stumbling into Betty’s Tea Rooms, I soon realised that this experience was perhaps not to be as harsh as I had imagined. Wiping away the crumbs of a delicious ‘fat rascal’ and draining the dregs of my Earl Grey, I set out on my pilgrimage to the Wetherby Road and The CNG Stadium, home of Harrogate Town; my pilgrimage coincided with that of some actual ‘Pilgrims’ – the players, staff and fans of Lincolnshire’s finest, Boston United.

Queuing for a ticket outside the stadium, there were a few pessimistic grumbles amongst the home fans; with Boston sixth in the table and Harrogate hovering just about the relegation zone – and in poor form – there was definitely cause for concern. Once the game had begun, this concern quickly vanished. On a pitch dusted by snow, Harrogate started well. Though nobody seemed sure of their feet, Town’s players were still much the sharper; wide man Ryan Fallowfield made most of the early running, while midfielder (and new signing) Cecil Nyoni seemed to be everywhere at once in an athletic, combative start. Their sharpness paid off when, in the eleventh minute, after a good passing move, Fallowfield was given the freedom of the right wing; speeding past the covering defender and into the box, he neatly set up Harrogate’s Andy Gascoigne to curl a first-time strike past the away keeper, Joel Dixon. One-nil Harrogate.

The Pilgrims tried to establish some possession after this, yet were constantly hustled off the ball by Harrogate’s midfielders – Nyoni especially. The home team were pressing from the front, too. In the nineteenth minute, Harrogate striker Paul Clayton won the ball out on the left before swiftly going on the attack; he raced past the panicked-looking Boston defence, round Dixon and possibly just over the by-line, before cutting a pass back for the incoming Fallowfield to smash into the net from three yards. Neither the referee nor the linesman saw anything wrong with the goal, and so it stood; two-nil Harrogate, with the home side pretty much rampant.

After seeming almost shocked to see their side playing so positively, the Town fans now got into their stride; chanting, jumping and banging on a massive great drum, they seemed quite pleased by events on the pitch. Harrogate continued to boss the game, though Boston had their first real chance in the twenty-third minute, full back Liam Marrs making a run on the right before firing low at advancing Town keeper Peter Crook; the ball squirmed under Crook’s outstretched arm, yet he did enough to keep it out. The game gradually slowed down on the increasingly choppy pitch, both teams exchanging half chances over the next twenty minutes; self-assured Harrogate forward Jordan Thewlis shone in this period with his persistent running, even if he couldn’t find a third goal to finish off the contest.

Then, right at the end of the half, Boston had a sudden burst of energy. First, Pilgrims’ striker Mark Jones stung Crook’s palms with a vicious drive; the home keeper managed to push this away to his right. From the resulting corner, the ball was almost scrambled into the back of the net, but not quite. The away fans behind the goal were adamant it had crossed the line, but the referee disagreed; no goals for Boston at the stroke of half time, but a sign that they did have some fight left in them.

The early part of the second half saw the away side play some better stuff. Controlling the midfield adequately, successfully establishing time on the ball, they seemed somewhat renewed by the break in play; by the fiftieth minute, Crook had already been forced into a couple of neat saves. Harrogate seemed content to play on the counter, and this almost paid off in the fifty-sixth when, after some quick passing, Town defender Luke Shiels crossed for Paul Clayton to head hard at the Pilgrims’ keeper; Dixon held onto the ball and saved well, however. The pitch was deteriorating badly in the slush and the game slackened accordingly, Boston’s increasing influence bringing little by way of opportunities. Thankfully, there was absolutely no slackening from the stands; with a rousing chorus of ‘Let’s all go to Betty’s’ reminding me to revisit that warm, cake-filled emporium before my departure, the home fans were distraction enough.

In the sixty-third minute, Harrogate should have put things to bed. Breaking fast, the home side manoeuvred the ball to scorer Fallowfield, almost on the penalty spot; from there, he blazed high over crossbar. This was the only real chance of the next twenty five minutes. As Boston maintained some measure of composure, as Harrogate countered on occasion – usually via speedy substitute Dominic Rowe – the game seemed to be moving toward a relatively comfortable home win. Nyoni continued to impress, inspiring the home defence with more by way of robust tackling, while Paul Clayton won every header – defensive and offensive – that he was asked to. With commitment like theirs, there could only be one outcome, surely.

As in the first half, Boston left it late to produce some drama. From an eighty-eighth-minute corner, Mark Jones put a precise header into the back of the home net. The tension was palpable; having gone from entertaining themselves by celebrating pretend goals to seeing their side concede an actual one, the Town fans banged their drum in trepidation. Clayton was now back in the home box, thumping away Boston long balls; Nyoni was now tackling like a madman; in the ninety-second minute, rapid Rowe even had a chance to finally finish the game off when put through one on one with Dixon, only to skew his finish wide of the post. Luckily for him, a last, arduous minute passed without Harrogate conceding.

The home team deserved the much-needed win, despite making it difficult for themselves at the end. In celebration, then, it was back to Betty’s for an Eccles cake and a slice of Victoria Sponge; well, that was certainly my celebration.

Result: Harrogate Town 2 Boston United 1.
My MoM: Ryan Fallowfield got a goal and an assist, Paul Clayton an assist – plus kudos for his tenacity – but new man Cecil Nyoni was the key player; imposing himself on the midfield while full of defensive discipline, he took the game to Boston.
Best fans: Town. Banged their drum all day. Pretended to score a remarkable number of goals. Shared my taste for baked goods, in the main.

Let’s all go to Betty’s

Leiston they deserved?

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Leiston.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: dark and wet; just the way I like my Fairtrade espressos.

For those fans who can afford to throng the corporate megadomes of England’s top clubs, Tuesday nights are evocative of glamorous European ties. Perhaps watching on as the marketable giants of Manchester City take on the merchandisable titans of Futbol Club Barcelona, perhaps attempting a chant before sipping at an aggressively tepid Foster’s, they might think they’re experiencing all that midweek football has to offer them – the pinnacle of after-work sport. Little do they know of Champion Hill, original ‘Hamlet Lager’ and Tuesday night match ups between Dulwich Hamlet and Suffolk heavyweights Leiston. Little do they know of Gavin Rose’s Pink and Blue Army – and little do the Pink and Blue Army care.

This Tuesday’s game was definitely one to experience; it was lively throughout, despite the topsy-turvy quality of the football being played. Hamlet started the better of the two teams in what was a fairly disjointed opening, working the flanks as they tried to feel their way into the game; winger Luke Wanadio quickly asserted himself out on the right, whipping in some early crosses that Leiston’s defence did well to clear. Then, out of an abrupt and surprising counterattack in the ninth minute, the away team went a goal up. A long ball from right to left was controlled by Leiston’s number eleven, Tom Winter, who charged past his marker and toward goal before setting up striker Danny Block; sweeping it into the net from a perfect position, Block finished with ease. Hamlet’s defenders looked bemused at being caught out so casually. They certainly could have done better.

It was at this point that the Pink and Blue Army started to make an impression on me. When one’s team has gone behind, it is customary to stop singing for at least a few moments; Hamlet’s hardcore fans behind the goal (known as ‘The Rabble’) had clearly never been familiarised with this convention. Pledging noisy allegiance to manager Gavin Rose without pause, they stirred their team into an instant response; more dangerous crosses started to pepper the Leiston box from both wings. Soon Hamlet’s midfielders established some consistent possession and passing rhythm across the pitch. A couple of free kicks tested Leiston’s keeper Danny Gay, but were confidently saved. Wanadio really started to run the Leiston defence ragged by the twentieth minute mark, impressing with his fancy footwork. The home team seemed to be growing in confidence.

After a bit more of the same – Hamlet controlling the play, Leiston defending – things suddenly became frantic. In the twenty-ninth minute, the home fans called for a penalty as Leiston’s centre backs doubled up on Hamlet’s Nyren Clunis inside the box; the hard-fought tussle that ensued saw Clunis go down, yet the referee let play continue – as seemed fair. In the thirtieth, Wanadio tricked his way past his marker and powered in yet another cross from the right; this fell to Hamlet striker Xavier Vidal, whose powerful shot toward goal was blocked by a hand. Again, calls for a penalty echoed round Champion Hill. Again, the referee refused to give one; this too seemed fair, as the incident looked more like ball to hand than handball.

Hamlet were pressing hard for the equaliser by now; two quick penalty calls seemed to unnerve the Leiston defenders, who started to sit off and invite more pressure. As such, it was not a surprise when the home side eventually equalised in the thirty-ninth minute. A short-corner routine straight from the training ground saw Hamlet’s Ashley Carew tee up teammate Vidal on the edge of the Leiston box. His resulting drive, aided by a significant deflection, ended up nestled in the bottom right-hand corner of the goal. The Pink and Blue Army almost leapt out of the stadium, as they had every right to do. Their team seemed to be in the ascendancy; as the last five or six minutes of play sank into predictable end-of-half skirmishing, I strongly backed Hamlet to go on and win it.

A couple of ‘Hamlet Lagers’ later, and the teams were back out. The home team had a chance almost straightaway, Wanadio skinning Leiston’s left back before firing in a ball that forward Harry Ottaway almost – almost – skimmed into the net. As Wanadio continued to cause havoc with his runs, dribbles and impish skills, the Pink and Blue Army harmonised their famous Chaka Khan cover (‘Ain’t no team like / Dulwich Hamlet / makes me happy /makes me feel this way’); the home mood seemed pretty positive. Though the game felt a little more even than it had been in the first half – Leiston now more threatening on the break – Hamlet were still on top of things. Then, out of another abrupt counter, they conceded once more.

In the fifty-seventh minute, the away team won a corner. Completely unmarked, Leiston’s number ten, Craig Parker, leathered a free header past home keeper Phil Wilson. It was a case of déjà vu for the bemused Hamlet defence. Meanwhile, it was a case of déjà vu for me as the Pink and Blue Army went on singing regardless, this time a song about Champion Hill looking like Tuscany; I strongly disagreed yet, considering Leiston’s goal, I did not feel it was the right time to ask what this meant.

The rest of the game was dominated by Hamlet. Leiston’s defence were holding out, yet it looked as if the home team would at least get another equaliser; their chances were numerous. In the fifty-ninth minute, Vidal received a good lay off from Ottaway before firing fractionally wide of the far post. In the sixty-second minute, Hamlet failing to score seemed almost unbelievable; Vidal was put through on goal by a scooped ball from Carew, his first shot was saved, then he skied the rebound over the crossbar from about four yards. ‘The Rabble’ were ever-more vocal in their support and yet, with continual near misses from all sorts of positions, it started to feel as if it just wasn’t Hamlet’s night. The fans sang a Dulwich-themed version of ‘Karma Chameleon’ anyway, of course; on the pitch, however, the only things coming and going were goalscoring opportunities.

Wanadio shone over the last twenty minutes, as did substitute winger Albert Jarrett, on for Jordan Hibbert. Nevertheless, however many good crosses they whipped in, the equaliser would not come. Ottaway was put through on goal by Wanadio in the eightieth and eighty-second minutes, but had strayed offside on both occasions. In the eighty-eighth, an almighty scramble in the Leiston goalmouth saw away keeper Gay clamber to keep Vidal out, while a couple of minutes later Wanadio beat the keeper with a snap shot but fired narrowly wide; he merited a goal, but couldn’t quite manage it.

A late home corner was headed over, and the game came to a close. Hamlet could consider themselves a little unlucky to lose, but a hardy Leiston performance saw the away team take their chances, and a glamorous three points.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 1 Leiston 2.
My MoM: Luke Wanadio (Dulwich Hamlet). Deserved something for his efforts; should never have been on the losing side with that much flair.
Best Fans: the Pink and Blue Army. Could well have charted in ’83. Looked at Dulwich, and saw Tuscany.

Leiston they deserved?