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.

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Rabble yell

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

Harrow, is it me you’re looking for?

The game: Harrow Borough v. Maidstone United.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: pleasantly warm, like a good bowl of Waitrose’s Keralan chicken soup.

How unusual. It was a Saturday and I found myself in the familiar surroundings of the Earlsmead Stadium, yet I was watching two sides for the first time. Having previously seen groundshare partners Hendon play at the Earlsmead, I now primed myself for a match between the ground’s traditional occupants – relegation-threatened Harrow Borough – and Ryman League leaders Maidstone United; the away side were certainly the firm favourites going into the game, yet Harrow’s recent five-one victory over Wingate & Finchley suggested that they might still have a few cards up their (bright red) sleeves.

With a miniature beer festival going on in the bar and an unseasonable warmth out on the terraces, the large Maidstone contingent seemed understandably relaxed as the game kicked off. This didn’t last long. Straightaway their side toiled on the infamously cloddy Earlsmead pitch, while the home team were far less affected; the opening fifteen minutes were fairly uneventful, but Harrow were definitely more confident in possession. The stands reverberated with the songs of the Black & Amber Army, yet it was the home side that fashioned the first meaningful chance of the game; speedy wide man Kamaron English showed great close control to weave in and out of the Maidstone back line before dragging a low shot wide from fifteen yards.

It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but Harrow were doing all the hard work; winning free kicks and aerial balls over and over again, they totally disrupted the champions elect and even started to build up a jerky sort of pressure. As such, it felt deserved when they went ahead in the twenty-seventh minute. Pressing from the front with urgency, English dispossessed Maidstone’s Jamie Coyle before threading a ball through for Harrow striker Marc Charles-Smith to go one on one. Keeping his cool in front of the advancing Lee Worgan, Charles-Smith rolled a low shot past the away keeper and in.

Harrow weren’t fazed by taking an unaccustomed lead; diligent team effort saw Maidstone persistently frustrated, while English continued to provide the home side with a skilful individual outlet on the left. In the thirty-sixth minute, he was once more at the heart of a promising Harrow attack; after a free kick delivery was cleared out of the away area, Harrow’s number eleven volleyed at goal from twenty yards – a deflection sent his shot just over the crossbar.

In the forty-fourth, Maidstone finally fashioned their first chance of the match. Forward Billy Bricknell broke up the pitch at pace before seeing a fierce shot blocked; the rebound came to Jack Parkinson, who scuffed wide. The Maidstone fans had been singing their team on throughout, but this weak attempt seemed to rile them somewhat; with a mass of amber shirts trudging off to the bar a couple of minutes early, the players couldn’t help but get the message that they had played a pretty poor first half.

Several regional light ales later, and a very different game was underway. Though Harrow’s Ryan Hope missed an excellent chance in the forty-ninth minute, bursting into the area before zipping a shot wide, Maidstone quickly started to look like table toppers. Midfielder James Rogers saw a low shot saved by home stopper Nick Jupp in the fifty-first minute. Three minutes later, a good move saw Parkinson fire over from the edge of the box. Suddenly, Maidstone were everywhere.

A rapid succession of chances paid off soon enough. In the sixtieth minute, having slipped in behind the Harrow defence, Bricknell was set up in space; with Jupp only just off his line, he executed an inch-perfect dinked finish over the keeper. One-all, and Maidstone had plenty of time to try and win it; deafened by the sound of Kentish singing and partially blinded by one supporter’s dazzling amber mohican, it felt as if Harrow might well be about to collapse.

Creditably enough, the home side did no such thing. Maidstone continued to grow in stature as the match went on, but the diligence which had characterised Harrow’s first forty-five (especially from the ever-pressing English and Charles-Smith) saw them hold out for a point; despite almost total possession and chances for Shane Huke, Frannie Collin and racy substitute Matt Bodkin, the away side couldn’t find a way through.

Overall then, a proverbial game of two halves. Again, it wasn’t pretty, yet both sides came away with a positive point; with close rivals Margate losing at home to Enfield, the draw put Maidstone a lofty eight points clear at the summit – meanwhile, for Harrow, a decent performance and result in the sun might well brighten up their season come April.

Result: Harrow Borough 1 Maidstone United 1.
My MoM: Kamaron English (Harrow). Technical even on the rugged surface, hard-working without the ball, got an assist.
Best fans: the Black & Amber Army. At least one mohican. Kentish punk vibes.

Harrow, is it me you’re looking for?