Two slices of honey roast Hamlet

The game: Enfield Town v. Dulwich Hamlet.
The ground: the QEII.
The conditions: windier than myself after a mung bean salad (with extra lentils).

Easter weekend is a time of reflection. It is a time of profound religiosity. A time to think about our many and varied sins, while eating lots of chocolate and sending unwarranted abuse to the people who run Cadbury’s official Twitter account.

However, most importantly of all, it’s also a ruddy good time to catch up on non-league football. With work commitments suspended for four whole days, I found myself with time on my hands come Saturday afternoon.

And how did I spend that time? I spent it watching Enfield Town take on Dulwich Hamlet, obviously.

Both Town and Hamlet have suffered mixed fortunes of late. While the Pink & Blues were top of the league at Christmas, mixed form (and too many draws, in particular) had seen them drop down to fifth ahead of the big game at the QEII. Town, after a strong run in the mid-season, had also stuttered in their previous few fixtures.

As such, the two teams were now in direct contention for a play-off berth. The pre-match tension was heightened accordingly.

Ignoring the pre-match tension, I rocked up in EN1 and immediately trotted up to the Butler’s Bar for a pint of Redemption pale ale. By kick off, the ground had filled out nicely. Home and away fans had assumed their positions at opposite ends of the pitch. The dulcet parps of a local brass band filled the air. The stage had been set for the heady melodrama that is – the football!

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With both sides preferring to play a clever, passing game, the wet and windy conditions didn’t really favour anyone. Nonetheless, it was Enfield that started by far the brighter of the two sides. With five minutes on the clock, Tyler Campbell broke away down the right before teeing up Corey Whitely in the middle of the box; his effort was well blocked by Ethan Pinnock. A half chance for Stanley Muguo came a few minutes later, but he could only shank a shot into the arms of Hamlet keeper Preston Edwards from the edge of the box.

Near the fifteen minute mark, Town carved out the first clear-cut opportunity of the match. The effervescent Whitely got in behind Hamlet’s defence and galloped toward goal from the left. With Dulwich defenders sprinting back to catch him, he clipped a beautiful cross straight to Bobby Devyne. Unfortunately, his strike partner could only blast over the crossbar from eight yards. Hands on heads for Town.

That sense of frustration only grew when, just over ten minutes later, the visitors went ahead. A scrappy period had seen the game level out a little, before Dulwich suddenly broke forward in numbers. A Nyren Clunis cross from the right bobbled in the box before falling for Jack Dixon, who rifled low into the corner of the net. The travelling Hamlet fans went wild.

Moments afterward, that elation turned sour. Having picked up a yellow card for handball early on, Hamlet defender Matt Drage was caught dawdling on the ball by Campbell. Sticking out a leg, Drage brought his opponent down right in front of his own box. The second yellow was inevitable. Hamlet were down to ten.

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Despite all this sudden drama, the rest of the half was fairly subdued. The best chance fell for Hamlet’s new signing (and debutant) Dipo Akinyemi just before half time; after a strong run into the box he opened up his body and fired a yard past the far post. Soon enough, the whistle went.

The Butler’s Bar was out of Redemption, so I had to have a Fosters. Ugh.

Back to the game, and it didn’t take long for ten-man Hamlet to forfeit their narrow lead. Two minutes after the restart, an Enfield corner came straight to Mark Kirby only a few yards out. He couldn’t miss.

While the home end exploded into jubilant celebration, the Rabble didn’t even break song. That clearly steeled the team because, much like their supporters, they refused to be cowed by the setback.

In fact, despite their one-man deficit, it was Hamlet who were to score next.

In the fifty-fifth minute, Akinyemi controlled a long ball in the middle of the park before sending Clunis away down the right wing. Sprinting past his markers, Nyren pinged a floated ball to the back post where – having made up the ground in no time – Dipo was on hand to nod home.

It was 2-1 to Dulwich and, though chants of “Nyren Clunis, makes Messi look shite” were fully justified, Akinyemi deserved a hefty chunk of praise for his all-action role in the goal. Now, Gavin Rose’s men just had to hang on.

Enfield had other ideas, however.

The home pressure built from that point onward, while the depleted visitors looked increasingly stretched at the back. In the sixty-third minute, after Jordan Hibbert gave away a clumsy foul just outside the Hamlet area, Whitely’s curling free kick hit the bottom of the post. Five minutes later, Edwards was forced into a double save from Tyler Campbell and Bobby Devyne respectively. The latter’s shot came from barely a yard out – the visiting keeper deserved huge credit for his efforts.

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A string of saves from Edwards was the only thing which kept Hamlet ahead after that. In the seventieth minute, Devyne ran at Hamlet’s centre backs before unleashing Whitely to the left of the box; his fierce effort was smothered and saved. Two minutes later, Hamlet old boy Harry Ottaway sent a looping header towards the top corner – only for Edwards to pluck it out of the air like a parakeet swooping for a juicy ladybird.

On the eightieth minute mark, Devyne had a gilt-edged chance to equalise when he capitalised on a defensive mistake by Dulwich and went clear through. He fired wide with the goal gaping.

Two minutes later, though, Hamlet were finally breached. Another defensive mistake saw Edwards come early for a loose ball. Whitely got there first, skipped around the keeper and slotted a cool finish low into the net. Could Enfield kick on and win it?

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The answer, in short, was: no. Though Edwards palmed away a vicious Whitely shot in the eighty-ninth minute, the game was relatively calm for the final stretch. With rain now coming down in sheets and both sides exhausted from their exertions, the players seemed fairly satisfied with the scoreline. The final whistle went.

Though Town fans might be disappointed not to have nabbed all three points when facing ten men, the draw was a fair result in the end. Entertaining despite the conditions, full of fighting spirit and with plenty of quality on show, the game was a good measure of the two teams at this point in the season.

Will Town and Hamlet meet once more in the play offs? I can only hope.

Result: Enfield Town 2 Dulwich Hamlet 2.
My MoM: Corey Whitely is surely one of the most dangerous players in the division, but Nyren Clunis was similarly excellent on the day. Two assists for Clunis edge him narrowly ahead.
Best fans: Both sang all afternoon, both braved wind and rain to support the sides. I’m not going to choose between them, and you can’t make me.

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Two slices of honey roast Hamlet

Not with a bang but a Shrimper

The game: Southend United v. Wycombe Wanderers.
The ground: Wembley Stadium.
The conditions: appropriate to the start of the great British summer; positively dismal.

My first season in the lower leagues was coming to a close and so, on pure impulse, I decided last week to treat myself to one last, luxurious outing at the end of the campaign. Poring over final fixtures of the footballing calendar, I settled upon the League Two play-off final between the ‘Shrimpers’ of Southend United and the ‘Chairboys’ of Wycombe Wanderers – the venue none other than Wembley Stadium. Come Saturday morning, my overexcitement was starting to worry my loved ones. “What do they know?!” I thought, as I stepped out of the front door. Completely nude bar my Southend-Wanderers half-scarf, I knew this was going to be a great day out.

Okay, yes, that last part is an exaggeration for comic effect. I would never wear a half-scarf. Still, I was very excited; with Southend and Wycombe having both finished the regular season on eighty-four points – the former formidable defensively, the latter with more by way of goals – I had a strong feeling that this would be a match of fine margins, a game replete with tension and tightly-fought drama from the get go. Arriving at Wembley Park, catching sight of the stadium’s iconic arch, my anticipation only grew. It was then temporarily diminished by the looped chanting of the Irn Bru-sponsored ‘Bru Are Ya!’ bridge, the giant signs along Wembley Way that warned the gathering League Two crowds against ‘persistent standing’ and the bitterly acrimonious process of collecting tickets. All that horror over, I went back to enjoying myself.

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Though I’m sure every seat in the house had a sweet view, mine in the second tier of the Wycombe end was quite exceptional. As I settled down five minutes before kick off, yellow balloons and blue paper aeroplanes were already filling the air below; songs from both sets of fans just about blotted out the Alan Partridge-esque interjections from the hype man on the tannoy. Suddenly, the on-pitch pyro flared. The teams were led out to a thunderous roar. Phil Brown and Gareth Ainsworth took their places in the technical areas. The whole thing started to feel legitimately bloody epic.

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I was brought back down to earth by the most League Two start to proceedings imaginable. From the kick off, after literally six seconds, Southend midfielder Will Atkinson clattered Wycombe counterpart Sam Saunders – the latter had to be substituted only three minutes into the game. This may have set a rather rudimentary precedent for the first half, yet there were several good chances for both sides to take an early lead. In the fifth minute, a looping cross from Chairboy Hogan Ephraim caused chaos in the Southend box; Shrimpers’ left back Ben Coker made the crucial clearance, but the ball could have gone anywhere. Ten minutes later, after significant Southend pressure at the other end, defender Cian Bolger worked a free header from a corner; he belted just past the upright, much to Wanderers’ relief.

In the twenty-second, Southend had the ball in the back of the net; another free leap in the area was afforded to long-serving Shrimper Barry Corr, and the striker planted a beautiful header into the top left. Unfortunately for him, this was disallowed for a pretty blatant shove by Bolger on Chairboys’ centre back Alfie Mawson in the build up. A chorus of boos rang out from the Southend fans, only silenced when Wycombe striker Paul Hayes made the Southend net bulge not two minutes later – this was ruled out for a narrow offside.

After that, the rest of the first half was very, very bitty. Wycombe had a couple of good opportunities around the fortieth-minute mark, Hayes seeing a low shot saved at the feet of Southend keeper Daniel Bentley before midfielder Sam Wood sent a twenty-yard curler inches over the crossbar. Apart from that, it was all robust fouls, even endeavour and punted free kicks. The break came with the game goalless. Both sides had plenty of room to improve.

It took a while longer, but improve they did. Though it was much the same up until the seventieth minute – the Shrimpers had the best chance of this period, Corr forcing an acrobatic save from young Chairboys’ stopper Alex Lynch with a firm header from five yards – the tempo was hugely upped with full time looming. In the seventy-fifth, Wycombe should have opened the scoring; a rare one-touch passing move on the edge of the Southend box allowed Hayes to burst into the left side of the area but, with a great sight of goal, his shot at the far corner was too close to Bentley – the keeper made the save. A flurry of Wycombe efforts followed, but it was their opponents who should have struck next; in the seventy-ninth, Shrimpers’ substitute striker Joe Pigott thrashed just wide from ten yards.

Wycombe had a last chance to snatch a win in regulation time, centre half Aaron Pierre with a bullet header which was tipped over superbly by Bentley late on. Despite the overdue flourish, the ninetieth minute ticked past without a score for either side. The extra time tension ramped up. The Chairboys’ paper planes collected by the side of the pitch like some sort of bright blue aviation graveyard. A bad omen, perhaps.

It certainly didn’t look a bad omen for Wycombe when, four minutes after the restart, they went one-nil up. Wanderers’ striker Aaron Holloway won a free kick twenty-five yards out, just to the right of goal. Left-back Joe Jacobson stepped up, then bent a gorgeous shot onto the underside of the crossbar – and in off the diving Bentley’s back. The Chairboys went wild, half of Wembley erupting in jubilation. A stony silence descended over the Shrimpers. Now could the Chairboys sit tight?

The answer was, well, astounding. Wycombe defended valiantly for the rest of extra time. In the hundred-and-fifteenth minute, they could and certainly should have put the game to bed; Holloway burst through Southend’s desperately high line, went through one on one with Bentley and, with a couple of teammates in support, overplayed to the point that Coker got back and made an emphatic tackle to keep his team clinging on. Then, twenty seconds from the final whistle, as the Wycombe fans jumped and celebrated in glee, the game truly delivered on all the pre-match excitement. Southend attacked. The cross came in from the left. Corr headed down to Piggott. Piggott turned in the Chairboys’ box, unchallenged. He rifled a low shot into the bottom right. Equaliser. Mega scenes from the Shrimpers. A low murmur of anguish around me.

So it went to penalties. The teams stretched out along the halfway line. Southend were up first.

The heroic Joe Piggott made the long walk. A moment’s hesitation. Scored.

Wycombe’s Peter Murphy was up next. To the keeper’s left. Scored.

Then it was the turn of the man with the crucial tackle, Ben Coker. Saved! Lynch had done it!

Alfie Mawson scored. Wycombe were ahead.

Ryan Leonard tucked away for Southend, Paul Hayes for Wycombe.

Jack Payne kept the Shrimpers within touching distance, pinging home.

Matt Bloomfield trudged forward for Wanderers’ fourth. Bentley got a hand to it! Screams of Southend relief!

The tension was now unbearable. Seven more penalties were taken, all converted. Southend now led seven-six.

Sam Wood stepped up to take Wycombe level once more.

Bentley stopped him.

The Southend players raced wildly from the touchline, arms outstretched toward their disbelieving keeper. The Wycombe players and supporters crumpled alike. A last minute equaliser, then the cold calculation of spot kicks. Southend had calculated the better, and now the noise of primal joy reverberated around Wembley, cutting through the total hush amongst the stricken Chairboys – the fans who had come so close.

Southend will play League One football next season, while Wanderers will have to regroup and challenge once more come August; keep their squad and management together and, despite this cruel loss, they should be in a good position to do so. As for The Luxury Fan, there is no telling what highs and lows future football will bring. To make an educated guess, however, the lows will probably involve drinking Bovril on a frozen terrace in mid-December. Just a guess, that.

Result (AET): Southend United 1 (7) Wycombe Wanderers 1 (6).
My MoM: Joe Piggott. Lively from the moment he came on, took his penalty well. Oh, and scored a leveller with half a minute to go.
Best fans: anyone who persistently stood. Take that, Wembley.

Not with a bang but a Shrimper

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

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Hill)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Hill)

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