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

Best be beelieving

The game: Barnet v. Gateshead.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: highly nebulous, much like the future of the Conference title at kick off.

It was five o’ clock on Saturday afternoon, and I had just arrived at The Hive for the biggest game in Barnet’s recent history and the last of the regular Conference season. While the Bees were about to face the mid-table ‘Tynesiders’ of Gateshead knowing that a win would guarantee them the league title, close rivals Bristol Rovers – only a point behind the league leaders – were readying to pounce on any slip by Martin Allen’s men in their own fixture against Alfreton Town. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher.

With a capacity, ground record 5,233 in attendance, the pre-match atmosphere was quite unprecedented. Flags and banners abounded, the stands lurched with fans, all four sides of the ground chanted for promotion in unison – tight at the top as it was, there was an indubitable air of belief about the place. The teams soon emerged to thunderous cheers and then – after an immaculately-observed minute’s silence on the anniversary of the Bradford City fire – a huge round of applause and appreciation shook the stadium to its foundations. The two sides formed up. The whistle screeched over the din.

Barnet certainly took confidence from the support; the home side started very much on the front foot. In fact, having had all the initial possession, they should have scored in the fifth minute; Barnet striker Michael Gash pressured Gateshead keeper Adam Bartlett into shanking a clearance straight to main man John Akinde; the Bees’ number nine raced to the by-line before squaring for Curtis Weston five yards out, but he saw his snatched effort scrambled off the line.

A minute later, Mauro Vilhete found midfielder Conor Clifford on the edge of the box; he pumped a shot over the crossbar. The lively Vilhete teed up Weston just after that, but his effort was much the same. The home supporters were crying out for their side to take an early lead when the Tynesiders quickly counterattacked in the tenth and Alex Rodman unleashed a low shot on target; Graham Stack had this well covered, yet it was a reminder that the visiting outfit might just have a sting in the tail. Barnet settled, reorganised and almost immediately had the ball in the back of the net via the boot of Andy Yiadom – unfortunately for the Bees, he had quite clearly fouled Gateshead defender James Curtis prior to stroking in.

It had been a lightning-fast start; Barnet rather sensibly calmed things down for a while after that. Bar a shot wide from Tynesider Josh Gillies, the Bees totally stifled the opposition. Playing keep ball amongst themselves, they edged closer and closer to the away area. Soon enough, they held a stranglehold on the final third.

Inevitably, this led to the opening goal. The visitors were struggling to relieve the pressure; in the twenty-fifth minute, Gateshead’s Jamie Chandler couldn’t help but foul the rampant Akinde fifteen yards out. From there, set-piece specialist Sam Togwell chipped a sweet ball over the defence. He found Vilhete completely unmarked; Barnet’s number sixteen leapt high and – momentarily suspended in flight – then nestled his close-range header in the far corner of the net.

The crowd reacted with boggle-eyed delirium. The Bees swarmed Vilhete in euphoria and relief. Nonetheless, even as ‘We’re on the pitch – if we go up!’ rang in their ears, the home players managed to regain their concentration and reorganise once more. In the thirty-second, after Akinde had held a long ball up just outside the area, Clifford smashed another shot just over the bar. Four minutes later, with Akinde again the architect, Weston took aim from twelve yards; he ballooned an effort against the woodwork. Hands on heads.

There were a couple of nervous moments just before the half, the Tynesiders spurning two passable opportunities. First, in the fortieth minute, Stack sliced a goal kick straight to Gateshead forward Kevin Sainte-Luce thirty yards out; with the Bees’ keeper off his line, Sainte-Luce couldn’t get an early shot away – he was eventually cut out by Bondz N’Gala. Then, just before the break, Sainte-Luce found Matty Pattison in space twenty yards out. Pattison sent a swerving shot at goal, but Stack redeemed his earlier mistake by saving and holding well.

The referee brought the half to an end, this the signal for 5,233 people to frantically check their phones for the Bristol Rovers score. The murmur went round. Rovers had gone in 3-0 up. Barnet absolutely had to see out the win.

Their chances of doing so were massively increased four minutes after the restart. A long kick forward from Stack was taken down by Akinde, who then skilfully won a corner on the left. Togwell fired in a perfect delivery and found Gash leaping highest; his glancing header was saved superbly, yet the rebound fell for Vilhete to smash in from a couple of yards. Pandemonium.

Gateshead should have pulled one back immediately, forward Carl Finnegan heading a cross downward at pace for what looked a certain goal; Stack made the save of the match to keep him out, stretching low to his right to palm the ball to safety. Despite the fact that the home stopper was still to charge off his line like a lunatic a couple of times before the end of play, this was a crucial intervention. Barnet were back in the groove not long afterward, Gash going close before Yiadom glanced another Togwell-delivered corner onto the underside of the bar.

The last half-an-hour was a little dicey at times, the Bees allowing Gateshead considerably more time on the ball – even if neither side was exceptionally threatening. Sainte-Luce caused the Barnet defence some problems, not least in the seventy-third minute when he dinked a pass to Chandler on the edge of the home box; he belted his header just high.

Martin Allen brought Jack Saville on for the last ten minutes, shoring up his back line with an extra man; this was a shrewd move and shut down any hopes of a Gateshead comeback. The visitors did see the Bees’ net bulge in the eighty-sixth via a volley from substitute Jon Shaw, yet the Tynesiders’ number nine had run far too early and been caught well offside. Now, as the game edged toward its close, the fans edged nearer to the pitch. A glitter cannon went off on the South Terrace. The party was almost in full swing.

The referee blew. The pitch was instantly awash with a sea of amber and black. Players were mobbed, kids were held aloft, whirling mosh pits tumbled across the luxurious turf – all in wondrous delight. Gateshead had played their part on the day, but Barnet were worthy winners of the match. More importantly, regardless of an eventual seven-nil victory for Bristol Rovers, the Bees were worthy champions of the Conference. Time to celebrate in style.

Result: Barnet 2 Gateshead 0.
My MoM: Togwell deserves high praise for his two set-piece assists, but the top accolade must of course go to Mauro Vilhete. Hero goals.
Best fans: Barnet fans. I cannot condone pitch invasions. But nice pitch invasion.

Best be beelieving

Rabble yell

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Maidstone United.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: cheerier than my disposition after a healthy portion of baked kale chips.

This was it. The final Hamlet home game of the season. My last visit to Champion Hill for some time. The all-ticketed, high-demand fixture between Dulwich and league leaders Maidstone United. The day that the latter could be crowned champions of the Ryman Premier League.

With all four sides of the ground absolutely swamped by fans – there were over 900 Stones’ supporters present, while the official attendance figure was a capacity (and record) 3,000 – the atmosphere was magnificent; singing rang out all around the pitch long before kick off, a sea of Pink & Blue splashing noisily against an ocean of Black & Amber throughout. While the visitors knew that, should Hendon lose their game against Grays Athletic, Maidstone would be promoted as title winners come quarter-to-five, the home faithful were well aware that Hamlet’s own chance of promotion – their play-off spot – was not quite safe. The importance of the match wasn’t lost on anyone. Soon enough the players jogged out. The crashing of the Rabble’s drums greeted them.

The opening ten minutes set a cagey tone. Both sides seemed happy enough to contest the ball almost exclusively in the air; this may have been an impromptu tactical adaption to the burger boxes, amber balloons, pink streamers and assorted debris littering the playing surface, yet it still limited the two sides creatively. Maidstone had the first chance of the match in the twelfth minute, diligent midfielder Matt Bodkin cutting in from the left before curling a shot at goal – Phil Wilson (‘Phil! Phil! Phil!’) saved this comfortably. Hamlet responded a couple of minutes later, Jack Dixon dragging a shot wide having been teed up by Ash Carew on the edge of the box. The teams were cautiously feeling each other out. Edgy stuff.

Edgy soon became niggly. Maidstone striker Jay May and Hamlet defender Matt Drage engaged in a running battle in and around the home area; May nearly bested his marker in the nineteenth minute after Drage had let a long ball bounce in the box, but the Stones’ number nine saw his fierce low shot at goal blocked. Dixon was cautioned not long after that for an unsubtle tug on Bodkin, before both sides won – and wasted – a series of free kicks.

Then, just as the game was starting to look a little leaden, the home side created a great opportunity to open the scoring. Xavier Vidal made a darting run through the midfield. Looking up as he reached the centre circle, he slotted a sweet ball through the Maidstone back line. Perhaps distracted by an offside Luke Wanadio, the Stones’ defenders stayed entirely still as Harry Ottaway romped past them to collect the pass. Hamlet’s number nine bore down on the net but, facing the maniacal charge of away keeper Lee Worgan, allowed himself to be pushed wide. From there, his cross to the unmarked Vidal was overhit. The chance was missed. Maidstone regrouped.

The away side waited until the thirty-fifth minute to make reply; May made a run out right only to cross for advancing defender Steve Watt, who fired low from a couple of yards – Wilson made the point-blank save with his feet, pounding the ball away with the full force of his heroic frame. Maidstone ceded Hamlet possession after that, yet the home side seemed wary of this deceptively dangerous tack; clearly determined not to be caught on the counter, Carew and Vidal saw out the rest of the half playing Pink & Blue keep ball between themselves.

Judging by the noisy renditions of the Maidstone-themed ‘Hey Jude’ and the Hamlet-flavoured ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ that greeted the half-time whistle, very few onlookers had been put off by a scoreless first forty-five. As I summoned up my inner Joe ‘The Tank’ Benjamin and muscled my way over to and back from the bar, Hamlet lager in hand, I reflected that – if anything – even more spectators had snuck in to the ground over the course of the break. Now it was time to see whether the teams could offer them a goal.

There was absolutely no sign of this happening until just after the sixtieth minute; the sides remained guarded, the ball in the clear blue sky. In the sixty-third, Vidal found left back Frazer Shaw on an overlapping run into the Maidstone area; Shaw put his first-time effort past the post. Moments later, the Stones pelted up the other end of the pitch and won a corner; the delivery went straight to Shane Huke at the near post, but he could only dink a weak attempt into the side netting.

Pink confetti started to rain down amongst the loud, proud, swaggering dandies behind the away goal, the Stones’ support started to party pitchside at the news that Hendon and Grays were deadlocked, yet the players kept things sober and serious – the caginess continued right until the last. Maidstone substitute Ben Greenhalgh put an inviting, low ball into the box in the seventy-third, but nobody could get on the end of it. Vidal combined with Wanadio five minutes later, firing at the top left from ten yards only for Worgan to save and hold. In the eighty-sixth minute, away right-back Craig Stone leathered a long ball to forward Billy Bricknell; his snapshot soared over Phil Wilson’s bar. Matt Bodkin then had the last chance of the game, scurrying in from the right before cracking an effort wide. Game over.

It ended nil-nil, yet soon the news came that Hendon had drawn with Grays by the same scoreline; though still not a mathematical certainty, Maidstone had basically won the league. Their fans charged onto the Champion Hill turf to cuddle the players, before coming over to clap the waiting Rabble. Hamlet’s fans were generous to a (wo)man, congratulating their opponents wholeheartedly. Maidstone fans may soon get the chance to congratulate them right back.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 0 Maidstone United 0.
My MoM: Xavier Vidal (Dulwich Hamlet). On a tough day for the creatives, he created the most. Uninhibited.
Best fans: a footballing friendship was born at this game. Let’s not ruin the moment.

Rabble yell