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

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’).

Lux redux

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

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

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)

Thurrock around the clock

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. East Thurrock United.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: cloudier than a pint of London murky.

The term ‘ground hopper’ gets thrown around a lot. Some people are natural ground hoppers, nomadic fans forever wandering the endless footballing desert. Others ground hop consistently, reliably peripatetic, never quite satisfied. Then there are the not-quite-hoppers. The not-quite-hoppers are partial to revisiting stadiums. They like a bit of adventure but, conversely, they don’t mind familiar surroundings. They grow fond of a guest ale, they get used to a certain standard of pre-match falafel wrap and, by god, they’re not going to leave it all behind to get a two-hour train to Bognor Regis. As you may have already guessed, I fall in to the latter group. No offence intended, Bognor.

It was back to Champion Hill on Saturday and, having met up for a drink and a chat with the fine gentlemen of the Forward The Hamlet podcast, it was soon time to watch a team with whom I’ve evidently become well acquainted. Curiously, Hamlet found themselves on an unfamiliar run coming into their game with the ‘Rocks’ of East Thurrock United; the home team were in the midst of a late-season slump, bottom of the Ryman League form table with no wins in their last five competitive matches – and no score in four of those. The Rocks weren’t in great form themselves, but they arrived at Champion Hill with their most recent result a confidence-boosting one-nil win against Hampton & Richmond Borough. The visitors would surely be looking to capitalise on Hamlet’s slump and win again; for Gavin Rose’s men, the need to rediscover their own confidence (especially in front of goal) was pressing.

It was perhaps an excessive sense of urgency that led to Hamlet conceding in only the third minute. Trying to play out from the back after an early foray forward by United, Ethan Pinnock was dispossessed on the edge of his own area by nimble Rocks’ striker Mitchell Gilbey; dribbling round Phil Wilson, Gilbey practically walked the ball into the net to make it one-nil to the away side. The Rabble had barely had time to assemble at this point and a mood of mild deflation pervaded the ground. The pressure on the Pink & Blues was only intensified.

Hassled by United’s energetic front men, Hamlet’s defence seemed doubly nervous in possession. Happily for the home fans, the attackers soon showed their determination to step up. In the eighth minute, after strong running and a great final ball from new signing Joe ‘The Tank’ Benjamin, player-coach Kevin James almost poked in from four yards; Rocks’ keeper David Hughes nicked the ball off his outstretched boot at the very last second. Nyren Clunis went close moments afterward, before a pacey attacking run by Albert Jarrett was cut out ten yards from goal. Hamlet’s desire was obvious enough, and the Rabble began to reciprocate their efforts. Even so, the team looked far from settled; United could have gone two ahead five minutes later, forward Sam Higgins sending Ellis Brown clear on the right only for the latter to chip his shot well wide from fifteen yards.

The Pink & Blues did get on the scoresheet soon enough. In the eighteenth minute, Hamlet midfielder Ashley Carew collected a pass almost on the centre spot. From there, he stroked a brilliant through ball in between the Rocks’ centre backs for the surging James to chase. United defender Ben Wood managed to get back and win the challenge, but in doing so he sliced the ball past the stranded Hughes and in. The dubious goals panel wasn’t required. One-all.

If this felt like a turning point for Hamlet, the feeling didn’t last long. In what was becoming a frantic opening twenty, the home side were behind again only seconds after the restart; a long ball forward was allowed to bounce and fall to Gilbey who, scampering to the right of goal, drilled a low shot into the far corner of the net.

The rest of the half saw Hamlet make a succession of chances almost without reply, yet put nothing away. In the twenty-second minute, a cross from Benjamin found Jarrett just outside the Rocks’ box; the Pink & Blues wide man fired just wide of the upright. Two minutes later, James won a free kick twenty yards out; Jarrett took responsibility once more, this time bending an effort inches over the crossbar. Clunis had an attempt on target in the thirty-first – saved by Hughes – before Benjamin nutmegged United defender Paul Goodacre and saw a shot of his own ricochet back off the hoardings. There were positive signs in the home play, but nobody could find a finish. One wayward blast from Rocks’ midfielder Nicky Symons later, and the referee signalled for the break.

It had been the ultimate half of frustration for Hamlet; defensive errors had seen them concede while attacking endeavour had gone unrewarded. Considering recent struggles, it felt as if the Pink & Blues would have to give an extraordinary account of themselves in the second period to get anything out the game. As it happened, that’s exactly what they did.

For a regulation forty-five minutes, the home side that re-emerged from the dressing room played really good football. They looked tighter, brighter and more effective all over the pitch; clever moves and early efforts from Benjamin and Jarrett set the fresh tone before, in the sixty-first minute, Carew made a vital contribution to haul them level.

Hurtling fifteen yards unchallenged and bursting into the area, the number eight’s run was unceremoniously halted by the onrushing Hughes; the referee awarded a penalty without hesitation. Jumping up and taking it himself, Carew thrashed a perfect side-footed spot kick to the keeper’s left. What ensued behind the goal was probably a public order offence. In a good way.

To the jubilant choruses of the Dead Kennedys-inspired ‘Dulwich Hamlet Über Alles’, the home side now went for the jugular. The Tank instantly won a foul in a central position twenty-five yards out; the uncontainable Carew went for goal with the free kick, smashing a dipping effort narrowly past the post. The game was broken up after an innocuous-looking clash between Higgins and Wilson in the box, the latter receiving lengthy on-field treatment. However, the Pink & Blues weren’t put off by the impromptu delay; in the eighty-second minute, mere moments after play had resumed, Hamlet substitute Luke Wanadio won a corner which defender Terrell Forbes nearly nodded into the net – his goal-bound header was smashed away by a combination of Hughes and Rocks’ defender Tom Stephen.

Then, in the ninetieth minute, Hamlet looked to have won it. Wanadio played a ball to Benjamin in a dangerous position just inside the United area; the luckless Wood steamed in with a tackle, getting nothing of the ball and all of the man – penalty. Carew stepped up again, went the same way and got exactly the same result. Three-two to the Pink & Blues, and the turnaround appeared complete.

Regrettably for the home side, they stuttered in injury time; those seemingly distant first-half nerves crept up on them once more. It was five agonising minutes after Carew’s second penalty when the defence allowed Rocks’ substitute Ross Parmenter an absolute age on the ball; from twelve yards, he pinged an angled shot past Wilson to deny Hamlet the win.

It was mixed emotions for both sides at full time; mistakes defined the match. The Rabble were ebullient as always at the final whistle, but their side’s confidence has a way to go yet; with six league fixtures left before play offs, the clock’s ticking.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 3 East Thurrock United 3.
My MoM: Mitchell Gilbey (East Thurrock United); took his two goals really well and played a part in the build up to Parmenter’s strike.
Best fans: Hamlet fans. Always über. Also, hosted the Football Beyond Borders charity afterward. Check them out.

Thurrock around the clock

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

The Belgians are coming

The game: Enfield Town v. Leatherhead.
The ground: the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium.
The conditions: het was koud!

‘Goedemorgen, Enfield!’ That was the cry that could (probably) be heard all through EN1 on Saturday morning. Arriving at the QEII early on a bracing day in North London, a large group of Belgian football fans got an atmosphere going long before a player had set foot on the pitch. These were supporters of YB SK Beveren, fans of a lower-league club from East Flanders and – ever since their fateful meeting in the 2013 Supporters Direct Cup – firm friends of Towners everywhere.

Having crossed the Channel solely for the purpose of renewing amicable ties with their English counterparts, the Beveren fans were ready for revelry; with the Butler’s Bar open early, beer flowing freely and a hog roast in the main stand, they were welcomed with open arms by their hosts. Indeed, it was only after a good deal of hearty singing and happy reminiscing that thoughts started to turn toward the possibility of watching some mid-afternoon football.

In addition to their Belgian visitors, Town were also hosting the ‘Tanners’ of Leatherhead in a mid-table match up of serious importance for both sides’ late play off pushes. While Enfield’s inconsistent flair had kept them in the hunt for a pop at promotion, the away side topped the Ryman League form table going into the game and had been steadily accruing points for some time. A win for either team might put an end to the other’s ambitions; this was certainly as big an occasion on the pitch as it was off it.

The play was pretty average at the start; the first ten minutes were notable only for a pair of unusually early bookings, one to Leatherhead striker Carl Rook for a remarkably late challenge on Mark Kirby, the other to Claudio Vilcu for booting Rook round the ear in retaliation. Nevertheless, as the sides tried to find their feet, the noise from the sidelines grew more and more ear-splitting; with the sound of ‘Enfield, everybody!’ and the mad swirling of specially prepared half scarves bidding them on from behind the away goal, the Town players suddenly seemed inspired.

First, in the twelfth minute, Aryan Tajbakhsh played a great ball through to Corey Whitely. Effortlessly rolling his marker out on the right, Enfield’s number nine got a low shot away at goal; there wasn’t enough power in this, however, and Leatherhead keeper Louis Wells saved and held. Five minutes later, Tajbakhsh dragged skilfully past an opponent before unleashing Jordan Lockie on the same flank. Receiving a good return pass, Enfield’s eight flicked the ball up on the edge of the box and volleyed just wide.

In the twenty-first, Tajbakhsh played a short free kick to Bobby Devyne on the left of the Leatherhead area; holding the ball up well, Devyne then teed up Stanley Muguo to blast well over the bar. Moments later, Whitely won a free kick on the right. Pumped in perfectly by Ryan Doyle, this fell to Kirby five yards out; belting at goal, the Town defender saw his shot frantically blocked.

Town were well on top by this point, while the Beveren-Enfield faithful kept roaring them on. Leatherhead did carve out a chance in the twenty-sixth minute, fall back Becka Kah Dembele curling over from twenty yards. Still, Enfield came straight back at them. After Muguo had battled to win a corner, Tajbakhsh’s half-cleared delivery fell to Whitely almost on the penalty spot. His fierce shot at goal was pushed out by Wells, before Vilcu scuffed his follow up from five yards into the away keeper’s grateful grasp.

Not long after that, Whitely was presented with two golden opportunities. In the thirty-third minute, after the irrepressible Tajbakhsh had flicked the ball nonchalantly over Leatherhead’s Matt Smart and played a flighted ball straight to him on the left, he cut inside before smashing straight at Wells; despite an initial fumble, this was batted away at the second attempt. A minute later, a deflected Devyne shot came to Whitely twenty yards out. Picking out the top right corner, he was only denied by another Wells save; this time the Tanners’ stopper had to dive at full stretch to palm the ball away – just.

With Whitely and Devyne having several more efforts saved before the break, Leatherhead might have felt lucky to still be in the game. Even so, they did create the last chance of the half, and it was a good one. Out of nothing, a free kick delivery found forward Vasieleious Karagiannis unmarked five yards out. Only home keeper Nathan McDonald’s brave decision to fling his face in front of Karagiannis’ shot stopped Town from going behind on the stroke of half time, well against the run of play.

This scare definitely didn’t dampen half-time spirits. Eating my tasty hog bap in the bustling bar, brushed by still-spinning scarves and buffeted by tuneful strains in both English and Flemish, it was hard not to get caught up in the jubilant mood. I mean, it was a really tasty hog bap.

Once everyone was reassembled behind the goal, the game recommenced. Just as I was musing that, despite their dominant first half, Enfield could do with improving their finishing, a dinked ball from the kick off saw Corey Whitely ghost in behind the sleeping Leatherhead defence and roll past Wells for an instant breakthrough goal.

Naturally, this was the cue for beer-stained shirts to start whirling about amongst the scarves; Towners and Beveren fans alike bounded about, kit half off, in complete and utter euphoria. After ten minutes of Enfield pressure, it then got even better for them. With Devyne afforded a huge amount of space in the middle of the pitch, he ran at the Tanners’ back four before slipping Whitely through once more. Sprinting into the area, he was clearly tripped by Leatherhead’s Jerry Nnamani. Penalty to Enfield. Scenes.

Facing up to a building wall of noise, Ryan Doyle stepped up. Giving Wells the eyes, he tucked home before leaping into the now-screaming crowd in appreciation; eventually extricated by his teammates, Doyle then proceeded to pour the entirety of a fan’s pint over his head – gurning with mild insanity as he did so, this felt like an appropriate tribute to the support.

In the sixty-eighth minute, Leatherhead saw another of their rare chances go begging; Karagiannis worked himself into a position to shoot on the left, but McDonald patted his strike down calmly before collecting. Once more, Town straightaway made an opportunity at the other end of the pitch. Tajbakhsh set Whitely off on the left, received another return ball, saw his shot from five yards blocked and then watched on as the sumptuous move ended with Doyle’s strike cleared off the line by Tanners’ defender Adam Green. That should really have been the end of it.

Happily for the Towners and their guests, they didn’t have long to wait before the game was effectively finished as a contest. After another five minutes, Bobby Devyne received the ball on the left, ran thirty yards unchallenged, cut inside and slotted home. In the prolonged madness that ensued, I barely even noticed Leatherhead’s Kiernan Hughes-Mason receiving his marching orders.

A few minutes before time, Paul Semakula pulled one back for the visitors after a bit of defensive complacency from Town; the loss of the clean sheet must have annoyed McDonald considerably after such a strong display, but the result was never under threat. It ended with an excellent three-one win for Town and, as the Enfield-Beveren fans rejoiced, Bradley Quinton brought his players over to gratefully salute what was surely the crowd of the season. Enfield might just make those play offs yet; whether the season is extended or not, this game was one to remember.

Result: Enfield Town 3 Leatherhead 1.
My MoM: Corey Whitely was outstanding, scoring the first and winning the penalty for the second. Nonetheless, Aryan Tajbakhsh is my man of the match; his creativity was at the centre of almost every successful Enfield attack.
Best fans: Beveren fans. Loved in North London. The undisputed pride of the Belgian Fourth Provincial League.

The Belgians are coming

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?