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.