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

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?

Saint nobody got time for that

The game: St Albans City v. Wealdstone.
The ground: Clarence Park.
The conditions: drab and soggy; just the way I like my wholemeal breakfast muffins.

St Albans is a place of history. It has Roman ruins. It has a grand old cathedral. It has several converted former hat-making factories, remnants of its past as a prominent hub for hat making. More importantly, it hosts a venerable non-league football club and an equally venerable non-league ground.

Clarence Park, the ground in question, was packed to its leafy perimeter for Saturday’s bout between the ‘Saints’ of St Albans City and the ‘Stones’ of Wealdstone FC. Though this might have looked like a mid-table fixture at first glance, neither side was comfortably clear of the Conference South drop zone at the start of play; the incentive of climbing the table combined with the two sides’ own history – this was the Stones’ first visit to Clarence Park since 1971 – made this a very intriguing match up indeed.

Things got interesting on the pitch after only a couple of minutes. I was still making my way to a suitable spot on the terraces when Wealdstone won a quick corner. The initial delivery in was cleared, but only as far as the Stones’ veteran striker Jefferson Louis; peeling away from his marker, he then drove a shot across goal and into the top right corner of the net.

The Saints barely touched the ball for the next ten minutes; stunned by conceding so early on, they could have let the game slip away before it had even begun in earnest. As the Wealdstone fans sang jubilantly on the sidelines, a sweet free kick into the City area gave visiting defender Tom Hamblin a free header at goal – this was saved and held by home keeper Joe Welch – before Stones forward Scott Davies fired just over the crossbar.

City urgently needed to kick themselves into gear; to their credit, they soon did. In the thirteenth minute, Saints defender Howard Hall jinked his way past several Wealdstone players before setting up Jamal Lowe twelve yards out; his thumping hit toward the top right was almost identical to that of the opening goal, bar the fact that Stones keeper Luke Chambers made a diving, fingertip save to keep it out. This chance seemed to galvanise the home side, who started to play some free-flowing football. The pitch was damp, Wealdstone were hardy, but City got into their stride regardless; Sam Corcoran and John Frendo combined well, both getting shots away at goal, while Jamal Lowe was especially lively in attack.

In the twenty-fifth minute, the Saints had the ball in the back of the net. Frendo won a free kick out on the right and the resulting delivery was nodded down for defender James Kaloczi to toe-poke in; unfortunately for the home side, Kaloczi was narrowly offside. A minute later, Corcoran side-footed agonisingly wide from ten yards having been teed up by full back Lee Chappell; this was a golden opportunity, one which should have seen the resurgent Saints go level.

The home team had more opportunities to come. In the twenty-ninth minute Frendo worked the ball to Lowe out on the left; the Saints’ attacker cut inside before putting his curling shot inches too high. Moments later, a City long-throw routine forced Wealdstone’s Wes Parker to nod just wide of his own post. The home pressure seemed to be unrelenting.

In what was becoming a topsy-turvy affair, the Stones then forcefully regained the momentum and retained it until the break. Louis had a couple of good attempts at goal, but the best chance of this period fell for Davies. In the forty-first minute, having whipped in a Wealdstone corner himself, a partial home clearance came back to him as he sprinted toward the edge of the box; his low shot at goal was pushed back into the danger area by Welch, before City’s Michael Malcolm hoofed the ball away. The two sides seemed understandably breathless after all this ebb and flow. The first half came to a close with Wealdstone leading one-nil but, considering the number of chances St Albans had created, the game was certainly still up for grabs.

Once the local kids’ teams had cleared the pitch (some of their shooting practise put me, as a grown man, to shame), the sides were back out and ready to go once more. Early strikes were exchanged in a sign of more to and fro to come, Louis firing right across goal after a Wealdstone surge and Corcoran forcing Luke Chambers into another excellent save at the other end. Then, suddenly, it seemed as if the away side had snatched it. Charging up his favoured flank in the fifty-fourth minute, Wealdstone left back Ryan Watts sent a long cross looping over the Saints’ area; this was headed back toward goal by teammate Jonny Wright, before falling perfectly for Louis to twist and blast a rising shot past the helpless home keeper and in. Two-nil to Wealdstone. But not for long.

Five minutes later, St Albans finally got a goal. Out of nowhere, substitute and debutant Jake Nicholson popped up on the Wealdstone left and got a shot on target; this was deflected straight to Frendo, who stuck out a leg and tucked the ball away. The manner of the goal was fortuitous, but the scoreline now better reflected the character of the game; the home side would surely do everything to get their equaliser.

In the sixty-first, Lowe won the Saints a corner after some sharp running; this was whipped right onto Darren Locke’s head, but the home defender could only power the ball over. Not long afterward, the confident Nicholson snapped a free kick toward the top left corner; once again, Luke Chambers was there to stop it.

After this, the game was rather inopportunely broken up by a lengthy injury to the referee; as he clutched his hamstring to gleeful cries of ‘Off! Off! Off!’ from both sets of fans, I couldn’t help but pity the prone official. The Wealdstone supporters, noisy all game, took the lull as an opportunity to divide into two groups and then chant raucously at each other. I definitely admired this as an inventive way to pass the time.

The referee recovered, and the game continued. Extra time was guaranteed, but the home side seemed impatient nonetheless; pouring forward, they encamped themselves around the Wealdstone box for a prolonged stint. This impatience was, in the end, their decisive undoing. Breaking away on the counterattack, Jefferson Louis outpaced the entire City team, racing away down the right wing while resisting Omar Beckles’ ragged attempts to dispossess him; arriving at the byline, the Stones’ striker cut a tidy pass back into the Saints’ box for Scott Davies to slot home and make it three-one.

St Albans did have chances after this, but it was too late to cut a two-goal deficit; efforts from Corcoran, Nicholson and fellow substitute Jack Green went close but the game had turned conclusively Wealdstone’s way. The match was closer than the final score would suggest, yet the Saints weren’t able to pull off a miracle on the day; the winners, meanwhile, will be happy to have made another historic Conference South season more likely.

Result: St Albans City 1 Wealdstone 3.
My MoM: Jefferson Louis. Two goals and an assist at thirty-six years of age. Showing the kids how it’s done.
Best fans: the Stones. Brought two lots of fans. All they care about is Wealdstone FC.

Saint nobody got time for that