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.

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Police, Police, Police, let me get what I want

Draw and order

The game: Dulwich Hamlet v. Metropolitan Police.
The ground: Champion Hill.
The conditions: sunny and temperate; even more like Tuscany than usual.

I awoke, and the day had finally arrived. This was the day of my pilgrimage, my philosophical journey, my spiritual awakening. This was the day that I voyaged to The Vale, to the home of Wealdstone Football Club, to the temple of the man who brought the joy of non-league football to so many. Indeed, this was the day I walked the same hallowed terraces as that very man. This was the day I encountered the Wealdstone Raider.

Or that’s what I thought, at least. As I rattled down the Metropolitan Line, I just so happened to check my ageing smartphone for match updates; there, on my clunking Twitter app, was some information that panicked me to the core – the match at The Vale was postponed! The referee had declared a lack of bounce in the pitch, apparently. Digging the end of his pogo stick out of the damp earth, he had then called the game off.

Leaping out of the train doors at Finchley Road station, I did the only thing I could do; I jogged over to the Jubilee Line platform and, one tube ride and an overground jaunt later, I arrived at East Dulwich. It was the first time I had seen Champion Hill by daylight, and it looked quite resplendent in the sun. With free entry for LGBT fans and an itinerant group of Clapton Ultras also in attendance, I certainly wasn’t the only one enjoying the unseasonal weather in south-east London; an eventual crowd of 1,459 inspired a (strictly independent, anti-corporate) festival vibe.

After a few adverse results for both, this was a league fixture that neither Hamlet nor the visiting Met Police could afford to lose; despite the thirteen-point gap in third-placed Hamlet’s favour, the Met had four games in hand on the Pink & Blues. It was no surprise that the start of the match was a little cagey, then; though the away side were quite obliging in terms of possession, the opening twenty minutes were unusually disjointed from the home side; no tangible chances were created by either team.

In the twenty-third minute, the visitors carved out the first opportunity. From a free kick on the left, the Met’s Charlie Collins sent a gorgeous, curving delivery into the box; forward Joe Turner got his head to this, but nodded just wide of the post. Three minutes later, another Met free kick was allowed to bobble around in the area, only to be cleared wildly at the last moment; the away side clearly fancied themselves from the set piece, while Hamlet needed to improve at defending the aerial ball.

In the thirtieth minute, great running from Luke Wanadio gave Pink & Blues’ striker Tom Derry a chance; receiving the ball in the Met box with his back to goal, he pivoted and smashed a shot over the crossbar. Then, in the thirty-third, Hamlet won a free kick of their own. Twenty-five yards from goal, this was sized up by Ashley Carew; he struck his shot well, but it was saved and held by stand-in away keeper Craig King.

The Met soon had a couple more set-piece opportunities, defender Steve Sutherland and attacker Elliot Taylor heading narrowly over in quick succession. In the meantime, Hamlet gradually began to take control of open play; Wanadio and overlapping full back Michael Abnett terrorised the right wing on several occasions, not least in the forty-first minute when the former set up Jack Dixon to lash a strike toward the left side of the net – this was kept out by King at full stretch.

After a couple of half chances for Wanadio and Hamlet midfielder Jordan Hibbert, the first half came to a close at nil-nil. Hamlet had found their rhythm somewhat but, with the Met a perpetual threat from dead ball situations, the game was still very much in the balance; fifteen minutes and one trip to the Champion Hill burger stand sped by, then it was time to see whether either team could tip the scales in their favour.

Wanadio started the second half by straightaway tormenting the opposition; in the fifty-first minute, an agile run on the right and a couple of mesmeric step overs saw him come close to assisting Harry Ottaway, only for the final ball to be cut out. In addition to his attacking flair, the Pink & Blues’ number seven pinched the ball back from the Met’s midfield at every given opportunity. He was certainly giving it everything.

All the same, a patchy period of play ensued. Clearly looking to up his side’s tempo, Hamlet manager Gavin Rose completely changed his front line; Xavier Vidal, Dean McDonald and Albert Jarrett came on, while Ottaway, Derry and Wanadio went off. If I was disappointed to see the last of those leave the field, I certainly wasn’t let down by his replacement. Jarrett’s first act was to scamper away on the left before teeing up Vidal just outside the box; though the latter’s shot was saved by Craig King, Rose’s substitutions were already paying attacking dividends.

In the seventy-third minute, a cross from Charlie Collins was nearly turned into the home goal; Hamlet keeper Phil Wilson did well to save this low to his left. After this, the Pink & Blues went all out. Ten minutes of possession and half chances saw the pressure build on the Met. Then, in the eighty-fifth minute, Jarrett won a central free kick in an ideal position twenty yards out. Once more, Ashley Carew sized the ball up. Once more, he failed to score; this time his fizzing strike went just wide.

Three minutes later, Carew found himself in space on the left. Slashing the ball across the area, he found Vidal at the back post; the striker’s point-blank header was stopped by a reflex save from King, who then frenziedly scrabbled the ball out to safety. A flurry of corners ensued, several of which went equally close to winning it for the home side. In the end, however, none of them found the back of the Met net.

Hamlet had probably played the better football, but the visitors were good for the draw; nobody seemed too displeased with the result. Personally, I was just happy to watch a game. On a suitably bouncy pitch, of course.

Result: Dulwich Hamlet 0 Metropolitan Police 0.
My MoM: Luke Wanadio. Stick a step over in your pipe and smoke it, Ryman League!
Best fans: Hamlet (and Clapton) fans. Turned up in numbers. Brought rainbow flags. Chanted at the police. A few Welsh miners and it could have been the final scene of Pride.

Draw and order