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.

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Saint nobody got time for that

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