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?

You win some, you Lewes some

The game: Wingate & Finchley v. Lewes.
The ground: The Harry Abrahams Stadium.
The conditions: brighter than my citrus wallpaper.

As the afternoon sunlight poured through the windowed sides of The Harry Abrahams Stadium’s grandstand, I settled down to watch the ‘Blues’ of Wingate & Finchley face off against the ‘Rooks’ of Lewes. The away side may have won the last six meetings between the two, yet the home crowd had reason to be confident at kick off; with Finchley seventh in the table and Lewes eighteenth, the Blues seemed well positioned to turn their fortunes in this fixture around.

The game started slowly. In the second minute, Lewes were given the first opportunity of the match with a promising free kick from twenty yards; this was fired high over the crossbar and onto the rugby pitches behind the home net. Both teams spent the next fifteen minutes trying to find their feet; Karl Oliyide made some loping runs for the Blues as teammates David Knight and Richard Graham combined well on the right wing, but there was little end product; Lewes looked less threatening, but had the majority of the possession. After nineteen minutes, there had been no saves for either keeper to make. In the twentieth minute, there was a goal.

A clipped midfield pass put Knight through on goal; the Blues’ forward then ran thirty yards to the opposition box and, though the Lewes defence managed to force him out right, he slipped a precise shot in at the near post. Rooks’ keeper Rikki Banks got something on it, and probably should have kept it out; nevertheless, Knight did well to get the shot on target, and got his reward.

With the home team ahead, the pace of the game improved considerably. In the twenty-first minute, Oliyide was sent lolloping away into the box after some good home passing; his thumping drive at goal was just blocked by Lewes’ defender Chris Breach. Snappish tackles started going in all over the pitch, while Finchley’s final ball rapidly improved; in the twenty-seventh, a tantalising Knight cross nearly found the Blues’ number nine, Rob Laney, unmarked, only to be cleared by the faintest of touches from the covering defender. Lewes were not playing badly on the ball, yet they created very little; the away team lacked a cutting edge, their forward line especially. Finchley were far more incisive, Knight, Oliyide and attacker Tommy Tejan-Sie all combining nicely. After a few wayward shots from Knight, they were rewarded once more.

In the thirty-fifth minute, after Oliyide had won the ball back from Lewes in the Blues’ half, some good pass-and-move football led to a quick home counter attack on the left. The Rooks’ defence was caught cold and, after a keen pass from left to right found the oncoming Oliyide in space ten yards out, the Blues’ eleven calmly fired the ball back across Banks and into the top left. This was by far the best move of the game, and deserved the impressive finish. Since Oliyide was to come off only four minutes later having suffered a knock, it also signalled his last contribution of the match; not a bad way to bow out.

Tejan-Sie had a low shot saved by Banks not long after, while the Blues continued to make progress on the right flank; Lewes seemed to be floundering in the minutes before half time. The home side couldn’t take further advantage, however; two-nil at the half, and it was time for a non-alcoholic beverage in ‘The Wingate’.

The start of the second half was much the same as the start of the first; bar a few testing crosses, neither team made much happen. In the fifty-fifth minute, Rob Laney hit a skimming shot at Banks, but the away keeper collected this up safely. In the fifty-seventh, Knight fired a shot just over Banks’ crossbar; again, the pace was picking up. The home side were not satisfied with a two-goal lead, continuing with their direct attacking play. Likewise, Lewes were still muted in attack; substitute Arron Hopkinson did provide some fleeting threat with several good runs down the left flank, but no real chances were carved out.

In the sixty-second minute, Finchley should have been three-nil up. Some tricky running by Knight tormented the Lewes defenders; having sped twenty five yards to the opposition by-line, his dangerous cross was then cleared for a corner. This was played short to Tejan-Sie, who turned in the box and hammered the ball into the net. Celebrations ensued amongst Blues fans and players alike, yet the linesman had raised his flag; after some deliberation between officials, the goal was disallowed for offside. To put it bluntly, this was a ridiculous decision. Tejan-Sie’s onside position was clear to everyone in the ground bar the referee and linesman, and especially clear to the irate Finchley Ultras – one of whom could only express his rage by a distinct cry of ‘LOUD NOISES!’

Happily for the home support, this mistake did not affect the result. The game turned a bit tense after this, snappish tackles becoming snappish fouls; Rooks’ defender Ollie Rowe scythed down Tejan-Sie with particular aplomb at in the sixty-ninth, but no card was produced. The last twenty minutes saw Lewes ramp up possession, but their lack of creativity continued. Meanwhile, the Blues remained incisive; several one on ones were carved out, but the third goal eluded them.

In the eighty-sixth minute, there was almost a spectacular home finish to the game; Knight raced down the left flank before his accurate cross fell to Laney, who attempted an ambitious overhead kick. This was strong and on target; it may well have gone in were it not for a brave block from Lewes’ defender Sam Cole – using his face. After this painful-looking incident, Knight and substitute Gavin Suddell almost managed to pass the ball into the Rooks’ net, but Banks kept them out. Four minutes of added time then passed by quietly; the comfortable home win was complete, while the Blues’ bogey team were well beaten.

Result: Wingate & Finchley 2 Lewes 0.
My MoM: Karl Oliyide. Only on for forty-odd minutes but ran directly, scored and created opportunities; the home side’s attack wasn’t quite the same without him.
Best fans: the Finchley Ultras. ‘LOUD NOISES!’

You win some, you Lewes some

More flags than fans

The game: Hendon v. Wingate & Finchley.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: put me in mind of Keats’ ‘maturing sun’; really rather nice.

It was the weekend after Christmas, and the North London derby was about to kick off. No, not that North London derby; a ticket to that North London derby costs eighty-odd pounds which I am unwilling (and unable) to pay – even as a fan of luxury football. Rather, the far-more-reasonably-priced derby between ‘The Greens’ of Hendon and ‘The Blues’ of Wingate & Finchley was the game about to kick off; with an attendance of 337, including a vocal travelling contingent of ‘Finchley ultras’, the Earlsmead Stadium was absolutely rocking.

With the supporters in blue belting out a rowdy rendition of their anthem ‘More Flags than Fans’, the referee got the game underway. Within the first minute there was an epic scrum in the Hendon box, Finchley making their intentions clear; this was to be an ambitious away performance. Unfortunately, it was all a bit too ambitious; after a decent Finchley attack in the fifth minute, Hendon broke away and – helped by lacklustre tackling, non-existent tracking and a horrendous defensive mix-up between defender and goalkeeper – grabbed the opening goal, prolific forward Leon Smith tapping in for his first of the day.

As starts to a Premier League fan’s first Ryman League experience go, this was truly low-quality – chaotic, exhilarating, low-quality football. The game settled down a little after the goal, the main excitement over the next twenty minutes coming from the referee falling over and the ball being belted into somebody’s garden – not something I have ever seen at the Emirates, nor at White Hart Lane. Finchley recovered reasonably well from going a goal behind, slightly edging the midfield slugging match that ensued. However, on the half-hour mark, they were again undone by a lethal Hendon counterattack; with the Greens stringing together a nice passing move – quite unusual on the day – the ball was worked into the middle of the Finchley box, before Leon Smith got his brace with a high drive into the back of the net.

Understandably, the Finchley players seemed quite frustrated with the way the game was going. Following an innocuous tackle out on the right, there was a bit of old-school argy bargy between the two sets of players, accompanied by traditional shouts of ‘I’ll give it to ya’ and ‘Leave it, mate, leave it’; the referee soon calmed things down, and so the half came to a close without further incident. With the late-afternoon sun shining on the Ryman’s advertising boards and the temperature dropping, everyone then progressed to the warmth of the clubhouse bar; I was keen to get my traditional half-time mocha and dough balls but – having been informed by the barman that the Earlsmead doesn’t supply either – I went back to the pitch with a Bovril and a Twix.

Finchley came out in the second half with renewed purpose; for the first time since the opening minute they really dominated the game. This dominance was rewarded when, in the fifty-first minute, Karl Oliyide pulled one back for the visitors with by far the best individual goal of the match; having charged in from the left and toward Hendon’s goal, he curled a genuine beauty into the top-right corner. The Finchley fans went wild, flags waving in celebration. The home crowd seemed anxious. At this point it appeared to be – game on!

Unfortunately for Finchley’s comeback hopes, the game soon descended into bitter controversy. After another twenty minutes of scrapping, the Blues’ Marc Weatherstone was turned on the edge of his box by the nippy Kezie Ibe; the Finchley defender tugged at his opponent’s shirt in the area and – though Ibe attempted to play on – the foul was clear to see. The penalty was awarded, fairly. However, Weatherstone did not appear to be the last man between Ibe and the goal when the foul was committed, with another defender covering; nevertheless, the referee gave him his marching orders. The away fans howled with fury. The penalty was stuck away by Hendon’s Sam Murphy. The away fans howled louder.

Down to ten men, Finchley held on admirably. They were not helped in this endeavour by the referee’s decision to reduce them to nine men, especially since he sent off Ahmet Rifat for a really quite excellent tackle. Still Finchley avoided conceding again, despite a late flurry of chances for Hendon; spurred on by the indignant cries of the Blue Army, many of whom were openly disobeying the Earlsmead’s ‘This is a family club: please moderate your language’ signs, the game finished evenly despite the visitors’ two-man disadvantage.

Hendon fans went home happy, Finchley fans less so – even if the result was probably about right. The overall standard of football was far from luxury but, having seen four goals, two sendings off and the regurgitated results of a Bovril-and-Twix lunch, I certainly found it exciting; wandering off into the night with a gourmet meal and a nice glass of Shiraz in mind, The Luxury Fan left satisfied.

Result: Hendon 3 Wingate & Finchley 1.
My MoM: Leon Smith (Hendon); scored his team’s first two goals, but was also physical, surprisingly speedy and good on the ball.
Best fans: the Finchley ultras. Probably had more fans than flags. Refused to moderate their language.

More flags than fans