It’s hard to fully put into words my excitement at the prospect of a week full of step three and four playoff games. My experience of playoff games, to this point, is limited to one game at the Boleyn Ground in 2012 when West Ham, enjoying happier times, were making their way back into the Premier League. Realistically, I could manage two midweek semi-finals and two of the bank holiday weekend finals without leaving my wife at the mercy of our 10 week old daughter for too long.
My options were plentiful. At least one side I’d visited during the season made it into the playoffs in each division. With the exception of Canvey Island they were all also at home meaning I had the comfort of knowing my journey time.
I was particularly lucky in the South Division. Greenwich were the only club I’d visited this season. They just about hung on to fourth place ensuring I could return to the DGS Stadium, or Badger Sports Ground as it’s also known, for my first playoff game of the week. I’m going to stick with the Badgers name as I grew up in the West Country, and Badgers are sacred to us. One once knocked a school friend of mine from his bike and another reared up in front of a car I was in. I swear it was over six feet tall - stories for another time though.
Lightning, it seems, can strike twice in the same place!
Research was limited in preparation for the game, as I’d visited Borough before. I saw them lose a competitive game with Carshalton, 1-2 in November. At the time it seemed like a disappointing result for the home side, but as we know now Carshalton went on to win the league. Manager Gary Alexander left shortly after that game and effectively swapped roles with Paul Barnes who joined Borough from Ashford. It felt like the club could fade from their top six position, but Barnes steadied the ship and ensured Greenwich began their playoff campaign at home. It would be somewhat of a reunion with Corinthian-Casuals as they met at the same venue at the same stage last season. Casuals triumphed 4-3 on that occasion, before losing the final to Dorking Wanderers.
I arrived at ‘Badgers’ fairly early but still too late to secure a parking space. A friendly steward gestured that I should try further down the road. I replied with gestures of my own to indicate that it was a shame the car park was full, but thanks for the tip. Our ability to communicate via facial expressions and hand signals is amazing isn’t it? A space was easily sourced on Eltham Palace Road and the same steward provided me with a cheery vocal greeting as I strolled in. I later saw him comforting an upset young girl outside of the ground. I’m not sure if her sorrow was related to the game, but the steward should be commended for his commitment to the matchday experience.
The mood around the ground seemed to be very positive with perhaps a hint of expectation in the air. Greenwich couldn’t possibly lose two home semi-finals in a row to the same team, could they? The expectation masked the unfortunate reality that there was actually very little between the two sides. They finished the league campaign on the same points total, with the same amount of goals conceded. Greenwich’s home advantage came down to them scoring 13 more goals. These goals had largely come from Jack Barham, the league’s top scorer, who joined Greenwich from Phoenix Sports during the season and has had trials at Millwall and Cambridge.
Recent form was an issue, however, for the home side. Borough had rather limped over the line for a home playoff. They only recorded one win in April; a 2-1 victory at Ashford, Paul Barnes’ old club of course. Casuals’ form had been equally patchy. They had a solitary 5-0 thrashing of Guernsey to show in their wins column for April. I positioned myself behind the goal for the tail end of the warm up. The Greenwich players seemed relaxed and focused ahead of kick-off. Nothing to fear here it seemed.
Greenwich consider whether they've been put under a Casuals curse!
I wandered round to my usual position between the edge of the centre circle and the penalty area being attacked by the team I was lending my support to for the day. A small degree of squeezing was required in amongst a crowd of 375, slightly less than the same fixture last season. One of the 375, in the small seated section was Leyton Orient manager Justin Edinburgh. A quick look at his rap sheet, shows no clear link with either club. Maybe he loves non-league football as much as me, perhaps he has a friend at either club or maybe he was watching someone. A wet behind the ears blogger, who lives local to Orient, to call up to the National League club’s media team perhaps? Probably not.
On paper Barham was the standout player and most likely potential target for Edinburgh. The prolific striker could follow in the footsteps of Ian Wright, and Mo Eisa who signed for Cheltenham from Greenwich last summer. There are others on both sides, however, who could potentially catch his eye. The programme suggested Odunaike, Antonio and Ottaway could be opposition players to watch out for.
As the game got under way Greenwich choose to play up the slight ‘Badgers’ slope. I say ‘slight’ as I played Amateur football for 10 years and have run up and down many steeper versions. At this level, however, it’s one of the most notable I’ve seen. Borough applied some pressure from the outset but the visitors soon chanced upon a weakness. A long ball from Mu Mann found Odunaike one-on-one with McEntegart. The keeper pulled off a great save but when Odunaike got a touch to the rebound he was fouled. Penalty. Uzun stepped up and gave Casuals the lead.
The visitors now looked threatening everytime they got the ball behind the home defence. Dembele and McLean had a couple of attempts for the hosts, but Casuals soon doubled their advantage. Another long ball found Odunaike through on goal, and this time the forward finished. It was a tough blow to take for Greenwich. They’d had most of the possession in the first half but were struggling to fashion many clear chances.
Greenwich made a tactical switch at half time and brought on Omari Hibbert, and continued to push forward. However just as it looked like they might put up a fight they gifted the ball to Odunaike who scored his second- Casuals third- of the game. The contest was as good as over even though Greenwich continued to have a lot of the ball. Travis Gregory had a couple of promising runs and Barham worked tirelessly, but the home side struggled to test the Casuals keeper. Junior Aikhionbare was sent off for the home side late on as tensions bubbled over, but Corinthian-Casuals maintained their three goal lead and won a deserved victory.
A second successive semi-final defeat to the same side may be hard to take for Borough. They bounced back well last season and will hope to do the same again in the next campaign. Corinthian-Casuals will be at home against the other Casuals, from Walton, in the final. Walton shocked Cray Wanderers in the other semi-final to ensure a team of Casuals from Surrey would be in the Bostik Premier Division next season. For me it’s off to Haringey Borough next for their semi-final with Heybridge. The North Division playoffs look equally as competitive as the South, so it should be another eventful evening.
Take a look at Louis' other work at his website, here. It has a fairly Bostik flavour, but also features a number of sides who may either end up in our League or have been here before.