Playoff defeats have become something of a Dulwich Hamlet speciality. And yet, despite that, there was an optimism amongst most of those in pink and blue before kick off at Imperial Fields this afternoon; a belief that, despite pain that could be easily recalled, this was indeed their year. What had changed? Well it may have been the professional way that Hamlet defeated Leiston in the Semi-Final on Thursday night, or it may have been the way they kept pace with cash-rich Billericay Town in the Bostik Premier Division for almost all of this season. It might even have been the fact that this season’s tally of 95 points would have been enough for automatic promotion in five out of the last ten years (and they’d have lost out only on goal difference in 2015-16).
Or it might have been just the innate positivity that seems to come with being a Dulwich Hamlet fan. There may be an element of “if you don’t laugh, you cry” in that mentality, but the happy force was definitely strong in this lot.
Imperial Fields at a quarter to three probably had enough positive energy around, in fact, that if we’d been able to bottle it we could even have persuaded Donald Trump that there was some goodness in the world. It was as if the Summer of Love had arrived as pink and green clad fans soaked up the sunshine, enjoyed the beer and the burgers, and sang happy songs. Green because the hordes of Hendon had also arrived with a song in their hearts and a glazed but happy expression. Last season they escaped relegation by a whisker. This season they’ve been at the right end of the table for almost the entire campaign, and on Thursday night absolutely demolished Folkestone Invicta in their Semi-Final, walloping four goals before half time at Silver Jubilee Park as the Invicta party went entirely flat. Hendon had every right to be confident- their last four games had resulted in victory, and amongst that run they’d not only defeated Invicta but playoff rivals Leiston and Leatherhead. Given that Hamlet has also defeated the same three sides during the last month the outcome of today’s game seemed difficult to predict.
Purveyors of all things pink
The bookmakers had Hamlet as favourites, but then they hadn’t been listening before Thursday’s match as a number of Hamlet fans had explained how they would prefer Invicta in the final because “Hendon know how to play us.” The Greens had taken four points from their earlier encounters this season. This could well be rather close.
Somewhere that isn’t rather close, by the way, is Fife. The distance from the region to Mitcham is approximately five hundred miles, and although they hadn’t walked to the final the Fox clan had driven the distance to take in the game- for the second time in four days. On Thursday they’d driven down to Hendon, watched the match, immediately driven back and then gone straight to work. Whilst football fans often take dedication to whole new levels, a thousand miles by road in twenty four hours is at a level all of its own.
Head of the clan, Mick, then explained that it wasn’t just two trips in four days, it was three in nine- and that, once more, they all had to return to work the following day!
Resplendent in their tartan, Mick, Callum, Kieran and Kieran seemed remarkably fresh for people who seem to spend most of their life on the road- although perhaps the cider they had queued fifteen minutes for helped a little. They were also full of confidence, singling out the quality of the Hendon front four, the work done by manager Gary McCann, and their hopes for the future. Billericay at home- a 4-1 victory, was named as a season highlight, “but really the entire season has been a highlight. And if we can keep the squad together next year we’ll do well whichever league we’re in. Although obviously, we’ll be in the National League!”
There was a worry, however, that striker Niko Muir may be elsewhere whatever happened. “He’s too good for this level, or the next. We might struggle to hold onto him. But we’ve got a really young squad, so we’ll get even better in the future.”
Jools of Hamlet
Hamlet fan Jools bucked a trend by explaining that he was “never confident- I’m used to things not working out. But I am hopeful!” He felt that the game would be close, that “the pitch will be a great leveller” (it certainly isn’t short of bumps) and worried a little about the opposition. A Hamlet fan for three years, turning from the dark side (Sunderland) to the pink and blues when moving in three doors from Champion Hill, he’d had to make a longer journey today than he would have liked (although not quite five hundred miles). Asked for a prediction, he pondered for a moment, considered refusing to make one, then plumped for a 3-1 win for the home side, making the sign for three-one in the photograph he posed for. Two minutes later he came back.
“Can I do the photograph again? I’m not sure I should have done the three-one sign; I might jinx it.”
The players emerged to a wall of noise at five to three, and after a minute of heartfelt applause in memory of AFC Hornchurch secretary Pete Butcher Hamlet got the match started. The first chance of note, however, came to their green opponents in the second minute, Zak Joseph and Ashley Nathaniel-George combining to earn a corner, which was followed by a long throw, which was followed by another corner. The second corner was crossed for Josh Walker to head around twelve yards out, but the ball whizzed harmlessly past the post.
Hamlet’s first real chance came in the ninth minute, and it was a thing of beauty, three passes cutting through the Hendon defence and leaving Reise Allassani with time to pick his spot. He found Tom Lovelock his equal, however, the Hendon stopper pulling off a superb save. This heralded a spell of pink pressure, and a corner which Nathan Green won on his own, twisting and turning before his cross was blocked, but there was no end product and Hendon were able to regain their composure.
The Fife Fox's
Allassani was the brightest player on the pitch. Shrugging off the intense heat he was tearing around the final third, tormenting the green back four when he had the ball, worrying them with his pace when he didn’t. In the seventeenth minute he escaped the attentions of his marker, cut inside and fired a shot which was desperately hacked clear. Another Hamlet attack, and a foul by Oliver Sprague on Gavin Tomlin gave the home side a free kick near the right touchline, ten yards out. Ash Carew fired the ball in, but once more it was cleared, and the scoresheet remained blank.
By the way, it was announced that ticket 666 won the prize draw. Who said that the devil has all the luck?
In the 27th minute Allassani again got ahead of the Hendon defence, but a last ditch tackle saved the goal at the expense of a corner. Hamlet were creating by far the lions share of the chances, yet had still troubled Lovelock only once. Allassani got the next chance, too, combining with Nyren Clunis to have a shot which was deflected for yet another corner kick. Once more, nothing came of the set piece.
Hamlet had dominated much of the match, and in the 36th minute the opening we’d been waiting for finally arrived. Surprisingly, at the other end.
The Hamlet army
Ashley Nathaniel-George had looked lively throughout, and when he got the ball at the edge of the box sirens should have sounded in the Hamlet defence. Instead he was able to make himself space and fire the ball into the bottom corner, beyond Amadou Tangara’s despairing dive. The green hordes celebrated, and Hamlet looked rather shellshocked, going on to concede two corners in quick succession as Hendon grew in confidence. Suddenly the pink and blue end were quieter, the green end in full voice. Two minutes before half time the nimble feet of the goalscorer almost fashioned a second, but this time Tangara was able to push it wide.
The half ended with Hendon on the attack, but no further score. Time for Gavin Rose to reorganise his team, who suddenly looked out of sorts.
Perhaps after the endeavours of the first half it was inevitable that there would be a dip in the second; the heat was rather relentless. But it took nine minutes for the game to get going, and then Allassani woke it up, drawing an excellent save from Lovelock. The follow up was cleared off the line, but Hendon couldn’t get it away, and after it bobbled around the box Gavin Tomlin forced it home. Pandemonium! The last time that there was that much excitement in Mitcham was the day that Southern Rail actually ran a train on time. Hamlet continued to press, and three minutes later did everything but get a second, a fabulous strike from Clunis coming back of the underside of the bar. All the pressure was now pink and blue, and it was Gary McCann’s men who were looking rattled.
Hendon didn’t wilt. They patiently worked their way back into the game, and chances became few and far between. We were into the 68th minute before the next one, a shot from Carew which was easily saved. In the seventy fifth minute Hendon went down to ten men temporarily, as Casey MacClaren had to leave the field for treatment to a cut, and the midfielder had just returned to the fray when a Hamlet free kick was headed goalward by Anthony Acheampong, forcing Lovelock to touch it over. The game had slowed, punctuated with moments of great energy as both sides tried to cope with the conditions, yet it wasn’t difficult to imagine a winning goal at either end.
Applause for Peter Butcher
As we moved into the last ten minutes Hamlet readied their first change, a double, Dipo Akenyemi and Sanchez Ming waiting to come on. Before they could do so, however, Hendon came close to regaining their advantage, a drive from Maclaren touched wide by Tangara. After the corner Clunis and Tomlin left the field, and Hendon made a change too, Sam Murphy coming on for Zak Joseph. The Hendon striker looked somewhat dejected at his departure, but he could have just been exhausted.
As the fourth official confirmed four added minutes, the announcer confirmed the attendance. A magnificent 3321- a new stadium record and the best crowd of the Bostik League this season by some margin. They weren’t to see a normal time winner, sadly, and we went into extra time.
Hendon began the first period with another change. On came Daniel Uchechi, off went Josh Walker, and the Greens got the first period underway, whilst the home fans sang, waved and jumped with admirable energy. In the 98th minute, excitement. The ball reached Green at the far side of the box, and his drive came back off the post before Ming was anything but merciless, firing the rebound well wide for Dulwich. The next action came with six minutes of the match remaining, and that was a substitution, which should tell you much about the tired football we were watching by this point. On came Michael Corcoran for Hendon.
In the 116th minute Allassani somehow found some energy, and charged across the edge of the Hendon box, only for Luke Tingey to shove him over. Carew stepped up. Was this the moment? The ball cleared the wall, but was too close to Lovelock, who held. By this point we were two minutes from penalties. And then one added minute. And then the whistle blew, and we were off to the lottery.
Hendon's Green Army
The penalties were to be taken at the end inhabited by the Hamlet hordes, and it was difficult to envy Sam Murphy taking the first one for Hendon. He tucked it away, however, despite the distractions. Carew was next for Hamlet- surely the dead ball specialist would score? He didn’t disappoint. 1-1.
Oliver Sprague was next. He took what seemed like an age placing the ball, then shot down the middle, allowing Tangara to make a fairly routine save. Nathaniel-George made it advantage Hamlet.
Another Hendon sub, Corcoran, then did the same as his predecessor, and once more Tangara held. If Nathan Ferguson could score, it would be 3-1 to Hamlet- but Lovelock saved. Uchechi then made it 2-2, but it was still Hamlet with a penalty to go ahead. Acheampong made it look effortless for 3-2, and Niko Muir had to score. He did- indeed he was almost nonchalant.
So up stepped Dipo Akenyemi. If he scored…he did! Hamlet were promoted, and Akenyemi disappeared under around 1500 home supporters.
Spot the freeloaders (and dog)!
On Thursday night Hamlet press officer Tom spoke about the Hollywood moment- Hamlet attaining promotion after all that had happened to the club this season. Perhaps the real Hollywood ending, however, as in all good movies, will come when the evil villain is vanquished. On that basis, look out Meadow. The Hamlet boys are on the march!