Compared to most Non-League football grounds, Imperial Fields is something of a baby. Built as recently as 2002 it has features to please both the traditionalist and those looking for modern comforts; spacious without being cavernous, with good sight lines whether you decide to sit or stand, banked and covered terraces at either end to allow for the generation of noise (and a degree of protection from the rain), a decent bar, and toilet facilities that don’t make you wonder where they’ve moved the cows too. It is, in short, almost the perfect home for a side at our level.
Sadly, however, for the majority of those at our Bostik Premier Playoff Semi-Final tonight it wasn’t home, and indeed would never be home. Don’t misunderstand that statement- every Dulwich Hamlet fan spoken to was grateful to Tooting and Mitcham United for letting them share, and many had even- whisper it- developed a grudging affection for their long time rivals because of their help and support, but it was still somebody else’s ground. Two months into an enforced groundshare they hadn’t made themselves at home. Their hankering for the ‘Toilets Opposite’ stand at Champion Hill and their anger at Landlords Meadow Residential hadn’t abated one jot; and, of course, why should it?
Still, for tonight at least and even though it was Election Day, politics took a back seat. The Playoffs were in town again, and the feeling amongst the home faithful was a fairly equal mix of excitement and trepidation.
Tom of the Hamlet
The excitement was easy to understand. A Semi-Final against fifth place Leiston, a side they defeated 3-0 when they last met two days before Christmas, and the chance of a ‘home’ Final on Monday and finally- finally- promotion to National League South would surely get any supporters’ juices flowing. The reason for the trepidation, however, might not be quite so easy for a neutral to understand- so to illustrate it let’s recount a conversation between two Hamlet fans from the first Bank Holiday Monday of May last year.
This exchange took place at Nyewood Lane, Bognor, and the match between the side in pink and blue and their green hosts had just ended. Three quarters of the ground were wrapped up in celebration, but at one end the mood was somewhat different.
“We didn’t play badly, it’s been a good season, and there’s always next year.” The glass was very much half full with this one.
“Next year? We’ll end up finishing second to bloody Billericay and then we’ll get beat in the Playoffs. We ALWAYS get beat in the Playoffs.”
It was easy to understand his pain. Prior to losing to Bognor Regis Town, Hamlet had contested the previous two Playoff campaigns, losing to East Thurrock United in one final and to Margate in a Semi-Final. The season before that they’d missed out on the Playoffs by one solitary point. If the league gave out bridesmaids dresses, they’d have a wardrobe full. But, perhaps, on this occasion they might be allowed to go on the honeymoon?
John, Gary and Ron of Leiston
Hamlet media man Tom strode the line between confident and realistic like a pink and blue colossus. “It could be our year. It would be the perfect Hollywood ending, wouldn’t it- a wonderful way to end a remarkable season. But I’m not giving you a prediction- they always go wrong!”
Asked what was more important, promotion or getting back to Champion Hill (a really stupid question, admittedly), he wanted both. “Going up would help us to attract sponsorship so that we can give the manager a competitive budget, and would really put our battle with Meadow into the public eye. But if I had to make a choice, home is more important."
Leiston supporters were easily recognisable before the match. Most of them had grins so wide they may have had a flip-top head. Their highest ever finish, and their first ever Premier Division Playoff campaign- there was every likelihood that manager Glenn Driver was about to be given the freedom of the town and the right to sell caravans on Minsmere Nature Reserve, whatever Chris Packham might say about it. A record of only two defeats in their last ten matches made them formidable opponents, and Hamlet weren’t about to take them lightly.
The achievements of Driver and his team should not be understated. This is a town of five and a half thousand people- and at Saturday’s match against Hendon almost twelve percent of them turned up to watch. When we interviewed Glenn earlier in the season and spoke about his side punching above its weight he admitted that he hated being told that- but sometimes the truth hurts! On the odd occasion that the mainstream media feature the Non-League game they tend to focus on the cash-rich or best supported sides, but Leiston have proved over the last few years that they can compete at a level much greater than the sum of their parts. Whatever happened tonight, that was a song that deserved to be sung from the rooftops.
Blues fans Ron, Gary and John were confident of a positive outcome. “We’ve had an excellent season. Well, apart from January (this was apparently John’s fault, he’d just started watching the club at that point and had brought bad luck). Jake Reed has made a big difference, and Matt Blake seems to be back to form too.”
Asked about season highlights, a number came immediately to mind. “Staines away (a 4-1 win),” said John. “Harrow Borough away,” offered Ron. “Five-nil, and their keeper was man of the match.”
“Beating Billericay,” suggested Gary, and suddenly there was an accord, and a collection of memories from that day in February, the start of Billericay’s poor run. Asked to predict the scoreline, Ron suggested a 3-1 win, Gary 2-1, and John, “a high scoring draw and we’ll win on penalties.” “See you at the final,” was their parting shot.
As the teams came out the Hamlet fans launched into song and displayed a riot of colour behind the right hand goal. The away fans decided to stand along the touchline initially, as close as possible to the bar. That, we can assure you, was entirely coincidental. Gavin Tomlin got proceedings underway for the home side, in their traditional pink and blue. Leiston were in orange.
After a fairly timid start punctuated by injuries, Hamlet had the first chance- and what a chance it was. A foul by Patrick Brothers on Asley Carew saw the ball thrust into the box, and a header brought a magnificent save from Marcus Garnham. Leiston weren’t downhearted and a similar free kick at the other end was cleared with difficulty, before Jack Ainsley fired a shot over the bar. “If you’re all going to Hendon clap your hands,” sang the away fans, who by this point had moved to the left hand end, responding to the news that the Greens were two up against Folkestone Invicta in a match that kicked off fifteen minutes before this one. “We hate Tooting & Mitcham,” responded the home fans.
They don’t, really.
The next chance of note took until the 25th minute to arrive. A poor kick out from Garnham arrived at the feet of Nyren Clunis, and the ball was worked out to Carew on the right. The cross was dangerous and Clunis was lurking, but the keeper was out bravely to hold and atone for his error. Hamlet took heart from this and dominated possession for the next few minutes, and Carew drew another excellent save from Garnham on the half hour, the keeper arching his back and pushing the ball over for a corner from a free kick.
What a rabble!
When they didn’t have the ball Leiston defended solidly and looked to break- and almost did so decisively, a double effort from Byron Lawrence being cleared off the line when it seemed as if they must score. Hamlet scrambled the ball partially clear before conceding a free kick just on the edge of the box, but it was wastefully fired at the wall before the pink and blues were able to clear more decisively.
It was then Hamlet’s turn to take control once more, and Reise Allassani began to look more and more threatening, forcing a save from Garnham; but the next chance again came to the away side, Chris Henderson firing wide after being set up at the edge of the box by a great turn and pass from Jake Reed. The midfielder should perhaps have done better, and the Leiston fans behind the goal groaned along with him. A further push from Hamlet and the referee brought a pulsating- but goalless- half to an end.
Leiston got the second half underway, and within thirty seconds had fashioned a chance, Henderson firing over. Within another minute the action was at the other end and Hamlet had a corner, before almost immediately Leiston had a similar set piece. This was a match that had everything but goals- it seemed as if Hendon had stolen everyone else’s ration, given that by this point they had four.
Carew tried to remedy that, getting a free kick over the wall but also just over the goal, and Gavin Rose responded to this by making a double change, bringing on Nathan Ferguson and Sanchez Ming, Immediately Ferguson was involved, combining with Allassani as the striker earned another free kick, but although Carew’s cross was well delivered nobody could get on the end and it drifted out for a goal kick. Then it was Leiston’s turn to attack, and Henderson tried to take on three quarters of the home defence before earning a corner.
The away fans who abandoned the bar!
On sixty three minutes Hamlet were forced to make their final change in unfortunate circumstances, as Rickie Hayes had to be replaced after taking a ball to the face from point blank range. Anthony Acheampong came on as the stopper was helped off by both physios, whilst the home fans sang, “come on Dulwich, come on.” Their side attempted to follow these instructions, but again couldn’t break through the orange wall. Leiston then attacked, and a shot from Matt Blake was pushed away by Amadou Tangara before a foul on Reed- just outside the box- earned them another free kick, once more cleared.
And then, finally, a breakthrough. Carew had been a menace the entire evening with his set pieces, and he stood over a free kick just outside the Leiston box. He stepped forward, and curled the ball beautifully around the wall. The crowd behind the goal held their breath, and then roared, as the ball nestled in the bottom corner. There had been some controversy over the award of the free kick, but there was none about the finish. Glenn Driver’s side had nineteen minutes to find a way back.
The Leiston manager, prowling on the edge of his technical area, made two changes- bringing on Dominic Docherty and Darren Mills. The second of those changes, which involved the withdrawal of Byron Lawrence, did not go down well with some of the away fans in the stand, although the next change- Matt Blake off and Christy Finch on, had more support- but only just. Leiston had performed well, but with time running out Driver had little choice but to gamble, and each of his reinforcements were immediately involved in the game.
As we moved into added time Hamlet pulled everyone back behind the ball; a dangerous tactic perhaps, and it invited pressure, but Leiston couldn’t find a way through. The whistle blew, the Rabble danced, and Hamlet were through! Perhaps the Hollywood ending Tom wanted might just be on the cards.
It seems rather fitting that Monday’s final will be between Dulwich Hamlet and Hendon- the sides who finished second and third in the league. North London v South London. We’re sure that, on this occasion at least, Hendon manager Gary McCann won’t mind going south of the river!