If ever two words were likely to strike fear into the hearts of a football team, then for both Bognor Regis Town and Dulwich Hamlet they’d belong to a phrase ending in ‘off.’ The first word would actually be ‘Play;’ although after ninety minutes at Nyewood Lane on Bank Holiday Monday many members of the pink and blue army would undoubtedly have had a far ruder alternative.
These sides make losing play-off matches look like an art form. The Rocks had lost in the end of season lottery twice during the last three years; Hamlet had lost in four of their last five attempts. The home side perhaps came into this match slight underdogs, needing a last gasp winner to defeat Wingate & Finchley the previous Thursday night whilst Hamlet walloped poor Enfield Town 4-2 at Champion Hill, with a hat trick from Ibra Sekajja the talk of Non-League circles following the game.
The Dulwich faithful were arriving in numbers as early as an hour and a half prior to kick off. It’s quite a journey from South London on a Bank Holiday, and it was easy to understand why many got there early rather than chance a Southern Rail meltdown or gridlock on the A27. A gaggle of cheerful pink shirted souls were standing on the uncovered terrace by Seasons Bar with an early afternoon beverage when one of their heroes wandered past, energy drink in hand. “You shouldn’t be drinking that before a match,” came the voice of a young supporter. “It’s alright,” replied his dad, “particularly if it gives him wings.” The player grinned, the supporters grinned, and all was right with the world, although there was no sign of improved aerial prowess during the next few hours.
This was an occasion which was good humoured from start to finish, both on and off the field. The delay to kick off caused by congestion outside the ground was enlivened by a good old sing-song, and at the far end populated mainly by away fans a number of ballboys had an impromptu kick about, concluding in riotous celebration from the crowd and a number of hi-fives when one of them put the ball into the back of the net. Even the regular drizzle and the fact that a large proportion of the crowd had no roof failed to dampen spirits.
Hamlet had the first chance of the match. A long ball out of defence found Sekajja on the run, and he moved into the box, cut inside the challenge of Harvey Whyte but managed to pull his shot wide of the near post. From that point, and despite his best efforts, Sekajja was extremely well marshalled by Rocks centre-back Gary Charman. Zorro, so named because of his protective face mask, had the match of his life. A veteran with more than 600 senior appearances to his name he was to deal magnificently with everything Hamlet were to throw at him and was undoubtedly man of the match despite a number of other impressive performances.
Bognor perhaps should have taken the lead on six minutes, when Sami El-Abd seemed only to need to direct his header on target to score. The same player had an almost identical chance six minutes later but managed to direct the ball above the bar, and the pattern of the match was set. Hamlet controlled most of the ball, but all of the best opportunities were falling to the home side. It was only a matter of time before they took one.
On nineteen minutes a fabulous pass was played to Ollie Pearce down the left. Pearce, scorer of both goals in the semi-final victory, charged towards the near post before sending a pinpoint ball across the box, where he’d seen Jimmy Muitt approaching at the far post. The number nine had a relatively simply job to poke the ball home, and he did it well, to the delight of the home faithful. Hamlet looked to hit back, and Ashley Carew, who scored a free kick to knock the Rocks out of the play-offs last season, curled one from a similar position- albeit at the other end of the ground- just wide. The rain began to fall, and the game switched from end to end whilst a photographer in front of the long terrace tried to capture the action whilst simultaneously wrapping his equipment in what looked like a transparent condom.
With half time approaching it seemed as if Hamlet were just beginning to gain momentum. Then, disaster. A sloppy ball out of defence was picked up by Pearce at the edge of the box. He walloped it, left footed, and it flew past Dulwich keeper Preston Edwards for two. The pink and blue faithful attempted to lift their side, before singing a song expressing loathing for Tooting & Mitcham (they probably hate the Tooting Popular Front, too), but just when it looked as if striker Gavin Tomlin would be able to strike a loose ball at goal he slipped and fell on his backside. That perhaps typified their entire first half, and the whistle blew with the home side firmly in control.
During the first twenty minutes of the second period chances came and went at both ends, Tomlin particularly having no luck once more as he wriggled past three challenges before having his shot deflected over. But it was Town who should have put the game out of sight. Full back Whyte charged into the opposition box before being upended by Kenny Beaney, and the referee correctly pointed to the spot, but the otherwise faultless James Fraser put his penalty too close to keeper Edwards who made a fabulous save to keep his side in the game.
Hamlet made two attacking changes, but it was Bognor who had the next chance, Ollie Pearce attempting an overhead kick which just cleared the crossbar. Pearce’s day was about to be over, sadly. A foul near the touchline left him in a heap.
“He’s done his hamstring.”
An authoritative voice on the touchline gave an instant diagnosis. Close inspection found that this particular supporter was wearing a snood- surely the first person in the area to be so dressed since Nik Kershaw played Portsmouth Guildhall in 1985? Pearce looked in his direction and jumped to his feet.
“He’s fixed his hamstring.” Nearly-Nik seemed far less confident in his medical prowess at this point, although he soon recovered his composure, particularly as Pearce hobbled off holding the back of his leg five minutes later whilst his personal physician twisted his hands in the air in a ‘there needs to be a change’ motion. “Hurry up,” he yelled. “I want to go home. I’ve just had an idea for a follow up to The Riddle.”
Shortly after Pearce was replaced Hamlet earned themselves a lifeline. Seemingly realising that they weren’t going to penetrate the Bognor defence from inside the box, a cross was sent towards Ibrahim Kargbo, twenty yards from goal. His strike was a thing of wonder, and as it hit the back of the neck the home fans were wondering whether their side was going to wilt. But the Rocks held on, the final whistle went, and hordes of green-clad emotion leapt the barriers and charged onto the pitch to envelope their heroes. After an absence of eight years the Rocks were back in National League South, and the joy of their players, supporters and volunteers was unchecked.
“Just think.” A Hamlet fan applauding his team looked across at his friend, who was downcast. “This time next year we’ll be losing to Billericay!”
You have to hope that he’s wrong. Throwing money at football clubs is a tried and tested way to get success, but at Non League level, at least, it seems rather like cheating. The best thing about our game isn’t the glamour. It isn’t the new signings, the press coverage, the shiny sponsors; it’s the people.
Hamlet have some of the best people you’d ever want to share ninety minutes of your life with. Here’s hoping that next year they’ll finally get the success that their efforts deserve.
And that they won’t have to win the end of season lottery to enjoy it.
More pictures here:
Published on in Steps 3-6.