I love those end-of-season games when a team has to draw or win to be promoted or avoid relegation.
Two years ago I saw Dulwich Hamlet’s Isthmian League Division One South Play-Off Final with Leatherhead at the latter’s Fetcham Grove ground. Hamlet were 3-1 up with seven minutes to go and surely bound for the Premier Division. But no, the Tanners equalised at 3-3 and notched the winner in extra time.
Last year, when I didn’t go, Hamlet again lost in the Play-Off Final. On Saturday, they simply had to avoid defeat at home to Burgess Hill Town in their final regular season fixture to go up as Champions. I wasn’t going to miss that and it tickled a lot of other people’s fancy too, because the crowd was 1,137. Hamlet’s average had been around 450.
I took the train from London Victoria to Denmark Hill, a journey of just nine minutes, and was in the ground at 2pm. There were already plenty of people there, mostly in the bar. I’d never seen so many pink and blue scarves. I stood behind the goal Hamlet were attacking, close to someone holding an inflatable giraffe.
Hamlet were clearly trying hard not to let the enormity of the occasion get to them, but some of their early passing was nervy and imprecise. The end-of-season pitch didn’t help, being bone hard and causing the ball to be at eyebrow height most of the time. Disaster struck on 29 minutes, the home rearguard opening up for Burgess Hill’s No.11 to fire the Sussex visitors in front.
The sky at the far end had been menacingly dark for a while and seconds after the referee blew for half-time the heavens opened. I’d never seen hail come down like that before. Some of the subs bravely tried to continue their kick-about, but it must have felt like they were being stoned. Hamlet levelled on 65 minutes through their teenage No.4, their best player I thought, and they’d got their precious point. “We are going up!” sang the throng on the pitch.
Last Thursday, I saw the closing minutes of Victoria Line v District Line in the London Underground League at Market Road and I suspect the latter had clinched the title. They posed for a team photograph at the end and one of them called out “Does my hair look alright?” He was completely bald. Camden Lions won the following game, 6-0 against Fitzrovia, and one of the Fitzrovia players saw yellow, then red, for comments to the referee.
Sunday morning’s game at the London Marathon Playing Fields featured FC Yiewsley and Athletico Bilplough (taken from ‘Athletic Bilbao’) and finished 5-1. Attendance 8. The grounds I tried in the afternoon all had cricket. In April.
Games this season = 158
Games in total = 6,453