The original, full version of this blog appears on the Bostik League website
‘Oh South London. Is wonderful…’ A phrase I heard frequently over the weekend. It’s a sentiment I can agree with. I lived in SW2 for five years before returning to the Eastern side of the capital. South West London played host to two of the three finals, coincidentally the two I was able to attend. My first trip across the river was for the battle of the Casuals. Corinthian and Walton. Corinthian-Casuals lost out in the play-off final last year to Dorking Wanderers. They hoped home advantage would see them through this year against Walton Casuals, who finished a point below them in the League. There was a slightly bigger gap in the Premier Division final. Dulwich, who also lost in the playoffs last season, hosted a South v North London battle against Hendon, who finished one place but 10 points behind them.
Monday: Dulwich Hamlet 1-1 Hendon (Dulwich Hamlet win on penalties)
As Bank Holiday Monday arrived I debated making the Dulwich Hamlet v Hendon final my last game of the season. The contest on the pitch, as well as the expected crowds and occasion, were mouth-watering. It delivered on all fronts making it the perfect way for me to bow out for the season and retreat to the garden for a summer of BBQs, World Cup frustration and some CONIFA, of course. I was once again joined by my dad, and father-in-law for a playoff final battle between two great clubs loaded with top players.
Early signs were good. The Victoria Line had seemingly recovered from its struggles earlier in the weekend and getting a tram to a game of football was a refreshing change. As we strolled towards Tooting and Mitcham’s ground, currently also hosting Dulwich Hamlet, it was clear there was something special in the air. Crowds lined the streets heading towards the ground, thirsty fans ‘cleaned out’ the cold beer cans from the nearby corner shops, and locals, surprised by the crowds in this usually sleepy part of London, tooted their horns in support.
We arrived at Imperial Fields a good hour before kick-off and it was already nearly full. Dulwich fans were already in place at one end while Hendon supporters and some neutrals headed to the other. We, fortunately, found a shady spot at the Hendon end. It has to be said, on my first visit to this ground, that it seems like the ideal place to hold such a game. It’s brilliantly designed with a big main stand and two sloping terraces at either end. Indirectly Tooting and Mitcham FC played their part in creating such a great occasion. Plenty of people seemed to have agreed with my synopsis. A crowd of 3,321 was a new record for the stadium.
Both Dulwich and Hendon have been on interesting journeys this season. Hendon’s has mostly be confined to the pitch. They started the season with some patchy form, but had some impressive results, including a 1-0 away win in Dulwich in September. Towards the end of the campaign, they found their stride and were arguably the form team in the final weeks. Beware the team in form. Hendon had essentially played two playoff games against Leatherhead and Leiston to get themselves a home semi-final. Dulwich, on the other hand, have been on a rollercoaster. Locked out of their home ground they somehow pushed Billericay all the way to the finish line for the league title. They finished 10 points ahead of Hendon in the final league table. The South London club ground out a 1-0 semi-final win against Leiston while Hendon blew Folkestone away in the first half of theirs.
In many ways, it was a similar game to Saturday’s Southern final. The players struggled in the heat, the scores were level and the game was decided by penalties. In many ways, it was also so different. There were close calls. Dulwich hit the woodwork and Hendon relied on several last-ditch defensive blocks. The Dulwich keeper also pulled off a spectacular save to keep out Maclaren’s deflected strike that was headed for the top corner. The huge crowd provided the perfect soundtrack for the occasion without a hint of trouble. Even the large scale halftime change of ends went off without a hitch as the Hamlet hoards poured onto the pitch to get get a good spot. They returned to the turf as the final whistle blew in a mass of pink and blue to revel in their club’s historic feat.
My intro to non-league playoffs was an enjoyable if hot, experience. Two full grounds, that I visited for the first time, made for great atmospheres and occasions that I’ll be recalling to friends and acquaintances not yet bitten by the non-league bug. The irony of two finals affected by the heat at the end of a season so badly affected by the winter will not be lost on many. In the end, however, two clubs, that triumphed on penalties, will be enjoying the 2018/19 season at their highest ever levels. I’ll be left with great memories, of two different but eventful finals and a little bit of sunburn. The only thing left to do now is wait for the excitement of potential league restructures over the summer.