Once on the bus we overhear one fan talking to another, “told Granny to get her prayer mat out”.
Today was the Ryman Premier Division Play-Off Final, Hendon FC (HFC) Vs Margate FC (MFC), a day long in coming, after the protracted and poorly managed points deduction of Enfield Town FC, and the subsequent appeal, both teams I’m sure keen to get things under way, after much thumb twiddling, why the powers that be decided the fate of Enfield.
HFC have been on a great run this season in the league and in the cups, we of course saw them lift the Ryman League Cup, back in April, and their commanding performances in the league, had them finish a strong second, going on recent form HFC were favourites to win today, but its 2nd vs 3rd so it would be foolish to think MFC would not be in with a shout.
Off the bus we are greeted by the blast of an air horn, as blue and white clad MFC fans dash across the road, to a pub near the ground. At first glance you would have no idea there was a football ground anywhere close, as we amble down a green and leafy street, following the sign post to Harrow FC’s ground, Earlsmead Stadium, who HFC ground share with.
It’s our first visit here, and also the first time we have witnessed, what we saw on arrival at the ground, a queue! The first non-league queue we had ever set our eyes on. It was fast moving in fairness, and was perhaps only occurring because no one, us included took any notice of the man directing people to another turnstile, round the corner which was back log free.
As soon as we were in, noticing that HFC would not have charged my dog for entry, that’s if I had one, and past the second queue for the food and drink, I snagged a program from the white hut, with a black pitch roof, and we were back out again, and making our way to the bar. The club house is a two storey white box, with a flat roof, reminiscent of my primary school. As we pass through the first set of double doors, the unmissable bang, bang, bang of a drum can be heard coming from the main bar, and through the second set of doors into a cavernous school hall, the bang, bang, bang of the drum is overwhelming, and the blue and white of MFC fans, like ancient Britons of Boadicea’s Army with Woad faces, fill the room with singing, and for all intents and purposes had claimed this as their own, “MARGATE TILL I DIE”, “MARGATE , SUPER MARGATE”.
The barman has a Hogwarts t-shirt on and needs all the powers of the fictional wizard, as the small bar is close to being overrun and the MFC fans are aware of perhaps the uncharacteristically large amount of people here today “WHAT’S IT LIKE TO SEE A CROWD?”
Past the Blue Army from the seaside we are quickly back into the bustling crowd of play-off final day. The players warm up on the pitch, to Tina Turner on the PA, we decide on where to pitch up for the match. MFC fans have already commandeered one end of the ground, on one of the uncovered terraces behind each goal. Behind the red brick dug outs is a long covered standing terrace with a corrugated roof. Opposite is an all seater stand, flanked by two covered standing areas. We decide on the opposite end to the MFC fans, and make our way.
We manage to bump into the HFC Chairman, who is incredibly welcoming, and shakes our hands with a big smile on his face, and is quickly off again, stopping every so often to shake and quickly chat to as many people as he can.
The players will shortly emerge from a metal gate at one corner of the pitch, manned by two fellas in high vis yellow, and what I can only assume to be a long term fixture here, an old gent in a flat cap, attentively manning the gate, and letting the players and staff on and off the pitch.
“Down, down, down into a burning ring of fire” blares out, as Jonny Cash welcomes both teams on the pitch, perhaps some non-league intimidation tactics at play here? HFC in green shirts and black shorts, MFC in blue and white hooped shirts, and blue shorts, line up and shake hands, and as the players go through the motions, we make our way to behind the goal, pass the people sitting on the steps tucking into scotch eggs, and the man navigating a pram through the crowd.
The toss of the coin means the HFC fans flood from the opposite end to ours, it’s a sea of blue and white behind the goal at the far end of the ground, and the drum and chants of “WE’RE THE BLUE AND WHITE ARMY” fill the ground, HFC reply with a blast of an air horn and “GREEN ARMY”, but seem outnumbered by the visitors from Kent.
The outcome of the day ahead is somewhat determined by the first twenty minutes of the match.
Things get off to a scrappy start, with both benches quick to bark out orders from the side lines. The HFC manager frequently pops out from his red brick dug out, to boom out some instructions, and then disappears back inside. A tall man in a suit stands in the MFC area and is happy to let the players know, what’s, what “get it down, and play some football, play your game!”
A yellow card is brandished with only 15 minutes on the clock, and a bit of rutting, after the tackle, doesn’t result in any further punishment, but the atmosphere on the pitch is tense and niggly, perhaps the occasion is getting the best of the players.
Sadly for HFC around 20 minutes in, a slightly overeager challenge from their number 9 is deemed by the referee to be outside the parameters of the acceptable, and a red card is brandished, the MFC players are quick to surround the referee, and make their opinions on the tackle very clear.
I must admit from our position, the view of the tackle was not a good one, but considering the stop start nature of the game so far, and the referees eagerness to stamp his authority on the game from the early minutes, my first opinion was the challenge would result in a red.
With his head in his hands, and the already boisterous support of MFC, now geed up further by their teams early advantage, make the long walk to the changing room, that little bit tougher “CHEERIO, CHEERIO, CHEERIO”.
“You have ruined the game ref!” is the cry from the HFC fan next to us, I would think it’s more the player who had committed the foul, rather than the referee who has ruined the game, but considering our view it’s hard to pass judgment. Regardless there is still a game to play, and HFC are going to have to do it in the hardest of ways.
One young HFC fan sitting on the fence around the pitch, with his Dad behind him holding onto him, does his best to cheer on his team the best he can, “Come on Hendon”.
HFC are pushed back further and further, and the waves of blue and white hoops crash against the defence. The home keeper is tested, and pulls good saves from shots outside the box.
The MFC player tackled, by the HFC player who was sent off, is jeered and booed every time he touches the ball. This at the moment is about as noisy as the home fans are getting, and things are very subdued.
Tom had a small personal epiphany just before half time, next game he is bringing his own food. He watches on jealously as some people delve into a rucksack of goodies, after finishing a less than appetising burger, and perhaps his days of judging the food of non-league grounds around the country have come to an end.
This only serves to fire up the MFC fans further, and has the opposite effect, and dumps the HFC fans around us in to near silence.
Two late corners look like the start of a mini HFC revival, but nothing comes of them, and HFC have their keeper to thank once again, as a couple of fine saves during a goal mouth scramble, leave MFC very much on top, and HFC are lucky to hear the half time whistle only a goal behind.
MFC clap their team off the field, every player with a spring in their step, “COME ON GATE”
Half time at Earlsmead stadium is a solemn affair. The fans swap ends, and the choice of someone’s 80’s classic CD, and some Huey Lewis and the News and Run DMC can’t lift the crowd, it almost seems in bad taste.
The arrival of Martin Allen and his dog, is only highlighted by the predictable shout of “Mad Dog”, which I imagine can only cause offence and confusion, to what I’m sure is a very nice and friendly family pet.
HFC’s manager comes out well before the team, and is almost sat down, as the players emerge from the cage at the opposite end of the ground. We are now surrounded by the blue and white army, whose drumming and singing is even more impressive this close up.
The Dad with his Son on the fence, attempts to claim back a bit of pride for the HFC fans, and blows a horn, but unfortunately he just scares the shit out of his boy.
Another first for us today was a dog in a football shirt that also has its own Twitter account @. He was presented with a football, and in his excitement nearly pulled his owner to the ground.
It’s all MFC at the beginning of the second half, just how it had been at the end of the first. Their corners are piling on the pressure, and the home keeper is earning his crust today, with another good save from the edge of the box.
Late comers from the bar, with plastic pint glasses in hand, keep one eye on the game, and the other on the way ahead.
Twenty minutes gone, and its one way traffic, HFC are lucky to get the ball out of their half, and the match has somewhat descended into not much of spectacle for any of the 1,228 in attendance.
MFC fans whirl their scarves above their heads, and jump in rhythm to the continuous drum. Flags whoosh back and forth above the crowd, and some fans have hopped over the fence, in preparation of the final whistle, victory and promotion.
We have found ourselves surrounded by members of the MFC board, all suited and booted, and with various degrees of nervousness splashed across their faces. The Chairman stands on the steps behind us, the most anxious looking of them all.
For the HFC players and fans, the emotion and frustration of the day is over spilling. One HFC player is booked for his anger, at the perceived time wasting of the MFC players, and the HFC fans berate the near side linesman, every time he is close by, blaming him for everything under the sun.
MFC are awarded a corner on 90 minutes, and the taker does not have one person to aim at, they are not going to take any risks. Their Captain, a second half substitute is walking the touchline, and is standing in front of us as the final whistle goes, 0-1 MFC.
A surge of MFC supporters make their way across the pitch, the board members around us celebrate, “get in”. The MFC Captain is embraced by the Chairman, who has a tear in his eyes, and is congratulated on his efforts, “well done Charlie” he then trots off to join the swirling mass of fans, players and staff on the pitch, “WE ARE GOING UP, SAY WE ARE GOING UP”
The players leave the pitch, the HFC manager remonstrates with the referee and the stadiumannouncer informs everyone on the pitch that the presentation won’t take place until they clear the pitch, so everyone duly obliges.
HFC players and staff are first to reappear from the tunnel, and collect their runners up medals. In the background two men in suits hold up a banner, “Premier Division Play Off Winners”, a cruel thing to see after getting so close to promotion.
MFC follow after HFC’s presentation, to rapturous applause and cheers from their support, “WE LOVE YOU MARGATE WE DO, WE LOVE YOU MARGATE WE DO”. The players applaud the fans, who really have not stopped this afternoon. Some players dance in front of them the stadium announcer congratulates both sides, but is drowned out by the MFC singing, “WE’RE THE BLUE AND WHITE ARMY”.
Right in front of the MFC supporters the players stand behind the banner, still being held aloft, in front of a row of photographers, and are presented with a kind of glass plate, like something from your Grandmother’s cupboard. They turn and celebrate and share the achievement with the bank of blue and white, the HFC team with their heads held low make their way off the pitch and back down the tunnel, applauded by the HFC fans that have stayed to the end. Their Chairman, who I know has a lot of emotion invested in this club, is visibly heart broken and dejected. Two trophy's is nothing to turn your nose up in a season, but this was the priority I'm sure, the holly land, and it has been snatched away from them, so close, but yet so far.
A child with a blue and white chequered flag runs onto the pitch, and embraces someone. The once nervous Chairman is now beaming with joy and pride at his team’s performance. He walks towards the crowd, arms outstretched with a smile from ear to ear and they are all delighted to share this moment with him. He hugs and shakes hands with them, a local boy done good, a man of Kent, who has experience at footballs highest level, they have done it, promotion!