CASUAL HAMLET SLIP OUT OF PLAY-OFF PLACES
Déjà vu at the Hill. Once more suave Hamlet play supposed lesser opposition off the park but once more fail to score, fail to win. That honour went instead to the Casuals' John Ambridge, switched on when all around were mentally booking their summer holidays, and stunning Dulwich with a 72nd minute goal that dealt an all but fatal blow to fleeting play-off hopes of the Hamlet. Victory and the three points gained guaranteed that Walton Casuals will remain at this level next season, though ultimately it was unnecessary as both Godalming and Corinthian-Casuals were beaten to confirm their demotion to a lower level. For the Hamlet not one other favourable result elsewhere as narrow victories for Dartford, Dover and Fleet Town dropped Dulwich out of the play-off places for the first time in many a month.
The Pink and Blue boys opened with a crescendo of attack. First minute a deep corner to the back of the six yard box was met with aplomb by the head of skipper Jamie Coyle, Stags' leading scorer Craig Carley on duty at the back stick to flick a goalbound effort around the post. Two minutes passed and Kenny Beaney, recalled to the starting line, chanced his arm with a curling effort that licked the paintwork as it crept over the crossbar of Matthew Reed. First chance for the visitors arrived soon after when a free kick 25 yards out presented Anthony Gale with the opportunity to test Simon Overland for the first time but a crude shot was never going to find the target.
At the heart of the Hamlet attack was Damien Scannell a constant handful for the overworked orange rearguard but chances went begging too often. A quick corner saw Mazin Ahmad drive into the box, a neat pass into the feet of Scannell but a moment's dithering and an orange hoard squeezed the life from the chance. More purposeful with his next opening, Scannell turned on the heat with a powerful run, but gentled teased wide by his marker, the charge ended with a powerful shot from the angle always rising over Reed's crossbar. Put in by David Milton's through ball, Scannell again muscled past his marker, this time keeping his strike low but denied as Reed spread himself before him to block the strike for a corner. The onslaught continued as Coyle floated in a cross from the right wing finding Ahmad but having cut inside the first defender, the ball squirmed away from him and a second Walton man hacked the ball to safety.
25 minutes of near total Dulwich dominance but nothing to show for it. Walton almost capitalised as the Dulwich failed to pick up the run of John Ambridge to the near post in anticipation of a corner, the big centre-half meeting the ball with a gentle flick of the head but failing to find the target. Normal service was quickly resumed as Scannell rampaged down the right, taking a detour along the by-line before pulling the ball back into the heart of the penalty where a host of Hamlet hovered. However, the restaurant was overstaffed, Gavin Dayes and Shawn Beveney jousting with one another in pursuit of the same ball, the result an impotent shot that trickled back into the gloves of Reed.
The constant raids of the Hamlet opened up great swathes of space in defence, more ambitious sides might have exploited them more though Jermaine Hinds was guilty of woeful finishing after being picked out unguarded on the right, the rangy fullback flashing a wild shot across the six yard box that posed more danger to late arrivals through the turnstiles than to Overland's goal.
Fortune's frown seemed fixed upon the Hamlet. 34th minute, Scannell gain ripping a hole in the Stags' left flank, a low cross hammered to the near corner of the six yard box. Stretching out a leg, Ahmad beat Reed to the ball as the tyro 'keeper attempted to smother the danger, but could only look on in anguish as the ball hopped wide by the merest of margins. A minute later and a Milton run worried the defence, so much that, in the words of referee Mr Smith, he was "clipped" as he burst past Michael Cobden. The delivery was spot on, the header from Justyn Roberts deadly but again the goal remained unbreached as the big centre-half was denied a third goal in as many games, his header smacking against the uppers of the crossbar.
Dulwich defensive doors opened, letting in the dangerous Carley but Lewis Tozer provided salvation with a perfectly timed saving tackle. Hamlet failed to clear the danger, the ball finding Greg Ball whose pot shot from distance provided welcome relief from the inaction for the Dulwich custodian, though Overland's pouching of the ball was comfortable.
44 minutes a cross field ball found Milton in the clear on the left. From the angle of the penalty area, he espied the corner of the net, attempting to curl the ball beyond Reed and into the far corner of the net, but at the last the Walton custodian flung himself full length to shovel the ball around the upright. With half-time galloping ever closer, Dame Fortune had just time for one more evil trick before the break. The resultant corner hammered into a crowded area, Beveney with a shot like a howitzer lashing the ball towards goal from barely 4 yards away, only to see the ball smash against his captain on the goal line.
Perhaps lifted by half-time updates from their relegation rivals, Walton seemed more animated more ambitious in the second half. Three minutes in and Gale lobbed a shot wide of the post from close range after a corner had pinged about in the Hamlet box. Soon after Hamlet threatened, a corner cleared, redelivered by Beaney but despite getting the better of Hinds, Coyle could only loop his header harmlessly over the crossbar. A quick and the Artful Dodger of the wing, Ahmad cut inside a leaden-footed Hinds, lashing a shot goalwards from 22 yards but always, always rising just too high.
Carley showed a clear pair of heels to a pursing Hamlet defence, or so he thought, the last ditch tackle of Roberts proving vital as the free-scoring midfielder was denied, his effort from 12 yards out deflected wide.
A flurry of subs, Phil Williams steeping on for Ahmad, the Stags pulled off their talisman, a limping Carley replaced by Kristian Webb. Sandwiching these replacements came the afternoon's first caution, Dayes complimenting of Mr Smith's officiating not reciprocated by the man in black, who brandished a yellow card in the face of the errant Dayes.
An adrenaline fuelled charge from wing back, Nicolas Plumain, the ball flicked into Beveney, the big Guyanese providing the return pass, the move spoiled at the last as Plumain launched an wayward strike, high, wide and none too handsome. Milton fouled and a free kick to the Hamlet gave Beaney the chance to reprise his goal against Dover in more prolific times, all the notes were there, only the coda was absent, the ball curled towards the top corner but too high by inches. Methinks the groundsman might be checking the goals for subsidence so often have Hamlet worried the woodwork in recent weeks.
A free kick wide by the dugouts, launched deep by Gale but sailing over the outstretched hand of Overland. As Overland went to collect the ball for the anticipated goal kick, Mr Smith pointed for a corner, his eagle eyes spotting a perceived touch from the 'keeper. If only Dulwich had been as alert at the corner, well-worked though it was, Dulwich defenders stood like statues as Scott Harris slipped the corner to an unmarked Greg Ball who in turn found Ambridge had the simplest of tasks to slot the ball home.
Within minutes, ill-starred Dulwich would be denied the chance to draw level from the penalty spot. A deep corner swept across the face of goal, collected by Coyle at the back of the box. He attempted redelivery but was thwarted by Hinds, charging the cross down in the manner of a rugger full back. Outraged Hamlet turned on the man in black but the hands that all had seen seemed to have eluded his vision. As if to rub salt in the wounds, Bremner found the net with nine minutes left, turning in Milton's wayward strike after nodding back a long ball forward, only for the assistant referee's upraised flag to halt the celebrations.
All hands to the pump for the Hamlet as minutes turned into seconds, normal time into stoppages. Coyle, a captain leading his men out of the trenches and in the theatre of war, moved up to a traditional centre-forward role. Twice he had the chances, twice they were spurned. The 90th minute, a huge welly up the park was won by the spring heeled Bremner, the ball dropping to Coyle but the shot off the mark. Two minutes had been eroded from stoppage time when Coyle again had the chance to rescue something from the wreckage. Scannell, shimmying and shallying down the right, before supplying a pinpoint cross, Coyle meeting the ball with all the power but none of the accuracy. When the Mr Smith's final whistle pierced the air soon after, a deathly pall hung over Champion Hill. Not one note of applause, not one upraised voice in anger. Dulwich's season may not yet be dead but some might already be measuring up the corpse for its shroud.