Saturday 5th December 2020 – 3pm KO in the National League South at Bulpit Lane, Hungerford
Whilst Steps 3 and 4 were denied a return to football with fans after the decision of the Government to place restrictions on the non-elite game, at Steps 1 and 2 fans were allowed to return, subject to each club submitting a risk assessment and social distancing plan, signed off by the National League. All? Alas no. For clubs located in Tier 3, they would still need to be playing behind closed doors.
At Steps 1 and 2, clubs had already received some funds from the National Lottery which had provided some respite from the ongoing costs they incurred in maintaining a full playing squad, and recent announcements suggest the next tranche of funds would be received soon. Whilst the distribution method wasn’t popular with some clubs, for Hungerford Town had the lowest average attendance at Steps 1 and 2 in the 2019/20 season and will have welcomed the £30,000 payment.
The decision not to finish the National League South season after the lockdown of football in May was a saviour for Hungerford Town who were bottom of the league, nine points from safety with nine games to go. With Steps 3 unable to complete their season and deciding it would be “null and void”, there would be no relegation.
Hungerford had started this season in a much more positive fashion with a new, stronger squad. Five wins out of six at the start of the season seemed to justify the investment and saw them top the table. All that was needed was a return of fans to Bulpit Lane to witness what was going on.
Alas, in the last week they seem to have lost some confidence with home defeats against Dartford and Oxford City prior to the arrival of Dulwich Hamlet for this game, which would see up to 600 fans being able to watch the game.
As I arrived at Bulpit Lane there was a small crowd outside, seemingly reluctant to enter the ground. These were fans who seem to have heard the news that they could finally watch a game but not that they had to buy a ticket in advance, so they were trying to do so on their mobile, which is never the easiest job.
The club had put comprehensive measures in place – seats had been taped off, yellow spots on the ground to identify where you could safely stand, fans reminded they needed to wear face masks. Commercial Manager Nicky Chambers gave me a quick overview of what they have had to do in the last few weeks as the teams meandered onto the pitch. “There’s only so much we can do – whether we can continue to have fans in here is down to how they comply. We’ve sold around 350 tickets for today and it will be great to have fans back in”. Had away fans been allowed to attend, there could have been a few hundred more but speaking from experience, you wouldn’t want to have a large away following for your first game back with fans.
You could see the joy on the faces of fans, able to socialise with friends and families as you walked around the pitch. With no fans allowed, a match is all about 90 minutes. With fans it becomes more of an occasion and for some, the result is secondary to the whole match experience.
Watching Step 3 football week in, week out (well, until 5 weeks ago!) you could see the difference just one step above. The size of the players, the more direct approach and physicality of the game were all evident from the first minute. Hungerford’s pitch has a notorious slope and with the home side going “downhill” in the first half it wasn’t too much of a surprise they made all the early running.
However, it was the visitors who took the lead five minutes before the break after a diagonal free-kick was controlled by full-back Andre Blackman on the left-hand side and cross turned into a shot and fooled Luke Cainey in the Hungerford goal as the ball sailed over his head and into the top corner.
Any optimism of a fast start to the second half for the home side was severely dented in the second minute of the half when the Town keeper was deemed to have taken down Danny Mills. The keeper thought he had redeemed himself, palming away Sanchez Ming’s spot kick but the Hamlet defender bundled the rebound home.
Hungerford can count themselves unlucky not to have had a spot-kick themselves on the hour mark when not once but twice Dulwich defenders seemed to cross the line between fair and foul challenges. You got the feeling this wasn’t going to be Hungerford’s day when some desperate defending saw the ball somewhere stay out of the Dulwich net from a corner.
The script has been written hundreds of times and as the home side pushed more players forward as time started to run out, Hamlet broke on the counterattack and substitute Tyrique Hyde broke clear to score, putting a gloss on the scoreline.
Whilst Hungerford will be disappointed with nine points dropped at home in a week, seeing fans back in the ground after a nine-month wait must be worth a small dent in their ambitions.