Hampstead & Westminster’s League Finals heroics – a fan’s view

Hampstead & Westminster supporters celebrate (pic Mark Clews)

Hampstead & Westminster supporters celebrate (pic Mark Clews) - Credit: Archant

As a Hampstead fan for over a decade since joining the club when I moved to London, our first championship final in April 2018 was huge, says Mark Clews.

Hampstead & Westminster celebrate (pic Mark Clews)

Hampstead & Westminster celebrate (pic Mark Clews) - Credit: Archant

For as long as I’d known, we were the club that fought for survival every year and celebrated seventh in the Premier League, the last game of the season was checking scores at the bottom end of the table and avoiding relegation.

But 2017 was a huge leap for us, with Kwan Browne in as head coach as we’d finished fourth and made it to Lee Valley, but fell in the semi-final to league winners Wimbledon.

It was different in 2018, as we still finished fourth in the table and played league winners Wimbledon in the semi-final, but this year we won and played some cracking hockey in the process for our first victory at League Finals.

The final was against Surbiton and there was a lot of nervous excitement, but with some confidence as we had beaten the team that finished top of the table the day before and played well. The last time we played Surbiton, we’d come from 4-2 down with three minutes remaining to win 5-4, and I took all of this into the final with the hope our men’s ones that day could make history and lift the trophy.

Hampstead & Westminster celebrate (pic Mark Clews)

Hampstead & Westminster celebrate (pic Mark Clews) - Credit: Archant

But this was the biggest game in English Hockey and Surbiton had been there before and knew what they were doing, they were reigning champions.

The game didn’t get off the best start, as Surbiton went 1-0 up pretty quickly, which definitely dented a lot of the pre-game enthusiasm, and then 2-0 right at the start of the second quarter, but I knew that we could put three goals past them, and a lot can happen very quickly in a game of hockey.

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We had a huge club turnout in the stands for this one, and a lot of very vocal support. We were definitely the section of the stand making the most noise.

In the second quarter we had a penalty corner, everyone immediately scans the pitch to see if Matt Guise-Brown was on. He was. Sorted. Our favourite drag-flicking South African was a man we knew could deliver goals. This time, though, ex-Hampstead keeper Harry Gibson blocked it, but only to Chris Cargo who smashed the rebound into the back of the net, and the Hampstead section of the stand went wild. But not as wild as when the equaliser went in moments later.

Hampstead & Westminster's men celebrate being crowned champions of England (pic Mark Clews)

Hampstead & Westminster's men celebrate being crowned champions of England (pic Mark Clews) - Credit: Archant

Will Calnan appeared to dribble around everybody, but looked to have gone too far wide before unleashing a reverse stick rocket past Gibson from an impossible angle, that is still enjoyed to this day. We weren’t just back in the game, we felt like we were on the up.

When Guise-Brown flicked the ball away for our third to take the lead I definitely started to think it could be our day, after years of being the underdog, I did start to believe our name was on the trophy.

The last quarter felt like the longest 15 minutes of hockey I’d ever watched and when Surbiton went to a kicking-back and equalised with two minutes left, my heart sunk and the worry was then could we even hang on for draw and go to penalty shuttles!

There was a lot of trepidation before the shuttles, none of us had seen our team involved, we didn’t know how much the lads had worked on them or who would take them. But after Legg in the Hampstead goal had pulled off a series of great saves we definitely started to feel like just maybe we could do this.

Hampstead & Westminster supporters show off the trophy (pic Mark Clews)

Hampstead & Westminster supporters show off the trophy (pic Mark Clews) - Credit: Archant

We then had two chances to win it, having been 2-0 down at the start of the game we had two chances to win on penalties and for a brief moment I did start to think of what this would mean for everyone at the club and that European adventure with an EHL place on the cards.

I don’t support a football team, I don’t really follow any other sport, but this was my FA Cup Final for sure, my heart was absolutely racing, and I wasn’t sure I could watch.

Cargo missed and Surbiton scored their last one to send it to sudden death, the rollercoaster swung back to Surbiton as Forsyth beat Legg. Harry Martin had to score otherwise the dream would be over. Gibson saved and that was it, Surbiton won again.

I tried to take a lot of positives from the match, we were runners-up, best-ever finish for us, we were so close, twice, in the game and in the penalties we had the chances to win it. But it wasn’t to be again and I did worry if we would ever get a chance to do it again.

It turns out that just 12 months later we did as for the third year in a row we made the League Finals, not by scraping into the top four as we finished a comfortable second and pushed Surbiton hard.

After beating Beeston in the semi-final, once again in the final we faced Surbiton, and we’d not managed to beat them in the league that season.

Heading to the final there was a bit of deja vu, both sides had very similar line-ups to the previous year, but as ever the Hampstead support was out in force, even more so than the year before, there was was a huge buzz about everyone wearing blue and white.

Our women’s ones had, from an unlikely position at the start of the weekend, won the play-offs on the other pitch, winning promotion to the Premier League. And as Surbiton had already qualified for the EHL as league winners, just by making it to the final this year the men were guaranteed a European spot, and that was massive.

The Hampstead crowd was in a fine mood and we were in loud voice, as we fed off the lads on the pitch, who started at a blistering pace, I definitely felt like the game could be ours, we were playing some great hockey, we just had to connect the final dots and get the ball into the back of the net.

Guise-Brown settled some of those nerves at the end of Q1 with a penalty corner and we kept peppering the Surbiton goal, but nothing was getting through, and as the game went into the second half you did start to think back to previous year and worry that it could happen again – we could be one goal up, we could lose it in the last minute again and face the drama of penalties.

Guise-Brown scored his second to give us breathing space for the first time, but against the strike force that Surbiton had, I don’t think you’d ever feel that comfortable with any lead and most of the second half still to play.

Just as we feared, Surbiton did get themselves back into the game with five minutes to play, as my heart rate started to quicken, but although they were having more of the attack, a goal line clearance from Marc Edwards and some fine goalkeeping from Toby Reynolds-Cotterill definitely gave me hope that we might actually get the rub of the green this time around.

With a kicking-back on for Surbiton and the clock ticking down I struggled to watch, remembering all too well what happened the previous year, until a Surbiton mistake gave Kwan Browne the ball in Hampstead’s own 25 and a monster aerial found Sam French running into the empty Surbiton goal.

And that was it, we could actually celebrate, with 20 seconds left to play we had a two-goal lead and we were champions of England. We had come back to Lee Valley and won, and done it well!

The celebrations started and I felt pretty emotional. After a decade of following the team and a fair few lows, they had climbed to the top of the pile. I could not have been prouder that the lads would be bringing the trophy back to Maida Vale as champions.