The Rocks are up!

Monday, 1st May 2017, 11:50 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:20 pm
The Bognor players make the most of the celebrations / Picture by Kate Shemilt

They have returned to the sixth tier of English football after eight years away.They did it the hard way - nine days after blowing their chance of automatic promotion with the Ryman premier title, they have won the play-offs. Jimmy Muitt and Ollie Pearce were the goal heroes as they beat old rivals Dulwich Hamlet 2-1 in an intense and at times nervy game.The difference between the low point of the last day of the league season and the high point of today could not have been bigger. There were amazing scenes at the end as fans, players and staff celebrated. Green smoke bombs went off, so did champagne corks as the Rocks celebrated shaking off the tag of nearly men.

Now, as club bosses, say, the hard work begins. The National League South awaits next season and that will be tough for a club of Bognor's size. But any worries can wait for another day - now is the time for celebrations, and they promise to be memorable.

There was a huge crowd inside the Lane well ahead of kick-off - it looked even bigger than the 2,000 to 2,500 that had been estimated. Dulwich are one of the best-supported clubs in this division and had brought plenty of fans with them.

For the Rocks, defender Chad Field failed a fitness test, meaning that Gary Charman was again named as Sami El-Abd's partner in the centre of defence. There was a recall for James Crane in place of Alex Parsons. With so many trying to pack into the ground, kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes.

Dulwich found space for an attack within the first minute but Ibra Sekajja shot weakly and wide after a run down the left. Charman and Sekajja both needed treatment after clashing heads in an aerial challenge. Both were okay after treatment.

Bognor were close to the opener on six minutes when El-Abd rose to meet Pearce's right-sided corner but he directed it wide. El-Abd was obviously keen to get his name on the scoresheet - he was close again with a header, this time from a floated Dan Beck free-kick on 12 minutes. Gavin Tomlin made space for an agled 20-yarder that was beyond Dan Lincolin in goal but wide of the post too.

Dulwich were looking the stronger side around the 15-20 minute mark, with the Rocks struggling to keep the ball and link defence with attack. But they did find some success with a brisk attack down by the right by Jimmy Muitt that led to a half-clearance being rifled goalwards by Crane, but it was too high. Then Charman got up well to meet a Pearce free-kick but couldn't get it on target.

The Rocks lifted the roof off Nyewood Lane with the opening goal on 21 minutes. A pass down the left put Pearce into space and he chaeged to the byline before sending over a low ball that Muitt ran on at the far post to lash home.

Dulwich tried to hit back immediately but Kenny Beaney's long-range shot was well over Lincoln's bar. Soon Pearce was away again, thanks to Doug Tuck's slide-rule pass, but this time the cross was with his left foot and it was in front of everyone and went out for a goal kick.

Dulwich had a free-kick just outside the D when Fraser - on the ground after a challenge - handled a shot from close range. Ashley Carew, who'd scored from a very similar position to put Bognor out in last season's play-offs, curled it only inches wide.

Another Pearce corner on 35 minutes nearly brought a second for the Rocks. Charman made contact but headed wide. At the other end a superb tackle by Beck stopped Tomlin being in on goal, then when the Hamlet striker regained possession his cross to the far post ended with Sekajja sending a header skimming off the bar.

Bognor conceded another free-kick not too far outside the box, this time Crane being the offender and going into the book. Another fine free kick by Carew was pushed to safety by Lincoln. A couple of Rocks corners brought another ideal headed chance for El-Abd but this time he planted it over the bar when unmarked.

On 42 minutes Nyewood Lane erupted again as the Rocks scored a second. It came from nothing as Dulwich were guilty of sloppy defending and the ball suddenly found its way to Pearce on the D. He took his time and let it bounce before lashing a left-footed finish past Preston Edwards. Dulwich could still have changed things with a goal back before the break and Clunis got away down the right and sent over a low cross that eluded everyone.

HT 2-0

Dulwich had another free-kick in a threatening spot three minutes into the second half but it was straight at Lincoln. At the other end a free-kick by Pearce flew off a defender's boot for a corner.A 58th-minute corner by Pearce was another one right on El-Abd's head - he got it on target this time and drew a solid save out of Edwards. The follow-up corner fell to Charman, whose half volley shaved only the tiles on the clubhouse roof. Tomlin beat three men on the corner of the box and curled a deflected shot just beyond the top corner.

The Rocks had a golden chance to go three up on 64 minutes when Harvey Whyte's marauding run got him into the box and was ended by a foul from Beaney. The Dulwich man was booked but when Fraser stepped up and put the kick to the keeper's right, Edwards made a terrific save.

Dulwich made a double change on 66 minutes as Panutche Camara and Sanchez Ming replaced Beaney and Matt Drage. Pearce was close to a spectacular goal with 22 minutes left as he met a Muitt cross with a bicycle kick but it was a shade too high. Hamlet continued to threaten. Lincoln stood firm as Tomlin got a touch on a cross from the left - then the keeper got down solidly to hold on to a low Clunis strike.

With 15 minutes to go, Parsons replaced Pearce. Two minutes later Dulwich were back in it as Ibrahim Kargbo sent a top-class volley into the top corner from the edge of the area when a right-sided cross fell nicely for him. Now it was a test of nerve for the home side and as you'd expect, Dulwich kept on pressing.

The Rocks relieved the pressure briefly with a free-kick won by Parsons that Barnett almost caught the keeper out from, but it went into the side netting. Jimmy Wild replaced Fraser on 85 minutes. Soon the big man was away and setting up a chance that Parsons buried - but the offside flag was up. Kargbo was booked for hauling down Wild on halfway as the Rocks looked to counter-attack.Dulwich's last change had Dumebi Dumaka coming on for Tomlin. Dulwich kept on coming in five added minutes and Carew struck a shot cleanly that Lincoln got everything behind.

Wild was away again as Hamlet pushed eveyone forward but shot wide. Injury time lasted forever but finally the Rocks got the ball up-field and kept it there - and the whistle blew. Thast brought the green and white hordes on to the pitch to mob the players and there were joyous scenes, cheers, laughter and even tears as all with a Bognor persuasion celebrated.

Eventually things calmed down and the Ryman League officials were able to get on with the presentations - then the champagne and cheers flowed again as the players picked up their medals and skipper Beck lifted the play-off trophy to a huge ovation from the many fans who'd gathered round to wathc.

What a day - what a season.

Rocks: Lincoln, Whyte, Barnett, Tuck, El-Abd, Charman, Fraser, Beck, Muitt, Pearce, Crane. Subs: Budd, Parsons, Wild, Sanders, Davies.Dulwich: Edwards, Weatherstone, Green, Kargbo, Chambers, Clunis, Beaney, Tomlin, Carew, Sekajja. Subs: Camara, Akinyemi, Ming, Dumaka, Erskine.Ref: Ryan Atkin (Farnborough)