At 17:14 on a beautiful mid-Sussex afternoon the final few players from Whitehawk withdraw from the team huddle. 26 minutes later at 17:40, a near hour after the battle with Three Bridges has been lost, they are finally followed by their manager, by their leader.
As the full-time whistle sounded softly around a splendidly sun-soaked Jubilee Field there were contrasting emotions on the ragged blades of turf. Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke dropping to the floor; Noel Leighton gritting his teeth, pumping the air with his hands as those in yellow cavort closely with one another. Ah yes, that familiar sight, that comparable feeling: Whitehawk the masters of their fate, the masters of their downfall.
Cunning and ingenuity lacked as the Hawks’ intent ripped at the seam, puffing at the breaths of a warm Spring day that catered for ensuing vitriol. There is no time for indignation. On the grass there appeared no answer to Three Bridges’ set-pieces. Twice the visiting cohort concede before the break, twice the defence were incapable of clearing the ball. Out of kilter, out of luck. Even Javaun Splatt’s 18th strike of the season was futile to the quandary at hand. Whitehawk’s season sits on the precipice of reality. Peer over the edge, and tell us that’s where you want to be.
But do tell, where else might one want to be besides a hustling, bustling industrial estate in Crawley. Mmmm the delights of time, always throwing up the most elegant of settings. The yellow sun high in the blue sky warmed the glowing faces of those dotted around for a Good Friday feast, some there in the hope of exceptional football, others there wishing for a repeat of the return fixture. We shan’t dive into such nonsense, for this was a clean slate on the ever-expanding Whitehawk tapestry.
You join us in the 10th minute. The zippy, zingy, zesty Dan Perry can leap high, apparently, as the league’s joint-third highest goalscorer whistled a header over Stroomberg-Clarke’s meaty crossbar. Safe from rippling, the imaginary warning klaxons ringed in the ears of the Hawks defence. Too easy it was for Giani Ashley to burst through Harry Reed’s zone, even easier it was for Perry to win the coveted first attempt of the afternoon award. Some mighty claps from Stroomberg-Clarke’s glove, the Hawks needed to wake from their sunny slumber.
For not four minutes later they had conceded. Simple from a Three Bridges perspective, shocking from a Whitehawk point of view. A driven corner meets Stroomberg-Clarke’s shrieks of “Away!, Away!” as Leighton, scorer of the lone goal in the reverse contest, rose like a flapping salmon to power the ball into the netting. Goalkeeper helpless, stranded, futile to the cause it sent the streak of yellow dancing under a slowly sinking star. You need to wake up, Whitehawk, otherwise this could be all but over before the half.
But there was life! Hope existed in the golden right foot of Olly Munt, steering a dainty, delicate, delicious free-kick into the box for Splatt to adroitly flick-on into the far corner. Perhaps kissing the underside of the crossbar it whooshed over Mitch Bromage’s dome before splashing the orange nets. 18 minutes hath passed, the game rests at 1-1, will this be another classic in the absorbing anthology that is Whitehawk and Three Bridges? Heed to the centre-circle, and just take a glance at a panting referee for some idea.
Minutes passed. The injury-stricken David Ijaha was forced to depart after being scythed down after a positive, mazy run into the heart of the host’s midfield. On came Alex Laing to occupy the right-flank, with Munt now floating in the 10. It was balanced, cagey, even, yet Three Bridges’ ominous presence lurked in the form of crosses. In a near replica to their opening goal Leighton is on the end of another pinpoint delivery, thundering the ball high toward the upper echelons of Stroomberg-Clarke’s home, only for the ‘keeper to fantastically tip the ball over the bar.
And then they did retake the lead. How did this one come about? From the air, of course, as a further warhead drops conveniently onto the forehead of Tad Bromage minutes before the intermission to propel The Bridges into a half time lead. Marking non-existent, communication eerily soundless, Bromage snuck through the defence undetected as the Hawks were staring up a hill steeper than Bear Road itself. Ah, think we might need a splash of water before this one, eh?
Reappearing with a certain vigour were Whitehawk. There was some intent, some fluidity in the play. Both full-backs pushed higher up, it changed the course of the momentum as the visiting side began to knock the door with increasing power. Splatt swivelling and striking a daisy-trimmer low and hard, Bromage equal to such description. To halt the flow Three Bridges were devious. Slowing the game at every attempt, it stunted the Hawks’ rhythm to juicy effect as half-chances became the only thing worth getting mildly excited about.
Adjacent to Bromage’s goal was a vivid streak of Whitehawk’s pschye. Basking in the sunlight, dancing with every pass they tried their very best to suck the ball home, to instil a similar passion in the eleven on the field. Hope began to fade, but the introduction of Dan Thompson and Henry Blackmore forced The Bridge’s defence back further as the Hawks became more direct. Yet this would only expose themselves to the counter-attack, as the contest was so nearly wrapped-up through Joe Stone, but the right-back dragged his acute drive wide of the far post.
At this moment a sudden realisation kicked-in: it will not be a Good Friday. Time slipped away into the additional minutes. “Surely there’ll be at least eight minutes to add, right?”. Guess again. A desperately mere four minutes to salvage a point, to potentially salvage the season. There’s the whistle. There’s the answer. The table does not lie, for now this one rests in the hands of others.
Shaun Saunders is yet to harness his first points, but on an Easter Monday that looks sharp and bright in the sky, here’s wishing that is to be reflected on the luscious inclined lawn of The Enclosed Ground. The energy will already be in the stands, but if the smiles are to be shared on the pitch then this spirit has to be replicated from those in red for one final time on home soil.