Adam El-Abd places his hands onto his tired head, those in Whitehawk blue dropping to the used turf in disarray, disbelief. There’s a streak of red dancing in the twilight, jumping for the highest joy under a floodlit clarity. Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke stands hapless as the yellow ball rises over his head, and drops into the abandoned goal behind. So sweet would three points have been on this rearranged visit to the southern tip of our neighbouring county; so cruel it was that in the dying seconds Hythe would stab the Kentish sword into the visiting hearts, and run away from the scene with a point of their own.
It was your classic stupendous, eccentric, adrenaline-fuelled non-league ride on eastern sands: four goals – two for Hythe, two for the Hawks, beneath a collection of solar-like beams shining their light onto a delightedly dry surface. Reachfields the location – metallic and compact, a warm feeling filters through the veins regardless. That 90s sort of vibe, you know, with a great red box to house those that would rather sit, numbing the bottoms in the process. Anyhow, the night was fresh with a dark evening blanket hovering overhead, and a half-moon slightly tilted, as if dozing in the heavens as it shined through the thick layers of cloud.
To say the fledgling moments of this crucial league fixture were frantic would fail to do it justice. Like a fluid game of basketball, this one was back-and-forth from the off. At one end it is the left boot of Olly Munt that spirals a tame dribbler into Henry Newcombe’s arms, at the other Leon Redwood spanks a low-driven effort off the line. Midfield vulnerabilities, there appeared to be no such structure in the middle of the pasture. What it catered for, though, was excitement, dazzling entertainment for the few hundred that drifted in from the iron entrance; James Fraser stinging the paws before he angles another a Planck Length wide. Lungs bursting, hearts pounding.
A breakthrough had been expected, it was just a matter of which side. Rise from the ashes, Fraser, whose cross-shot (definitely the former), evades Newcombe and his adjacent centre-halve before plopping into the corner of the netting. Not the faintest tickle off a man in red, this one was a Whitehawk goal, into the lead they marched. That is until a few minutes later, when The Cannons responded with a boom. Defending temporarily switched off, Tyler Sterling skipped beyond a few dangled, lazy legs on the right-hand side to advance acutely toward Stroomberg-Clarke, slipping it beneath his legs to the chorus of scattered cheers.
Cue more celebrations, chiefly from Ross Standen and co., as Fraser sweeps home a second. Blink and you’ll miss it. The feast of goals continue to slide down the cliffs as the Hawks shoot on sight: Munt’s effort saved as far as Alex Laing on the left-hand side of the box, his pass back across goal disentombs the idle Fraser, who rumbles the netting. Teaming with desire and intent, this Whitehawk were first to every ball, every man – hunger, intent, communication…the combination for success as Munt skitters one wide of the right-upright. No time to rest.
So as those from the stoney Sussex shores launched a continuous string of counter-attacks, the flickering reminders of Saturday so nearly returned as Alex Brown re-directed Luca Woodhouse’s low-driven free-kick marginally wide of the post. Danger averted, that’s four first half goals in the previous two games for Standen’s side, but this time a lead to take into the fifteen minute pause. It had been a half of promise, of passion. Hunting in packs, predator-like, hawk-like, in which direction would the compass point next?
Well, the metaphorical winds were certainly with Hythe upon the restart. Evidently given a stern talking to by manager James Rogers, they returned frothing from the mouth. Increasing amounts of condensation departing the mouths of the ones dressed in that slick shade of blue, they knew this would be a long half. Inviting pressure a touch with a deepened defence, Alex Malins and El-Abd were immense against the threat. Organisation and ability, Stroomberg-Clarke was seldom tested between his sticks as the wonderful Whitehawk noise from those weary, loyal travellers echoed and swirled in the night sky.
Intense bombardment of the backline. The Hawks’ crossbar smacked by the ball from Tyler Sterling’s viscously whipped 25-yard set-piece. Ooooh they were getting closer, but still the minutes rolled by with the scoreline untouched. Off went Munt, on came Mo Kamara with the words ‘defence, defence, defence’ ringing in the mind. How pivotal a triumph here would be against fellow league strugglers. Diffusing the flow of the game at every given possibility, through each stages of the half the Hawks progressed unscathed.
And then it was Scott Doe who had for but an inch of time convinced his followers into thinking this one was all knotted-up. Somehow it wasn’t, as mere yards from the goal-line his diving, tumbling, flailing header is clung on to by Stroomberg-Clarke. Relief. That’ll kill a bit more time. Into the final chapters now, the ball having made camp in the Whitehawk half, Harry Reed shown a second yellow card for a late lunge on Sterling. Never easy, is it? Ten men, ten minutes remain – a spot of freshness was required: Tegan Freeman entering the field of play in place of Laing, tightening that midfield further.
But wait, at the opposite end for a chance….oh, that would have sealed it. Kamara coming within a post’s width of popping the champagne corks, his mazy run through the defence resulted in a flash-shot wide of Newcombe’s far post. Clasped hands over mouths, there would be more work to be done, and even more twists in this ever-changing, ever-spiralling tale. Five additional minutes show to all corners of the ground on the fourth official’s glaringly bright board. What could possibly go wrong?
Ah. Agony and despair for the Hawks, that’s what. Confusion at the back allows Riley Alford with too much space, too much time to lift the ball over the stranded Stroomberg-Clarke, and into the netting with a splash. For an entire half and more, Whitehawk had defended beautifully. But now, standing stationary in incredulity, a certain three points had been stolen at the finish line. Foiled at the game’s end, all the entitled frustration and fury will quickly channel through to the wider picture: another point richer, the goals start to flow, and the battles are nearing ever-closer to victory.