Omarr Lawson sinks to the ragged floor with his legs heavy, mind mangled at what he has just been a part of. Around him a small streak of Three Bridges blue dance as if drunk with fatigue, embracing one another as they disappear down the tunnel with grins plastered over their tired faces. The mood is a very different one for those in and supporting red. To label this as a game of football would be irrational. Messy to the many eyes that simply could not look away – not for its pleasure, but for the fact you simply had no sense of what might happen next. Like a crazed brawl in the street, you’re not going to walk past without taking in a healthy eyeful.
Goals 1-5 Red Cards. In all your wildest dreams could you imagine such a nonsensical spectacle? In the results column this will go down as another narrow Whitehawk defeat, but in the memory of those that will one day look back on this it will be to the surprise of many that the venue was not the Western Front, and the year was not 1916. All that remained reminiscent was the whistle upon which the game commenced. Few would have thought prior to this January duel it would provide such belligerency. Suppose they must wait until the opening half is at an end. For you see, this contest began in fine spirits (well, anything is compared to what is to follow).
The Hawks laying down the marker, slicing through the opposition with James Fraser at the core of the operation. Pushed further up into the No. 9 role as Javaun Splatt served his suspension from the sidelines, Fraser was linking fluidly with home debutant Alex Laing, who both saw early strikes spiral waywardly over into the Din End. Strong noise emanating from that very shelter ricocheted off all the nearby solids in an atmosphere one might describe as loud. And soon enough those inhabitants would have arms raised out wide, voices vibrating with the extended version of “Ref!”. Down goes Luke Emberson in the box, wiped out by the legs of James Young. To the corner flag the referee points, to the dismay and disbelief of an increasingly vocal majority.
To say that the visiting party had troubled not would be a great understatement. ‘The Bridges’ were not even close to being competitive offensively. For those initial twenty minutes Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke had been untroubled, asleep on his line as the ball made camp in the opposition half. Yet sport is cruel to these guarders of the goal, the final line of the defence. So when Stroomberg-Clarke’s misplaced pass dropped invitingly to Noel Leighton with the ‘keeper stranded outside his area, the ignominy showered down on the Whitehawk #1 as Leighton placed it beneath him and into the corner of the net behind.
Those distant half time bells were beginning to loom as momentum continued in the Hawks’ favour. Too many times was the ball pumped forward. Futile it was against a metallic defence, those dressed all in red restricted to shots from distance. Corroborated by Jamie Splatt, the on-loan midfielder’s venomous drive tipped over by the active Mitch Bromage before Tegan Freeman slapped a shot wide of his right-upright. There’s the half: all Whitehawk, no reward. A saying that will surely be draped from the roofed stands in due course as frustration mounted at the interval. But wait a moment longer to read of anarchy, bloodshed and ungraciousness to the highest degree.
First, a slight Three Bridges bombardment. From all angles the Hawks were under pressure: Leighton glancing a header inches wide of the far post minutes prior to Callum Chesworth rattling the crossbar with an inside-of-the-boot connection that got just a bit too much scoop. A let-off for Ross Standen’s side who moved like zombies in a misty apocalypse. From without of the snoozy haze they began to appear. Splatt and Bryan Villavicencio involved in a tussle as the ball nears the touchline. Arms begin to flail as Joe Stone sprints in from no man’s land to shove the former into the latter. Down goes Villavicencio, the dings go up. So too do the cards of red. One to Splatt, one to Leighton, one to Stone. Of course there was more pushing, shouting, quarrelling. Once diffused, to some extent, Alex Bradley dished out the cards. Whitehawk reduced to ten, Three Bridges reduced to nine. The essence of Non-League football? Rather the stupidity of a testosterone-fuelled few.
Back to the game at hand, if there was such a thing occurring. Leon Redwood slipped in by Laing on the left of the box with the angle slightly acute. To the nearest post its thundered, and by the face of the onrushing Bromage it is blocked. Pressure rising, frothing from the volcano of fury. Ryan Brackpool irrepressibly imperious at the heart of his defence. Every header won, every tackle clean. Again no way through, no key found to unlocking this padlock seemingly formed of cobalt. Whitehawk throwing everyone forward, it was to little surprise that the extraordinary high-line would cater for a visiting counter-attack: Camron Lawson swallowed by the bobbly turf as a certain goal loomed had he kept normal balance.
It is commonplace in football to have to endure time-wasting. Some teams are better at it than others and, realistically, everyone does it. Indeed, it is deeply maddening when your own side falls victim to it. Just ask Alex Malins. An assured display at the back cut short by more bewildering scenes. Michael Wilson falls on the ball like a dropped soldier shot through the cranium. Malins from distance sprints in and forgets he’s not under the lights of Twickenham as he hauls Wilson to the deck. Bradley with no option but to wave another red card in another face. Nine vs Nine, five to go that would precede fifteen minutes of stoppage time. Many dotted around wondering what on earth is happening in East Brighton. Trust us, we didn’t know either.
So into the denouement we dive. All the crosses of the world swung into the Three Bridges box, all of them averted to some sort of safety. In an instant, Ooooos from those behind the fencing are followed by more vociferous noise. It’s a shocking tackle. Villavicencio dives into Mo Kamara, feet higher than his opponent’s hip as the studs dug into his body. The culprit points to the ground exclaiming he slipped, explaining his innocence. There is only one verdict: a fifth red card, the most deserved of all, as he trudges solemnly down the tunnel to find two of his other dismissed colleagues.
Cue further onslaught. Any more reds and this one might have been abandoned. Instead there was more slamming of woodworks as Henry Muggeridge weaved his way between the defence and curled elegantly off the underside of the bar. Billie Clark follows up by stinging the paws of Bromage as hope fades with the dying minutes. Bromage immaculate between the sticks, Kamara was next to test the fledgling shot-stopper from distance: arrowing it was into the corner, the ‘keeper leaping to his right to prevent the netting from rustling profusely. At the other end Curtis Gayler has an open sight of goal, driving it the distance out of Brighton itself on its way across the Channel as it disappeared into the night sky.
Nevertheless, it is he who will be celebrating at the referee’s final whistle. Mystified by the previous two hours, the faces of the fans who streamed towards the exit were one of puzzlement. Shall we laugh? Shall we cry? Do both, let the saudade tears flow through the streets of Brighton. And remember this not as a game of football, but as a metaphor to all the past bloody battles this world has seen. Here’s praying to the sporting Gods above that what was witnessed beneath the six bright white lights of Whitehawk on Monday, January 3rd will never happen again.