For all the entreaties of a proud, bubbly, vocal majority, it was to be a tale all too familiar: Whitehawk, again struggling to put the ball in the back of the opposition net, defeated for the tenth time this season. The new stars of xG, a second half onslaught would see Hastings United’s goal peppered from all the angles of the protractor, as a compact and organised visiting defence produces its latest clean sheet. A lone strike moments from the half time whistle: that’s all that would decide these two on a milder late December afternoon.
But there was much life and flavour to it all. That narrow path leading to the ground, flooded with cars and supporters of vivid colour and cheer. To The Enclosed Ground they march from all zones with the last of the festive buzz released over these crucial ninety minutes. No amounts of falling rain would deter a soon-to-be season high attendance. Grey skies hanging overhead, briskly dispersed by a glimmering beam of Sussex sunshine.
Here come the soldiers, along the tunnel before debouching onto a sticky pitch. An essence of squelch, playable nonetheless, the Hawks dressed in blue led by Henry Muggeridge, their loyal leader surpassing 100 games. A fine achievement, the acclaim trickled away in the sounds, sights and smells that arouse the senses. Up with the whistle, away with the ball.
Drums, cowbells, voice: a reassuring soundtrack to befit a conflict of this magnitude. Gary Elphick’s U’s in form one might just describe as formidable. Victory would push them top, valiant indeed given their early season mishaps and departures. But one mainstay in the starting numbers is the distinguishable face of Dave Martin. There was the ex-Hawk, standing over a free-kick a smattering of yards from the box, striking low yet true, into the wall and skipping past the post. A let-off. A morning alarm that rings between the ears. Wake up, you’ve got a game to play.
For long spells of the opening half the ball was predominantly glued to a man in maroon, until a flash of blue would steal it away, before swiftly reattaching itself to a Hastings boot. They had more of the possession, more of the chances but threatened intermittently. Truth be told the Hawks were not at their exquisite best. Rather a meandering river of rapids than a smooth flowing stream. Whatever they tried, it was not a comfortable ride. Jaded by the jagged rocks, a prompt scrap between Jack Dixon and debutant Jamie Splatt — the identical twin of the revered Javaun, signed from Dulwich Hamlet to fill the midfield — awoke a snoozing crowd. Both shown the colour yellow, it was the desired passion to flick the ignition.
Not that it helped those hosting for the afternoon. Steadily the Hastings frontline gained the yards, forcing Adam El-Abd and co. back closer to their goal. Mohammed Kamara heads it away from deep inside his box to an exposed Tom Chalmers. Eight blue jerseys back to defend, but nobody close to this maroon figure who, winding up a shot, slaps it clean into the mud in front of Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke. Falling to his right he beats it away, finally cleared by an inert defence. The breakthrough had been brewing, but when it arrived it was more lazy swipes and ball watching. As the in-swinging Martin corner is headed down, it bobbles about and is swung home by he who is first to react: Finn O’Mara.
There’s the half over with. Hastings by no means at their best, Whitehawk were certainly beneath the benchmark . Louis Rogers without action, without purpose in a stretch of forty-five minutes that, probably, are best left on the pitch, rather than the memory. It’s not a favourable sign when a side has picked up one point from a losing position all season long. It’s also not a promising omen that Hastings had kept a clean sheet in each of their previous five league matches, victorious in all of them. Enough of that, exclaimed the better known Splatt, presumably, shaking off the first half rust with a fizzer from 20 yards that flew off into the Din End’s roof.
Not enough to worry Rogers, but it was something. Flick the switch, football below the great lights was upon us. Now it was the turn of Whitehawk. Well, it was once Chalmers’ header was cleared off the line by Muggeridge. Deploying a positive high-press, high-line offered the Hawks with more of the ball in those encouraging areas. Jamie Splatt’s curling set-piece around the wall scraping the side-netting so very close to him making up ground on his sibling’s scoring tally, as the momentum turned in Standen’s favour.
Pressure swarming the U’s, much of it was released in a frenetic few moments. Referee Timothy Godfray’s relationship with the articulate occupants of the Din was to deteriorate rapidly as Javaun would see a second yellow card, kicking the ball into the advertising boards after conceding a foul. The Hawks without their goalscorer, and in an instant Ryan Worrall had the glorious opportunity of doubling Hastings’ lead. A supposed handball witnessed by just the single official on the far touchline, the deliberation and consultation was completed with a firm point to the spot. Worrall runs up, Stroomberg-Clarke hangs on, proficiently, too. Hope continued to hiss around East Brighton.
But first, changes. Ollie Munt was on, so too was Demas Ramsis, as that youthful energy and spirit was used to try and unlock a rigid defence. An unlikely outlet in Luke Emberson, who had not ceased running all afternoon, played a delicate pass into Omarr Lawson’s feet. At long last an opening, Rogers was out in an instant to suppress the immediate danger, blocking the shot before it barely left the studded shoe. Into the final minutes now, Rogers flapping at a cross and is quickly transported to the Somme’s no man’s land. Bodies back to defend, Kamara is given the holy chance, the final charge – but no. Heroically cleared by O’Mara on the chalked line, Hastings escaped unblemished, and with yet another set of three points.
So near to salvation were Whitehawk, so far it feels in the aftermath. It would transpire that a convoluted 2021 of lockdowns, inconsistencies and glints of genuine greatness would be typified by a narrow, hard-fought defeat. Throw away the calendar, shake off the misfortune and immerse yourself into a fresh year – one that, confidently, will spawn a new age on the blades of grass for this glowing football club that receives all the love and adoration it so truly deserves.