It had been 286 days since Ross Standen was appointed first-team manager of Whitehawk. Now in the warm August heat, the eyes were firmly fixed upon his redesigned squad as they received their first taste of league football since October last year.
Buried deep amongst the myriad of South East London houses, the quaint home of Cray Valley Paper Mills emerges: The Artic Stadium. Lagers and ales grasped by the hand, flags displayed behind goals and that unique smell of the freshly mowed grass can mean only one thing: Yes, the proper football has returned.
And on the basis of Saturday’s performance, hopefully it is here to stay. The Hawks were good. In times of attack they posed a threat — predominantly through the electric Ronnie Conlon — whilst defending resolutely for healthy portions of the contest.
But it was the men in green from just south of the Thames who would be the first to rejoice as Ade Adeyemo tapped the ball into an empty net from an acute angle soon after the half-hour mark.
Then came the Hawks. Standen evidently breathed renewed life into his battalion as they emerged hungry. Ready to feast, James Fraser would be wheeling away in delight after slamming home the equaliser from close-range. But there would be no change to the script. The inkwell drained of its contents; a well-earned point would soon be on its way to Sussex.
So, rewind the clock to 3pm and, at long last, the season was underway. The Hawks in their ocean blue strips, they got the ball rolling in the oppressive sun. The early minutes showed little between the two sides but there was a spark down the left-flank.
That energy was Conlon who, toe-to-toe with his defender, found a yard of space just inside the box. His shot at goal was struck with venom but Chris Lewington was equal to it as he turned the ball away for a corner.
Debuts were dished out to the newly acquired pair of Simon Mensah and Callum Edwards and the former further tested Lewington in The Millers’ goal. Unequivocally exuding confidence, he fancied his chances from 25 yards out but could not quite find a corner as Lewington clung on.
In the time that followed there was further evidence of that lack of disparity. Chances were at a premium and it took a defensive mixup to cater for Cray Valley’s first goal of the match and, in turn, their season.
Confusion arose after a pass from the back was sent soaring before dropping awkwardly near Hawks ‘keeper Nathan Stroomberg. Who wants it? No one except Adeyemo apparently. The ball came loose in the box and the forward stroked the ball home from an increasingly tightening angle to send the ground into ecstasy.
So that was the story of the opening half. The remaining minutes petered out with desperately little action as a tall task faced Standen’s XI. Locked behind the changing room door the words that echoed around must have seeped through as Whitehawk returned full of zeal.
The Hawks were level! Conlon raced down the left-hand side of the pitch before drilling the ball along the turf and into the box. Somehow, some way, the ball managed to evade all in blue and green except for the onrushing Fraser who simply could not miss. The travelling Hawks jubilant, there is a moment to saviour.
With the wind firmly in the sails Omarr Lawson wanted a slice of the action. A free-kick a touch to the left of the box was sent towards goal but, similar to earlier, it was little trouble for Lewington. The signs were encouraging, though. There was a positive desire and attitude that emanated from all in blue as they could sense a change in the tropical air.
Half-chance upon half-chance, there was always the danger of getting a little carried away and becoming exposed at the back. And yes, that is exactly what happened. Twelve minutes from time and the hosts really should have taken a late(ish) lead.
A thumping piledriver from Hassan Ibrahiym was beaten away by Stroomberg as the ball fell to Francis Babalola in the box. He showed some tricky feet– twisting and turning effectively — before firing low at goal. Stroomberg stood menacingly over the ball as he swatted it away with his feet to preserve the scoreline.
Time began to ooze out of the stopwatch as the match entered its final phase with the scores level. There was tenseness in the air. Which way would the pendulum swing? It was the hosts who began to threaten with increased frequency as Henry Muggeridge was sent on for Fraser.
Oh, what a let off! Babalola again, he’s played clean-through with only Stroomberg to beat. Instead of the conventional shot he curiously played it across goal, praying for a man in green to fire hit home. Unfortunately for Babalola, it was the legs of Adam El-Abd who reached it first as he smacked it away to safety.
Time was almost up. It was not known how much stoppage time there was but it appeared to be in the double-digits. Even those on the pitch seemed uninformed as the match began to open up. Here’s a chance, there’s a chance – it was breathless action. Lawson had the final moment, rifling the ball into the side of the net as the final sands slipped down the hourglass.
Indistinguishable from the outset, it was a point deserved and a point well-earned for Standen in charge of his first competitive league fixture. Thoroughly sated having found themselves damaged by absentees; it is a point gained in a season that promises to be challenging but supremely entertaining.
And so, a short hiatus ensues before the Hawks return to league action in a fortnight as Sittingbourne venture to the Sussex coast. No fixture next weekend on account of Whyteleafe’s expulsion from the league and cup, it caters for some required rest in this fledgling, beautiful time of the season.
Report by Isaac Gleave
Millers: Lewington, Dymond, Green (Ibrahiym 61′), Blanks, Tumkaya, Gayle, Sammoutis, Barrington, Adeyemo, Attenborough-Warren, Hill (Babalola 65′). Not used: Semakula, James, Beerling
Hawks: Stroomberg, Emberson, Edwards, Mensah (Unwin 90′), Blackmore, El-Abd, Munt, Lawson, Splatt, Fraser (Muggeridge 84′), Conlon. Not used: Freeman, Clark
Goals: Adeyemo 33′ (Millers), Fraser 48′ (Hawks)
Man of the Match: Ronnie Conlon