This was an afternoon to remember. There was hunger, there was intent, there was passion. Fourteen goals had been shipped in the three matches that preceded this FA Cup Second Qualifying Round tie with National League South Slough Town but, had you travelled to Arbour Park on Saturday, you’d have thought this an immensely different side.
The Hawks were superb. Not purely for the fact that they billowed the net on three separate occasions, but for the early setback that may have placed a sense of foreboding into the minds of those in red. Absolutely not, it soon transpired. For Henry Muggeridge swiftly evened the contest before Javaun Splatt headed Whitehawk into a first-half lead. Still with 45 minutes to play and any scoreline within the realm of possibility, it was James Fraser who added a third and in turn secured his side’s advancement into the next round of the cup. Immense.
On a day where the pleasant sun would sporadically reveal itself through the scattered clouds, the three o’clock alarm granted the all-clear for things to get up and running. Adam El-Abd made his triumphant return, settling into his usual place amongst the back four. Ollie Munt, too, got the nod alongside Lew Unwin as Ross Standen devised a series of personnel changes.
But as in recent fixtures this one started bleakly too. A Delap-esque launch into the Hawks’ box made life particularly tricky for the defence as Freddie Grant leapt impressively above his marker to head a precise looping effort beyond the powerless Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke and into the corner to propel Slough with an early lead.
There was something different about Whitehawk’s response, however. The setback appeared to breathe an air of confidence into the lungs of the side from East Brighton. Tenacity was at the forefront of everyone’s mind with a strong belief that the opposition were there for the taking. They just had to grab at it and, soon enough, the Hawks received their just reward. Seventeen minutes had ticked past by the time El-Abd spotted the forward run of Muggeridge breaking through the defence. The pass was perfection and so was the control – chesting it down with ease. Within striking distance the skipper did just that to great aplomb, with a deft right foot finish past Jonathan North.
The visitors were purring. It was deja vu with the ball at El-Abd’s feet. Passing accuracy on point, he heaved the ball up towards Splatt in the penalty area. The forward rose and knocked the ball down into the path of the onrushing Fraser for him to club one on the half-volley. The technique was exquisite but so was the save as North leapt through the air spectacularly to divert the ball away.
With the sweet sound of the cowbell energising the afternoon’s travellers, Lloyd Cotton had to be alert from a Slough corner. The ball slipping from Stroomberg’s grasp, it fell for Grant who could smell a second. Cotton had other ideas. The spherical object rolling towards goal, it was booted away in excellent time as it remained 1-1.
And then Stroomberg-Clarke had to be on his toes. It was your classic, dangerous looking free-kick positioned just outside the box. The kind of set-piece that flaps the wings of those inner butterflies. Warren Harris took aim with a right-footed curler which looked good…until it wasn’t. Just evading the white paint of the woodwork, it brushed the roof of the net on its way into the modern-looking stand.
Splatt was in fine form. A smidgen of a goal drought to begin the new season, two goals in his previous two matches has injected a degree of spirit and drive. He was everywhere — robbing and harrying the defence throughout — he secured his accolade just as the referee was ready to blow for the interval. Leon Redwood standing over the corner as if to say ‘this is the one’, the cross was an in-swinger into the shaken mixer. Splatt, indefatigable, climbed highest to head the ball into the far corner. There’s the whistle. Whitehawk in front.
So this was a big half. Not just for a place in Monday’s draw but for morale as well. The players were buzzing, it had been an excellent opening 45 minutes. That continued into the latter half as the football was wonderful at times. Pass and move, Muggeridge neatly played the ball into the feet of Omarr Lawson who turned towards goal. Composure and perception, he slipped in Splatt with a cute reverse pass that sent the latter in at goal. The angle was tight and the finish was tricky as North thwarted the threat.
Transition down towards the other end and ‘The Rebels’ came within an inch of knotting it up. An inch it certainly was, rarely does the ball ever come so close to not striking the post, it was Josh Jackman’s left-footed effort that looked destined for the top corner. It would’ve been a sublime goal but no, gravity didn’t want that one to go in.
Because physics was on Whitehawk’s side. Here it is, the knockout blow. Still a fair twenty minutes prior to the close of play, the power of hindsight understands that Fraser’s finish would condemn the hosts to defeat. And it all started with Lawson to Muggeridge and then Splatt, who held the ball up adroitly. Lawson had some leftover oxygen inside of him to sprint at such velocity down the flank as Splatt laid the ball into his path. Run, run, run as fast as you can, down the wing he flew before placing a deft pass with outside of his boot into the feet of the onrushing Fraser who clipped it high over the onrushing North into the net. Game over, goodnight.
Fraser had run his heart out. They all had, in fairness, but it was the goalscorer of the third who was replaced by Simon Mensah to try and sure up that midfield. Indeed, the lead was close to being reduced if not for some further wasteful Slough attacking play. Aaron Kuhl — hair reminiscent of his surname — delivered an almighty cross into the box that landed on the head of Max Worsfold. Not many yards out at all, it probably should’ve troubled Stroomberg-Clarke but not quite as it flew the wrong (or perhaps right) side of the goal.
There wasn’t much time left. The Hawks could almost taste the FA Cup scalp. After all, this is quite the cupset. And it could have been four in the eighty-eighth minute. A defence rebelling against themselves, they were in disarray. The fresh legs of Mensah helped him skip past a challenge or two before cutting it back to Lawson in a castle of space. There was no one around, but there was someone lurking on the line. Eleven yards out his shot was arrowing in, but the left boot of Matthew Lench changed the scenario.
Not too much more to say. Ah, yes there was a rattled crossbar in the dying seconds. An almighty cluster of folk in the box, it was the foot of someone who turned the ball onto the underside of the bar but, with luck very much on Whitehawk’s side, it came back out to a red figure who heaved it away.
And that was that. A sparkling performance matched by the result. Slough threatened as was to be expected but they left to rue history. Clinical by nature, Whitehawk didn’t just win at Arbour Park; they annexed it.