Sat comfortably in his sheltered seat following the final whistle, as the rain lashed down onto the roof above, there was something melancholic about Ross Standen’s post-match thoughts. As if contented on his left hand, but frustrated on the other to be heading to his home with a single point. Only the once has a side gone toe-to-toe with Cray Valley Paper Mills this season, and left with all three points. Yet here Standen had a bittersweet moment: one of pride and progression, and one of dejection and depletion. Whichever way one looks at it, this is ultimately a good thing.
A fair amount has changed since Whitehawk’s 1-1 draw with The Millers on the opening day of the campaign, most notably Cray Valley’s irrepressible form, but what has remained a constant in this time is that there is evidently no separating these two teams. Eleven unbeaten, that’s what stood galactic in front of the Hawks on Saturday afternoon. A tall order to slay with the Sussex blade, those who packed jovially behind the goal’s frames will have slipped away from the Enclosed Ground heartened by their red heroes, if not a little saudade themselves.
And they had every right to be after Mohammed Kamara’s splendid, curling cross into the box discovered an unmarked Henry Muggeridge sneaking astutely to thunder the ball below Chris Lewington, and into the saggy netting behind. Six minutes in, one-nil Whitehawk. The leaders of the league rocked, shocked at the core from their own lackadaisical defending. Muggeridge jogs behind the goal, a grin slapped across his face, punching the air in the direction of the supporters chilly in the Sea End. It was to be his first league goal of the season, but this was far from the knockout blow.
Chance, chance, chance: this was the tale of the half. Whitehawk impressively pressing their opponents, full of vigour and drive, as Muggeridge fancied a second, dispossessing Jack Sammoutis deep in the defender’s own half and shooting hard from distance, but Lewington sprung to his right to deny a further change of scoreboard. Rampant they were, this one began with great pace and urgency, slicing Cray Valley open on such frequent occasion the game might have been over before the half time whistle had even blown. James Fraser on hand to convey this, glancing Muggeridge’s free-kick wide in a wide spot of space.
Out to the wings the ball was sprayed, into the zone of the goalkeeper it would go. The intensity appeared to surprise Kevin Watson’s men, seemingly unfamiliar with the Hawks’ high-energy, high-press mentality. Indeed, the visitors were without a select few of forwards due to Covid-19 related reasons, aiding to their impotency in attack. They did pose more of a threat in the host’s half, however, chiefly through the imperious Nathan Green who possessed both quick feet and legs. Far from the temperatures a ‘keeper wishes to be static in, Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke would be shifting some blood away to his furthest parts by denying Joseph N’Guessan’s hissing drive from afar with relative ease.
Sammoutis saw a clever free-kick skim the back of the Whitehawk nettage on the brink of Chris Williams’ whistle, as this half was rightfully claimed by Standen’s soldiers. Battled hard and with a deserved lead to take down the chicken-wiry tunnel, this one was a distant from its conclusion. Light fading with the faint fizzle of drizzle delicately coating the now sparkling blades of turf, it would provide that extra bit of zip for the ball as the Hawks attacked down the slope in the direction of an increasingly vociferous Din End.
Atop the standings in position and in goals scored, it was with a sense of the inevitability that some listless defending provided Hassan Ibrahiym with a clear sight of goal in the minutes that followed the resumption. Green was electric along the left channel, skipping beyond a few lazy limbs before simply passing it into a populous box with the hope of the ball being found by a blue figure. Matthew Attenborough-Warren, unlike his outstanding name, fluffs the first chance but it ricochets to Ibrahiym who, racing in at a mighty speed, crashed the ball into the roof of the net via a faint Luke Emberson deflection. Nostalgic now from months previous, this occasion was again all-square.
It had been a muted contest for Peter Gregory but conceding early into the half sprung the winger into a renewed form of life. Spotting Lewington adrift from his line and with the ball rolling nicely along the turf towards him 25 yards out, he opted for a looping, fierce drive that caught the Millers’ ‘keeper off-guard, back-peddling as it was tipped by the fingernails over the crossbar. Minutes later, and there was Gregory again — patient was he from an-inswinging corner — the ball dropped exquisitely onto his right-boot, but a yard wide of the right-upright it flashed. Lewington rooted to the spot, the noise from behind reminiscent of a fine opportunity missed.
To simplify things, sort of, this was a half of two quarters, inside a game of two halves. Useful? Thought so, and soon enough the pendulum swung in favour of Cray Valley. Hoping to rip out the sting from the increased pressure, Declan Kama and Toby Reeder were sent on to replace the wearisome Muggeridge and Fraser. But now having swapped wings, it was Green versus Emberson as the former cut inside on his left, before skimming the crossbar with an arrow-like beam that had Stroomberg-Clarke’s heart trembling.
And so into the final segment of the affair they plunged, Whitehawk net under siege from an indigo bombardment. The beginning rounds of fire began with a Francis Babalola wayward spank that soared to the surprised Attenborough-Warren. Unable to adjust, it bounced off the Miller at some speed but landed, fortunately for the hosts, into the grateful grasp of Stroomberg-Clarke. More pressure, and more luck for the Hawks as they permitted Sammoutis to run freely into their half. Closer and closer he dashed with the rain and the win behind him, like a plane caught in the jet stream, before eventually letting loose from 18-yards. The answer was the same, Standen’s red army had survived.
And exhale. This was much the narrative of this recent chapter: high-octane football. Breathless from the outset, it was an afternoon of quality but wastefulness, trying yet stalling. As it was both sides walked off a point richer, still unsure in the now relentless rain whether to be pleased or frustrated by the final outcome.