Positivity. This seems to be the main message as Whitehawk take to the many roads on their pre-season Tour de South. Now Chapter Two is at an end, yet this tale that grows in adventure and energy already feels far more aged, far more authentic. And If this episode taught us anything, in the aptly leafy Surrey suburb of Whyteleafe, it’s that the prevalent feeling encircling the club carries belief, and rarely has this been so pronounced. Fine vintages come and go, but in the sweaty warmth beneath a celestial pink sky, the red grapes on the artificial field are looking sweet and potent.
Here was a match played under white lights on a perfect July evening. Sutton Common Rovers the shared tenant of Church Road as this one felt like an away fixture for both sides. Less so, actually, for a Whitehawk side backed by a strong sea of blue and red. Where better to spend a Wednesday evening? Manager Shaun Saunders opted for that similar starting side who overpowered National League South Dulwich Hamlet at the weekend, and swiftly the surge of red shirts had the ‘hosts’ floundering at the back.
On the right-hand flank Hamish Morrison was a useful outlet. It’s what he brings to a side: pace and precision. Those crosses aren’t too defective either, but the SCR defence stood resolute to thwart the venerated partnership of Javaun Splatt and Rob O’Toole from connecting. Heed to the left this time, where a zippy Harry Shooman skips along the left byline. He is fast and intelligent: the little give-and-go, the venomous cross, the sizzling strike. The Hawks were looking their best, most ominous when the ball was sprayed to the wings, they just had to search hard for the correct key.
In the centre of the pitch Charlie Harris roamed like a lion in search of his prey. Rummaging hard for the prized catch, his access was denied via a slight deflection as a long distance strike was duly gobbled up by the opposing ‘keeper. First shot on target, check. Next was O’Toole from a matter of yards. First glaring miss, check. Gracefully falling into a face full of rubber pellets went O’Toole, the 2022 equivalent of a muddied face as the captain headed wide of the post from six yards out. But fear not, for Shooman would follow up with another close-range missed header, though the level of difficulty voiced ‘Veteran’ with the full-back always leaning back.
At this stage of the season it’s easy to get complacent. A shower of footballs had rained down on the SCR box in an opening half that just lacked that final touch, final ball. Against the run of play ‘The Commoners’ struck gold, the ball nestling in the corner of the Whitehawk goal after a brisk lapse in defensive concentration. That’s football. A few hefty peeps of the whistle followed as the half drew to a close. Have a drink, have a burger (£4!), prepare for a second half fightback.
The tactician at work, Saunders left his XI almost untouched as the players re-emerged into a beautiful sunset setting. Luke Glover had slipped on his gloves and made shelter between the sticks. The commanding, indefatigable presence produced a spectacular one-handed save to redirect the well-struck shot over the crossbar. That was big — not in the context of the season, but for the mindset of a #1 — who kept the score at 1-0 as the Hawks began to show signs of life, build some territory of their own.
And when you need a hero, you can always call on Biff. Joe Shelley by name, the experienced centre-half leapt tall and true to thunder the ball down and into the netting. Simple football, effective result. It had arrived at a time when the Hawks were on top: shifting the ball through the channels, firing the ball to the final third, making the goalkeeper’s head spin. The leveller had prompted shiny new reinforcements and, with the minutes dwindling, a fresh side pushed hard to maintain a 100% winning start to pre-season.
There was a chance, conjured from little, as the tireless Shooman laced a firm fizzer of a drive narrowly over the crossbar with his left-foot. But Whitehawk had battled hard, worked incessantly to salvage a draw and keep the positivity flying high. Applause from the players at the game’s end, the turnover is quick as that red flag marches back down south to Woodside Road on Saturday for a busy afternoon of further preparation and exemplary morale.