One-all. And, as the Hawks drew closer to Sussex on their return to familiar lands, the more they valued this punishing, pivotal point. It was cagey, tetchy, tense – the scorched turf giving the impression Bonfire Night was the evening prior. On the mass of black rubber pellets the battle ended even between two of the table’s top teams, with a fluid opening half giving way to a scratchy, scrappy second period that confirmed Whitehawk remained the lone unbeaten force in the division. That, right there, is a feat deserving of much merit.
It was grey and it was gruelling. From the moment the Hawks landed to the time of their departure, the rains swirled and swamped the surface of Ashford United’s Homelands. On the balance of play there was little to separate these side’s positioned 2nd and 4th in the league. A battle that spotlighted two of the best defences not only in our league, but in the whole of non-league. No wonder, then, that as the dark clouds rolled over horizon, the scoreline reflected a restless, even barrage.
There was just the one change to Shaun Saunders’ starting XI from Tuesday evening’s fabulous Velocity Cup win at Horsham as Harry Shooman came in to replace the injured Mo Juwara. It’s been a constant for the Hawks to come flying out of the tunnel with a wild frenzy of early goals. And here, barely a minute in, Charlie Harris had already struck the ball three times toward Pat Ohmar’s goal, the last of which whistled beyond the post before it banged into the advertising boards behind.
For goalkeepers, it can be an unforgiving sport at times. A thankless task, one might add, when your defence restricts such a high volume of shots that even one mistake might be detrimental. For Whitehawk it is just about keeping this unbeaten record rolling, moving to places far and wide with the impression you are impenetrable, invincible. Early on in this one it was hastily shaping up to be much of the same: a sturdy structure and a positive attitude in attack. But as things settled and the perennially curiously named ‘Nuts and Bolts’ grew into the afternoon, Saunders began to see the true task at hand.
On 21 minutes the resistance was broken. Jarred Trespaderne, a man with a splash of hair so great, let fly from 25 yards. The ball skipping and skimming along the rubber as it veered past Luke Glover’s hand to drop into the netting behind. It came from nothing and arrived from nowhere, yet the world’s smallest scoreboard was now favouring its owner. But rather than wallow on the wet floor, the ball was speedily taken out of net and pumped forward to the centre circle as if nothing had ever happened.
You could see with a bleak clarity how resolute Ashford’s defensive unit were. Whitehawk revel in spraying it to the wings, chopping inside and playing it into the box. An overload of green and white shapes at the near post prohibited Hamish Morrison and Stefan Wright from claiming an assist. Even Rob O’Toole, making a nuisance of himself in all corners of the hosts’ half, would discombobulate the defence until that final ball. But as Harris slammed the post with a straight shot from just inside the area on 33 minutes, you, too, could see the momentum moving.
We had seen at Littlehampton how devastatingly clinical Harris can be from free-kicks just outside the box, and a smidgen to the left. Here he was placing the ball down onto the plastic, walking back whilst eying that craved top-corner. With a delicate confidence the ball flies over the mane of Trespaderne, and high into the left stanchion. A wonderful, curling thing that had sent the Hawks into the break level. Had it been deserved? Who’s to know – it’s a strike worthy of claiming a point in any game.
For how well the respective defences set out it was to little aghast that the respective goals were an optimistic long-range strike, and a direct free-kick. The second slice of action was a real slog: few spaces to roam, to race. The introduction of Kai Brown in the 67th minute presented Saunders with a different outlet yet, like much of his side, were crowded out by the phalanx of physical, powerful defenders.
For Whitehawk the closest they came to claiming all three points was via the intrinsic boot of Joel Daly two minutes from the board being raised for additional time. Daly is a special player – versatile, fantastic tackler, excellent speed and a right foot to rival any in this league. Watching him and his brother, James, it makes you wonder how the former is not a professional footballer too. Perhaps it’s just by chance, but for Whitehawk this is a player to serenade, to sing about.
With his back turned to goal he attempted an audacious effort that kissed the crossbar before trickling away to safety. Hands on all those heads in red and indeed behind the goal, that was the final say in a half that offered little and presented even less. A real squeeze of the fruit to come away with a point, but a point richer and closer to where they want to be.
So, let’s recap: it’s now November, and the Hawks are still yet to lose a league match. Winning at home and drawing away will get you pretty close to the zenith. As many victories at The Enclosed Ground as draws away from it; Saturday showed that there are teams in this division that will punish you, even dominate you at times but, through perseverance and a little grit, there’s always a chance for salvation.