It was an afternoon where nothing seemed to go Whitehawk’s way. Doomed from the very beginning, that flawless league record was fractured in the bitter chill of Kent’s uppermost limits. Chances carved, chances missed. A day of toil. frustration, defeat. It’s been sometime since those words were etched onto Whitehawk’s mural but, as Shaun Saunders and his side return to Sussex battered and bruised, there is still much of this war left to fight.
Luckless, animus, robbery. “We had enough chances to win two games today,” declared a naturally disheartened Saunders following the final whistle. Indeed yes, the side he set out to play on that boggy, sodden surface toiled and tangled with Beckenham Town’s defence, but departed with no reward. Their fate was sealed in the 50th minute: Stefan Wright adjudged to have brought down Danny Waldren in the box – a decision that rattled the regiment, injected the incandescence. A phalanx of blue surrounds the referee, but still the call stands.
Louie Theophanous would power the ball viciously through the outstretched palm of Luke Glover to hand his side a 2-0 lead. There’s the game, there’s the streak. It was always going to occur, but as the hosts slammed the door shut in front of the sniping Hawk in an opening half governed and gilded by Saunders’ side, it had that clichéd feeling of being just one of those days. It wasn’t just Steven Townsend’s fluke that flew over Glover’s head. Nor was it the deeply contentious penalty minutes after the break. But the constant unanswered bombardment that heightened the frustration, and ultimately ended in growing disbelief.
Lining up in their usual away strip of deep azure, the fresh face of Billy Fuller found his place on the bench as Charlie Harris returned to a starting XI staring at the shadows of the injured Will Miles and Harry Shooman. From the very beginning the Hawks began to wretch control of the contest: a constant flurry of corners and crosses from every angle were met by the mighty limbs of Mudiaga Wanogho and Robert Carter, who defended meritoriously throughout.
Early pressure and pressing has been a certainty under Saunders. Here, under the cold November trees, a similar vibe was enforced: locate the space, spread to the side, attack down the flanks. In another setting Whitehawk might have found themselves three-nil up by half-time. Instead, Glover is dejectedly grasping the moist ball from his own net after Townsend fires a cross into the box that swirls over hand and crashes against the woodwork, cannoning into the saggy hexagon netting. One-nil down, still a mere mound to climb.
But as the half rolled on the Hawks were to be denied by body, post and their own luck as Rob O’Toole and Charlie Lambert had glorious chances to settle the scores, sniff out the salvation. Captain O’Toole would head wide, hit the woodwork; just about everything but test Beckenham Town ‘keeper Nick Blue until a Harris skimmer skipped into his hands with 35 minutes played. For all their desires and dreams the finest moment arrived the minute prior: Harris clipping a free-kick for Shelley to flick-on, but O’Toole can only guide his header spiralling off the post.
And then the confusion turned corrosive. O’Toole chopped down in the box, arms up in angst, appeals waved away by the all-important figure. Those on the field step off a darkening scene to the tune of a slim home lead. For all their intricate interplay and persistent pounding Whitehawk were behind at the break for the first time since September 20, thirteen games ago. A laudable feat, and one that has scarcely been troubled as here, now beneath the low white lights of Beckenham, was starting to fall into danger.
In situations such as these it’s typical for sides in the ascendancy to cling onto their advantage, and retreat into the hibernaculum. But here, in the harsh depths of Autumn, Beckenham came cavorting from the tunnel. Theophanous forced Glover into an intelligent save with his planted leg as the waves of red rushed a crumbling blue wall. Heed to stanza one, where Wright proclaims his innocence, and the referee points to the penalty spot. A sudden, subjective call that only one man needs to make. For right or for wrong, likely the latter, the conclusion is always the same.
Theophanous beats Glover. Advantage doubled. Now the mound swells to a mountain. A steep, sapping task that would never be turned in. Not for the lack of aspiration – the Hawks still sweated and stretched their opponents, but only to be shoved back by an ever-deepening defence that remained defiant for the duration. Even after the final kick had been taken, long after new arrivals Jerson Dos Santos and Fuller entered the fray, Blue was yet to make a meaningful save.
On his debut Fuller showed real signs of life: bursting through the middle, trying to make things happen. Harris finds the net late on, again there is an official on hand to reverse it. With the match at a close there is only one side left glowering at the afternoon’s end. In retrospect it was the opening half that ultimately harmed the Hawks. At this level chances have to be taken, or you’ll be punished. And punished they were.
Truculent in defeat, that sour tinge on the tongue will soon turn toothsome once more. But for now remember what it is like to feel deflated. For afternoons such as these are few and far between.