Isthmian League

Report | Burgess Hill Town 0-1 Whitehawk

As Khris Oti chested Leon Moore’s lolloping cross just outside the Burgess Hill box, he had eyes for only one thing: that little section of goal that guarantees ripple. Will Huffer’s outstretched hand was a mere bystander, waving at the smoked ball as it smacks that zone: the bullseye of netting. It’s a fabulous goal and, for a forward who began life in a red shirt a tad slowly, he is now the talisman, the one to call upon in time of need.

Three goals in three games looks good on paper, but zoom in a little to remove the pixels, and reveal the clarity. Two substitute appearances spawned two perfectly headed goals, yet these were games lost 2-1, and his strikes arriving too late. But he’d earned this start alongside Rob O’Toole, who has looked a fitter, sharper, hungrier tool in the attack. It was the first time these two had started together – two battering rams that ran the hosts ragged throughout. Following Tuesday’s 4-1 defeat at Chichester City, this was a laudable, lively response.

Heed to that table, where things are looking a tad congested. Nervous yet? Well, you’d be permitted to chew your nails as this one ventured deep into stoppage time, the Hawks hanging onto their deserving lead. To lose it here would have been simply criminal, lock them up and throw away the key sort of stuff; no way could this be two points dropped.

Let’s talk about that start, no, wait! The weather comes first: mild grey clouds coating the peripheral. The pitch are shaven green thing. Flat for the most part, sinking a touch in the very far corner of Leylands Park where few trudge. After all, it’s an absolute jaunt to the facilities on a nerve-jangling day like this. Shaun Saunders throwing Leon Moore into the starting XI for the first time since his return. Sneak preview: he was immense. Kai Brown, now in the green and black stripes, was simply pocketed. Will Miles struggling with a tinge of tightness dropped to the bench, whilst Joel Daly and Charlie Lambert returned…to the dugout.

A bench one might say was the strongest of the season. New arrivals Marvin Herschel and Lauric Diakiesse bolstered the brigade, the former making his Whitehawk debut deep into the second half. But in that first section of this afternoon, where three visiting points would stretch so far, Alfie Rogers was clanking posts. Saunders setting his side out in a diamond formation, it pushed Charlie Harris out to the right. That’s fine, but expect to be a tired boy come 5pm. There he was on the right, swinging in the world for Rogers, whose flicked glance off his forehead rebounded against the post, as O’Toole’s acute rebound is blocked away.

This was the first time Nathan Cooper and Luca Cocoracchio had played together in a centre-half pairing – two commanding, imposing presences who were up against the league’s top-scorer in Dan Perry. As the final whistle blew some time after this, Perry had barely touched the ball in the box. Testament to a defence executing their jobs, communicating with effect, winning every duel. Tommy Brewer offering that crucial protection in front, he is to miss the next four matches through the suspension.

Here, though, Brewer was indomitable. Arguably his best game in a Whitehawk shirt, his side had to deal with numerous counter-attacks and crosses from all angles, but he was there to break it up, get his shirt muddy. O’Toole would see a deflected strike slide wide of the post whilst Oti, seemingly winning every possible header, saw one drop agonisingly wide of Huffer’s right upright. Chances carved yet missed, there was a similar vibe to the Velocity Cup semi-final a couple of weeks back: romping and ripping through opposition shirts, only to spurn every chance, and pay the ultimate price.

So when Rogers somehow lifted the ball over the crossbar from a matter of yards out, the fear started to creep in. ‘Cursed, are we?’ Harks a distant Hawk on his way to the bar. Goals against Burgess Hill have come at a premium: three goalless endeavours turned soon into three-and-a-half, but Whitehawk had set the precedent, set the tone; and soon enough this one would be set in stone.

This was Whitehawk’s 40th game of the season. Most of Saturday’s squad have played almost every game. This is not an excuse to the inconsistencies hovering over this team, but it is a factor. Playing that many games for a professional outfit will take its toll, but for a horde of part-timers prioritising their other jobs, this has been some effort, and still they fight for that almighty gift, the one we so cherish: Lewes (A).

Pleasantries aside, this team have displayed their dominance on multiple occasions this season. But there’s also been that other, more frail side of things. Away from The Enclosed Ground Saunders’ side have struggled to blow teams into oblivion. Mustering just two points from losing positions away from home will strike some doubt into you. So, when Oti controlled with his chest before swivelling with his right-foot, what followed was a crack of catharsis. Arrowing in with such zest and venom, it sparked delirium amongst the strong throng behind Huffer’s netting which carried the vibrations long into the afternoon.

Brown had just missed his side’s best chance of the match moments before as Sam Freeman came rushing out to block the shot. In games such as these those margins between winning and losing can be thin. Miles came within an inch of levelling at Chichester last Tuesday. Fast forward seven minutes, and his side are walking off on the wrong side of a 4-1 defeat. Every moment matters, and the importance of taking your chances is simply pivotal at this point.

Daly came on, and so did Herschel, before Miles arrived late to the party to sure up the defence. Tactically this was spot on by the management team. Luke Robinson playing in a more central role could not quite grasp the game by his usual standards, but those usual vibes graced the grass with his pace, power and precision. Burgess Hill, who were hoping that new manager bounce would roll into this one, rarely came close to equalising. Connor Tighe did that thing he does: rifling one from range as it slammed wide to inject a tinge of fear, but this one was won with a single strike of the ball. Oti delivering the damage.

The table is a prettier thing come the final whistle. Whitehawk are 4th, seven points adrift of league-leaders Ramsgate with a game in hand and still to venture to that depth of Kent. Back-to-back home matches against promotion chasing opposition to follow. Enough about the what ifs, the what nots – all those celebrations, the camaraderie, the chants; they’ve all been for a reason. And still, as we move into March, there’s plenty more fight in this beast yet as the season nears its climax. Buckle up. For this one’s going to the wire.


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