It was a sultry, sunny day in August, and the clocks were striking fifteen. Shaun Saunders, his mind absorbed in the prospect of a further three points, slipped from the Cray Valley tunnel and out onto the immaculate green turf. Following him is a blue stream exuding credence and colour, reverence and reason. Saunders saunters to his dugout, finds his place in the white chalked box with one arm drooped, the other used to block out the blinding sun. Captain Rob O’Toole returns; the piercing whistles ring out across the country.
And so, too, was Chris Lewington’s woodwork with barely a minute played. It’s that vintage tempo, the speedy start as Charlie Lambert’s twisting in the box, clanking the post with his left-foot. O’Toole was the exit, the answer to attack. A proud fighter of a captain who answers to the sobriquet ‘Chief’, his side set the precedent, controlled the ball, pursued a goal. Annoying, then, that after being denied by a few inches, the hosts from our gritty, dusty capital were first to rustle the net.
It was from little; defensively inert and a touch jagged, ‘The Millers’ possessed an attack of genuine life and threat. Denzel Gayle a roving menace, it was Ade Adeyemo whose 20-yard daisy-cutter circumvented Luke Glover’s glove and sneaked into the corner. The visiting dugout looked dismayed, not despondent as the usual flapping of arms and clapping of hands kept those heads held high. Whistle, kick, run. It’s as you are, lads.
Winning is an enthralling concept (purely a notion, here, as the Hawks have been somewhat bereft of success in recent years). It took until October 16 for Whitehawk to surpass the six-point mark last season. The year before? Didn’t even reach it. From National League to Isthmian League, Bath City to Chichester City, It’s been umpteen seasons since optimism was draped from the Din End’s roof. But back to now: to a game not yet lost, not yet slipped from the aged palms.
So when the hosts scored and the obligatory grumbles had left the premises, Whitehawk-born Ryan Warwick popped up at just the right time to slap a smile on the many recognisable faces present. It was bliss, gorgeous; teeth biting lower-lip sort of action. By this point the Hawks had applied the pressure, flooded the box, yet now it needed someone to take it my the scruff of the neck, get it in check and level the scores. Warwick whizzed the ball into the bottom-left corner from just outside the box, sticking in the tight netting as it connects.
At half time the mood was ebullient. Perhaps as it signalled a brief end to the sun’s scalding exposure, but more likely as the Hawks were now in a salutary position. It had been laborious and it had been competitive, but as they made their way back for the second instalment the Hawks appeared reinvigorated: like a fourth-placed 1500m runner who’s suddenly realised there’s only a couple of laps remaining. The ‘there’s plenty of time remaining, but let’s get this one wrapped-up swiftly’, sort of energy.
It came to life on 55 minutes, 120 seconds after Glover’s upper body had brilliantly denied Gayle from close-range. Hamish Morrison with the heave into the box, flicked on by O’Toole and guided into the right-stanchion by Javaun Splatt. As if in slow motion the ball stopped in the air, all eyes fixated as it passed serenely into the corner. The strong throng behind the goal are exultant: slamming advertising boards, gutturally shouting. Let those wild dreams commence.
At the rear of the structure Will Miles and Nathan Cooper were at their usual dominance: heading, hustling, hacking balls away as they protected Glover with all their might. Stefan Wright and Jayden Smith were soon introduced in favour of Lambert and a limping O’Toole as it injected a sprinkle of speed along the wings for the inevitable counter-attacks with the hosts beginning to swarm in search of salvation.
As the clocks struck sixteen thirty it was the Sussex tourists who almost found a route to goal through an unlikely source: Connor Dymond. A hopeful ball was headed back toward goal by the Miller who, unaware of his ‘keeper’s presence, nodded a few inches wide. Miles connected powerfully from the Charlie Harris corner, but it was palmed properly away by Lewington for another set-piece.
By now the game had opened up. Glover at full stretch to deny Daniel Bennett from range, it’s a swirling, whirling drive that is expertly kept out. Deeper the Whitehawk backline falls. Five excruciating minutes of stoppage time awarded. Nails chewed; Hawks pacing up and down the path.
Beyond the allotted time as Adam Coombes thumps an optimistic shot with his left-foot from the corner of the box, flying over Glover, soaring into net. Scenes from the touchline that were reminiscent of the Ethiad Stadium after Sergio Aguero’s famous goal in the dying seconds.
It’s a fantastic strike. Yes, it’s cruel. Yes, it hurts. But after 270 minutes the Hawks remain an indomitable object, flying high above the nest as we wait just 46 hours for the next chance.
In sport there are few certainties, but one is the unpredictable nature of it all. For all the talk, all the buzz, this project is just laying the foundations. Let it breathe, let it happen. Sit back in your chair and enjoy this team for what they are: a group with a burning desire akin to your own. They want this as much as you. So let’s reconvene on Monday, and we’ll see how they respond.