And so, perhaps, the league title is a now a notion rather than a reality. For large swathes of this one in the sumptuous Spring air somewhere in mid-Sussex, Whitehawk demonstrated their distinction that sets them aside from so many in this league. This was an evening that offered so much, decided by the swing of a leg, ending with the faintest ripple from East Grinstead Town’s masses. A punishing blow to the ribs, but it’s a fact that no opponent is an easy target. Perhaps the hosts just showed a little more hunger, a little more desirer, and a little more quality.
For this was decided in the final minute. At just 18 years of age Ben Aubrey’s brace is certainly one to tell the family: the coolness to round Luke Glover in the final seconds, and the composure to slam home the opener with vicious verve. A few will forget Glover’s impact in this one, keeping his side in the contest with a string of fine saves following the restart. A fixture that just felt like it was victory or bust. And how swiftly this one slipped from those chewed fingernails.
The bare contours of this chilled evening offer a mere fraction of the tale. Whitehawk’s defeat at Chatham Town on Saturday was tough to take, though on the balance of play the hosts were good for their win that whizzed them up to first. Here though, as you arrive at a leafy East Court surrounded by trees that tower over you, the contrast in clubs shines deep. From playing in front of a near 1,500 pairs of eyes to then just over 100, the objective remains the same. Luke Robinson returned and so did Charlie Harris, two players you felt could have made more of an impact on Chatham’s luscious artificial lawn as they set up in a diamond formation once again.
Keeping things narrow has its perks, but when players like Robinson are forced to drop deeper and more centrally their effect on the game naturally decreases. In those opening 15 minutes Whitehawk sprayed the ball about cutely, Alfie Rogers, Rob O’Toole and Robinson playing in tandem, in triangles, as a team. But when a free-kick to left of the pitch, 30 yards from goal was swung into Glover’s box, disarray began to develop. Confusion, chaos, calamity as Aubrey capitalises on the bouncing ball, rifling home beyond Glover for the game’s opener. The league’s best defence undone, Nathan Cooper’s big arm swings through the air in disgust, thankfully no one was in the way of it.
But then again, you could say the same about the next passage of play. Five minutes later and the scores are level, Cooper wheeling away in wonder after finding the bottom corner on the half volley, rippling the yellow and black netting with a fine strike. A goal from practically nothing, but perhaps the message here to have a little more faith in yourself, and you’ll soon reap the rewards. The Hawks wresting control slowly like a battalion in an attritional battle. Familiar face Lew Unwin, the host’s captain and evidently up for it, was brilliant on the night.
For his side it was a lesson in patience and persistence, in trusting his players and himself. We’re in the same league for a reason, and that belief and backbone laid the foundations for a crucial three points. As with only a few kicks remaining in the opening half, Omar Folkes capitalised on more defensive woes to lift his side into the lead once more. Slick play though it was, Whitehawk’s backline was carved open by ingenuity and guile, making those heads spin at the rear as the hypnotic movement set up Folkes, who crashed home his side’s second.
Even when Luca Cocoracchio and O’Toole missed opportunities in the final, fleeting stages of the half, The Wasps’ resilience resisted the pressure, with the Hawks not only fighting for the match, but for their season come the restart.
And after much work, much passing and much tenacity, Whitehawk finally hit back. Khris Oti had seen his close-range sliding shot tipped brilliantly wide by 17-year-old ‘keeper Oliver Cash in the 68th minute, but the waves carried on until they crashed hard into the sand. Cocoracchio it was with space on the edge of the box, his cross was flicked on by O’Toole for Rogers, who headed home into the top corner to spark delirium, raise hope, and ignite a thrilling climax.
So when those dressed in red from top to bottom pushed and pressed deeper into the evening, an almost-full moon adding some natural light onto proceedings, Whitehawk would be staring at a last minute defeat for the second time in just four days. Aubrey sealing the final say; Saunders standing calm, but you can imagine the sheer frustration that must be flowing through his mind. This is the doctrine of Saunders: keep calm, no complaining, win the next battle.
Behind Cash’s goal there’s a spot of unrest. An alcohol-fuelled few who can’t take defeat turning on their own fans. This is not the Whitehawk mantra, the way we do things. Football is for all, and although the wasp’s sting is a sore one for now, there’s a cure just a few days away. Back to The Enclosed Ground’s colour, charm and character – where all is bright on and off the pitch.
We’ve been here before, we know what this game brings. But through it all one must stay united, stay loyal and stay positive. We’ve so much left to fight for as time drips hastily away. Now is not the time to turn your backs.