Isthmian League

Report | Hastings United 0-1 Whitehawk

With 77 minutes played Imran Kayani did something no one else on the pitch could manage: he found the back of the net. It wasn’t just that though, for this was a strike worthy of winning any game, any derby; a museum piece if you will. Joyful and, indeed, triumphant. The Pilot Field was a boisterous place ahead of kick-off, as their Hastings United side could afford no more slip-ups in their quest for a play-off place. Come two minutes past 5 p.m., you could scarcely hear a pin drop, save for a pocket of euphoric travelling Hawks. 

On their travels against the ‘bigger’ clubs in this division, Whitehawk have been excellent for a side fresh in the division. Draws at Hornchurch, Enfield Town, Dulwich Hamlet, Lewes. Wins at Horsham, Billericay Town, and now Hastings United. There might not be much to play for in terms of promotion and relegation, but still, this past week has seen Shaun Saunders’ side play some of their finest football of the season.

Certainly at the back. Too often, the spotlight clings on to those that find the net, yet the combination of Luca Cocoracchio and Joe Tennent has remained resolute throughout. Joey Taylor has been a revelation since his return from international duty, and Hamish Morrison is unequivocally the most reliable right-back in the league. Then there’s Mitch Walker, where there are simply no more superlatives remaining.

While there’s been results that have made the eyes roll and heads spin, this has been a thoroughly fruitful campaign. There’s plenty of scope for a top-10 finish, with victory in sunny Hastings providing the perfect present for all those that have travelled far and wide—to the freezing depths of Cheshunt and the blustery lows of Hythe.

On this Saturday in April, as the sun shone through with ease, Whitehawk were superb. They rode their luck at times, but what do you expect when coming up against the division’s second-most prolific forward and a team housing a certain Jack Dixon, frothing for a place in the play-offs.

Kai Jennings kept his place in the midfield alongside Charlie Harris, and that provided the protection for the defence and the catalyst for attack with Joel Daly and Charlie Lambert operating on the wings. Rob O’Toole retuned to the fold, and he linked up well with Charlie Walker in an opening half that started to slip away from them as it wore on.

Hastings were not helped by their cautious start. Perhaps the pressure paid its toll, for their finishing was wasteful, as was the final ball. Whitehawk arrived with a game plan and executed it to sheer perfection. Lambert, wearing the red shirt for the 100th time, was utterly tireless. Robbing and harrying Charlie Grainger in goal, he might not have had to use his hands much, but when Lambert is sprinting towards you at speed, it’s going to put your defence under the cosh.

It was Davide Rodari and Jordy Mongoy who had the host’s best chances of the match, missing the ball and the far post respectively either side of the break. Walker, the outfielder, came within an inch or two of curling the Hawks into a dream lead. That would have to wait. The second half showed glimpses of hope at either end. O’Toole almost presented with the easiest of tap-ins after Grainger flapped at a high-kick that rattled the top of the crossbar, before Hastings’ #1 demonstrated further nerves 13 minutes from time.

Step forward, Kayani. A tactical decision to leave him on the bench, declared by Saunders after the match, and well, how about that for some managerial nous. Joining the fray in the 67th minute, it took him 600 seconds to leave his mark on the contest. Daly spots Kayani in space, yet the pass soars high into the sky. Grainger comes out to collect, but misjudges Kayani’s brilliance as the ball is rapidly flying over his head, before settling in the net’s corner.

It’s a brilliant finish – one of the strikes of the season – and it handed the Hawks three mightily fine points on Saturday afternoon. What does it mean? Does it mean anything? There is of course little to play for in terms of promotion but, if this season proves anything, it shows just how far they have come in the two and a bit years since Saunders took over.

This is above all a genuine team, with a 17 year-old winning games off the bench, and an 18 year-old securing victories in the middle. The Hawks held onto their advantage with relative ease, and Jennings almost sealed it in injury time. It caps off an excellent seven-day period that spawned nine points, six goals without conceding any.

Chris Agutter’s side are left dejected at the sight of a second successive season falling short of the play-offs. In contrast Whitehawk enter their final four fixtures in fine fettle, with Saturday a symbol of their sheen and spirit.

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