On a mild, breezy day in mid-Sussex Whitehawk creeped past the blue and white substance of Haywards Heath as Shaun Saunders’ battling side all-but secured their playoff spot with a performance that barely required them to slip out of second gear.
Or, did it? As the crowd — all 538 of them — wormed their way out of Haywards Heath Town’s cosy Hanbury Stadium that takes one back to 1974, there was a feeling amongst the home contingent that gave a whiff of the frustrated, the unsettled. For 45 minutes the hosts only had to score one to level proceedings, yet for the majority Luke Glover appeared unperturbed.
The score finished 2-1 in favour of the Hawks but the actual numbers seemed by-the by: an opening half where Whitehawk carved through their opponents at will, unfortunate to not be ahead by a greater margin as they trudged off the green turf that prior to proceedings cast a shadow of doubt over whether the game would even go ahead.
And, thanks to a few hardy Heathians who probably wished they hadn’t left their beds so early, the match would commence without few troubles as Saunders, returning to his old club, named just the one change from Saturday’s victory over Chichester City: Charlie Lambert taking the place of the poleaxed Joel Daly, who sat this one out after suffering an apparent hamstring injury.
Alfie Rogers scored one, made one and was a constant source of menace whenever the Hawks opted to press at the very seams of the Heath defence. Tommy Brewer, who does so well at the base of that midfield, was simply sensational for the duration. And it’s that connection across the pitch, from Charlie Harris to Hamish Morrison, Leon Moore to Khris Oti that has slowly built over the past few months. This had the look of a team that meant business, and one that is likely to play a few more games than the rest of this league come the end of the campaign.
O’Toole found the net with a well-placed, well-struck strike that soared past Billy Collings in Haywards Heath’s goal, but the writing was already firmly scribbled on the wall: the Hawks frothing from those traps, winning every second ball and getting thoroughly stuck in as the hosts could barely leave their own half. And then it was the turn of Rogers, a man in deadly form, who doubled the advantage with a deflected finish that drifted elegantly into the top corner. 2-0. 18 minutes in. A vicious, veracious start.
There was a rampancy about the Hawks. O’Toole covered every blade of the grass in the first 20 minutes, Oti was causing havoc, and Rogers was at his usual fluidity. So when Oti missed his kick with the goal gaping, the ball fell back to O’Toole who, with Collings expecting a cross, whipped in an arrowed drive that deceived them all, crashing against the woodwork as it bounced into dangerous territories with a 3-0 lead ever so close. It was a ruthless, relentless opening.
Yet as the half progressed and the hosts began to find their feet, former Hawk Alex Laing was involved in increasing frequency, the Hawks’ backline beginning to work as the ball was sprayed to full effect, only the final pass lacking as they began to build their beginnings. And with only a few minutes of the half remaining the scoreline was instantly halved: centre-half Byron Napper delivering the lethal blow from 20 yards as his firm hit nestled in Glover’s corner to inflict a feeling of fear amongst those dressed in red. Half time is signalled. 2-1 the lead. All is to play for.
The clouds cleared and the sun arrived. That warm April star guiding the Hawks to eventual success, it was your classic English weather day. Brolly out, shades on. Too many accessories for this discombobulated reporter. But for the players there is no protection. In all the football that was happening at this time surely the clouds above were moving faster than any other. Yet Whitehawk returned with a swagger, with a vigour that without could have led them to crumble. There was an intent following the restart. And those minutes following the break are so important to a side looking to consolidate a precious victory.
Stefan Wright entered the fray as Lambert made way, another like-for-like switch that saw success on the left flank as Wright drove at the defence, winning corners, throw-ins and free-kicks as he became ‘the wing’. He shall not be stopped. The hosts had started to push the Hawks back a touch, in that typical fashion that all teams nursing a slim lead resort to, but Glover remained a comfortable ‘keeper: ‘this is good, keep the ball that side of the field’, he likely muttered.
Will Miles was on in his new-found role at the base of the midfield alongside Brewer, solidifying that side of the pitch as the hosts found things difficult. Success on the wings was the only way forward, yet Leon Moore and Morrison thwarted any threat. Wright flashed inches wide with a splendid header before Ben Holden drilled narrowly over, but the Hawks saw out the remainder with relative ease to condemn Haywards Heath to further misery, languishing near the bottom with a relegation playoff drawing closer.
For Saunders and his side there’s reason to rejoice: a six-point Easter, one point adrift of 2nd placed Ramsgate and the goals continue to flow. Chatham Town are likely to secure automatic promotion but fret not, there’s many a game left in this side as they travel east to Thanet on Saturday, hunting for guaranteed home playoffs.
There’s plenty more running to come, many more goals left to celebrate, but as the season’s end draws near you can be proud of what they have achieved. And, believe me, there is so much more still to come.