Isthmian League

Report | Hornchurch 0-0 Whitehawk

As the clock swung round to 5pm on this numbing, arctic afternoon in Hornchurch, Imran Kayani dropped to the floor in pure exhaustion. There were times where the backs were firmly pinned up against the wall, noses shovelled in the dirt; yet as the final whistle sounded through the bitter air, Whiitehawk had pocketed a point at the division’s finest side.

Hornchurch are a side who will push you until the very end. Fronted by manager Steve Morison — a man who just over a year ago was stood in the dugout of Cardiff City — they have yet to lose in the league all season. They hadn’t drawn a blank, either, until the robust red of Whitehawk graced the boggy turf of Hornchurch Stadium.

But Shaun Saunders didn’t set his side up for a defensive rearguard. Width was witnessed in Imran Kayani and Dominic Johnson-Fisher; Harris assumed the #10 role with Charlie Walker roving near him. There was a constant outlet, a route to light. The Hawks might not have given goalkeeper Joe Wright much to do, but this didn’t detract from a well-balanced, organised display.

Mitch Walker walked off with the Man of the Match award, but perhaps this should be a shared prize. The indefatigable combination of Luca Cocoracchio and Joe Tennent. The awareness of Hamish Morrison. The brilliance of Joel Daly. And the brute force of Tommy Brewer. The defensive dominance has been bombarded a touch in recent weeks, but this was the perfect end to a long and brutal tour on the road.

Six of the previous seven matches have been away from The Enclosed Ground, but this one was perhaps the most significant. Hornchurch will win this league, but they were left with hands on hips, eyes gazing at the frosting grass. From the first peep of the referee’s whistle, Hornchurch pushed forward. High-line deployed, Ade Yusuff whipped an effort wide of Walker’s left-hand post.

The warning alarms were ringing out, but soon the tempests tailed off. With each cross cleared, every counter broken up, the red shapes started to believe in themselves. The midfield were a well-oiled cog in a machine, working overtime to shield their defence. And when that barrier was broken, the yellow shirted Walker stood tall to ensure a precious point would be on its way back to East Brighton.

A contentious free-kick led to a close-ranged Hornchurch header destined to billow the net. Walker stuck up an arm instinctively to palm the ball over the crossbar. Morison had evidently told his players to target the left-side of the pitch. Daly has rarely been deployed in the left-back position this season, but here he thrived against former professional, Sean Scannell.

Whitehawk would move into the break with a couple of attempts to their name: a long-range, wayward Harris drive and a Jack Dixon blocked shot. It spotlighted the match as a whole, as for all the host’s possession and attacking energy, they really didn’t do too anything with it.

Liam Nash is another former pro – never given the chance to shine at Gillingham as he dropped down the divisions. The league’s second top scorer had his moments — a volley denied by wonderfully by Walker and a fine drive slamming against the woodwork — though was genuinely a shadow lost in a cluster of red.

And as the time ticked toward the end, Hornchurch kept up the pressure. With 66 minutes played the linesman asked the referee to come over to inspect an area of pitch that was hastily frosting over. Imagine that? All that sweat and toil to be snapped in half by an issue that, evidently, was absolutely not an issue at all.

Naturally the Hawks dropped a little deeper, getting the shovels out to dig a trench around their 18-yard box. The Whitehawk goal became increasingly under threat with an almighty scramble in the box. You just expected the net to shake. The ball ending up in the gloves of Walker, it became a defining moment. That is, Hornchurch won’t be scoring today.

For their supporters this is a rather alien statement for them. They are used to perfection, to walking out of the gates with a winning feeling in their mind. For 12 league games in a row they had left with all three points on their route to an 11 point lead at the top.

Digging deep to earn a point on Wednesday at Cray Wanderers in the final moments of another freezing day, the response was perfect. Lloyd Dawes took the place of Johnson-Fisher as the afternoon’s lone switch for the visitors, and shortly after the referee called a halt on proceedings.

A defensive display deserving of serious merit and prominence. These are the rocks upon which we built our church. Indomitable at the back, spirited in mind. It’s another stop in this long season, and it’s another performance to be proud of. There’s a lot of happy faces on the way back to Whitehawk, and that’s all that really matters at the end of a long, prosperous day of following the Hawks away.

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