“Well, the burgers were nice”, declared a satiated Hawk as he made his way out of Culver Road at the final whistle. They weren’t wrong, but was that really the highlight of the evening? In a game that ebbed and flowed, ebbed a bit more before flowing even further, Whitehawk ambled to their adoring throng behind the goal at the game’s end with fumed faces, listless legs after drawing a blank with Lancing. The allies had tussled hard; fought for every ball and body, and come away aggrieved with a point. Ha, how times have changed.
What’s that conservative approach to football? ‘Win your home games, draw your away games and you’ll be right up there’. Five games and 38 days in (some elite scheduling on display here), Shaun Saunders’ squad have done just that, and a little bit more. There’s a platform here, a sense for superiority. Nothing wrong with that, so long as you’re the one with ambition. And beneath those Lancing lights they played with that same rationale. For as the match strode beyond the ninety-minute mark, there was only one side with a desire to win.
There were names of new, too, which appears to be an increasingly normal occurrence as Saunders strives for a sturdy offensive outlet in the wake of Javaun Splatt’s departure. Announced additions Kai Brown and Andrew Sesay started on the bench and pitch respectively, whilst the fresh face of Aderi Arthur-Dede — AAD if you will — commenced his Hawks tenure with a place in the dugout. He’d come on, as would Brown, in an effort of attrition, an evening of toil, vexation and, prosaically, a goalless stalemate.
That distinct Whitehawk start (you know, the one where they score within the first five minutes), had failed to materialise. There was a press, but not a push. A front three of Stefan Wright, Rob O’Toole and Andrew Sesay was supported by the roving bones of Ryan Warwick and Charlie Harris, who appeared a little cautious at the prospect of a Lancing counter-attack. For all their ills, history and dismissiveness, the hosts were a well-oiled machine. Backed by their goalkeeper Alieu Secka, who evidently cares not for his body, finding a route to goal was about as painstakingly difficult as a route along the A27 at rush hour. It’s not going to happen, mate.
Backed by a wonderfully strong away following, it was an opening half of football that just lacked an answer, a move, a finish. Secka rarely inspected, the occasional pinball in the box or surging run on either flank would be the only cause to stir the Hawks faithful. Moves had to be carved with surgical precision to lure The Lancers into consternation. Wright whacked one into the side netting, O’Toole came close to pulling the trigger in the box. Mere mettle alone wasn’t going to win this one outright.
But what do you say to a side in command but without reward at the break? ‘Be more fearless’, perhaps? ‘Exploit their fullbacks’, rather? For Saunders, we imagine this to be a particularly puzzling half time discussion. Purely because everything his side had thrown at their opposition, Lancing simply smiled and waited for the next wave. There would always be another attack, another mission, yet the threat level remained a constant: DEFCON 4 – increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures. There was no need to bring in the calvary just yet.
Anyway, Brown was on for his debut, replacing the poleaxed Harry Shooman who seemed to be struggling prior to proceedings. Wright was stationed at left-back, behind Sesay as the two combined to win a free-kick behind enemy lines. The cross was a fine one, as many were on the night, but the resolute combination of Finn Daniels-Yeomans and Thomas Butler proved an impenetrable pairing. And when they did pilfer an inch of space for a shot, Secka would be there to beat, parry, shove the ball away to safety. First Shelley, then Sesay: the turn of the Hawks’ utter dominance, only if it was to be inevitably in vain.
Even in defence Wright would surge forward to areas high and fruitful. There he was dancing between two Lancers, driving into unguarded plastic only to shoot gently at Secka. As the clock ticked into the eighties the freedom for Harris to pick a pass rose with each fleeting minute. Now into defence mode, Lancing’s focus lay in the securing of a point – one that could be cherished and serenaded, remembered and retained. Ashley Mutongerwa could have even won it at the death for the hosts, if not for his mistimed header mere metres from goal.
Even at this report’s denouement, it feels erroneous to centre this around Tuesday’s visitors. Of course, it would be a tad queer and questionable if it wasn’t, but as the final whistle rings over the sleepy seaside settlement there is a team in yellow who have fought just as hard, just as well. Whitehawk’s ardent zealots journey the short distance back to Brighton feeling like that was two points dropped.
And perhaps that’s true. Perhaps they will feel that to reach their ambition, nights such as these has to yield maximum points, But maybe, just maybe, they can awake on Wednesday morning with some laud for Lancing, whilst also remaining upbeat at the unbeaten league record. Many a lesson are to be learned along the way, but the first has just been taught: in this league, there is no such thing as an easy game.