Sun. Football. Margate. A warm August day for Whitehawk’s first game back in the Isthmian Premier, though the journey back is a long and frustrating one. There they were in their red shirts, shorts and socks, donning the Kappa kit as they emerged from the Hartsdown Park tunnel, and onto the artificial turf. Defeated on the day, yet many more moons yet to pass. It’s not panic stations, it’s positive mindsets.
The Hawks were good for a point on the day. A starting XI that featured only five players from the squad that lifted the play-off trophy a smidgen over 100 days ago, this much-changed side will no doubt need a few weeks to gel properly, but there was much to be encouraged by.
It was league debuts for a naturally large throng of new Hawks: Mitch Walker, Ryan Worrall, Joe Tennent, Jack Dixon, Louis Collins and Charlie Walker all fresh to a side needing to step up to the tougher tests that await them. It’s no longer off to Sittingbourne and Lancing, there’s some big teams in this division.
Margate have been a member of this division for many years. They’ve not challenged for promotion for some time, but they know how to stay in this league. It’s always an arduous task, commencing a campaign many miles from home, and that challenge hastily appeared on the pitch as new ‘keeper Walker wiped out Steve Cawley inside the box as attempted to punch the ball clear. A heavy hit, Walker may have got to the ball first, but the decision remained: penalty on eight minutes.
Ben Greenhalgh steps up to hand his side the perfect start to the season, but it’s a desperately tame hit as Walker gobbles it up with relative ease. At the opposite end of the field in front of a large away following, Collins was causing ‘The Gate’ defence issues as he looked to wiggle his way through the backline. For those in red and blue they looked a threat until a final ball was required. Whitehawk knocking and spraying the ball about nicely, cutely, directly, but Reece Hobbs’ goal would remain untouched for some time.
With 34 minutes played the Hawks’ defence was broken. A well-worked move allowed Fyn Rutherford to drive down the right, somehow reaching the by-line before swinging in a hopeful cross to the back post for Phil Roberts to expertly guide the ball beyond the desperate reach of Walker. And there it was, the first goal against. But it was the response from going a goal down that ultimately will please Shaun Saunders and the rest of his management.
The Hawk had awoken, and a leveller almost arrived through new club captain Dixon who, on the volley, could only direct Luke Robinson’s low cross straight at the frame of Hobbs as he pushed it away to safety. But in this moment the momentum had turned. Mere seconds before the interval, a lovely passing sequence involving Hamish Morrison, Worrall and Walker culminated in Dixon collecting the ball, corner of the box, 22-yards out. With eyes only for the far corner, it’s drilled beautifully before nestling in the netting. A scatter of limbs rise from behind the goal. Game on.
And that, probably, was a fair reflection of the half. Chances few and far between, but the Hawks had looked a threat throughout, and a fine finish had handed them hope of a positive result in Kent. But that high press had ceased a little, and the hosts wrested control of the ball. A few attacks here and there, Walker’s goal was never really under threat until the 59th minute, where he had to be focussed to parry aside Harrison Hatfull’s effort in precisely the same spot as Dixon was for his equaliser.
Things looked to be petering toward the final whistle which, with 79 minutes played, is still some way away. This turned out to be the lone positive as they found themselves on the backfoot once more, Roberts again with a excellent drive that caught Walker off guard. He’s 30 yards out, Joel Daly quickly closing the space, as he unleashes a strike that takes one bounce creeping in at the near post. Sometimes you just have to say fair play and move on. These are the fine margins that will decide games in this league, and chances must be taken.
Which brings us to the final 10 minutes of the match. A Whitehawk bombardment, heaven knows how the ball failed to cross Hobbs’ line but, as we already turn our attention to Tuesday night, the points would remain on the Kent coastline. Dixon involved again, he might have had a hat-trick on another day, has time and space to direct his free-header at goal, but once again it’s right at Hobbs as his defence is able to suppress the threat.
Next: the scramble. A customary showing at this level, first it’s Daly denied by a mighty Margate leg, before Luca Cocoracchio (what was he doing up there?!) forces a fine stop from Hobbs. It lands as far as Tennent (evidently all-out attack mode here) who lays it off to Walker. A few stepovers sees Dixon take aim, but it’s blocked as far as Daly, then back to Walker, until it’s cleared as far as Tommy Brewer, until the attack fizzles out.
It’s painful, yes, but that’s just one of 41. Plenty of football left to play, the Hawks perhaps should have scored more, and that’s something to cherish, to improve. Goals will not be an issue for this side stacked in that department. Defensively comfortable for a real majority, the attention turns to The Enclosed Ground, to Hastings United.
It’s a first competitive game back at home since the dizzying delights of the play-off final, and what a buzz it will be if this Sussex derby is even as half as loud as that late April evening.