And there it is: play-offs secured. It’s been a long road — one that began well before this season commenced — but as the sun-soaked Hawks slap the hands of their proud travelling supporters, slowly catching their breath back as the match swung to and fro like a possessed seesaw, there is much reason to show some praise.
With 55 minutes played Luke Glover did a wonderful thing. If there was any moment to save your first penalty of the campaign, this was probably the most timely. Ashley Miller standing over the ball, crowd behind expectant; it’s a fabulous strong hand to thwart the thwacked ball as it bobbles about, dancing in the box, just about cleared as the Hawks escape. The defining moment in the match.
This, all of the above, came with Whitehawk staring at a 1-0 deficit. An opening half that brought little quality, few openings; the dearth in determination from either side made it a slightly strange watch on the eyes. Second hosting third with a mere point in it, Chatham Town would win the league by the day’s end and so a guaranteed dose of home playoffs was all that was at stake.
For a Whitehawk side who have been ruthless at The Enclosed Ground this season, this is quite a big deal. And so you join us at Southwood Stadium, gloriously lit by a warm April sun. Hordes of Hawks making the pilgrimage by car and train, perhaps a supporters’ boat would have been the most sage idea of all. Stefan Wright earned a start with Charlie Lambert dropping to the bench in Shaun Saunders’ only change in personnel.
A half of few chances, certainly in the way of Whitehawk, Glover would come away the strongest of them all after producing two imperative stops to deny Ramsgate’s forwards. In the reverse fixture back in December the Hawks stepped away from their own pitch shell-shocked. On that freezing afternoon the Rams’ gameplan was clear: hit them on the counter, run at the full-backs at pace.
They would claim a 3-1 win at The Enclosed Ground, just the second defeat for the Hawks on those soils. Yet on this sunny Saturday that somewhat new-look defence had sharpened up: they were more physical, more present.
Whitehawk’s finest chance of the half arrived on 25 minutes: Charlie Harris curling one of his trademark free-kicks millimetres over the crossbar. It was a delicious, snaking sight. Angled to near perfection, but drifting dangerously close.
But as the half ticked on the hosts pushed on, finding the spaces on the wing, in the middle. Barely seconds after the board displaying the additional minutes was lofted Ramsgate seized control. What we must stress is, this is a very good counter-attacking side. Within 15 seconds of goalkeeper Josh Bexon pilfering the ball from the sky, that same orb was bouncing about in Glover’s netting. Headed emphatically home by Thomas Carlse, it was the energy of Miller, and his ability to cross, that earned them their lead.
At half time there was quite a few permutations at the peak of this ever-changing league pyramid, and so it’s best to leave that in the hands of fate. If Whitehawk wanted that second spot, they had to come out with a bit more fire, more ferocity, more faith. This is a side more than capable, and soon enough it showed.
Not before a little smidgen of drama though, eh! Leon Moore the unfortunate man, an interminable wait for the referee to award the spot-kick followed as Glover produces a fine stop to his left. Hope returns to those in blue. The day would be forever altered by one strong palm.
Seven minutes later and the scores were level. The Hawks had started the half in rather decent fashion prior to the penalty, and swiftly they had to rebuild their mojo. Bringing the vibes for a tenth time this campaign: Rob O’Toole. It’s a sumptuous finish, too, as the forward connected with a deep cross to the back post, almost passing it with a divine coolness into the inner side of the net.
It was a good goal and a big goal and a deserved goal. For a solid 20 minutes in the second half the Hawks were well in the ascendancy, only denied by the slightly overhit ball, or a defender’s leg. Reece Price-Placid entered the field of play for the first time in a Whitehawk shirt, slapping the hands of Wright as he jogged over to the right side of the pitch.
You certainly wouldn’t have guessed it was his debut. He was agile, alive to the game as his firm cross came within a fraction of Khris Oti’s diving head. Lambert was on and looked to make things happen: slicing a volley wide before a deflected drive concerned the ‘keeper. Throughout these waves of Whitehawk attacks Ramsgate would have chances of their own: Jadama clanking the post with a close-range header, much of the capacity crowd wailing at the sight of the ball bouncing back into play.
Bexon blocked Alfie Rogers’ acutely-struck hit before the hosts squandered a golden one-on-one opportunity with mere seconds remaining. A match report can never offer the full flavour of the actual event, much like a camera on a glitteringly starry night, yet the pace should be indistinguishable. This high-octane thriller brought out the best of both sides, a matchup that we might be seeing again very shortly indeed.
It all comes down to the final day. For these two sides they can breathe far easier than those fighting for a play-off spot in the positions below, yet second spot remains the coveted item, the holy grail.
And remember what they achieved on Ramsgate’s plastic pitch on that mid-April afternoon. The fight and the freedom, the punch and the passion. Whilst trips on the road haven’t always been met with joy, you can return to Sussex with honour in your heart. Until next week, Hawks. For judgement day creeps ever closer.