Had that been a league match, you’d have been delighted with a point. In truth, things were difficult on the scorching blades of imitation grass on this Saturday afternoon in Sevenoaks. A pause from Isthmian football, the FA Cup returned with a rather ordinary Whitehawk performance. It was resilience on speed, bodies on the line, another defensive masterclass; but just lacked a little zing up top. No worries, of course, if you’re backline does the job.
“Don’t take this for granted”, manager Shaun Saunders explained to his side prior to the first kick of a ball. For Sevenoaks Town this was an opportunity to flex their muscles against a team in the division above. A club who, arriving into today, had won all three of their home matches this season on home soil, scoring 11 goals in the process.
It was always going to be a challenge, and a challenge it proved to be as the Hawks were placed under some real pressure for much of this sweltering early September day. It took until the 55th minute at Greatness Park for Whitehawk to wake up Amadou Tangara in the Sevenoaks’ net as Charlie Walker offered a looping header at goal, but even that was collected with relative ease.
Put prosaically, not a whole lot happened in this one. Louis Collins and Walker the only two changes to the side that claimed a fine 3-1 victory over Horsham on Monday, taking the place of Charlie Lambert and Luke Robinson, with the former away on international duty. The Hawks swooped with some early venom: spraying it out to the wings, driving at the defence. There was always an extra man in a white shirt ready to smack the ball clear, and soon enough the hosts began to tilt the balance of the match in their favour.
It was Collins who would be throwing himself into the path of firmly hit drive just inside the box with 16 minutes played. Whitehawk have been immaculate of late at getting bodies quickly to the ball, blocking the shot. Soaking up some sporadic pressure throughout the half, Palace Francis came within a whisker of handing his Oaks the lead, firing wide after riding past a few blurs of red.
And as we breezed beyond the half-hour mark Saunders was forced into an early change: Luca Cocoracchio hobbling off as Connor Cody slotted into the centre-back position. We haven’t seen much of Cody since his arrival from Chichester City, but he was solid for the duration – and there are few positions on the pitch that require such tenacity and focus, especially after coming on off the bench.
Goalless the break and, well, it had the feeling of that from the very first blow of the referee’s whistle. It was as if a replay at The Enclosed Ground should have been advertised prior to today’s proceedings. Indeed, the hosts did thwack the post from a drilled strike from 20 yards just outside the box, but as the ball crashed to safety the scoreline was already written.
A white hail raining down on Mitch Walker’s goal, there were so few attacks at the opposing end. Testament to a Sevenoaks defence that were rigid and resolute, there was not a man in red who could find a yard of space for a shot at goal. And with the sun sinking in the clear blue sky — beautiful conditions after a summer so dispiriting — the afternoon petered out into nothingness.
A few late barrages dealt with by Walker in the net, his presence has given the Hawks’ loyal supporters such confidence. For those sun-kissed faces that returned to Sussex at the final blow of the whistle — to which there was an impressive hardy few — they will ready themselves for a replay this Tuesday evening.
“We’ll be a lot better on Tuesday”, insists Saunders in his post-match interview. It might not have been the Hawks of last weekend, but make no mistake: this is a side ready to give their all until the very last kick. It was about as hard-fought a draw can be, and as you sink into your sofas on this Saturday night, you can be pleased that our name is still in the hat.