Midway through the second half, as the Din End shook and shuddered on a biting night in East Brighton, as Whitehawk’s red shirts struggled a little in their familiar home spaces, it was hard to avoid the feeling of being imperceptibly bumped into a time machine, and transported back to last season. All the hallmarks were there: the cold, the failure to score, Javaun Splatt, the late push, Alex Malins; yet as the clock ran out of minutes and the sides embraced their respective supporters, the feeling amongst the home throng was met with equanimity: this could have been a lot worse.
For the duration an animated Burgess Hill manager in Jay Lovett did his best to strangle and subdue a Whitehawk contingent striding into this one in full flow – a side charged with the belief one unbeaten in the league should carry. Animated in his big white box, moving with every kick of the ball it would have not been a surprise to see Lovett strip into his blue kit, and sprint out onto the dewey turf to join his players. Instead he was stopped by the power of a chalked white line, forced to watch on as his well-oiled, well-drilled, well-disciplined side came away with a well-deserved point.
Through all of this Splatt had mooched. In a bizarre switch to the narrative he returned for the night – as is allowed when you’re still registered with the club – and drifted out to the wing, playing like someone who was drafted in to help out old friends, whilst bearing heavy caution over his own condition. Looking back on last year you realise the importance of Splatt: his goals, his smiles, his adroit link-up play. It was the moments of brilliance – the bravura flashes – where Splatt would shine, providing the engine for easing the fears of relegation.
But here it all looked a little bit clunky, just a little bit off their usual lustre: a midfield that on occasion was outflanked and outrun, and an attack that lacked a spark, an energy, vibes. The bar has been set high in these early stages, but as the first 45 minutes whisked by in a flash beneath the low white lights, crackling in the cold air, the Hawks’ classic fast start/high press failed to befell the watchful eyes.
In the 21st minute Charlie Harris delivered the most delicious of crosses for the angling, driving Rob O’Toole. With most of the Sea End already expectant on their feet – fighting for feeling in their limbs – the forward glanced his header into the near side netting, sparking the sporadic ooohs. Burgess Hill would fail to relinquish their command on the half: stroking the ball about with authority, the slope was their ally as they lay siege to the new centre-back pairing of Nathan Cooper and Alex Malins.
This was a robust showing. The defence has been immense all season – a mere four goals conceded from the opening seven games verifies this – but as the spearhead of Kai Brown, Charlie Lambert, O’Toole and Splatt stumbled in their search for an opener, there was little to sing, to shout, to sway about. At the opposite end in front of a travelling vocal minority, Lovett’s men were wasteful and careless in front of Luke Glover’s goal. A scoreless draw should have been expected from Daniel D’Urso’s first whistle.
By no means was this some sublime act of defensive nihilism from either side. Both wanted it, to reach out into the night sky and grab it like a child plucking at the moon. It was a battle of the defences – who would cave first? At the heart of The Hillians’ operation Kieran Rowe and Josh Spinks were immense. All in stylish electric blue played with passion and purity – only the reckless right boots of Jeff Duah-Kessie and Dan Perry letting them down.
As the Din End swiftly swelled up with its usual noise and character, Splatt came within a few inches of a heroic return: rising high but slamming his header into the advertising boards behind Taylor Seymour’s left post. Brown next to test the former Crawley Town ‘keeper, drifting into the middle where he works utterly in tune, making space for a shot that is spilled but recovered. By now, moving ever deeper into the half and the night, the game opened up with Shaun Saunders’ XI praying for their net not to bulge.
For when Reggie Ward, alone on the right side of the pitch, sent in a fine cross straight onto the pate of Perry, the 328 within the walls of The Enclosed Ground stopped in silence. Anywhere but there and it’s 1-0, three points back to mid-Sussex. Glover stands alone with nothing but his wide frame to prevent the opener. Moving low with cat-like precision, the ball spiralling away to some sort of safety.
The game was there, and then it was gone. Hawks now huffing with further intent as Burgess Hill soon drop deeper to settle for a share of the spoils. There were shades of last season’s 0-0 stalemate between these two sides – shadows of a now forgotten past turning visible. The offensive push arrived too late, this October affair’s fate was sealed before the first rattle of the turnstile.
Was this two points dropped? That is up to your own interpretation. Prior to proceedings a draw would have felt like a missed opportunity, yet as the band of frozen Ultras shimmied out onto the cold streets of Whitehawk, they will have felt a mixed sense of self-esteem and setback. A rigorous skirmish between two frenzied sides – sometimes it’s best just to settle for a point, and wait for the next moment to strike.