Well, that was wild. Not to mention feverish, giddy and, at times, absolutely excruciating. A football match that seemed to last an entire day, every second spent staring at the clock, hearts sinking ever deeper as the Whitehawk roar fizzed and echoed under the crackling of the low white lights. This was a night for the ages, for the patient many, and for the club and community as a whole.
So, where do we begin? With the 1,428 that squeezed into The Enclosed Ground? With the vicious swing of a Charlie Harris boot? Or with the fans that streamed onto the pitch, lofting the players on their shoulders like a picture from a some vintage footballing moment, engulfed in a plume of red smoke as they danced their way deeper into the night.
There’s been moments in this twisting, hypnotic campaign where you felt like there was simply no stopping this side. And then there was the low moments, the times that made us think, made us quiver. Every season there will be the days that suck the soul from your body, throw it high into the air before the wind carries it back. There’s always been an expectancy, a feeling that this extraordinary football club deserves a spot in the league above. And here, on this late April evening, the Gods above welcomed us with their arms outstretched, singing songs from a place that has stood the test of time, and has won the hearts of so many.
And then there’s Hythe Town. Opponents on this febrile night, this is a side that deserve all the laud and love. In these precise pockets of time there is no harder feeling, yet to stay on the pitch and watch on as Whitehawk raise the silver cup high into the sky. Well, this is the pure essence of the beautiful game.
Seemingly the whole of Brighton got the message: Whitehawk were in a play-off final. At the season’s start 143 people traipsed through the home gates to witness a 0-0 draw with K Sports. 265 days into the future, the Din End has slowly swelled with the moving of time. On this occasion, there was not a seat unoccupied, a space remaining. You could feel that buzz from as far west as Kemptown, the roads gridlocked as the swathes of supporters worked their way slowly towards the ground.
On the luscious lozenge of green the two sides stepped out, 90 minutes away from a place in the Isthmian Premier Division. To the Sea End the majority migrated, though even at the opposite end and along the side there was rarely a place to fill. The Hawks had booked their ticket on Tuesday, with a nail-bitingly tense 1-0 victory over Beckenham Town. But there was more than double in attendance than that on this Friday night beneath the bulbs, all watching on with eyes fixed as Shaun Saunders’ side set the early precedent, laying down the marker to attack, to roam, to pounce.
And after Rob O’Toole and Alfie Rogers had spurned excellent chances in the opening 15 minutes, the first half descended into a bit of a battle: players in red strewn on the field, Nathan Cooper the first to make way before Charlie Lambert clutched his hamstring, and hobbled off too.
Losing players that early is difficult in any game, but with such emphasis on this final fight with so much at stake, it’s a particularly tough one to grasp. So a good thing, then, that Charlie Harris returned to the starting lineup after missing the previous two. It’s those seconds of quality that can make a difference, and he has that in abundance.
With time ticking towards the interval the Hawks are presented with a free-kick on the edge of the box, ‘Harris range’ for those who know. Slamming his initial drive into the wall, it falls back to Harris who, without a moment to ponder, hurls a vicious left-footed strike at goal from 25 yards. It’s curling away at speed, drifting into the far corner, the adrenal many behind just waiting to hear the thunk of the net as it evades the palm of Steve Phillips, nestling in the netting.
Lift-off. That sound is something that will stick for a while. The sight of hundreds all uncontrollably bouncing up and down. There’s your difference, and there’s your half. A lead is so vital: something to cling onto, and for a Whitehawk side who have conceded so few on home soil this campaign, the optimism flowed from stand to stand. A break from the madness ensued, 45 minutes now away from the cherished zenith.
Returning to the sight of a full Din End — a sentence that has been so scarcely scribed in recent years — the great big slice of sky above turned a darker blue above the dazzling floodlights. It’s an atmosphere that can either make or break a player, swallow you whole or charge you on. We all know the power of the Din, the slope and the sounds. And with everything on the line Hythe simply could not cope, could not string that final killer pass.
On the touchline Hythe’s management team whirled their arms in anger, kicking every imaginary ball as if they themselves were on the grass. In the Whitehawk goal Luke Glover did not have to make a meaningful save. Testament to a robust backline, Tommy Brewer was immense in front of Luca Cocoracchio and Will Miles, who gave their absolute all for the white hawk on their shirts.
These were the foundations for victory. In a side that has found the net freely, it’s easy to forget the potency of your defence. Put prosaically, they have been absolute brilliant. Hamish Morrison has played every minute of the season – a truly breathtaking achievement. The songs continued throughout the match, the hosts having their fair share of the chances through O’Toole and Rogers, but neither could spark further delirium.
Eventually time ran out. One final peep of the whistle and that was that, promotion secured. In some dizzying dream you could only imagine such sensational scenes as hundreds flooded onto the pitch, raising their red heroes high into the air as the smiles poured onto the pitch. 40 games later and the result was secured, Whitehawk have returned to the Isthmian Premier.
But remember this: it was not won by one player, by a home support or a sloped pitch. It’s the unity as a whole, camaraderie like no one before. From August to April this has been a collective effort, all striving together as one band, one club. And when the recipe is faultless, the result is sweet.
Bitter it may be for some from another county, this night belongs to Whitehawk. For a side that many wrote off, and for a place that few choose to enter, the dormant dragon has breathed fire once more. Be proud of what you’ve achieved, and who you represent. For there is no greater honour in life.
Until we meet again in August, Hawks.