On Saturday, 28 October 2017, Gillingham’s caretaker manager at the time, Steve Lovell, stood in the dugout of Rotherham United’s New York Stadium with a smile spread from cheek to cheek. ‘The Gills’, who arrived into the day in 22nd position, stepped off the grass of their high-flying opponents 3-1 victors having had four shots on target, and been played off the park for the majority of the afternoon.
Now, five years and 36 days into the future, the similarities are uncanny. Lovell, now standing frozen in a white painted box on the side of The Enclosed Ground’s green grass, watches on as his Ramsgate side counterthrust with authority, catching Whitehawk out as they threw bodies forward. Luke Glover was scarcely forced into making a save. But for league-leaders Ramsgate, journeying the distance of Kent and much of Sussex, they executed the gameplan to perfection: ride the storm, hit them on the counter, find the back of the net. The Hawks’ hands firmly on their hips come the final whistle, eyes fixed on the grey sky…how did they let this one slip?
For this was an afternoon to learn from, not forget. The division’s apparent best side on the ropes for much of day, Whitehawk the masters of their fate. An interesting afternoon, Saunders will take solace in the number of chances carved on this numbing day a short distance from the whipping waves of the English Channel. Ultimately, they couldn’t make their moments count. Level in a flash after the restart through Nathan Cooper, all that momentum and movement undone minutes later as Glover is left stranded. That was the instant where all seemed to change, where the tide began to turn.
Trudging into this one on short rest after Wednesday’s chilly Senior Cup defeat to Newhaven, the emphasis was on wresting control from an early minute. Ramsgate had travelled to this part of the world in their previous venture away from Kent’s Riviera, falling to a 2-0 defeat at Littlehampton Town. So they were far from the intangible object that their position suggested. But from the off that defence — marshalled by Ben Fitchett and Jake McIntyre — would hold the line and mould the shape, tussling and tackling their way to a first half clean sheet. They had been made to work, but for all of the Hawks’ neat switching and direct approach play, Josh Bexon was left unstirred.
So when the ball found itself deep within Whitehawk’s territory moments from the whistle to signal the break, rattling the post and falling straight to Kane Rowland to gobble up his fifth of the league campaign, it told a familiar narrative that has begun to plague Saunders’ style. There were scrambles, shots from distance and teasing deliveries, yet only one side managed to rustle the netting in a cautious opening chapter.
Attacking the Din End this season has felt like an assurance. Downhill, into the hurricane of red noise sparks a hidden energy that goes amiss when shooting toward the Sea End. 14 of the 25 goals scored have arrived in front of the dense pocket of thick racket, and swiftly that figure was increased as Nathan Cooper powered his way through a field of black and yellow shirts to glance the ball into the bend of the netting to ignite the cheers, heighten the hope. Charlie Harris with yet another assist, it was always going to be he that would source the route to redemption.
Game firmly on. Had Whitehawk settled for ten minutes they might have claimed the precious victory that would lift them top at Ramsgate’s expense. But the hosts, damaged by an increasing number of absentees, had lost Joe Shelley with 31 minutes played. Shelley has been an indefatigable presence in the base of the midfield, protecting and nourishing the backline that welcomed Will Miles back with open arms. This was his first game back, and so too was it Glover’s, away from the posts for Wednesday’s Senior Cup defeat.
There just seemed to be a little instability at the rear of the red shirts. That’s fine, it was always going to take some time to galvanise once again. For two minutes had passed after Cooper’s leveller when Glover rushed out of net to hack clear a long ball sent toward Ashley Miller. The forward’s pace deceiving Glover as he is left stranded in land of no man, forced to observe as the ball flew over his head and dropped into his goal behind. A fabulous response from the visitors, it stemmed from another hopeful heave forward, Whitehawk’s apparent kryptonite.
Life remained with the Hawk. Kai Brown continued to rove freely, Lambert still looked lively, and Harris was everywhere. Joel Daly pushed into the midfield to try and pull the strings, but when his touch is a tad off, you know something isn’t quite right. With 30 minutes remaining the Hawks were dominant; The Rams drowning in overloads as Stefan Wright and Hamish Morrison surged forward from the rear. It was just a case of finding the right ball, but that faded with the going down of the sun.
And in the 78th minute the contest had culminated with distant celebrations. Rowland pocketed another goal, and much of the Whitehawk defence – pirouetting in the box and somehow making room for a shot that flew through Glover’s gloves before striking the back of the net. Storm over, game over. A first league defeat on home comforts, the fortress has been annexed. A minor fall halfway along the marathon of football, there’s plenty of time to right the wrongs of December 3rd.
And for the 478-strong crowd present — a season high despite the bitter chill — there is a promise that will never cease. Whitehawk remain third with a game in hand. On the road to lands of Sevenoaks and Chichester soon, the next time Saunders walks out onto his home turf in two weeks time, the prospect of once again climbing to the top could still be a reality. Now it is up to his gifted group to reply.