With 59 minutes played, as the sky slowly began to fade to a powdery blue, Alfie Rogers turned in the box, dragged the ball away from his defender, and felt the contact as he tumbled in the box. Whistle. Penalty. Goal. With ruthless intentions Rogers slammed the ball beyond Kieran Magee. 2-0. 30 minutes to play. Game, Set and Match.
You could sense the relief of those Whitehawk players as they greeted the Din, their Din, brimmed with colour and charisma as the drums rattled through the afternoon. It had been a difficult week: last minute defeats at Chatham Town and East Grinstead Town had dented the hopes of automatic promotion, but with four games left to play and teams breathing down the neck, Saturday’s hosting of Chichester City was crucial for myriad reasons.
And it all began with 2 minutes, 46 seconds on the clock. What was Magee doing? ‘The Lillywhites’ goalkeeper a mere bystander as Khris Oti’s daisy-cutter from 20 yards snuck inside the near post. Magee misjudging his angles, his posts, his afternoon. The Sea End is alive to the sound of a rippled net, and a furious ‘keeper who looks to the sky, hoping the ground will swallow him whole.
It’s imperative to look back 40 days into the past: a cold, bitter night that left the Hawks incandescent as they marched off the Oaklands Park turf with a 4-1 defeat. That evening saw a Whitehawk midfield carved open at will. Callum Overton, Lloyd Rowlatt, Ethan Prichard – all set up to slice through a three-man central contingent as Shaun Saunders’ men suffered a heavy loss.
It was much the same team that journeyed west to East Brighton Park, yet what stood in their way was a more compact, courageous midfield that offered about as much space as a London apartment. Tommy Brewer indefatigable at the base of the midfield, it freed up Charlie Harris and Joel Daly to roam and reconstruct. At the rear Nathan Cooper and Luca Cocoracchio were immense: heading and hacking all that came their way.
But as the half grew older the visitors began to threaten: Josh Clack bringing out the best in Luke Glover as he palmed away a vicious drive from 30 yards; Prichard curling a free-kick daintily wide of the woodwork. It was not the most convincing half — attritional in every sense — but as the interval neared the confidence grew, with Rob O’Toole coming close to capitalising on another Magee error, but his lob from distance drifted into the sun-soaked Sea End.
1-0. Half time. In for a hasty beverage and sit down before a further 45 minutes — this time in front of the fabled Din End — ensued. Cooper had seen a yellow card brandished in front of his face in the first half and made way on 54 minutes for Will Miles, who as of late has been adopted as a holding midfielder, this time slotting into the backline alongside Cocoracchio. A like-for-like defensive switch no doubt, it altered the afternoon in the Hawks’ favour with gaps emerging in the final third.
And as Rogers wriggled his way through the defence, his leg wiped out by the big boot of a Lillywhite, the referee’s long peep of the whistle was met with growing cheers as he slowly, surely, pointed to the spot. Rogers fired it into the netting with brute force, like the ball had somehow mocked him in the build-up. There was little chance of saving this one. Magee would have needed gloves of steel.
Now entering: cruise control. Chichester’s attacking press dissipated into the blue heavens above as Whitehawk knocked it about like a training session. But then the bad news arrived: Luke Robinson, who had been on the pitch for just nine minutes, pulled up with an apparent injury that Daly shortly re-enacted. With all substitutes made the Hawks would be playing the slim remainder of the match with ten men – not a disaster, but certainly a cause to think a little more, to run a little more, and to fight just that little bit harder.
Chichester looked to exploit their man advantage, though as time ticked on and the sun started to flag, it was Charlie Lambert who came within a few hands of mirroring those precious Din End vibes of a few weeks ago as Magee rushed out to thwart the forward. Oti had already slammed Magee in the face with a side-footed rumbler and was in again late on, but his strike zipped straight at the busy shot-stopper to prevent any further roars from the crowd.
From all angles the 525-strong crowd salute those weary Hawks. They had worked hard for their three points, and earned their just rewards. Chatham Town’s hosting of Ramsgate on Bank Holiday Monday is certainly one to keep an eye on, yet those eyes’ priority should lie fixated on Haywards Heath’s Hanbury Park. Three cup finals remain, and the next time Saunders steps out onto our famed Enclosed Ground pitch in a fortnight’s time, there could be so much at stake.