Isthmian League

Report | Whitehawk 2-0 Cray Wanderers

It was a performance reflected in the scoreline. A 2-0 is typically a convincing victory, and though last night’s clinical showing over Cray Wanderers was by no means a stroll through East Brighton Park, Whitehawk were worthy winners. 

There was a patience, you see. Something just looked a little different, a little smarter. It’s not often one departs The Enclosed Ground thinking the Hawks have bossed possession, but even with the dearth of statistical data at this level, you could see how well they knocked the ball about with confidence, fluidity and penetration.

For The Enclosed Ground at this time of year is a difficult surface. Playing free-flowing football on a pitch battered by rainfall in recent weeks, months, is not an easy task. Though for large swathes of the night the Hawks stretched and squeezed a visiting side who were unbeaten in their previous seven league outings.

Quietly, slowly yet surely, Shaun Saunders’ side have picked up the pieces blown over in the Winter storm. It was a difficult festive period, hampered by injuries and the natural process of a drop in form, but now there is a swagger about them, a freedom on the field that reminds one of last season’s persistent success.

You could see it in the opening half. Whitehawk losing the toss (again), attacking the Din End first (again). It’s interesting to see the stats behind this, as visiting teams seem to perennially opt for the Hawks to attack the Sea End in the second half. Following last night’s precious victory, Whitehawk have scored 47 goals on home soil in all competitions this season, with 27 (57.4%) of those scored at the Sea End.  

This isn’t to say that Shaun Saunders would prefer to see his side attack the Sea End in the second half, but the power of the undulations is perhaps not as great as some might have thought. And, of course, both goals on Tuesday night were recorded when shooting toward the Sea End. 

It was a quieter Enclosed Ground for the visit of Cray Wanderers, though the Din was loud throughout an opening half where Whitehawk looked to attack like a game of chess. Charlie Lambert, who has been quietly fantastic this season, came closest to opening the scoring in a rigid first 45 minutes, but he saw a close-range effort brilliantly blocked by the sliding leg of an opponent.

David Ijaha is a footballer who at one point in his career was looking to break into Plymouth Argyle’s first team. Here he is again, the former Hawk, competing for Cray with his power and presence. But the Whitehawk midfield stepped it up. Joel Daly was immense throughout, Charlie Harris was at it from kick-off to moment he was dismissed, and the tandem of Tommy Brewer and Ryan Worrall settled the centre of the park. 

The second slice started in similarly serene style to the first. Worrall joined the fray, and following a few spurned opportunities by Neil Smith’s Wands, Whitehawk started to put the foot down. In truth, the game did need a goal, and one didn’t look likely. That is, until Joey Taylor swung a delicious corner into the box that crept over Shaun Rowley’s gloves, evaded everyone else and collided with the far post.

Mercifully, it dropped over the line. Taylor is bewildered – that’s his second goal for the club, and both have arrived in somewhat fortunate circumstances. Still, they all count, and Whitehawk now had something to hold on to for the remaining 24 minutes of the night.

With 73 minutes played the script was re-written. Harris lunged into a tackle and missed the ball. Out comes the second yellow card, followed by the red. An early shower for the midfielder, Saunders’ headache started to grow as he started to consider his options behind him on the bench.

Mitch Walker, who had one his quieter games in a Whitehawk shirt, was required moments after the sending off to grab a bouncing ball on the line that was destined to fall in. A streak of metallic grey rose to challenge the decision, though the call stood: no goal.

And as time almost ran out, with the home defence doing just about everything to suppress the ongoing threat, the night was sealed in sumptuous style. Josh Nandhra was on the pitch now, holding the ball up superbly and playing it into the path of Imran Kayani. It’s a footrace. Kayani bursts into the box, takes a touch just away from goal, but makes up for it with a sublime finish off the far post to cap off a fine evening under the bright lights.

It may be too late for a play-off charge, but with the possibility of potential relegation firmly in the rear view mirror, we can look forward to further afternoons and evenings of enthralling, positive football. The task of consolidation has been achieved, now it’s time to see the very best of this Whitehawk side.

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