By Daniel Shumake
We were sold a pipe dream when the sun finally reared its head after consecutive English weather days. Walking into the ground, radiation from above warmed my back and brought a smile to my face. Such feelings were short-lived. Although I was initially denied entry by the always lovely Pete Weston for “eating all the cake” in the Whitehawk Boardroom, I eventually hip-checked my way through the metal turnstile and a palpable air floated towards me.
To the left, younglings in full kits were putting in proper Brexit tackles in a patch of grass no bigger than my dorm room rug. Sean Dyche and various other 4-4-2 truthers would be so proud. To the right, two people spread their arms, both holding pints, and embraced each other. They laughed in the way you do after seeing someone you love for the first time in a while. Heartily and gratefully.
Past the joyful pint-huggers, a woman handed out fresh apple juice from a local Brighton orchard. I am a sucker for apple juice and older women with curly hair, so naturally I got a cup. It really was fresh-squeezed brown and thick from the crates of green-yellow apples behind her. It was tart. Very tart. Despite this, I drank the whole thing and found a spot in unfamiliar first-half territory.
The Ultras started in the Din, which felt unnatural. One has to wonder: do Whitehawk always win the coin toss and attack the Sea End first? Or do teams not realize that attacking uphill in the second half is a considerable disadvantage? Regardless, the handsome, beautiful, tasteful, and cultured Ultras cheered as the Hawks kicked off against Sheppey United.
Everyone in the ground could sense a quiet chugging. An observable static that buzzes atop an electric fence. It was progress. Momentum. And the Hawks played like it. All over the pitch, Whitehawk was beating Sheppey in every duel. On the ground or in the air—it didn’t matter. Rob O’Toole was the leader of this aerial squadron and his genius hold-up play ended up earning him Man of the Match honours. Cheers Chief.
In the opening twenty minutes, the Hawks attacked with hunger but no killing bite. Multiple crosses from duel-master Luke Robinson fell in dangerous areas.
A couple of minutes later, Rob O-Toole steered in an off-balance volley from a Charlie Harris cross. It took a deflection, consequently taking some pace off the ball, and looped right under the bar. They all count! I’m sure Rob wouldn’t mind me saying that. 1-0.
The goal certainly fuelled the fire in the lads while the Ultras dedicated their efforts to stoking. The Din continued to party, momentum jumping up and down with us in the stands. The game settled and both teams had their fair share of possession, or in non-league terms, lack thereof. Halftime arrived and people went about various pint-and-scran-centred business.
My halftime ritual consisted of another cup of tea, anywhere from two to six little sausage rolls, and a silent self-loathing for atrocities committed the night before. Although, Kate’s chocolate cake and calling me darling cured most bad feelings. Right next to the boardroom, NHS representatives were taking people’s blood pressure. Why? I’m not sure, but I was interested in how abysmal my results would be considering I was sleep-deprived, one pint and two teas in, and a light tremor persisted in my left hand.
To everyone who gathered to watch’s surprise, my results were perfectly in range. 130/73, a circle of yes next to the question of BP in a healthy range. My pulse was 54, which also received a yes circle for a regular pulse. A miracle by some standards but coming to the Enclosed Ground for the past month proved to me that there was magic in the Whitehawk air. My exam ended and the second half began.
Sheppey came out of the dressing room desperate to get the equaliser. They had multiple periods of play which could only be applauded internally. One could hardly applaud in any way, though, because clouds completely swaddled the sun and hands consequently froze.
The Hawks survived these spells however and continued to play direct football, with O’Toole as a useful outlet. None of the home side’s moves materialised into anything particularly tantalising, but that’s the game sometimes. In fact, for large portions of the match, the various happenings on the pitch weren’t terrible but not great. In my opinion, that’s what makes the beautiful game so beautiful, especially in non-league football. The few-and-far between nature of big moments makes those moments all the more magical.
Deep into the second half, both teams had decent chances. The higher quality of those chances belonged to Whitehawk, but Sheppey proved a constant threat. Ultras bit fingernails atop red, numb hands. Our defence was resolute and feelings around camp were mostly positive and assured.
Such positivity and assurance reached an ear-splitting peak as Rob O’Toole won a brilliant header in the opposite half. The ball dropped right to Alfie Rogers, who played a pass across the box first-time to Luke Robinson with acres of space and one man between him and the dagger. Not an ounce of angst nor an inkling of insecurity. Luke waited, dribbled past Aiden Prall, and tucked the ball neatly into the left corner. Absolute limbs in the Sea End. 2-0. Ballgame, folks.
The vibes afterwards were simply immaculate. Cheering and hugging all across the stands. Children ran around with boots crunching against the concrete. A sound everyone who’s played a pitch sport knows and loves. As I stood there clapping, I realized that I felt at home.
I had always felt welcome, but singing those songs whose lyrics I was constantly learning, the Enclosed Ground felt like my home. My ground and my team. I’m not sure any one of the Hawks felt differently. This club is special and so is this team. On to Tuesday, you Hawks! We are so proud.