As the fourth official’s board is raised with 90 minutes played, the Din End quaked and quivered at the sight of home debutant Luke Robinson steering the ball through a sea of shirts to secure three crucial points. It had been nail-chewing, head-in-hands sort of stuff for an afternoon flooded with missed chances on a choppy, clogged turf that stood the test of our county’s recent heavy rainfall. And as the Hawks are serenaded as they trudge from the field 2-1 victors, this club’s pschye returns with wonderful a floodlit clarity.
December was a laborious month: three matches, three defeats, two postponements. It’s easy to get bogged down with the falling of the temperatures and the harshness of Winter but, for a side hastily running low on physio tables, this was a group that needed a festive break of their own. Will Miles missed this one through suspension, with Joe Shelley and Rob O’Toole the other leading absentees as Shaun Saunders opted for a rejigged setup that saw starts for the silky Kai Brown and Robinson on opposite sides of the attacking flanks.
For Saunders, well, this was a match of monumental proportions. Not purely for the need to reignite this team and propitiate a string of capricious supporters, but for the personal points: hosting a team in Haywards Heath Town that had dismissed him a year ago despite leaving them in 5th position. Whatever the reason may be, there was an extra incentive drilled through the skulls of those dressed in red on this stunningly sunny afternoon that illuminated the lozenge of green below.
Haywards Heath are a side transformed since the arrival of joint-managers Alex Walsh and Dale Hurley from Lancing in the middle of last month. The former, wrapped up with many an upper layer yet braving the shorts, would be standing deflated and defeated come the end of this frenetic, ferocious affair. But back-to-back triumphs to commence their tenure seemed to ring true with a little under 2 minutes played as the excellent Ibrahim Jalloh scaled a mountain of shirts from an Alex Laing corner to delicately deposit the ball into the very corner of Luke Glover’s net. Another premature setback from the Hawks; the shadows of a forgotten month now channeling back into the brains.
The reply was scant: ‘The Blues’ knocking the ball around with exemplary conviction and confidence. Slicing through a Whitehawk defence that saw Harry Shooman deployed as a centre-half and Stefan Wright returning on the left, that Shelley-shaped hole was clear as crystal once more with the punishing waves of Heath counter-attacks. Fortunate indeed to emerge beyond the 20-minute mark staring at a single goal deficit, the hosts were beginning to show signs of a team fighting for a spot in the division above.
Charlie Harris, who was instrumental in the centre of the pasture, combined with the roving Joel Daly to push their side deeper behind enemy lines. Whitehawk received a reward: Daly funnelling the perfect pass for Hamish Morrison a few yards in from the byline. With the angle narrow, the finish a lovely soft, easy action through Billy Collings’ legs, the crowd behind just waiting to hear the thunk of the net. Morrison wheels away in utter delight, a first league goal against your former side will unexpectedly release a fiery dose of catharsis into the ether. Saunders’ side level, spurning chances in front of goal now, as the half time whistle sounds around The Enclosed Ground.
Scarcely mentioned but drastically imperative were the front three of Brown, Robinson and Charlie Lambert. With O’Toole off duty the Hawks were less direct, forced to play it on the deck and make use of the full-backs bombing on from behind. And now they were attacking downhill, heading into the jaws of The Din; a cauldron-ish, all-welcome, all-party block and theatrical waves of noise and colour. For those stripped in red from top-to-toe there are few louder, few finer walls of passion and sound in non-league. And for those not used to its uniqueness, it can swallow you whole.
Whitehawk chomping at the bit come the restart, there was drive and desire unseen in the opening 45 minutes as the lights above flood the sun-setting vista. Ryan Warwick had a fine game controlling the midfield, assuring the defence has some sort of protection. And as the 50th minute passed the man so tattooed that even his tattoos have tattoos came within an inch of sparking delirium, poking wide yards out after a messy cluster of bodies had failed to suppress the threat.
The visiting cohort, opting to switch on their attacking impetus in sporadic spells, would clank the top of the crossbar through Jalloh, whose shot on the spin soared high off a defensive leg. The afternoon’s entertainment just opening up, Lambert slammed the ball off Collings’ right post with the angle marginally against him, no man in red could force it over the line. Whitehawk carrying the momentum but alert to the warnings Heath posed when in the final third. Daly was replaced in 70th minute after suffering a knock, Mo Juwara slapped the palms before taking his place on the right-hand side of the pitch.
Creativity existed through Brown and Robinson. Both were electric in their own right: dancing along the channels, skipping beyond challenges. The Din End, now an expectant, hopeful mass of skittish souls waiting to roar, erupted into a plume of pandemonium one minute into additional time. Robinson, receiving the ball in a crowded area, beset by a swarm of shirts, and yet still able to able to pick his spot and slam the ball through a forest of bodies into Collings’ corner. Unsure on how to react, how to mark this momentous moment; Robinson dashes behind the goal, lost to the rejoicing curtain of clamour.
Victory at the death, there is no better time to seal the fate of your opponents as they stand stunned, Heath’s hands heaped on heads. A pivotal three points lifts the Hawks back into the playoffs positions. Saunders lauds the 633-strong crowd — the highest home attendance since November 2016 — before disappearing down the tunnel to further squeezes and smiles. And as the New Year spins into a reality overhead, Whitehawk return to the right path, back to their silken, brilliant best as a busy January comes briskly into view.