And in the beginning, when the sun had left its mark on a parched Enclosed Ground turf, Whitehawk were worthy winners. It seemed straightforward from the outside: much of the ball, more of the men; but as those sweaty in red left the field to rapturous, deserved applause that feeling of pride, hope and happiness had returned. And what a glorious feeling it is in such a resplendent setting. Sittingbourne humbled; the Hawks are off to the best possible start.
To begin, one must journey back to the seventh minute. A time when the numbers were equal, and the scoreline deadlocked. Utter confusion in the Sittingbourne box saw a Joel Daly snapshot palmed, quite literally, away by Ben Gorham. Arms up in heaven, an assured point to the spot presented the Hawks with the opportunity for a breakthrough. There’s more, too, as Michael Ryan wafts the colour red in the face of the centre-half. Down to ten the already crumbling ‘Brickies’ are, the one named Joe Shelley shall place the ball on the spot.
And it went in, which is nice. Good old Biff, the ever-reliable presence slotting in at the base of the midfield, the 40-year-old became the Hawks’ first goalscorer of the league season: thundering his penalty beyond the rather feeble arms of Matthew Cafer. So, a goal and a man up over their opponents, and a mere 7 minutes played. From this moment the game was wrapped up, sent to the post office and already delivered. There was no way back for Sittingbourne. Not in such sizzling, scalding temperatures as these.
But in truth this was a match that always had the feeling of a visiting resurgence. The press was off, naturally, but on reasonable occasion did Nick Davis’ new squad threaten a Hawks’ central backline made up of Nathan Cooper and Will Miles. To the right Hamish Morrison was electric, probing and pouncing on all that came near as his electric presence terrified the opposing left-back. On the other side, too, was the dazzling Harry Shooman, whose pace and passing crafted many an opening.
It was Whitehawk who had the ball, had the momentum. Luke Glover’s left glove called into action on just the single occasion to tip over an acrobatic Harry Harding effort, but there was little to hide from. Serenely and precisely the Hawks would pass along the defence and midfield to unlock a deep, rigid Sittingbourne backline. By this point Kane Rowland had converted into a centre-back, and his side’s route to attack was by overloading their own defence. This is an issue, particularly when in the opposing strip of red a ravenous Javaun Splatt lurks, hungry for a feast.
Indeed it was he that doubled the Hawks’ lead, and sent the Sittingbourne sternums drooping. Calamity in the Kentish box was an amusement even to the most neutral of fans as Splatt pounced on such incompetence to twist, turn and transmit a jubilant buzz upon the Hawks followers behind that were slowly melting in the August sun. Then the half time whistle blew, and the contrasting strips of red and yellow wearily departed the field. Some with smiles, others with frowns. Be thankful, Hawks. This was the first time since before the pandemic that Whitehawk had held a 2-0 lead at home.
Upon re-entry it was slip it into fifth, cruise along the autobahn sort of music. Energy levels were low, no less after a midweek trip to K Sports had throughly thwarted any kind of structure. Still, that match is in the past, and the league is always more important than the cup…probably.
Anyhow, the Hawks were dominating the ball. Yes, the sun was hot. Yes, the Hawks were winning. But it was control without the intent. Knocking it about to and fro, side to side, Saunders had evidently asked his side to push on, grab a third.
This never happened. Daly perhaps should have added that coveted troisième, heading wide with the goal gaping from Shooman’s Roberto Carlos-esque cross, but in the end it mattered not. Chiefly because Miles and Cooper remained untroubled. Glover was fast asleep at this point, awakening only to collect the occasional long ball. But for the duration of a half dominated by the heat, the Hawks were crowned rulers.
In the final fifteen minutes Saunders glanced behind to his perspiring bench: Jayden Smith, Stefan Wright and Marcus Marku; the former and latter new arrivals formerly of Southampton B and Harlow Town respectively. Their energy was essential, especially when those from the congested part of Kent shaved the scoreline in half from a yard out…perhaps two. There was always that worry: 2-0 is the worst scoreline. Sure, you’re winning. But momentum is a killer. And a 2-0 lead suggests that you’re flying high, win guaranteed.
For Whitehawk this wasn’t much of a worry until the 89th minute. Frank Puemo converted from effectively the goal-line to place the hearts in the mouths of the Hawks. There was last ditch defending, hoofed clearances and corner-flag laser-beaming but at the afternoon’s end it was the hosts that were crowned justified victors.
And after the midweek misery of K Sports this was a day deserving of all the laud and accolade possible. For 90 minutes the Hawks dug deep, so deep that Sittingbourne could scarcely get close. In the columns of time Whitehawk will forever be unbeaten after the first stage of the 2022/23 season. Yet in this buckling, bruising campaign there is always another game. Littlehampton Town await fresh from Wembley, fresh from promotion. There is no simple task. But objective one has been achieved: send Sittingbourne sobbing.