By Daniel Shumake
A full moon followed and watched along with the nearly frozen Whitehawk faithful last night at The Enclosed Ground. Temperatures were low and anticipation was high. After a convincing 1-0 win over Beckenham Town on Saturday, a strong number of well-layered Ultras filled the Sea End to watch their Hawks battle Ashford United in a contest vital for the last playoff spot.
Breath crystalized in the Brighton evening air. Steam rose from little plastic holes in disposable white teacups. Maybe a couple of the cups held Irish coffees. One can only hope. The Hawks fans say no to many things, but drinking alcohol is unanimously agreed a ‘yes.’
Despite the frigidity, warmth emanated from every corner of the stadium-lit ground. Laughs galore, smiles everywhere, and adorable little dogs with tails wagging for the pride of Brighton non-league football. It was the perfect environment for an American journalist covering his first Whitehawk match (if you lovely lot will allow me to break the fourth wall for a moment).
It was a frantic first couple of minutes between the sides respectively adorned in yellow and beloved red. Desperation echoed throughout the stands and all across the pitch. Both teams turned up ready to brawl, berate, and battle each other for three points.
Ashford displayed impressive physicality in midfield, winning aerial duels and effectively pressing the Hawks backline. This pressure came to an apex in the seventh minute when the Nuts and Bolts found their way into the box, forcing an impressive double save from Sam Freeman to keep the teams all square. Foot save, back to his feet, palms the rebound over the crossbar. Brilliant stuff.
Such acrobatic prowess on one end must have helped the football gods look favourably upon the Hawks at the other. Three minutes later, Kris Oti drove at his man and forced a corner. Keys of all kinds jingled all over the ground in anticipation for the corner taker: the East Grinstead James Ward-Prowse, Charlie Harris.
Indeed, the harmonious keys sounded like sleighbells announcing the imminence of gifts. And, like Santa himself, Harris delivered a present in the form of a goal directly from the corner kick. Bare hands left the solace of pockets. Pints were spilled. A well-tamed mayhem—because how chaotic can you be in a peacoat?
The jubilance was short-lived however, as the Bolts’ Henry Muggeridge played a ball over the top to Danny Parish, who took advantage of a failed clearance and slotted it past Freeman for the equaliser. The Ashford faithful made as much noise as a dozen people can. 12 strong, like that sub-par Chris Hemsworth movie.
At this point, the score was even and so was the intensity between the two sides, resulting in an Ashford shirt torn down the middle like a bad exam result. The visitors pleaded with the ref for some sort of yellow justice, but Whitehawk knew nothing about it. For all we know, Robert Saunders could’ve ripped his shirt himself.
Play continued. And in the 31st minute, Ashford received a penalty for a handball in the box. The Bolts #9 Gary Lockyer stepped up and slotted the penalty in the bottom left corner, just past Freeman’s outstretched arm. 2-1.
The general consensus at the time was one of hushed acceptance. Ashford had been the better side up until the penalty, as Hawks manager Shaun Sanders admitted in his post-match interview.
The clashing, both verbal and physical, continued after Ashford took the lead. Pushing and shoving and hard tackles all over the pitch. Not even the referee was safe, which reminds me: the NBA’s baby-skinned refs could learn a thing or two from non-league football. This lad dealt with constant uncouth commentary from both teams. Good on ya, stripes.
Before halftime, the Sea End was encouraged by their Hawks growing into the game. Both flanks were utilised well by Luke Robinson and fan-favourite Stefan Wright. The persistency from the boys in Red paid off. After a couple of balls into the Ashford box and various attempts to clear, the ball fell to midfielder Joel Daly in the 44th minute.
And, boy, did it fall to him. Daly took it on the volley and struck it as sweet as the Victoria cake in the Whitehawk board room. As the great Ray Hudson said, “It was a mix between a rapier and a thunderbolt.”
The Enclosed Ground went into limbs. Fans in various sections screamed, faces red from the equalising goal and biting cold. At one point, I swear I saw a small dog get Lion-King’d. For the Hawks, it was the perfect end to the half. For The Nuts and Bolts, it was a dagger.
Fans caught their breath after an intoxicating first half by getting, well, intoxicated. For some, pints. For others, tea and biscuits. Whitehawk has something for everyone, you see; it’s an inclusive club like that.
The second half meant Saunders’ side were attacking down the slope. The Enclosed Ground, for all its majesty, is anything but level.
The home crowd had a bit more pep in their step shuffling towards the Din. The twisted, curling sheet metal and the protruding roof makes for prime acoustics. Truly, there is nothing like listening to the vast array of Depeche Mode, Taylor Swift, and ABBA echo and bounce off the walls and reverberate over the ground. Such great comedic timing from the lads as well.
For all their energy in the second half, the Whitehawk fans hardly saw any tangible moments to celebrate. In fact, the game was a “flurry of nothingness” as our delightful Twitter feed likes to point out in these low-possession stalemates.
The Hawks made some subs here and there: Alfie Rogers for Tommy Brewer and Rob O’Toole coming on for Oti. These two brought an assuredness to the attack, bringing some hold-up play into the mix. Saunders’ side started to grab the game by the scruff of its neck, too. They were winning balls in dangerous areas, pinging switches to full backs, and taking on defenders on the wings.
The Din could feel the momentum bubbling and popping like rising lava. The first little eruption arrived as O’Toole played a through ball in the half-space to Rogers, who was brought down right inside the box. The referee trembled beneath the Din’s roar and pointed right to the spot. Limbs, again.
Charlie Harris took the penalty, blasting one to the keeper’s left, but it was not meant to be. The keeper parried it away to keep it all level. The volcano, if you will, would lie dormant for the rest of the half. Despite the desire from fans and player alike, there would be no breaking the iced-over draw. It ended all level, which, while frustrating, was a fair result given the tale of two halves.
Four points out of these two matches against top six opposition could be the indication of form starting to ripen for the Hawks. It’s also worth noting that Whitehawk did not employ Michael Fernandes’ talents last evening. He really was a spark against Beckenham Town on Saturday and will be a catalyst for calamity in the future.
The Hawks still sit fifth in the table and a warm optimism floats over The Enclosed Ground. As Saturday’s report mentioned, this team truly is capable of great things. A three points Saturday against bottom-of-the-table Faversham Town is crucial if the Hawks want to keep their grip on the playoffs. I have every confidence that such a grip will only hold tighter.