Three and a half thousand miles east in a fabled faraway land of soulless entertainment and rich, corrupt greed the globe’s (almost) finest compete for its golden prize: the World Cup. But zoom away from the sands, the bribes and the immorality to a place where all are safe: Whitehawk F.C. Never will you know a fanbase so grounded, so righteous; for on this biting night back at home, the only cup worth watching was the one with Velocity in its name. In their droves they swarmed to The Enclosed Ground not for indulgence, but for a light – a beaming beacon for any surviving hope left on this planet.
On the immaculate green surface Whitehawk charged into a quarter final for the first time since January 2015. It’s a competition that if you didn’t already know, now you do. The Velocity Cup may not have been atop Shaun Saunders’ list of priorities ahead of his first full season at the helm but, just three and a bit months into the season, the prospect of silverware became very real indeed on Tuesday evening. Hastings United the next side to slip solemnly from the shadows of a rising fortress, a superb second half showing the catalyst for yet another rousing home display.
And you could see just how crucial this one meant. The U’s, selecting an XI devoid of genuine first team experience, wilted beneath the milky warm white lights. A night for the cute flicks, helpless goalkeepers; Rob O’Toole and Hamish Morrison — the latters first in the red shirt — starting and ending the proceedings with two deft, deadly finishes beyond the lively Louis Rogers. Sandwiched tastefully in between was the imperious Joe Shelley, climbing through a midst of limb and heads to power home the second shortly after the restart. Cup tie won. Into the last eight.
Winning has become somewhat a habit at home. Opting for a more pragmatic 4-4-2 formation, Jerson dos Santos earned his first start alongside O’Toole as the pair dragged their team forward, holding and dealing the cards to Joel Daly and Charlie Harris for the ball to be switched, crafting chance after chance after chance. And whilst excellence sometimes lacked – passes and crosses never quite reaching their intended target – still the red frames surged their way ahead searching for an avenue, hunting for a reward.
Charlie Lambert came close, as did Daly, so too did dos Santos. At the opposing end in front of their small horde of Hastings’ most dedicated, the alert combination of Luke Glover and Shelley prevented an early altering of the scoreboard. In prosaic terms, both sides had chances. Toes frozen to the tips, there just seemed to lack that clinical edge in front of goal. With a high press in place the visitors, enthused through its youth and brief moment in the spotlight, had to work the ball quickly through the channels and the few spaces that appeared.
For 25 minutes it was all going to Gary Elphick’s plan until Daly carved an opening. The move was slick, the finish was fabulous. Daly breaking free from Oscar Barry, he drove toward the byline, already knowing his next step. Feeling the geometry of O’Toole’s adept run in the box, the pass is perfection as the captain cunningly back-heels it through the uncertain legs of Rogers. Failure to suppress the counter-thrust will lead to problems but, surely by now, teams must know not to play around with the ball in their own half when the Hawks are in a frenzy of rage.
Yet Hastings looked a side who wanted to get in between that Whitehawk backline, strike some fear into them. Captain Kane (not that one) Penn urging his side onwards. On a zippy, greasy turf the ball had some movement to it, and it caught Morrison out as he felled Chinedu McKenzie in the box. The night sky dropped its noise as James Hull powered the ball into the bottom corner to send the half-dozen followers into a mute midnight ecstasy.
Their future looks a bright one, but as the second half appeared in a flash they simply could not cope with the sheer weight of Whitehawk’s impetus. Corners, crosses, long passes, short passes, circles, squares, angles; a spark had shot out from the eleven in red on the field, as if the Utilita sponsor had given them a few extra volts. Shelley scaling a mountain of men to drop his header between the posts. Into a deserving lead as Saunders watches on, grinning from within his four-pointed box.
And then came the subs: Shay Leahy, Billy Fuller, Simon Marklin and former Hastings forward Kai Brown stepping onto the soft grass as all were provided with valuable minutes. Brown was his usual artful, stylish self along the right channel. Breezing along the wing, cutting inside, dropping the shoulder. At the time of his introduction Shelley had just found the net against a fatiguing, fledgling defence as the spaces appeared to offer Rogers some catching practice.
Morrison sealed it with another deft finish from close range that whizzed through Rogers again; The Din’s roar funnelling through as beneath the bright stars Whitehawk’s cup journey prolongs further into the unknown, eagerly anticipating who is next on their growing hit list.
It wasn’t just the perfect response after Saturday’s defeat, it was the only response. Laying the laud onto their supporters behind the goal, chanting with condemnation at football’s darker side, there is an important message rooted deep within this club: whilst others seek to sever what is right in this world, one of the few moral compasses that remain is perpetually pointed at The Enclosed Ground’s doors.