The Whitehawk dugout looked a little different on Saturday afternoon. Swift to replace the void left by Ross Standen and the rest of his coaching staff, the freshly appointed Shaun Saunders stood with arms folded, eyes fixated as he oversaw his new side for the first time. Both inside and outside before the initial kicks of the afternoon there rose a buzzing mood in the cool air. In their numbers the ardent fans flocked like wild birds eager for a feast, for a cackle, for a cheer. The former must wait for a later date, with this one comfortably claimed by the ones who roam from Kent.
But this next chapter in an ever-fleeting season commenced with a familiar craving: three of the finest points come 5pm. Still picking at the painful scabs of last weekend’s capitulation at the hands of basement club Whitstable Town, all the zeal and fire locked away had instead transferred to the stands. For Saunders’ maiden match at the helm he would name four changes to that team embarrassed on the stoney shores of north Kent. Returning were Alex Laing, Leon Redwood, Adam El-Abd and Jamie Splatt.
So out they sauntered in their respective red and white lines to the strange sight of a man devoid of trousers wondering ‘why in the Hell did I appoint him as the best man’; the opening whistle blew beneath a pleasant sky. An agricultural start, those hypnotic runs and cunning passes were yet to be seen as both goalkeepers lounged in their own areas, free from the ball’s presence. This was a good thing. The Hawks were pressing as one, defending as a unit. To unlock The Cannons door the passing had to be accurate, had to be inventive.
But Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke would demonstrate with immense precision the reason why that yellow ball should never be controlled so close to one’s own net. El-Abd’s standard back-pass was hesitantly controlled by the Whitehawk #1 incumbent, who stuttered and stumbled as he whacked the ball at an onrushing Jacob Gilbert. Trickling across the face with Stroomberg-Clarke scurrying to suppress the danger, a pouncing Tom Walmsley caressed it high into the netting.
It was not the finest goal to concede, that was plain to see for the 413 onlookers. It was the first time either goalkeeper had moved, let alone been tested. Whitehawk awoke, aided partially by a panicky opposition defence, Alex Malins crashed a strike against an oblivious body from a matter of yards out. That sent the Ultras into some sort of excitement. It had taken a painstaking 30 minutes for the attacks to formulate but now there was life, a route to optimism and prosperity.
Next it was Jamie Splatt, racing with all power in his legs toward Henry Newcombe’s net after being slipped in by an astute James Fraser flick-on. This was the chance. This was the moment. Newcombe closes down the angle, Splatt starts to flounder; the shot is off-target, but stopped nonetheless by the goalkeeper’s hands. That signalled the end of the half. An avoidable goal to concede, the hosts would now face an uphill battle down the hill, wishing for a winning start to Saunders’ Whitehawk tenure.
Returning with a required fizz the Hawks threatened the Hythe posts with greater frequency. Javaun Splatt and Laing raining the sky with several wayward attempts, Whitehawk’s leading goalscorer curling an effort narrowly wide of the far corner from the edge of the box. Stretching the play, shifting the ball, so swiftly can promise turn into a problem. Working the ball from left to right when Whitehawk had committed men forward presented Gilbert with a path to goal. The recently thrown on Olly Munt chasing in pursuit, chasing in vain as his opposing midfielder drilled the ball under the gloves of Stroomberg-Clarke, and into the far corner.
On an afternoon where neither side had created an excess of opportunities, Saunders stood with his Whitehawk side somehow staring a two-goal deficit. Sending on Munt and then Lekan Orimolusi it was the turn of the latter to first test Newcombe’s reactions. Following up after Javaun Splatt was denied, Orimolusi prodded the ball to the right of the ‘keeper who, sprawling to his right, got enough finger on it to divert it away from home encouragement. And the following corner was gorgeous: to the far post it was sent for a sprinting El-Abd, who could only slap it into the side-netting.
With 78 minutes on the clock this was the decisive chance. Time ticked slowly toward the final whistle with the sight of a fair share of white shirts lying in a heap on the turf. Pushing, sifting through the Hythe backline in an attempt to halve the deficit, it would never arrive. Saunders tastes defeat in his first game on the touchline. There is still work to be done, muscles to be stretched, hearts to be pounded as 270 minutes of the season are all that remain. Next is a trip to Three Bridges on Good Friday … where this story of renewed hope can begin.