As the blinding yellow sun reached the zenith of the Kentish sky and gently warmed the faces of those below, it provided a sunlit vista upon an immaculately kept turf. The heavens rich with cyan blue it welcomed the first seeds of Spring. Scattered below were twenty-two footballers who sweated away in the rare late February heat. At the curtailing of the centrepiece there were weary legs, contrasting faces, drained brains. An afternoon in Herne Bay is often greeted with an intractable opposition: fearless overlapping, intricate passing, deft finishing. And this was to be the formula for Whitehawk’s downfall, an opening half that left them trailing, hurting, flagging in the dust.
And in all of this, where all seems so very natural and habitual, as the gentle smiles kiss the plastic cups of beer, there’s a faint feeling of insignificance. That same golden star above beats down on faraway lands but casts a very different shadow. Look at the fortuitous revellers behind the goal, in the stands, sheltered from a barrage of bullets and conflict. How pitifully sad this world is, and how powerless its inhabitants can feel. Another burger flipped, another pint guzzled – the globe continues to spin on its axis with devastating imbalance.
But a constant remains: the beauty of sport. Coalescing cities, nations, continents, there are few global spectacles that both bind and divide our hearts, yet offer such a vast platform for voices to be heard. From the fizzing heights of the Premier League to the purity of the Isthmian divisions, it is still the same game, it is still the same rules. Out sauntered the lines of Herne Bay blue and Whitehawk red. ‘Come on boys, let’s go now’ echoes around the delightfully non-league tunnel with the commencing sound of the whistle sailing high into the fresh sea air. Immediately the Hawks are forced to defend. This would be the narrative for the early minutes.
Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke was busy, to begin with. Hurriedly turning a whipped effort around his pearly-white post, he was to be collecting the ball from the very rear of his net as the prolific Zak Ansah gracefully swept the ball beyond all limb from a matter of yards out. Kieron Campbell denied by the guarder’s paws initially, The Bay’s leading scorer in Ansah would add another to his growing tally. The hosts were rampant. Slicing through an insipid midfield at will, Declan Kama was drowning in overloads as they bombarded the left-hand side of the green pasture. Ansah eying league goal #15 from range, Stroomberg-Clarke tips over. Adem Ramadan heads it goalbound at the far post, Stroomberg-Clarke pushes it away. Relentless.
At that moment, the gradient increased. Typically from that left side an optimistic cross bounced harshly in front of the Whitehawk ‘keeper, spilling it to the hungry Ansah who claimed his second of the afternoon. Barely midway through the first half already the outlook was redolent of bleakness. 2-0. Herne Bay simmering in the shimmering light. Whitehawk idle when they needn’t be. It stems from the midfield, the throbbing core of formation. When inactive it places the defence under immense pressure, and when beaten it ripples through the rest of the side. It had not been Tegan Freeman’s afternoon — these days occur at any level — but the introduction of Ollie Munt added that required essence of tenacity, a brighter tinge of desire.
There’s the half at an end. A quandary for the Sussex contingent. Talk it over, clear the muddled minds, show belief and character. And so, as they re-emerged onto a cooler yet still glowing setting, with the sun swiftly shifting over the far bank of the tall, thin, leafy trees, they exhibited just that: desire. Truth be told, nothing actually occurred in front of goal. Passing was neater, quicker, innovative, but they still searched for that key to open the rusty lock. Manager Ben Smith has an organised side. Defensively they were stable, but the creativity from the Hawks was halting a resurgence. That final ball, a loose touch, miscommunication. Kama off, Henry Blackmore on. Twenty minutes are all that remain.
Life. Munt supplying the delicious cross, Alex Laing providing the catharsis, Whitehawk defibrillated. A simple goal on parchment, the left-sided free-kick was swung delicately into the box for Laing to head/neck/shoulder home as it splashed into the corner of the netting. That awoke the dozing dragon, now it was frothing with flavour, famished from its fatigue. A third and final substitution for Ross Standen: new addition Tareq Shahib replaces the huffing Peter Gregory. The weapons were loaded, the guns pointed, the bombardment ensued. Now the ball was stationed in the Herne Bay half. Tails up, neat interplay around the Bay box ends in a blocked Javaun Splatt whack. Corner. Cleared. The quest for salvation continues.
But that was the final page. No more words left unread. There was to be no fairytale ending, no jubilant hawks flying high amongst the wild blue yonder. Instead, tempers flare: Adam El-Abd cynically chops down his onrushing opponents in the centre of the pitch. Incandescent are Herne Bay – it’s a yellow card, nothing more. Confusion as to whether the final whistle has been blown, eventually it sounds – still some are fiery, others defeated. Off the pitch and into the 90s-looking blue edifice, they filtered like bugs thirsty for a drink.
Limbs shattered, blood spirited. A truculent response ends in a second half victory. That’s something to hold onto, to take merit from, but in the scribbled lines of the present the search for a win continues. A return to the homelands beckons as lowly Phoenix Sports venture from the capital in a week’s time. Hope exists, it only takes a small dose of belief. Use that in life, not just sport – for we’re all facing battles of an ungodly nature under the sharp stars of our ancestors.