Ring the bells. Samba in the saloons. Clank those pints. Whitehawk are winners!
Spring has sprung, and so too has Javaun Splatt, moving to meet Harry Reed’s heavenly delivery at the death to send the travelling Hawks into an iridescent sea of rapture. Full of smiles, full of relief. Oh, how marvellous it feels to parade down the streets — red flags flapping high in the breeze — serenading the passers-by with songs of the richest Sussex notes. Pride upon people. This is a day to rejoice.
But rewind to the early afternoon, where the travelling contingent set their sights upon south-east London under a pleasant sun. Clouds like blades shaped the scattered sky above as the warmth trickled down intermittently. In the direction of the capital they vamoosed, soothing the scars of a winless 98 days. Sauntering down the initial slope to the immaculate turf, as if each blade of grass itself were individually scissored. A late injury to Henry Blackmore means he’s scratched from the lineup. Terese Mthunzi shimmies into the defence as the returning Jamie Splatt found himself in a midfield devoid of Henry Muggeridge, but spirited by the return of Omarr Lawson.
Out they strode onto the green carpet. Studs slowly sinking in the turf, the side dressed in the familiar blue were first to bring either goalkeeper sprawling. That is, when Lawson’s left-footed punch sent Sam Mott stumbling on his line, pawing away the strong effort to safety. In the upmost truth the opening half belonged to the hosts. 8th they stood prior to commencement, and their modest value showed through the evergreen enchanter Kevin Lisbie. Yes, Premier League experience graced the Oakwood surface with those hypnotic runs and rhythmic advances. Even at the age of 43.
Speedily he was in the mood. Playing off the shoulder, winning headers, spraying the ball to the respective wings. Whitehawk’s defence puffing with hands locked into the hips at the rousing pace of The Vickers’ attack. There’s justification for them being the league’s fifth-highest scorers. And after Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke had dramatically denied raging smacks from Youssef Bamba and Courtney Barrington, the clean-sheet vanished in one beat of the red heart. Lisbie’s ingenuity saw him race in front of his defender, whilst his calmness allowed for him to poke the ball beyond Stroomberg-Clarke and into the sharp-netting behind.
It was coming. Whitehawk were slow in moving the ball and quick to lose it. In the final third they posed few issues. Perhaps that is what instilled an air of complacency amongst VCD’s defenders. Complacency oozing into the sweaty skins under a springtime sun. The forty-five minutes that followed would be indistinguishable from the former. Rays still beating down, travelling Hawks perennially positive behind the attacking goal. The referee’s whistle marked the dawn of Whitehawk’s resurrection.
In fashion desperately typical of Ross Standen’s side Jamie Splatt fell to the floor in a heap, clutching his leg. Swiftly whisked off in place of debutant Ashley Wadhams, who was finally able to kick a ball in a Whitehawk jersey, it was he who clawed his side back into the battle. There was a tinge more zest about the visitor’s intent. Pushed higher up the field, VCD’s full-backs began to feel the heat. First it was the attacking Splatt, then it was Peter Gregory. For every inch they fought, punishing their opponents, and equalising on the hour-mark.
Oblivious to Wadhams‘ whereabouts the left-sided substitute floated into space at the back post, steering a delicate Gregory cross past Mott for Splatt to crash it home. Splatt offside, but the ball had already crossed the line. Thank God. Whitehawk level. But this war was far from settled.
Racing seamlessly through the gears it welcomed Dan Thompson on in place of James Fraser. Legs fresh, mouths frothing, Hawks purring. They sniffed a second. Their reward would soon arrive. Five minutes were all that remained when the turnaround was complete.
Thompson involved, his awareness and calmness combined to feed the lurking Omarr Lawson on the edge of the box. A fine touch to set, and a finish to match: a thumping low-drive away from Mott’s palm and into the corner sent those behind with arms outstretched, eyes wide-open. Is the violent storm finally giving way to skies of the purest promise? Not just yet. For there was to be further twists in this enthralling, breathless tale.
For Jeff Duah-Kessie would be jogging back to the centre-circle, ball in hand, having just effortlessly levelled the scores from inside Stroomberg-Clarke’s area. Caressing the ball over a desperate defence onto the chest of the forward, he was presented with far too much time to prod the ball through the current incumbent of the #1 jersey. Draining. Non-League football at its glistering best. Tied once more, the climax neared with each fleeting zeptosecond. That time had arrived.
At the subsequent blow of the referee’s whistle the life had not been sucked from the Hawk. Reed spots space in the VCD midfield to drive into the final third. Skipping past legs and bodies, he caught sight of an advancing Splatt and delivered an exquisitely floated pass onto his head. Time seemed to stop for a split second. As if in some wondrous dream Splatt’s header angled toward the opposite corner, slipping away from Mott’s presence before nestling beautifully in the net. Like a bird soaring celestially in the clouds Splatt raced to the sideline with arms to either side, embracing his fans, embracing his family. Victory was assured.
How pleasing it is to type those words. On grounds near and far, the recent three months have been an exhausting rollercoaster of emotions and frustration. They say it only takes a bit of luck. But in the inner layers of the M25 this was no fluke. This was a story of resilience, of virtue and, above all else in this cruel, unforgiving world, of a spirit akin to so few clubs. Oakwood royally annexed; our flag is plunged into the pitch’s centre for all sides of the future to know the glorious name of Whitehawk.