The valedictory affair.
And in all your dizzying delusions have you seen a Whitehawk side play with such soul, such jazz that after a 10th minute injury to Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke — and no goalkeeper on the bench — midfielder Jamie Splatt would slide into the net and prove (almost) impenetrable as 2nd placed Ashford United surrendered beneath a hidden sun. Wilting under the Hawks’ immense pressure and spirit this was an afternoon for rejoicing, for singing, and for knowing that the distant horizon will shine with a powerful, more intense glow. Whitehawk had saved their best for last.
Maybe it was the sight of Splatt slipping into the pink shirt. Maybe it was his identical twin twirling and twisting his way to celebration. Or maybe it was Dan Thompson’s first goal for the club. Whatever it was, it worked a delicious, almost incredulous treat. For in more-blustery-than-anticipated conditions there was not a man in Sussex blue who had not run himself into the ground, fought for every ball, and came away at the game’s finish to rapturous applause having harnessed a healthy slice of self-dignity.
That visiting dugout was looking a touch bare with the season finale underway – only occupied by the fledgling talents of Toby Reeder and Josh Mundy as the former would be required almost immediately. And after Olly Munt had seen a close-range effort suppressed by the mindful Jordan Carey, a fairly innocuous challenge on Stroomberg-Clarke displaced his shoulder as the nails began to be chewed. The famous, fantastic thing that is Non-League. Quintessentially step four, the volunteer to step forward Splatt, Jamie be his name, as Whitehawk now roamed with a gloved midfielder, one sub, all whilst playing a team who had lost just three games on home, erm, rubber. An Everest stood in their way.
So, naturally, it was to the utter astonishment of all who had crossed over into Kent that Thompson rifled home a Munt corner that oozed perfection. Hello, here we go – the forward swinging a firm boot at it as the ball splashed into the corner via a slight deflection. Ashford’s blobs of green stand bewildered, Whitehawk’s scattered blue spin away with arms outstretched. The lead was theirs. But do not think this an undeserved moment of solace. That extra incentive was there: stop every cross, shot, pass. As if implanted with a chip to make every body in green drown under the pressure, the Hawks earned this lead on spirit alone.
There was that constant flickering fear that any shot directed at Splatt might spawn a home goal as reality creeped in on the stroke of the half-hour mark. Yes, the Nuts and Bolts (we have no idea either) equalised through a sweetly struck Tashi-Jay Kwayie curler that tailed underneath Splatt’s hands and crashed into the netting. A slight smugness in the celebration, an early flippant presumption had hexed their minds. Remind, revive, resume. But rewind to the past, where Whitehawk sides of yesteryear may have submitted under the sheer circumstances. Not on this afternoon. Even with little to play for, they fought as if it were for their lives.
The Hawks had taken a 1-1 scoreline into the changing room. With a garland they returned, lungs replenished, fluids flushed, under the cosh in the minutes that followed the restart. Alex Malins had been a central component in a defence that had all but secured league status on Monday, and the centre-half was omnipresent when Ashford attacked. By air, ground or sea Malins took control of a defence that had never played together as a four. Declan Kama was there, Ashley Wadhams, too, was joined by Henry Blackmore. Yet they had seldom seemed more solid.
Wave after wave of inland attacks, the Hawks had finally rode the choppy storm and emerged a renewed, more confident outfit. Splatt flung a big right hand to turn a Gary Lockyer header aside with the host’s high line proving dangerous. As off the shoulder lurked the interim goalkeeper’s sibling, resting on 18 goals for the season, but hungry for more. Make it 19, Javaun. Dripping in regal vibes Splatt received a pumped ball forward along the left-channel for him to move, shimmy, skitter his way to the touchline before beating one, two as he shaped himself for a shot. The move was pure class, and the finish was to match: squeezing the ball under Carey in front of his travelling, crazed Ultras.
A vitriolic mood from those who wave the Kentish flag, they were powerless to such purity. And as this second Whitehawk goal crossed the line there sparked a flame that opened up the contest. In the fleeting blink of an eye Splatt was denied his twentieth goal of the campaign from a one-on-one, before Lockyer’s deft touch grazed the post as the Hawks defence breathed a gigantic sigh of relief. More rattled woodwork. More racing pulses. Thomas Fagg’s looping header bouncing off the top of Splatt’s crossbar. He had that one covered.
Entering the final phase of a season. Every sinew shredded as the lactic acid runs deep in the muscles. Eight months of tireless running; this was the final sprint, the last hurdle. A blue sea is camped in front of Splatt’s goal; Johan Ter Horst drags a shot meatily into the advertising boards. Four minutes of additional time. Four minutes to see it out. What a performance. What an afternoon. The Hawks demonstrating their mettle, Splatt is once again denied, on the line this time, as the hosts had sent everyone forward.
Whistle blown. Arms pump the air. Whitehawk are winners. For just the ninth time have we been able to shout this in the streets. A snaking season ending with a new face in the technical area, thirteen players and an midfielder between the posts. But this was a Saturday unlike the rest. Marching back to Brighton head the supporters with drums, chants, smiles. Safe from relegation, safe from the fears of an uncertain future. The Shaun Saunders era is here. And never has this carried greater optimism.