When Sevenoaks Town manager Micky Collins took the hotseat at Greatness Park at the end of the 2013/14 season, the club looked anything but destined for any other sort of greatness. Second bottom of the Southern Counties East League, with only five wins all season, Collins faced an uphill task. That his side today face Hastings United whilst sitting comfortably in 12th place in the Bostik South East Division- and safely into the First Qualifying Round of the FA Cup after victory over Bedfont Sports at the weekend- is a fair measure of progress, but it’s also perhaps worth spelling out in detail. His four years in charge have seen the club jump from 16th in the SCEFL to 8th, then 5th, then 3rd, then 1st. Whatever happens this season Town will end the campaign in the highest league position in their 135 year history. That’s some record.
Not surprisingly, there is an optimism around Greatness Park these days. Collins, before the match, exuded goodwill and positivity, but said that he was entirely focused on survival this season. But the locals might not agree with him, as they have got used to winning, and the younger ones amongst their number can remember very little other than success. Last season the club won the title by six points from also promoted Whitstable Town, and were an incredible sixteen points clear of third place Crowborough Athletic. Crowborough had invested heavily over two seasons in an attempt to gain promotion and yet Sevenoaks left them for dead, which perhaps demonstrates that, even in Non League, you can’t always buy success. Oaks, as both Collins and his chairman Paul agreed before the game, were not going to chase a dream by spending money they didn’t have. There was a focus on youth development, on making the club a community asset, and on, as Collins put it, “getting the rugby and hockey supporters from the town to come down and watch football too.” The number of children around the ground wearing replica shirts certainly suggested that this approach was working.
Preparing to watch the match from between the dugouts were Jack and Ryan. Jack explained that he regularly travelled to watch the club from Swanley, and was attracted by the style of play. A goalkeeper who had just hung up his gloves to train as a referee, he didn’t expect success today, however. “I think we’ll lose 3-1. Hastings are a very good side and we’re still getting used to the demands of this league. We’ll do well overall, and the side look good, but I think Hastings will be too strong for us today.” Ryan, however, was far more certain of a positive result. Also a goalkeeper- although on this occasion with no intention of taking up a notebook and stopwatch- he predicted a 2-1 home victory.
Greatness Park- by the way, if you’re coming by train you need to head to the improbably named Bat & Ball station, not Sevenoaks itself as that is a mile and a half away- was expecting one of its best crowds of the season today. This wasn’t really a derby match as such despite the road connection, as there are forty two miles and a county boundary between the two clubs, but it was a Bank Holiday Monday, the opposition were bringing a coach and expecting many more to make their way by car, and Oaks crowds were on the rise. The attendance was later confirmed as 262, significantly higher than last season’s average.
The Oaks opponents in an ‘A21 derby’ were Hastings United. These days Pilot Field is an optimistic place too, mainly due to a strong finish to the last campaign, some notable summer signings and a belief that Chris Agutter’s investment in youth is about to pay off in a big way. A lack of consistency over last season stopped the U’s from troubling the playoff spots, but when they were good, they were very good indeed- and they’d started the new campaign in magnificent form, winning all three games so far whilst scoring eleven goals. They’d shown a staying power perhaps missing in earlier times, too, coming from behind in every match to complete an impressive turnaround, most recently against VCD Athletic in the FA Cup on Saturday.
United photographer Scott was a very positive man. A supporter for “many years” but photographer for the last few, he was sure that promotion was a realistic goal. He had been very impressed not only with the results over the first few games but with “the fitness and the attitude of the players,” and also very taken with the work ethic and management style of Agutter. He predicted a 2-0 victory before going back to his camera, and we’d suggest you follow him on Twitter to see the fruits of his labours.
Jack and Ryan- members of the keepers union
Sevenoaks got the match underway, and it took them only four minutes to go ahead. A ball through the middle left Kenny Pogue with still quite a bit to do, but he did it rather well, sending the ball past Charlie Horlock into the net from the edge of the box. Pogue had recently played for United, so the away defence should have known exactly what to expect- but on this occasion they seemed to have forgotten the danger he posed.
United weren’t rattled, perhaps unsurprisingly given their recent record. Passing and moving with pace, they probed at the home defence, which initially held firm. Dajon Golding created the best early chance for the away side, on six minutes twisting and turning in the box, leaving two defenders in his wake before delivering a cross that just needed a touch, but didn’t get one.
Sam Cruttwell then began to control the middle of the park. The fulcrum of every move, he was also the U’s most dangerous attacking threat, forcing a save from Ryan Nicholls in the eleventh minute. Nicholls and he were to get further acquainted as the half went on, as the keeper had to save his free kick before pushing another shot onto the post as the away side dominated play. Nicholls also had to save from Golding and Tom Climpson as the half progressed, but looked impregnable.
Sadly for the home fans, he wasn’t.
The equaliser, when it came, was certainly not down to the keeper. In the 41st minute Daniel Ajakaiye got the ball on the edge of the box, and the striker seemed to get it caught under his feet at first, but then ran at the keeper, who, undefended, went down early and made a block. The ball ran kindly for Ajakaiye, however, and he was able to fire it home, sparking wild celebrations. They weren’t the last of the half, as in the final minute Tom Vickers was able to get the better of his counterpart Sam Crabb on the edge of the Oaks box and deliver a cross that Golding was on hand to force home. Golding hardly celebrated, rushing straight back to his own half for the restart as if he thought the U’s had time to get another. Well there was indeed another, but it went to Oaks, Vickers getting caught in possession and allowing a pinpoint cross to find Pogue at the back post, the striker delivering another composed finish for 2-2. The whistle blew almost immediately for the break.
Scott, in front of the camera for a change
The away fans didn’t seem to despondent during the interval. The consensus was that they’d dominated the game but that two mistakes had led to two goals- and to be fair there was much truth in that. Perhaps their side had been distracted, unable to shake from their minds the most laconic version of “When the U’s are marching in” that you’re ever likely to hear. Think of it as a funeral march, and your imagination might just be able to recreate the moment.
At the start of the second half Oaks made a change, Mikey Dalton going off and Andreas Toban coming on, but it didn’t change the pattern of the game. Ajakaiye came within an inch of connecting with a cross at the back post soon after the restart, Golding curled a shot wide, whilst Oaks continued to try to find Pogue and Frankie Sawyer on the break. Substitute Toban had the home side’s first chance of the half, and although he hit the target and forced a save from Horlock he had more time than he thought and perhaps could have done a little better. But Hastings were soon back on the attack, Crutwell firing a shot which went just wide of the upright. Sonny Dullawaycame on for United, prompting the comment “I bet he’s dull at home as well,” from a wag in the main stand.
In the 63rd minute Nicholls pulled off another exceptional save, this time from Kelvin Ogboe, and the away pressure once more began to mount, with a succession of corners. Again, however, the Oaks defence stood strong and there was no way though.
The game then went a little flat, and became a little scrappy. “Can we not try and keep it,” shouted a United defender in exasperation as another sloppy pass found touch, and in truth that cry could have come from either side at this point. And then it sparked back into life. Pogue and Robert Saunders for Oaks both forced exceptional saves from Horlock, but then the ball was sent immediately to the other end, and soon the away fans behind the goal were celebrating, as Ajakaiye was on hand once more to force the ball home. Sevenoaks had seventeen minutes to find a way back.
The U's singing section!
That they didn’t wasn’t due to a lack of effort. Their best chance came five minutes from time, Alec Fiddes forcing Horlock to touch the ball over the bar, and Pogue, until his substitution, played his role as human battering ram to great effect, making the entire Hastings back line work as he moved from one side to the other, always looking for a pass. In the last minute of normal time Sawyer got ahead of the last defender and charged towards goal, but Jahmal Howlett-Mundle got back to make a decisive block.
There was still time for Nicholls to make yet another top class save, this time from Sam Beale, but then, after a Hastings lesson in keep-ball, the whistle went. Hastings had won 3-2 for the third match in a row- ending the day as one of six sides in the South East Division with a 100% record.
Collins talk of aiming for survival before the game looks rather pessimistic from a man who isn’t naturally a pessimist. He might just have been damping down expectations, and there was enough about Town today to suggest that they’ll be fine- and they are unlikely to face many sides as good as United during the campaign. Hastings, however, have much loftier ambitions; and although they still have some defensive frailties anyone watching today will have left believing they’d watched a side who are deservedly amongst the favourites for promotion.
This is United’s sixth season at Step Four since relegation. You have to think they’ve never had a better chance of making it their last; and listening to the players celebrating after the match there is little doubt that they feel the same.
Cruttwell shoots for goal!