DARREN DEALS, SHUFFLES…AND FINDS AN ACE
As previously reported the new football season brings a fresh management team to Hastings United: Darren Hare, long-time back-room coach at Gillingham has arrived as manager, and former Chelsea defender Steve Watt as his assistant. Two wins and two draws have been chalked up so far in league and cup games (prior to the Bank Holiday match last Monday), and prospects look fair for a promotion-chasing season. But behind the scenes it’s been a challenging start.
Unlike in higher professional leagues a new manager at this level begins with a pretty clean slate. Few, if any, of the previous season’s players will have been committed to longterm contracts. So though he might prefer a majority of them to stay, he has to convince each that their football career will continue to flourish under his guidance. Some will jump ship, for various reasons. Others he will decide to let go. And when gaps appear he needs to fill them with quality replacements. Both retained players and new recruits have to be offered payment terms within an overall budget set by the club’s board of directors, and some may find them unacceptable.
Darren indicated to a Fans Forum meeting last week that he is pleased with the squad he has assembled for the new season, and said that the Hastings board “has been fantastic” in supporting his negotiations. But it has not been easy. “I learnt very quickly that some players think there’s a golden pot at Hastings”, he added – perhaps because the town is bigger and attendances are higher than at most clubs at this level, though he believes that “three or four, including Greenwich Borough and Dorking” operate with bigger budgets.
In two individual cases negotiations were complicated by serious injury issues. Experienced and highly rated goalkeeper Josh Pelling missed the last four months of last season with a knee injury and is still unfit – United could not afford to offer a contract to keep him on the side-lines for an unmeasurable further period. Last season’s top striker Billy Medlock also spent the summer in re-hab from an ankle injury. Darren says he would have loved to re-sign him, but found that the deal that he could offer was not accepted.
The goalkeeping vacancy has been filled with some fanfare by the arrival of Lenny Pidgeley, former England youth international with first team credentials at Chelsea, Watford and Exeter City. Still only 32 – not so old for a keeper – he has agreed to drop several rungs of the football ladder from Conference side Forest Green Rovers to join the ‘U’s.
Up front Darren has brought back Jack Harris, who spent the first half of last season at Pilot Field before moving to Hythe Town, to team up with new recruits Frannie Collin and Matt Bodkin (see HIP issue 57) and young retained forward Bright Temba. Winger Harry Stannard and midfielder Wayne Wilson have also come in, joining incumbents Simon Johnson, Sam Cole and Sam Cruttwell. Long-term stalwart defender Sean Ray – last survivor of the famous cup run of 2012/3 – has left, but Steve Watt looks a more than adequate replacement as dominant centre half on the field as well as coach off it. There is also a new young left back Reece Butler.
All ready and primed for the new season? Unfortunately not. Collin, Temba and Butler have been side-lined through injuries sustained in pre-season warm-ups, rendering the ‘U’s short of a regular striker. Darren’s contact list produced a month’s loan of Jay May from Maidstone United. He and Harris both scored in the opening 4-1 home win over South Park along with two goals from Watt. Then Harris was carried off with apparent ligament damage after a collision in the closing stages of that game, and the following Sunday, after a 1-1 midweek draw at Herne Bay, came a Cup game at Cray for which May was ineligible.
Darren had to shuffle his cards again, sending out Watt to play at centre forward. He scored, Cole doubled the advantage to 2-0, and Hastings duly march forward to the next round, in which they will play away to Camberley tomorrow.
Last Saturday, in the meantime, May was able to return to the line-up for a league game at Chipstead. The ‘U’s found themselves three goals down within the first 20 minutes – could have been four had it not been for a penalty save by Pidgeley – then level 3-3 within another 15 minutes, courtesy of a May hat-trick. Both he and Franny Collin, brought on as substitute, hit the bar with second half efforts but the game finished without further scoring at either end.
With five goals in three league games so far May has proved the ace in the pack. But unless Maidstone will extend the loan Darren will have to shuffle again shortly.