Reality Check for United
Hoping for a fourth victory out of five over the crowded Christmas/New Year calendar to boost their league position Hastings United came a cropper against promotion candidates Greenwich Borough last Saturday. In front of more than 400 spectators at Pilot Field – biggest crowd of the season despite the cold conditions – they conceded in the first minute, hit back with two excellent strikes from debutant Daniel Ajakaiye and Davide Rodari to lead 2-1, but then leaked a succession of goals to finish the wrong end of a 5-2 scoreline.
A win would have brought the ‘U’s within eight points of the play-off places and started ideas of a serious promotion challenge of their own this spring. Defeat, coupled with a 2-0 reverse away to leaders Lewes on Boxing Day, was a reality check. Both manager Chris Agutter – at 30 the youngest (as far as he is aware) of any club in the Bostik League – and his team of kids are still on a learning curve.
Chris told me in the previous week that he doesn’t talk about league points. What he insists upon is that the team should play “our way” – keeping possession of the ball, working it forward from the back, and only delivering it to fast and skilful forwards up front when there is space for them to use it effectively. But it is a style that comes with obvious risks, particularly in current winter conditions. Simon Rudkin, the Pilot Field groundsman, has worked miracles to present a playable pitch for all three home games over the holiday period when many other games at this level elsewhere in Sussex and Kent have had to be postponed. However even he cannot transform a wet and sticky surface into a smooth, dry one conducive to the kind of football that the ‘U’s want to play. In the two previous home games, against relatively modest opposition in the form of Faversham and East Grinstead, the respective visiting teams started by pressing high up the pitch, forcing errors from Hastings defenders in possession and creating several goalscoring chances. Faversham went 2-0 up and had also hit a post within the first seven minutes. East Grinstead threatened a similar assault, only repelled by two outstanding saves from goalkeeper Charlie Horlock early on. In these encounters Chris could claim that the ‘U’s style was vindicated over the course of 90 minutes, victories by 4-2 and 3-1 being eventually secured by fine counter-attacking moves. The defeat by Greenwich Borough suggests on the other hand that a more pragmatic approach may be necessary if the best teams in the league are to be overcome.
What should undoubtedly draw praise from even the most curmudgeonly supporter is the quality of youth recruitment to the club in recent months, both of players who have gone direct into the first team squad and those at a more junior level into the academy. With only Ollie Rowe and Sam Cruttwell left as first-teamers from last year, replacements were required wholesale. Chris has brought in a series of young, hungry and athletic players. Charlie Horlock, who has performed well in goal all season, is only 22; left-back Sam Beale 23; forwards Calum Davies and Dayshonne Golding are younger. Add in the precocious talents of Davide Rodari, Ansu Janneh, Brad Pritchard and Tom Climpson, teenagers spawned in the academy and already holding down regular first team places, and the future looks bright indeed: both individually and collectively they should only get better.
“I look for a positive mentality, for intelligence and for athleticism”, says Chris. “We can teach technique – but you can’t put in what God left out”.
Scouts from higher tier clubs are on constant watch and many of Chris’ recruits may be hoping in due course for elevation elsewhere. But most of the youth players are signed on contracts which would entitle the club to financial compensation in that event. Both Chris and the United board are confident that the model is sustainable.
Compare this with the mood at Greenwich Borough. They may have just whipped Hastings, but their website confirms that both manager and assistant manager have just resigned “due to financial restraints” : senior players leaving and no budget to bring in any new ones, according to the local football press. The balance of reality may lie longer term with Hastings United after all.