Hugh Sullivan

It’s been a frustrating year on the pitch for the town’s leading football club Hastings United. They seemed well capable under the management of Garry Wilson of reaching the play-offs for promotion from the Ryman League South last April, and would have done so had they won their last game at home to Herne Bay. But they lost, Garry resigned, and they have had to build a new team under incoming manager Darren Hare.

Darren arrived over the summer bringing a wealth of coaching experience at Gillingham and good connections with players across the south-east region. His new-look team, both technically gifted and hard-working, have been very watchable this season. Certainly they have been prolific scorers, the only team in the league to net an average of more than three goals a game – and yet they stand eleventh in the table, admittedly with some games in hand over all sides above them, but with a lot of ground to catch up. Last Saturday’s home game, against second-placed Dorking Wanderers, was typical. The visitors took an early two-goal lead, Hastings pegged them back to 2-2 and seemed the more likely to claim victory, but conceded a late penalty and then a further breakaway goal to end up the wrong side of a 4-2 scoreline.

Darren says that the club’s board of directors has backed him in every decision he has made, and speaks of good dressing room morale. With 29 league games still to play out of 46 over the season there’s plenty of time to find a more resilient balance between attack and defence. Just last week two further defenders, both former youth players at Gillingham, joined the squad. But United need a consistent run of good results, particularly away from home, to make themselves serious promotion contenders.

Hastings and Bexhill rugby club, by contrast, have enjoyed a scintillating autumn. After narrowly missing out on promotion last season from the Kent One League the first XV started with nine straight wins to open up a commanding lead at the top of this season’s table. They were narrowly beaten last time out away to their nearest rivals Old Williamsonians, scoring two tries to their opponents’ one but seeing their previous 100% record tarnished by lack of success in place-kicking – a perennial problem which, though it may not stop them going on win the league title in the spring, would need to be addressed at a higher level.

A very strong second team rides high in Sussex Division 3, providing competition for places in the first team squad.

Hockey club South Saxons celebrated promotion for both mens and ladies first teams in the spring. The mens team won the Sussex Open League in April after a thrilling duel through the last weeks of the season with close rivals Southwick, while the ladies also gained promotion to the Sussex Ladies Premier.

Now at the higher level of the Kent/Sussex 2 League the men are having to come to terms with faster and more skilful opponents. They suffered a major setback when star player George Eldridge broke his kneecap in September – not playing hockey but skateboarding (memo to coaches of all Hastings sports teams: don’t let your players do it!). George had been largely unavailable in previous years while away at uni, but was due to return for a full season with Saxons, and looked a class performer in early season friendlies and cup action. In his absence the team has had to up the pace and at the same time improve tactical awareness. A few tight games have been lost, but results are gradually improving, with a notable 6-5 win over Crowborough in the most recent home game, including a hat- trick of goals from captain Jamie Busbridge, to inspire confidence that status will be maintained over the season. Moreover second and third teams are both riding high in their respective leagues, so again there is clearly some strength in depth.

For the ladies it has been a similar story, the higher league proving initially tough for the first team but results beginning to turn around in their favour. Two wins and a draw in November have lifted them into mid-table. The second team has performed creditably too, also in mid­table in Sussex Division 2, with enough squad players to enable consideration of the revival of a third team within a year or two.

Looking back, cricket club Hastings Priory enjoyed an excellent summer at Horntye Park on their return to the Sussex Premier League. There was concern at the outset that the batting might be exposed without any proven run-getters at this level, while the bowling attack relied on three young left- armers, pace-man Adam Barton and spinners Ellis Hooper and Jed O’Brien. Adam unfortunately suffered serious injury early on and played only seven games out of 20. However Ellis scored over 600 runs at an average of almost 60 and maintained his progress with the ball too, while Jed finished second only to Horsham’s ex-Somerset County pro Michael Munday as the league’s leading wicket-taker, taking five wickets or more in an innings no less than seven times over the season. He deservedly won the league award for young player of the year, and must be in line for an opportunity to develop his skills further with a county team – should be Sussex but, if they are too slow to offer, maybe elsewhere.

Here too there’s increasing strength in depth. The club’s second XI won their (second) division comfortably, with 15 wins and only two defeats, and reached the final of the T20 competition. Talented 14-year- olds William Lucas and Ben Fox are already making their mark among their adult peers.

Meanwhile Hastings tennis club Amherst continues to maintain competitive status at top levels while offering a breadth of opportunity for lesser talents. In the most prestigious series of the men’s summer season, the Aegon Team Tennis Sussex, the club’s first team, having been promoted in 2015, held their own in the county’s top division. When all four professional coaches – Doug Keen, Pete Farthing, Jack Graham and Matt Golledge – could make themselves available they proved a match for anyone. Amateur club players get more of a chance to shine in the county’s respective summer and winter doubles leagues sponsored by Wilson Stanford: here Amherst put out three mens teams and three womens giving almost 50 players of either sex an opportunity to compete at an appropriate level.

Most encouragingly for a club that offers almost daily coaching for juniors of all ages, both girls and boys teams competed successfully in the Aegon series at under 14s level. Jada Ani and Ellis Barlow won the majority of their matches to keep the girls team in the top division, while Zak Prasanna, aged 12, and Hayden Hoxey, aged only 10, had similarly positive results for the boys. If the latter stay together at Amherst the future looks bright indeed.

Looking across the board then, Team Hastings has had a good year. We’re on the up. But, as those who follow local sport will be aware, the biggest and brightest news of 2016, certainly for the town’s football, hockey and cricket teams, is longer term: the prospect of inheriting fresh facilities at Combe Valley within the next two or three years, if the plans for a new sports complex there can be brought to fruition. That will move the goal-posts, as the saying is – and not just literally.