By Hugh Sullivan, Ben Cornwell and Peter Knight

The year began in lockdown and ends with renewed concern over social contact indoors and mass spectator gatherings. Covid-19 continues to cast its shadow. Nevertheless almost all forms of local sporting activity have enjoyed a recovery during the course of the year, and it’s a pleasure to recall some highs experienced both by individual players and their teams over the course of 2021. 

It’s also time to anticipate what looks like a species migration of team sports in Hastings as the town’s major football, cricket and hockey teams all prepare for moves to fresh homelands in 2022 or the following year.


Priory cricketers maintained their Premier league status

CRICKET

Sports story of 2021 was surely the transformation of Hastings and St Leonards Priory cricketers from no-hopers to triumphant survivors in what was almost certainly their last campaign at Horntye Park before their projected move to Claremont next year. Priory had been promoted into the Sussex Premier League after topping Division One in 2019. With the 2020 league season wiped out by Covid, the target for this year’s team, shorn of star all-rounder Elliott Hooper but boosted by the return of former batsman Harry Finch, released by the Sussex county team, and the recruitment of a young Sri Lankan, Dilshan De Zoysa, was to consolidate their promoted status.

First match in May was abandoned to rain; the second, at Middleton, was won narrowly after a stonking innings by Finch. The record for the next three months was dismal: eight defeats and two draws, then two more matches rain-abandoned. Either the batting collapsed or the bowling attack was taken apart, or both. Finch, who had scored a couple of centuries but also succumbed to several early dismissals, was recruited for the Kent county team in mid-July and did not return. Leading spin bowler Jed O’Brien also departed. By mid-August, with four matches left, relegation seemed inevitable.

All four were won. Rivals at the bottom, Haywards Heath, were bowled out for 94 on their own pitch, with wickets shared between Adam Barton, John Morgan and De Zoysa, and overhauled with the loss of only two wickets. Next up, Brighton & Hove were also skittled for 102, this time by De Zoysa and Adam Page; Priory lost nine wickets for 92, before last pair Morgan and Page scrambled a one wicket victory. The crucial match took place at Cuckfield, where the home team, now just below Priory in the league table, rattled up 239 for nine in their 50 overs, then reduced Priory to 44 for five. Even a brilliant partnership of 149 runs between captain Tom Gillespie and Will Hutchings seemed unlikely to save the day – or the season – only for Morgan to hit 37 not out off 20 deliveries, The Hastings side reaching the target with three wickets and just five balls to spare.

In probably the last ever game at Horntye, fittingly played against local rivals Eastbourne with a win still needed, the batsmen scored 214 including solid half centuries by Jake Woolley and Harry Scowen; the visitors, pegged back by tight bowling in particular from Barton and De Zoysa, managed only 168. Priory thus finished seventh out of ten in the league table, an outcome they would have taken with satisfaction at the beginning of the season.


HOCKEY

The move to Claremont will also involve hockey club South Saxons, now surely playing their last season on the artificial pitch at Horntye. Both men’s and ladies’ teams have been prospering in recent years, with healthy playing numbers and steady ascent of respective regional leagues. After post-Covid restructuring, the men find themselves these days in South East Division 1 East; the women in equivalent South East Division 1 West. 

For the men, goal-scoring rarely seems too much of a problem; keeping their own goal defended against speedy and technically proficient opponents at this level has been more challenging. Last Saturday, for instance, entertaining Holcombe, they looked to have secured a creditable 3-3 draw only to concede a decider in the last moments. Two weeks before, they chalked up a 7-5 home victory over Canterbury Pilgrims.

The ladies’ elevation to the western division involves them in lengthy travel itineraries – Guildford, Epsom and Woking are among their destinations. The campaign started with a series of defeats, including a 13-0 trouncing at Oxted, but a gritty 2-1 win against Eastbourne followed by a 0-0 draw at Horsham showed that they can compete at this level, and they lie tenth of 12 teams in the league table at mid-season. Alex Coombs, star of the men’s team, is their coach, and captain Kat Jenner says: “the team are training hard, fighting for survival, and are enjoying the new challenge the league has to offer.”


SNOOKER

Back in April Mark Davis of St Leonards produced what he considered the best comeback of his 30-year professional career to qualify for snooker’s Betfred World Championship, recovering from 7-2 down to pull off a stunning 10-8 victory over Jamie Clarke in the final qualifying round for the sport’s flagship event. 

In the first round proper Davis was drawn against seventh seed and 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy, and led 5-3 before his exalted opponent made a break of 114 and eventually sealed a 10–7 victory.

In November, Davis reached the last 16 of the 2021 English Open, after beating Lukas Kleckers (4-1), Graeme Dott (4-3) and Fergal O’Brien (4-1) along the way, before being edged out 4-3 by the eventual winner of the tournament, Neil Robertson.


DARTS

Rob Cross, former 2018 world champion from St Leonards, returned to the winner’s circle in October after he won his 4th PDC (Professional Darts Corporation) major at the 2021 European Darts Championship. Victory was secured after beating world number three Michael van Gerwen in the final 11-8. The win moved him back up to 11th in the PDC World Rankings.

Fellow local player Ritchie Edhouse qualified for the first time for this Championship, but it was always going to be difficult progressing to the next stage after being drawn against world number one Gerwyn Price in the first round. Edhouse lost the tie 6-2. 

Cross will be hoping to regain his world title at the 2022 PDC World Championship starting on 15 December, particularly after last year’s early exit from the competition. Edhouse has also qualified, and will be looking to better his previous run in the tournament in 2020 when he reached the second round, though Price will again stand in his way. 


TENNIS

As an outdoor non-contact sport played either one-on-one or two-on-two, tennis is an ideal game for moderate social distancing. No surprise, then, that both the Amherst club in Hastings and The Green in St Leonards have attracted additional members this year. Inter-club summer doubles competitions ran as normal, and the winter season is now in full swing.

Amherst’s top notch American coach Doug Keen departed back across the Atlantic, and there was also a changing of the guard within the ranks of playing members as 17-year-old Zak Prawanna replaced 60-something Jeff  Gedge as club singles champion. 

At The Green, Joe Adams led from the front as their men’s team were comfortable winners of their division of the Sussex Tennis League. 


Ben Pope in action for the ‘U’s at Chippenham
CREDIT: Scott White

FOOTBALL

Hastings United’s anticipated relocation from Pilot Field to Tilekiln has been held up by Covid and/or the slow manoeuvrings within the borough council’s planning department. Success on the field has largely continued, and been appreciated by returning crowds despite any health concerns; off the field, there have been bumps along the way.

Season 2020/21 was aban-doned with United unable to profit, for the second successive year, from their position at the top of the table:  promotion to the Isthmian Premier league was again denied. The current league season, still in the South East Division, started slowly with a draw at home to Herne Bay and defeat at Ramsgate, but the team then put together a run of eight successive victories including three in FA Cup-ties and two in the FA Trophy. 

A 1-0 victory away at National League side Chippenham Town in the third qualifying round of the FA Cup was particularly impressive, and the team headed for Maidenhead on 16t October with high hopes of making the first round proper. The 3-1 defeat there was no disgrace, and it was followed by two further league wins over Hythe Town and Phoenix Sports. Then came a five-day reversal of fortunes. 

On the evening of 26 October Hastings were leading Ashford United 1-0 into the second half (having already defeated the same opponents 2-0 in an FA Trophy tie at Pilot Field earlier in the month), but lost 3-1. Four days later, entertaining Felixstowe & Walton in the FA Trophy, they again led 1-0 and again lost 3-1. The next day, Sunday, manager Chris Agutter told CEO Billy Woods that he was quitting, bringing his four-year reign to an immediate end.

The reason which Agutter gave for his abrupt departure was that he needed “a new challenge, a fresh start”. And within a couple of weeks it emerged that he had obtained a fresh post as a youth coach with Stevenage Town. Wasn’t he bound by contract to stay at Hastings until 2023, having signed extended terms for this period only in January? Neither he nor Woods made any public reference to contractual obligations, though Woods admitted that he was left “disappointed” and “angry”. 

In any event United have made a new appointment from within their ranks, putting experienced central defender Gary Elphick in charge for the rest of the season. And after two or three weeks of turbulence, results seem to be stabilising. Last Saturday’s comfortable 5-0 win over East Grinstead Town was the fourth in five matches for the ‘U’s, elevating them to fifth place in the league, six points behind leaders Cray Valley. With over half the fixtures still to play, 2022 can still be their year.

The United women’s team in the meantime have continued to make strong progress. Six wins and a draw in their seven matches in the South Division of the London & South East Regional League (level six of the women’s football pyramid) have put them at the head of the table. Goals have not always been easy to come by, in fact four of the nine other teams in the league have scored as many or more; but Hastings have conceded just two all season so far. Only disappointment was a 2-0 defeat by Bromley in the Vitality FA Cup in October.


Hastings & Bexhill control a maul
CREDIT: Peter Knight

RUGBY

Hastings & Bexhill RFC have no plans to move from their Ark Alexandra base. After almost 18 months of effective hibernation they started the current season with a new head coach, Leslie Hunter, and a keen ambition to rule the roost of the Kent League. Early results were mixed, and Hunter was forced to resign due to family commitments and the pressure of a new teaching career. However, Steve “Saucie” McManus, a former first team captain, player for 27 years and coach in the club’s youth programme, has taken over. Many of the current squad are former members of his colts’ teams.

Now third in the league table, the first XV beat second-placed Old Williamsonians convincingly 32-14 last Saturday and look forward to hosting unbeaten leaders Park House in the first game back in the New Year.

Meanwhile the return of on-field activity has been grasped with relish throughout the club. The minis have been training on Sunday mornings under the leadership of Martin Sheppard and an army of volunteer coaches and administrators. After Christmas they return to their programme of festivals and tournaments within the very well-organised Sussex set-up. Juniors (12-17 years) have been training twice a week and playing regular fixtures throughout the season; several of their players have been selected for County training and taken into the Academy squads of Premiership teams Saracens and Harlequins.

The newly formed Ladies Section under the leadership of Bob Meager are training regularly and hope to start matches in the New Year.


Charlotte Wynne-Pennels vaulting at HAC
CREDIT: Hastings Athletics Club

ATHLETICS

Hastings Athletics Club’s base below Ark Alexandra is not under threat either, but the Luke Veness clubhouse, described by an insider as a previously outdated, dusty, unwelcoming space, has been renovated by club members with financial backing from business and community sponsors, to become a fresh club community hub. Membership has been overhauled with better deals for families.

On the track, international distance runner Grace Baker made her debut in the London Vitality Big Half (marathon) storming in at 79m, 12th woman overall. This was her first competitive race in the UK since returning from her sports scholarship in the USA 18 months ago. 

The club has performed strongest, though, at veteran level. Martyn Reynolds is now ranked 1st in the country for 2021 and 400m V40 and 15th of all time. Steve Baldock, who is the club’s sprint coach, is now ranked first in the country in 2021 for 800m V50 and 8th overall of all time. Assistant coach Wayne Martin is ranked 1st in the country for 2021 in the polevault and 21st overall of all time. 

The club had athletes at the London marathon, half marathons and 5k and 10k events across the country. It won the team competition at the Hastings Seafront 10km; Jenna Levett won the Battle 10k. Rae Le Fay, a stand-out under-15 runner has recently been selected to train with the Sussex endurance squad and will represent the county at the cross-country Inter-counties contest next week.

Meanwhile Hastings parkrun resumed in July this year along St Leonards seafront, and has been maintaining a healthy average of 270-300 runners each week.

Sarah Marzaioli of Hastings Runners was invited to participate in the London Marathon as part of the Abbott World Marathon Majors series. Just two weeks later, she posted a time of 4hrs 37mins in the Yorkshire marathon, winning her age group in what was the British Masters marathon championship event for this year. This puts her 10th in her age group for the UK rankings in 2021.

Will Withecombe, after warming up with several low key 5km race wins earlier in the summer, came first in both the Hastings Seafront 10k and the Woodchurch 5-mile event. Matt Edmonds, taking a break from his long-distance parkrun successes and ultra-events, added victory in the Beachy Head 10k event to his impressive CV.


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