Going So Well

It was all going so well for the players, management and supporters of Hastings United. Five successive league wins sending them to the top of the Isthmian League table; advancement in the FA Trophy and Sussex Senior Cup competitions; capacity crowd numbers (the maximum of 400 allowed under Covid restrictions) at every home game; two simultaneous planning applications lodged with the borough council for prospective stadium relocation. 

The launch of the women’s team has also brought early success in both league and cup competitions, attracting healthy home crowd numbers.

Sam Adams (in white and claret) in goal-scoring form for Hastings
PICTURE: Scott White 

In short, the club were marching forward again on every front, putting the disappointment of the first lockdown, which almost certainly cost them league promotion back in the spring, well and truly behind them. 

Success on the men’s side has come from a continuation of the playing style of teams coached by Chris Agutter over the three years of his management reign. Comfort on the ball is the hallmark, with a generally slow build-up, patient inter-passing sideways and backwards among the back four and midfield, with the aim of creating space up front for fast-paced forwards to break into. Off the ball, avoidance of over-commitment by defenders is another key, with the ‘goals against’ column again this season an index of parsimony – just three goals conceded in seven league games to date.

Youth and experience

Two key players of the last two seasons, striker Daniel Ajakaiye and midfielder Adam Lovatt, have departed in upward career moves to respective National League clubs, Havant & Waterlooville and Sutton
United. A trio of young players who are recent graduates from the
‘U’s academy – Ollie Black, Ryan Worrall and Tommy Chalmers – have taken opportunities to establish regular places. But around them Agutter has clearly shifted the balance of the team away from youth towards experience, with a reliable coterie of older players now forming the spine of the team. 

There has already been talk of halving the league schedule… teams would only play each other once to complete the season

In the centre of defence, Gary Elphick and Craig Stone have combined to present a formidable barrier, both in the air and along the ground; in midfield, veteran captain Sam Adams has been in goal-scoring form, while Jack Dixon has continued to put in match-winning performances; up front, Kenny Pogue may not always have 90 minutes running in him but, at the age of 33 and nearly ten years after his first appearance for Hastings, has proved an invaluable physical presence with the talent to convert chances into goals.

Second lockdown

Then came Boris Johnson’s announcement a fortnight ago of a second lockdown. Elite clubs – Premiership, three tiers of the English Football League and two more of the National League – have been allowed to continue to play behind closed doors, presumably under  the general label of “going to work”, although the consumers who would usually pay for their wares (i.e. spectators) get no end product from it unless from TV coverage. Football below those levels has been wholly suspended. It isn’t just competitive matches that are forbidden: all training activities, whether indoors or out, are outlawed unless performed solo. But when kids are not permitted to kick a ball between them in a public park, tennis players are barred even from singles play in the open air either side of a net, and golfers find their club courses closed against them, it’s hardly surprising that a sport that involves direct physical contact has again fallen foul of Covid phobia. 

So will United’s season be permitted to resume next month? If so, it will require quite a reversal of current restrictions. It seems more likely that the regime of the autumn, which allowed full team training and matches played as live spectacles, will not be restored until January at the earliest. 

The consequence will be at best another huge fixture backlog, and there has already been talk of halving the league schedule, so that teams would only play each other once, i.e. either home or away rather than both, to complete the 2020/21 season. That would have serious financial implications, of course, for all clubs at this level, their players, and their season ticket holders. But United will, above all, want to preserve what they have already achieved, and build on from there.

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