FOOTBALL: A Re-Balance – United At The Top
In HIP 137, a fortnight ago, I reported on the boardroom comings and goings at Pilot Field, as new Hastings United CEO Billy Wood arrived and three long-serving club directors departed. But whatever upheavals there may have been off the pitch, they have not so far disturbed the excellent start made by the team on it.
Jack Dixon scoring for Hastings in the FA Cup tie with Worthing
After eight games of the league season Hastings United remain unbeaten and lead the BetVictor Isthmian South-East Division by two points, having toppled Sevenoaks Town from that position with a 3-1 home win over them on 28th September. In cup competitions the ‘U’s are also going well: narrow defeat by Isthmian Premier side Worthing in an FA Cup replay has been balanced by two wins out of two (prior to Tuesday’s match away at Burgess Hill) in the round-robin league cup, and a creditable 2-1 victory at Hythe last Saturday in the FA Trophy.
Supporters may recall that Hastings made a similarly promising start to the 2018/19 season. Indeed after eight league games then (producing seven victories and one defeat), they were three points better off than now, though lying second to eventual champions Cray Wanderers. However, the difference in goal tallies, for and against, shows a stark contrast. In those eight opening fixtures last year the ‘U’s racked up 22 goals while conceding eight; this autumn they had scored only seven goals in seven games before the Sevenoaks win but conceded just one.
So should we rejoice in the new defensive competence or concern ourselves at the apparent loss of goal-scoring prowess? There are reasons to think that the re-balance between defence and attack will pay dividends.
The new defensive line-up is centred, literally, around two experienced campaigners: Gary Elphick, who was signed in March this year and provided immediate solidity to a previously mistake-prone back line; and Craig Stone, arriving from Eastbourne Borough over the summer, who was immediately heralded by manager Chris Agutter as “an out-and-out winner”, having won four promotions over the years from leagues above, including the old Nationwide Conference National.
“He’s been there and done it, and will help our young group in a big way”, said Agutter back in June. So far that prediction has been spot on.
Another new recruit, Jake Elliott, signed from Peacehaven and Telscombe, has also put in very capable performances at right back.
Further forward, however, the team has benefited from continuity rather than fresh personnel. In midfield, regular picks Sam Adams, Adam Lovatt, Jack Dixon and Lanre Azeez have all carried on where they left off last season; up front, Daniel Ajakaiye and Davide Rodari, each the subject of transfer speculation over the summer, have both been retained, joined only by former Lewes striker Ben Pope, who has been in prolific scoring form, and the return of veteran striker Kenny Pogue as back-up.
The stability of the squad has something to do with its smaller size, and has been aided so far by a low injury count – long may that continue. However, the contrast with the seeming frenzy of transfer activity in recent years is instructive. Between June last year and January this, a regular succession of players joined the first team squad from outside the club, each given an initial fanfare of introduction by Agutter: Jahmal Howlett-Mundle, Manny Mensah, Hassan Ibrahiym, Yussuf Bamba, Lanre Azeez, Jordy Mongoy, Temi Eweke. Of these only Azeez remains. That’s not to criticise either the initial recruitment of these players nor the discard process. But this season, with no ins or outs since mid-July, and a comparatively settled team sheet from one game to the next, performances have also been more consistent.
• The ‘U’s will resume league action with games away at Haywards Heath tomorrow and at Sittingbourne the following Saturday.
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