After four games without a win that had resulted in Hastings United slipping to third place in the Bostik League South-East, last Saturday’s 2-1 home win over Faversham Town came as welcome relief. It was a far from vintage performance by the ‘U’s, struggling to overcome opponents who languish near the foot of the table. But the three points gained were enough to lift them back into second place, as local rivals Ashford United suffered defeat at even lowlier Herne Bay. 

Sam Adams (in white) in action v Faversham
PICTURE: Scott White

Adams penalty hits the Faversham net
PICTURE: Scott White

With Jack Dixon and Temi Eweka suspended after recent sendings off and Hassan Ibrahim and Youssouf Bamba still on the injury list, Hastings ‘ squad had a depleted look. They did, however, welcome back Sam Beale after an injury lay-off of more than two months, Antonio Walker-Barth was picked to start for the first time this year, and they began brightly enough. Daniel Ajakaiye, whose form and fitness remain key to United’s chances of promotion, was tripped in the penalty area, and captain Sam Adams drove home the spot-kick with aplomb. But a mistake by Sam Cruttwell gave Faversham the chance to equalise before the interval, and the second half seemed to be deteriorating into a stalemate when Ajakaiye struck. Cruttwell delivered a penetrating ball down the left flank, and the forward lofted his shot with sublime precision over the advancing goalkeeper – a goal worthy of winning a better game than this. United held on in the closing minutes to secure the victory.

Hastings have ten matches of the regular season left to play – five at home, five away.  All five home matches pit them against other teams in the top half of the table, including runaway leaders Cray Wanderers, third-placed Ashford and (next up) fifth-placed Haywards Heath. By contrast four out of the five away fixtures are against sides in the bottom half.  Supporters can view that run-in two ways. Optimists will believe that United’s imperious home form –  11 wins out of 13 – can be maintained against better opposition while their stuttering away form –  only 4 wins out of 13 –  can be improved against struggling opponents. Pessimists may fear the opposite. What is certain is that, as manager Chris Agutter constantly warns, there are no easy fixtures in this league.

Beyond lie the play-offs. Top spot is clearly Cray’s to seal, still 15 points ahead of the chasing pack. Places between second and fifth qualify for the play-off knockouts, with home advantage being given to the higher-placed qualifier in both semifinals and final. But, as explained in a previous column, the club victorious in the final will still only gain promotion if it is one of the top five contenders, on a points per game average, spread over seven different leagues. Every point gained or lost at this stage of the season thus has significance not only in determining play-off places but also in the ultimate reward for play-off success. A crazy system, many will think, but competitive? Not half. 

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