Hastings United have slumped from second to fifth in the Bostik League South East over the past fortnight as they suffered successive defeats – 2-1 away at East Grinstead on 23rd February, then 4-2 at home to Haywards Heath Town last Saturday.  In both games the ‘U’s enjoyed the bulk of possession, equalised after falling behind, and looked the more likely winners. But in each they conceded late goals from breakaway moves  –  in the 81st minute at East Grinstead, in the 86th and again in added time against Haywards Heath. 

Over the last couple of months Hastings also conceded last-gasp goals in added time in away games at Phoenix Sports and Horsham, in both cases ending with draws instead of merited victories. Manager Chris Agutter is inclined to say that he cares more about the team’s performances than its results, and before the most recent defeat was insisting that they are playing well: “we need to keep doing what we’re doing”, he told Simon Newstead of the Observer. But supporters are bound to be concerned that United’s form is plummeting just as the business end of the season makes results all important.

Fifth position at the end of the season would still qualify the team for the promotion play-offs. But as explained in previous columns, it is very unlikely to be enough to keep hopes of actual promotion alive. Not merely would both semi-final and final have to be played away from home, which with United’s league record of only four wins in 14 away matches hitherto would hardly inspire confidence, more importantly, even if they did win both, they would still probably lose out to play-off winners from other leagues arriving with better points-per-game averages.

Injuries and suspensions continue to make consistent team selection difficult. For the game last Saturday, Jack Dixon returned to the team after a three-match ban, and Youssouf Bamba also shrugged off injury to be selected in the starting line-up. But key central defender Jahmal Howlett-Mundle was suspended after racking up ten yellow cards, and with Sam Beale (hamstring) and Ollie Black (back) also out through injury, the defence looked threadbare. 

United should not be written off. Daniel Ajakaiye remains in sparkling form up front, scoring twice with a brace of quicksilver shots against Haywards Heath to boost his season’s tally in all competitions to 28. In midfield, the quality of Sam Cruttwell, Adam Lovatt and Jack Dixon remains capable of dominating games at this level. But Hastings need points. Winning at Crayford (VCD Athletic) on Saturday and then at home to leaders Cray Wanderers on 16th March would do much to restore confidence. Can they?

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