Hastings United drew a crowd of 1,123  – the biggest at Pilot Field for over six years –  for their Bostik League play-off semifinal on Monday night. But for the home supporters it was as miserable an experience as if they had stayed home and watched the Lee Mack sit-com on telly – though rather longer drawn out: visitors Ashford United won 3-2 with a winning penalty awarded just a couple of minutes from the end of extra time.

Daniel Ajakaiye (in white): picked for the league eleven but not for Hastings
PICTURE: Scott White

After a goal-less and almost incident-less first half, Hastings had twice gone ahead, 1-0 and 2-1 early in the second period with goals scored by Davide Rodari and Jack Dixon. The first came after a brilliant run by Lanre Azeez down the right, leaving several defenders in his wake and screwing the ball back for Rodari to shoot home. The second followed fine work from Sam Beale down the left, and was slotted expertly by Dixon. But each time the ‘U’s were quickly pegged back, and could not reasonably claim by the end that they deserved better.  

Rather it looked like stalemate in extra time, with the game destined to be settled by penalties. But no, just one kick was needed from the penalty spot, after Gary Elphick slipped on the dewy surface, allowed an Ashford forward to get goal-side, and brought him down from behind. The penalty was coolly struck to goalkeeper Charlie Horlock’s right, and that was that. It is Ashford who will go on to contest the play-off final with Horsham on Friday night, though having a low points-per-game rating from the regular league season they may well find that they miss out on promotion even if they win then. 

There had been audible mutterings of dissent from Hastings supporters at the start of the evening when they saw the line-up selected by manager Chris Agutter, with both leading scorer Daniel Ajakaiye and talented midfielder Sam Cruttwell confined to the bench of substitutes. Earlier in the week Ajakaiye, like right back Jamie Fielding, had been named in the league’s best eleven, yet manager Chris Agutter had no place for him. And with Rodari deployed on his own up front to battle against a well-organised Ashford defence, there were never going to be many goalscoring chances. 

On the other hand, when both Ajakaiye and Cruttwell were brought on as substitutes midway through the second half, neither showed the kind of flair or control that they are capable of, indeed Ajakaiye played as though he had put his boots on the wrong way round. Was that vindication of Agutter’s initial rejection, or had he engendered a lack of confidence in the players by it?

As on many occasions this season, a number of the young Hastings players produced excellent performances in a less than satisfying whole. Adam Lovatt and Dixon were outstanding in midfield, both in their use of the ball and in defensive covering and tackling; Fielding bombed forward down the right flank; Jack Tucker was commanding in the centre of defence. But too often the ‘U’s squandered good possession with an inaccurate pass or loss of ball control.

Next season? Fielding and Lovatt have been trialled by Leicester City and are likely to have moved on. Rodari is another player being heavily scouted. Will Ajakaiye stay? We’ll find out in due course. But we do know now that, after so much promise of promotion to a higher status, it’ll be another season in the South-East Division.

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