Pope Penalty Double Puts ‘U’s Back In Front

Hastings United 2, Whitstable Town 1

Ben Pope scored his 24th and 25th goals of the season, both from the penalty spot, as Hastings United came from behind to notch a vital home win against tenacious visitors Whitstable Town last Saturday afternoon. The victory became all the sweeter when the team returned to the dressing room to hear that rivals Ashford United had gone down 3-1 against Crayford team VCD. Hastings, who started the day second in the Betvictor Isthmian league (south-east division) table with equal points but an inferior goal difference, have thus returned to top position with a three-point cushion as well as two games in hand. 

Penalty no.1 – Ben Pope equalises against Whitstable
PICTURE: Scott White

On a pudding of a pitch, which had received over an inch of rain two days earlier on top of already sodden turf, the ‘U’s found it difficult to move the ball quickly or accurately enough to impose themselves consistently on their Kent coast opponents. Daniel Ajakaiye scampered down the left wing, while Lanre Azeez and Jake Elliott combined well down the right, but skipper Sam Adams had an off-day and Pope, ploughing a lone and muddy furrow in the centre, was rarely able to make any inroads. Home manager Chris Agutter’s selection of two holding midfield players, Adam Lovatt and James Pool, added to the accustomed competence of central defenders Craig Stone and Gary Elphick, and ensured that the threat to the home goal in open play was kept to a minimum, but equally left Hastings short of attacking options against defence-minded opponents. 

At set pieces, however – particularly a series of free kicks awarded by an intolerant referee in respect of some clumsy home tackling – Whitstable could bring their taller defenders up from the back, including former Pilot Field favourite Ollie Rowe, and bring their own pressure to bear. And after an even first half they went ahead early in the second period with Rowe’s near post header from a corner. 

The home side responded with an increased tempo but what still seemed insufficient penetration up front. They were a tad fortunate when, just past the hour mark, Azeez was adjudged to have been pushed from behind in the penalty area, the referee pointing to the spot. The Whitstable keeper got an arm to Pope’s firm kick but not strongly enough to stop the ball looping over him into the net.

Ten minutes later Azeez dribbled past two defenders into the area and was clearly tripped by a third. The referee dismissed plaintive argument from his aggressors, awarded a second penalty, and this time Pope rolled the ball in as the keeper went the other way.

The pitch cut up increasingly in the closing stages, with muddy patches around both goals causing problems for both sets of players. Ajakaiye and Pope were successively ushered in on goal by defensive stumbles only to lose control themselves. The ‘U’s ceded midfield control in the last few minutes and Whitstable flung in some hopeful crosses into their penalty area, but another home win – the 13th in 15 league matches this season – was safely negotiated, to the satisfaction of the majority of the crowd, again numbering over 700.

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