BJH Hip A0035Injuries and defensive frailties continue to jinx the fortunes of Hastings United

by Hugh Sullivan

I’ve been learning an American swing dance popularised in the early 1930s called The Balboa. The basic footwork can be summarised as two steps forward, slide back, slide forward, two steps back, slide forward, slide back. In dance history this mutated into a less controlled version – the Jitterbug, which as it sounds amounts to a frenzy of shaking and shuffling that doesn’t progress anywhere. For supporters of the ‘U’s this season both dance routines may sound a bit too familiar.

Not that those supporters haven’t enjoyed a bonanza of goal celebrations. At Pilot Field the home team have racked up nine wins in 13 league games at an average of three goals a game. Away from home scoring has been even more prolific – 41 goals in 13 games. Current leaders Tooting and Mitcham United were toppled 4-0 on their own ground last month. And yet the Ryman League South table, showing United as of last Saturday evening only in tenth place, doesn’t lie. So often a couple of sumptuous victories have been followed by a frustrating odd-goal defeat or tortuous draw – games in which the team’s attacking skills have seemed to guarantee victory only to find them tarnished by defensive frailties.

The ‘U’s most recent home recent home match against league strugglers Three Bridges, was only an untypical in its conclusion. Though lacking midfield fluency the Hastings forwards jiggled effectively around the visitors defence and by the 51st minute had the game apparently won at 3-0, courtesy of two goals notched by Franny Collin (the eighth successive match in which he had scored) and one from Kiernan Hughes-Mason. Then key defender Sam Cruttwell limped off with a hamstring injury, a slack goal was conceded at a corner, and suddenly the team were in full retreat. Manager Darren Hare used all three substitutes to provide fresh legs, but Three Bridges scored a second through a penalty. And when Richard Davies pulled up with a damaged knee after barely 15 minutes on the field Hastings were left with only ten men in jitter mode to protect their one goal advantage for the remainder of the game. Even then defenders peeled away as if from an emptying dance floor, allowing an attacker free run on goal for what seemed an inevitable equaliser, only for goalkeeper Len Pidgeley to save one-on-one. There were further close calls during six minutes of added time before the victory could be celebrated, more in relief than satisfaction.

Injuries have certainly played their part in the up-down, forward-and-back performances in recent weeks. Former Chelsea centre-back Steve Watt, brought in by Darren Hare to provide experience and solidity at the heart of the defence as well as acting as assistant manager, has struggled for fitness from early on; midfielder Sam Cole, one of last season’s most consistent performers, is sidelined for the rest of the season with damaged knee ligaments; another midfielder Barry Cogan has hamstring problems; captain Ollie Rowe has been rested after playing several games with a broken toe; forwards Harry Stannard and Jack Harris have missed several games with ankle problems. Neither Sam Cruttwell nor Richard Davies are likely to return for several weeks at least.

Darren’s back catalogue from his coaching days at Gillingham has as a consequence been well thumbed. Latest recruits from that source include Callum Emptage, a 20-year-old midfielder, Jerome Sobers, a 30-year-old central defender who once cost Ipswich Town a £10,000 transfer fee, has joined from Tonbridge Angels and made his debut in the game against Three Bridges, and two more ex-Gills Bradley Stevenson and Jack Evans.

There are still 19 league games to be contested in a wide open field. It seems to the outside observer that there is enough talent among the players and enough experience in the coaching staff for Hastings to make the top six by April and thus qualify at least for the promotion play-offs. But it’s clear they’re going to have to scrap for it. Darren posted a news update on the club’s website after the Three Bridges game saying he thinks that “the next four weeks will decide our fate”.

Tomorrow’s opponents Carshalton have been free-scoring themselves, the two teams fighting out a 4-4 draw in the reverse fixture back in November. After that the ‘U’s play back-to-back home and away against Hythe Town, who are other promotion rivals. Safe to say it won’t be a January Waltz – better prepare for a Jitterbug jamboree