Forget the goal-fests of last season, the 4-4 draws, the seat-of-pants defending. Hastings United would settle for half the excitement in the current league campaign provided that it ends successfully in promotion. On the evidence of their 2-1 defeat by Lewes at Pilot Field on Monday afternoon before a disappointed crowd of almost 700 they are going to make hard work of it.

In unseasonal heat (hell, this was a Bank Holiday, where were the wind and rain?) the ‘U’s conceded a dozy goal within the first minute, got back on level terms with a penalty scored by Billy Medlock; then last season’s skipper Ollie Rowe was adjudged to have made a dangerous two-footed tackle and red-carded. It wasn’t the kind of day to play a man short for almost an hour and, while it would be unfair to say that the depleted team wilted in the sunshine, Lewes always looked the more likely victors from that point. The winning goal came 12 minutes into the second half after another mix-up in the home defence. And that was that. The ‘U’s huffed and puffed, threw on their substitutes – ending with only eight fit players, as both Tom Vickers and Jack Harris stayed hobbling on the field – and battled tenaciously to try to rescue a point, but to no avail.

These are early days, of course. Hastings had started the season under fresh manager Andy Hinshelwood with wins over Corinthian Casuals and Ramsgate and a draw at Carshalton. Defeat by Lewes is no disaster. There are another 42 league games to go, and it is worth reviewing the bigger picture.

As usual the merry-go-round of lower-tier semi-professional football from season to season has turned to reveal major changes, starting with the commercial branding: gone like last year’s diarised stationery is the Ryman League; in its place the Bostik League. And at Pilot Field there have been wholesale comings and goings of personnel since the play-off defeat at Dorking in April. Not only has manager Darren Hare been replaced by ex-Brighton coach Andy Hinshelwood. Just four of the 14 who played for Hastings that night are still with the club: defenders Sam Cruttwell, Ollie Rowe and Bradley Pritchard plus midfield anchorman Simon Johnson (currently injured and badly missed on Monday). The forward line which scored 128 goals in 46 games last season has departed en masse – Frannie Collin and Matt Bodkin to Margate, as previously reported; Kiernan Hughes-Mason to Grays Athletic. Young midfielder Bradley Stevenson has signed full professional forms with Gillingham.

On the other hand Hinshelwood’s replacements, including returned favourites Josh Pelling in goal, Tom Vickers and Jack Dixon in midfield and striker Billy Medlock up front, give the team a durable look. They have been quick off the mark too, with Dixon scoring both goals in the 2-1 opening win over Corinthian Casuals and Medlock, who ran his heart out against Lewes and deserved the sponsors’ man-of-the- -match award, doing likewise in the 2-1 defeat of Ramsgate last Saturday. Pelling, who enjoyed an outstanding season with Horsham in 2016/17 after being invalided out of the ‘U’s line-up during the previous campaign, has returned to his best shot-stopping form as though he had never been away.

Tom Vickers credit Scott White
Tom Vickers
credit Scott White

One thing that hasn’t altered, though, is the difficulty of the challenge. It’s a hard league to rise from, the Bostik South. Only the one champion out of its 24 teams qualifies automatically for promotion. The next four fight out via the play-offs – semifinals and final – to determine a second place. As Hastings found last year, that secondary route is pretty much a lottery. Outplaying Dorking for much of the semi-final they lost narrowly on penalties; Dorking then squeezed home against Corinthian Casuals in the final by the same margin.

Another perennial feature is the distraction of the cup fixtures in early season. The FA Cup run of 2012/13 ended not only in glorious defeat at Middlesborough but also in relegation from the Ryman Premier League from which the club has yet to recover. In both 2015 and 2016 the ‘U’s made initial progress in FA Cup, FA Trophy and Sussex Cup competitions, raising prospects of repeating history in the first and savouring notable victories against notionally superior clubs in the others. But these cup adventures led to a backlog of league fixtures which undoubtedly put added strain on the squad as it played catch-up on less distracted rivals.

The new team are off on the same trail this season with a 2-0 victory over Sheppey United in the FA Cup preliminary round on 19 August to be followed by an intriguing tie away at Dulwich Hamlet tomorrow (Saturday 2 September). They will want to get back to winning ways, of course. But Hinshelwood has to keep the league as their main focus.

Jack Dixon  credit Scott White
Jack Dixon
credit Scott White