Hastings United Football Club is in confident mood as it prepares to take on the league champions in waiting.
Chris Agutter’s side will host Bostik League South East Division leaders Cray Wanderers today (Saturday, kick-off 3pm) buoyed by a much-needed 2-0 win away to VCD Athletic last weekend.
Agutter said: “I think it’s always been a case of bring on Cray. It’s a game that I really look forward to being involved in.
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“No disrespect to other teams, but it will be a proper football match between two teams that will try and string more than two passes together.
“From a coaching perspective it throws up higher level challenges in terms of how you stop Cray. Nine times out of 10 it’s a case of how do you stop the opposition’s direct approach and what’s the best way to win the second ball.
“They will play in a similar way to us. It’s a similar sort of game to the Whyteleafe games where both teams try to play a slightly more sophisticated brand of football.”
Cray are 16 points clear at the top of the table having lost only once in the league all season.
“There’s no fear there,” continued Agutter. “We’ve watched Cray an awful lot this season and I’ve not seen any team do what we did to them in the first 45 minutes in the first fixture.
“I look at our players and theirs, particularly in the forward areas, and I wouldn’t swap any of ours for theirs. And with the addition of Gary Elphick, it sets the game up really nicely.”
Fourth-placed Hastings are 18 points adrift of Cray having played an extra game, but caused them plenty of problems during a narrow 2-1 defeat in November’s reverse fixture.
“I just think it will be a really good game,” added Agutter. “The first game was a better level than Bostik South East. I’m hoping for a really decent crowd and a decent game of football, which I fully believe we can win.
“Cray is a very different type of challenge to VCD and we’ll go into the game very confident.”
Hastings kept a first clean sheet in eight matches against VCD on former Brighton & Hove Albion defender Elphick’s debut for the club.
“Nine out of 10 teams tend to smash it down your throat so it’s nice having a centre-back that heads it back,” said Agutter.
“Some of the things he does you learn over time and our centre-backs will learn when they’ve played as many games as Gary has. It culminated in a really solid performance.
“He squeezed more out of the players around him. It was one of the best performances from Sam Cruttwell at centre-back all season. Adam Lovatt was brilliant as a number four and was helped by Gary talking to him.”
Jahmal Howlett-Mundle is available after a two-match ban, and with the vast majority of the injured players back to fitness and suspensions over, there is plenty of competition for places. So much so that Charlie Horlock and Antonio Walker didn’t even make the squad last weekend.
Hastings United’s remaining fixtures: March 16 Cray Wanderers (h), March 23 Three Bridges (a), March 30 Ramsgate (h), April 13 Hythe Town (h), April 20 Sittingbourne (a), April 22 Ashford United (h), April 27 Greenwich Borough (a).
Bostik League South East Division top half (played-points): 1 Cray Wanderers 28-71 (+41 goal difference), 2 Horsham 29-55 (+20), 3 Ashford United 28-54 (+31), 4 HASTINGS UNITED 29-53 (+22), 5 Haywards Heath Town 28-52 (+17), 6 Hythe Town 29-43 (+7), 7 Whyteleafe 28-41 (+10), 8 VCD Athletic 27-41 (+1), 9 Ramsgate 29-36 (+2), 10 Phoenix Sports 28-36 (-4).