Ben Pope continued his scoring streak with another double to earn United a highly-valued point away to third placed Whitehawk.
Having conceded an early goal United brought themselves level mid-way through the half courtesy of Pope’s penalty. And after Whitehawk took the lead again, following their positive start to the second-half, Pope pounced once more after a long throw had been flicked on. United pressed for a winner but in the end settled for a point and remain unbeaten this year.
United shuffled their pack from the weekend and lined up 3-5-2 with Craig Stone pushed into midfield and Warren Mfula handed his first start. And they began brightly. A pass into Pope was laid back to Mfula who immediately found a yard of space but dragged his left-foot shot wide. An encouraging sign of the two forwards combining.
Neither side had caused the other any bother or created any pressure when an innocuous looking foul earned Whitehawk a free-kick wide on the right. A plain-old punt to the far post was headed goalward and blocked, the ball landing at the feet of centre-half Fintan Walsh a few yards out. He couldn’t miss and didn’t, to give the hosts the lead out of nothing.
Both Jack Dixon and Mfula shot wide from distance as United sought to get themselves into the game. A free-kick on halfway was used to free Sam Beale down the left and his deep cross was headed for a corner.
A big chance arrived after twenty minutes. A long Ollie Black throw wasn’t dealt with by the Whitehawk defence and the ball fell to Pope who swivelled and fired a shot wide from inside the six-yard area. United supporters taken-aback as more often than not the centre-forward hits the target or makes the goalkeeper work.
The United midfield though were getting to grips with their counterparts. Stone shot wide from the edge of the area and then, as the midway point of the half arrived, a ball was played to Pope who pushed a pass around the corner for Mfula. He got the wrong side of the defender and was unceremoniously clattered from behind as he steadied to shoot. Penalty and a lenient booking.
The referee forced Pope to wait an eon whilst he brewed a pot of tea and asked each of the players how many sugars they wanted, or so it seemed from the touchline. A good three minutes had passed before Pope was finally given the nod and, undeterred, he dutifully buried his spot-kick in the bottom corner to bring United level.
As the half progressed, Whitehawk were awarded a series of free-kicks and Lucas Rodrigues fashioned himself two shooting opportunities but otherwise United were untroubled. Then, in the one minute of added time, the referee awarded the hosts another free-kick wide on the right. Once more the player going nowhere but falling to the ground and winning the decision.
A good ball in was headed onto the underside of the crossbar and cleared off the line followed by the almightiest of goalmouth scrambles. Whitehawk’s claims the ball had crossed the line were thwarted by the assistant’s flag remaining low by his side.
Forty-six minutes of battles, stoppages, free-kicks, not too many clear-cut chances and players badgering the referee like an irritating earworm. And nothing less than expected!
The second-half began with Whitehawk fast out of the blocks. The lively Rodrigues found space for another shot which earned a corner, before his run and shot from inside the area was stopped by a tremendous Gary Elphick block.
United’s only relief was an off-balance Jake Elliott shot which flew wide and the Hawks were soon back on the attack. Rodrigues’ dangerous low cross, following a jinking round down the right, was cleared at the near-post for a corner from which there would be no reprieve. The whipped in corner bounced down some eight-yards out and the ubiquitous Rodrigues drove home through a crowd of players. Whitehawk rewarded for a stirring start to the half.
Perhaps thinking they’d done the hard-work Whitehawk’s lead lasted less than a few minutes. Mfula, Dixon and Beale manoeuvred their way down the left and won a throw-in. Ollie Black’s long throw was flicked on and Pope reacted in a flash to steer the ball home for his and United’s second equaliser. The goal knocked the stuffing out of Whitehawk from which they never fully recovered.
With fifteen minutes to go a United corner was cleared and Whitehawk broke quickly to win their own corner. From which United broke away and were nearly through but for the onrushing goalkeeper to intercept, though his scuffed clearance almost fell for the United midfield.
Following that passage of end-to-end play it was United who pushed for a decisive goal. A superb Stone cross barely eluded Pope’s head before another Black throw caused havoc and Daniel Ajakaiye’s shot was saved by the goalkeeper’s legs. Ajakaiye retrieved the ball and threaded a low cross to Pope whose first-time shot was cleared off the line.
In the final minute of added time, a strong Ryan Worrall tackle allowed Dixon to free Lanre Azeez down the left and his cross from the by-line was cleared by a diving-header just before the arriving Dixon could tuck home. The final whistle followed, and a fully entertained and boisterous crowd applauded both teams off the pitch.
United pick up an important away point against a team with a home record only bettered by United themselves. Undaunted by falling behind twice the ‘U’s got themselves on level terms relatively quickly and could have captured all three points at the end.
Hastings United: Rogers, Black, Aboagye, Elphick, Stone, Elliott, Mfula (75’ Ajakaiye), Pope, Adams (69’ Worrall), Beale (65’ Azeez), Dixon (Unused subs: Pogue, Pool)
Whitehawk: Broadbent, Emberson, Banya, Kissock, Walsh, Hamilton, Rodrigues, Abdulla, Muggeridge, Tighe (82’ Ofori-Acheampong), Martin (Unused subs: Unwin, Torres, Christie, Ramsis)
Next game: A big one! Saturday 8th February at home to 2nd placed Ashford United, kick-off 3pm.