Hastings United centre-forward Ben Pope scored with an 84th minute header to deprive VCD Athletic a surprise result against the league-leaders.
Craig Stone’s fifth goal of the season and a Pope penalty had given United a comfortable half-time lead. VCD then took advantage of a wind-affected clearance to reduce the deficit, hauled themselves level and then did their upmost to win the game or at the very least deny United the victory.
The ‘U’s kicked-off on a dry, cold and bright day, but with a deceptively strong breeze. Within minutes Pope released Jarod Aboagye whose low cross from the by-line was blocked for a corner. After this was cleared a long Ollie Black throw was inadvertently flicked on by a defender’s head and slipped past the far post with goalkeeper, Ben Hunter, scrambling.
VCD, who had not scored a goal in the last three games, came as close as they could just a minute later. A free-kick from wide on the right swirled in the wind and Stone headed against his own post. The resulting corner was only half cleared, swung back in and met by a venomous header, from just three yards out, which produced a brilliant point-blank reaction save by Louis Rogers. His parry was cleared off the line before any VCD player could get a finishing touch.
Sam Adams and Jack Dixon attempted ambitious shots from distance which were both directed straight at Hunter before United took the lead on twenty-two minutes. A free-kick floated in from the left was retrieved by Dixon who crossed to the far post. Pope’s header was clawed out by Hunter with the rebound fired into the bottom corner by Stone.
Four minutes later Daniel Ajakaiye won a race down the left against Bradley Simms. Somehow, he kept the ball alive on the by-line and fed Lanre Azeez who was tripped from behind to win a penalty. No complaints from any of the VCD players. Pope stepped up and blasted into the roof of the net to double the lead.
Not yet satisfied United set about chasing a third goal. Pope’s header was grabbed from underneath his crossbar by Hunter, Aboagye fired over left-footed and then Ajakaiye collected Hunter’s scuffed clearance and volleyed just over the bar. The ‘U’s headed to the dressing room having to be content with a two-goal cushion.
Half-time: Hastings United 2 – 0 VCD Athletic
United began the second-half where they’d left off. Stone’s pass down the right allowed Pope to nip in ahead of the centre-half and though his cross bypassed Dixon it landed with Ajakaiye. His shot was saved, and Pope’s follow-up cleared off the line before the assistant’s flag brought a halt to the action.
VCD though were not willing to simply make up the numbers and served notice to United they were far from out of the game. A Jack Steventon long throw was headed out to the edge of the area from where Bode Anidugbe hit a powerful shot the wrong side of the post.
And just one minute later they were definitely back in the game. A long clearance held up in the wind and Stone’s clearing header lacked distance. The ball landed at the feet of Anidugbe, he spotted Rogers off his line and subtly lofted into the net from twenty-five yards.
Aboagye set about restoring United’s two goal advantage with barnstorming runs which both resulted in corners. But it was VCD who claimed the next goal. Another long throw by Steventon was partially cleared back to him and the returning cross was nodded in by Ayman El-Mogharbel from six yards. The visitors level.
For fifteen minutes both teams swapped possession in pursuit of a third goal. The closest opportunity for United was Dixon’s twenty-yard shot deflected for a corner after he was teed-up by Aboagye.
And for VCD, Ali Fuseini picked up a clearance in his own half, sprinted forward, broke through a tackle and hit a shot for which Rogers had to leap high to tip over the bar. The resulting corner started with a cross, had a mad scramble in the middle and ended with a shot narrowly wide.
Ten minutes to go. An Adams free-kick caught in the wind and struggled to make the area, from which United’s captain learned. With six minutes remaining his next free-kick was drilled across with a flatter trajectory, avoiding the breeze, and met firmly by Pope’s head who steered the ball expertly into the bottom corner to restore United’s lead. Great header from Pope and credit to Adams for adjusting his technique.
VCD pushed for another equaliser but wasted three free-kicks. Then in the last minute of added-time Pope had the chance to seal it and earn himself the match-ball. Sam Beale’s long clearance was cleverly flicked on by Warren Mfula. Pope sped the wrong side of the centre-half and curled a shot toward the bottom corner but narrowly wide. The full-time whistle followed, and the points were secure.
Full-time: Hastings United 3 – 2 VCD Athletic
Man of the Match: Ben Pope, scored his eighteenth and nineteenth of the season, and also his fifth in five games. Once more he superbly led the line with strength and courage and was only a foot away from a hat-trick.
Overall this was yet another team gunning for the league leaders and almost taking a point. But this is a United team who dig deep and keep going to the end.
Hastings United: Rogers, Black, Aboagye, Elphick (81’ Beale), Stone, Ajakaiye (74’ Mfula), Pope, Adams, Pool, Azeez (74’ Elliott), Dixon (Unused subs: Pogue, Worrall)
VCD Athletic: Hunter, Simms, Brown, Monger (83’ Gaggin), Hylton-Bartley, Steventon, El-Mogharbel (90’ Sargent), Anidugbe, Fuseini, Eweka (80’ Ikeije), Mendy (Unused subs: McKenzie, MacDonald)
Next game: Tuesday 4th February away to Whitehawk, kick-off 7:45pm.