Hastings United Football Club produced a magnificent comeback to win a thrilling game against the league leaders this afternoon (Saturday).
Chris Agutter’s side recovered from 2-0 down after just six minutes to triumph 3-2 at home to Bostik League South East Division table-toppers Cray Wanderers.
A Sam Cruttwell wonder goal followed by Davide Rodari’s equaliser made it 2-2 at half time before the excellent Jack Dixon scored a tremendous second half winner.
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With the three other teams in the play-off places also winning, Hastings remain fourth in the table after inflicting only a second league loss of the season on a Cray side which is 13 points clear of second-placed Horsham.
With leading scorer Daniel Ajakaiye missing due to family reasons, Rodari was promoted to the starting line-up, along with Jordy Mongoy and Sam Beale. Youssouf Bamba and Ollie Black dropped to the substitutes’ bench.
On a grey and windy afternoon at The Pilot Field, the first half was a pulsating affair featuring four goals, numerous other chances and plenty of attractive football from two good teams.
Cray opened the scoring in the third minute. Bradley Pritchard’s close range shot following a low cross from the away right was saved by Hastings goalkeeper Louis Rogers, but Archie Johnson turned home the rebound.
Things got worse for the home side just three minutes later. A quick free kick released Johnson on the Cray left and although Hastings defender Gary Elphick tried to cut out his ball across goal, Joseph Taylor knocked it home.
Hastings pulled one back in the ninth minute with as good a long range strike as you’ll likely to see at any level. The talented Cruttwell unleashed a 35-yard thunderbolt which flew into the top corner, giving Cray goalkeeper Nick Blue no chance whatsoever.
Taylor couldn’t convert from Junior Dadson’s ball across goal at one end, while at the other, Rodari wasn’t quite able to force the ball home after Lanre Azeez beat his man on the right.
Hastings left-back Beale produced a vital goal-line block as Taylor seemed certain to head Johnson’s left wing cross into the net. Mongoy then dragged his shot wide of the Cray goal after Elphick headed Cruttwell’s free kick back across goal.
Seconds later, though, Hastings were level. Mongoy drove the ball across goal from the right-hand side of the area for Rodari to glance home his second goal in as many matches since returning from his long-term knee injury.
Four goals in the first 24 minutes and there could well have been more before the break. Azeez blazed over from an inviting position in the box following a neat build-up involving Rodari and Mongoy, and Cruttwell’s free kick went whiskers wide via a big deflection off the wall.
Dixon blasted over after Elphick nodded down a Cruttwell corner, while at the other end, Taylor’s header was superbly tipped over by Rogers, although it wouldn’t have counted anyway as the offside flag was raised.
The goalmouth action wasn’t quite so plentiful during the second period but, continuing the pattern from the second quarter of the match, the bulk of the opportunities fell to Hastings.
They had a great chance to hit the front when Adams played a lovely pass to put Mongoy through on goal, but his shot trickled agonisingly wide via slight touch from the goalkeeper.
Moments later Rogers saved from Taylor, who had gone clean through after a goal kick bypassed the Hastings defence.
Hastings went straight down the other end to grab what proved to be the winner in the 56th minute, the excellent Dixon firing into the roof of the net from five yards outside the box despite being challenged by Karl Dent in the act of shooting.
Cray enjoyed plenty of possession during the remainder of the contest as Hastings sought to protect their lead - and they made a decent job of doing so.
In fact, Hastings were whiskers away from opening up a two-goal cushion when Adams struck the top of the post with a tremendous effort from 25 yards. Bamba then blasted well over after shaking off his marker on the left and driving into the box.
Hastings had to endure more than five minutes of added time, but their only real moment of concern came when Taylor’s glancing header from a Thomas Phipps cross was well held by Rogers low to his right.
Hastings: Rogers; Fielding (Howlett-Mundle 82), Elphick, Cruttwell, Beale; Lovatt, Dixon, Adams; Azeez, Rodari (Bamba 68), Mongoy (Walker 89). Subs not used: Black, Horlock. Attendance: 491.
Bostik League South East Division top half (played-points): 1 Cray Wanderers 29-71 (+40 goal difference), 2 Horsham 30-58 (+22), 3 Ashford United 29-57 (+32), 4 HASTINGS UNITED 30-56 (+23), 5 Haywards Heath Town 29-55 (+19), 6 Hythe Town 30-44 (+7), 7 VCD Athletic 28-44 (+2), 8 Whyteleafe 29-41 (+8), 9 Phoenix Sports 29-39 (-3), 10 Ramsgate 30-37 (+2).