Hastings United capitalised on Chichester City's defeat to go top of BetVictor South East with a 2-0 win over ten-man Whitehawk, a result which reflected United's overall superiority.
A close game was expected between two sides looking to maintain their unbeaten starts to the season, and a high-quality match unfolded particularly in the first half.
Goals from Ben Pope and Jack Dixon in each half put the ‘U’s in control before Hawks defender Marvin Hamilton’s late sending-off allowed the hosts to ease to the three points.
With neither side setting up to defend, the early stages proved lively and could have seen the Hawks take the lead. Jack Dixon made two vital clearances to deny Lucas Rodrigues from a David Martin corner after ten minutes.
United’s threat increased as the half developed. Ryan Worrall flashed a shot wide of James Broadbent’s left post before Ajakaiye and Lanre Azeez exposed Whitehawk’s advanced full-backs, the latter making Luke Emberson look foolish before Ben Pope struck into Broadbent’s gloves.
Hasting's growing dominance would not be without a slight scare. Azeez was dispossessed on the edge of the box just before the half hour, and John Paul Kissock struck a shot at Adam Lovatt to claims of handball.
If that opening asked a question of the ‘U’s approach, then in the 33rd minute it would receive a definite answer. A misplaced Broadbent goal kick allowed Azeez to race away to the right of the Hawks’ box. The winger squared to Pope, who applied a deft finish across Broadbent to ruthlessly put the hosts ahead.
In a period where chances were scarce, only two moves looked like threatening the scoreline before half time. Rodrigues waltzed through the ‘U’s backline before failing to control his finish while an eye-catching move saw Azeez’s backheel evade Ajakaiye in front of goal.
The start of the second half was a carbon copy of the first as the sides traded blows; Pope drove wide from a difficult angle and Ajakaiye lifted a cross over his intended targets, while Rodrigues drew a near-post save from Louis Rogers leading to a corner where shots for Kissock and Kasper Lopata were blocked, leading to further penalty shouts.
In the 63rd minute, Craig Stone was forced backwards from a misplaced pass. The hosts’ playing style turned the move around, with Stone finding Pope to flick on to Azeez, who would not be caught as he reached the edge of the box and lifted a cross to Dixon, who planted a header into the bottom right corner.
Even with Azeez substituted, the ‘U’s were in full control and looked to be three up when Stone headed in from a free kick, only for the defender to be ruled offside.
While Connor Tighe threatened, forcing Rogers to scramble with a shot that went just wide, the Hawks’ faint hopes were ended in the 78th minute when centre-back Hamilton lashed out after Pope beat him to a ball on the left, earning a straight red.
Speaking after the game, ‘U’s boss Chris Agutter said: “It keeps the unbeaten run going and it was a good performance.
“Our home form is very good – we win more often than not – so it was about keeping that going, going into VCD away on Saturday unbeaten, and unscathed really.
“Touch wood we’ve done it, and it was an excellent performance to boot.”
On setting the pace at this stage of the season, Agutter added: “Last season we never got first place in the league, purely because of the pace Cray set.
“Now we’re there, the aim is to stay there, but we also understand that this is September and nothing’s won yet.
“We feel like we’re ticking along nicely – we’re nowhere near where we were last season in terms of form. I think we’re nowhere near our best and we’ve got plenty of gears to go into.”
Looking ahead also to Saturday’s match at VCD Athletic, Agutter praised his side’s mentality: “As we say to the players, we’ve always got to back up the previous result with another three points. There’s no point winning tonight if we’re not going to win again on Saturday.
“I don’t really have to beat the drum very often with the players because they’re a great group. There’s some big characters in there that drive standards all the time, so it makes my life really easy.”
That game at VCD Athletic takes place this Saturday, kicking off at 3 p.m. at The Oakwood (Crayford, DA1 4DN), where the ‘U’s face the challenge of the 3rd-placed Vickers, who boast an unbeaten home record so far this season.
Hastings United: Rogers, Beale (Black 81), Elphick, Stone, Elliott, Ajakaiye, Worrall (Pool 90+1), Lovatt, Dixon, Azeez (Chalmers 67), Pope. Unused: Pogue, Rodari.