Westleigh Park, Havant
I’ve been feeling something after the last two Hawk home games. It’s not a new feeling as such, but one that’s become unfamiliar. Like greeting a cousin at the airport who you’ve not seen since they were an eight-year-old Star Wars obsessive but who now has a beard, dreadlocks and a small hookah pipe poking out the back of their rucksack. It took a while but I worked out what the feeling was: pleasure; a sense of satisfaction, of money well spent. Greetings, old friend. Did you enjoy your years bivouacking in Phuket?
The weather and postponements have been frustrating, and we’ve as many defeats this year so far as wins, but we are only a short way into this project and I had genuinely thought I might never feel this way again – you know, feeling like I’m enjoying watching my club play football, and the sense that there might be more to come, rather than the sense of lumbering futility that has wafted it’s guff around Westleigh Park in recent years, reminding us that as our ‘true selves’ would almost certainly be back to being hapless the following week.
While it is true to say that Basingstoke didn’t bring a lot to fear, having one of the worst away records in the division save Truro and Eastleigh, the division remains a hive mind of relegation battlers, most of us buzzing away in the six-point gap between 8th and 21st, most teams seem to be on a level-playing field at kick-off.
Speaking of level playing fields, it was certainly the case that our pitch was in better shape than Dorchester’s last week, but was still as moist as the chin of a hippo chewing a bag of oranges. Thus a lot of our early long balls, as we descended from atop our slope, merely skidded into the advertising. However, most of the attacking vim was coming from us and eventually it paid off after 17 minutes when Sahr Kabba was able to turn and fire off a shot from just outside the six yard box, despite the sticky mess beneath his feet, and beat Basingstoke’s veteran keeper Ashley Bayes.
Bayes, full of smiles and Brylcreem, looking like Tintin’s years on the Western Front, certainly did not deserve the eventual result in this game, making one astonishing save in the second half in particular, clawing over from beneath the bar. In part he was let down by the defence in front of him, part of that defence being Jay Gasson, once of our parish.
Good old Gas, once a Hawk, always a Hawk we like to think, and he seemed to prove this when, three minutes after Sahr’s opener, as an Ollie Palmer cross trickled gently towards Bayes’ untroubled arms, Jay inexplicably dangled out a leg like a dog’s tongue lolling out of a car window. The ball, almost embarrassed on Jay’s behalf, trickled crimson-cheeked between Bayes and the post. Still, for all his humiliation, Jay at least got his name chanted by his old friends on the Hawk terraces. I expect he greatly appreciated it. You may see it listed as an Ollie Palmer goal in some newspapers but let me tell you, he’s only got a slightly greater claim to it than I have.
Seven minutes later, a wobble occurred when Shaun McAuley capitalised on some lax defending to fire solidly past Clark Masters. Happily however, a two goal margin was re-established just after the half hour, as both Sahr Kabba and Chris Arthur barrelled down upon the retreating defenders like disturbed rocks down a mountainside. Sahr kept his cool and waited, before unloading to Chris who is not often to be found in the opposition box, unless crossing from the by-line, but finished with the aplomb of a seasoned striker.
Clearly Chris has anticipated this rare occurrence though because a celebration had been prepared, channelling the character of Rex Kramer in Airplane!, although exchanging dark glasses for football kit. As he ran off in giddy delight, Chris peeled off his #11 shirt, to reveal a smaller version of the exact same shirt underneath; a youth’s #11 H&W shirt which clung to Chris’ physique like lycra leggings to a rugby player's thigh at an 80’s-theme fancy dress night. The slight popping sound we could hear at his point was the ref’s brain exploding as he considered whether or not this was a bookable offence. In the end he decided it was not.
Three-one at half time and very comfortable. Of course it could not continue like this and the second half was long and tense as Basingstoke pressed. However, we defended stoutly with Clark Masters’ always well aware of where his sticks were. When charging out to attackers, he has the timing of a Test-class opener calmly facing down a barrage of toe-breaking yorkers.
Whilst never totally relaxed, as the game wore on, our confidence in our defending grew although even when the board indicating four minutes of injury time went up, there was still a sense of “oh, I hope we don’t screw it up here” floating about. Still, what makes football exciting is this jeopardy, and, happy as we were that this was the case, all that dissolved in the 91st minute, as substitute Scott Jones got hold of Steve Ramsay’s cross-field ball, taking it forward and firing it into the six yard box where Sahr Kabba, increasingly the ‘sniff-sniff-what’s-that-I-smell?-a-chance?-BOOF!-GOAL!’ player we thought we’d signed, was in the right place to turn the ball through Ashley Bayes’ collapsing flail. 4-1. The end.
Again, not to get carried away but the differences between 2012 and 2013 are already marked. It took us til March 23rd to score eleven goals at home last year, and 10th April to secure two home wins. Of course, the problem we may have is we are currently juggling a number of loanees and there may come a point where we dry up on that front, so I’m trying my best not to get myself at it, as we are still capable of a shocker, no doubt about that.
However I just want it on record that in January and February of 2013, we put in two home showings that whilst not totally dominant, weathered the oppositional storms with solid performances in defence and midfield (Dan Strugnell, Ed Harris and Eddie Hutchinson getting most of the cap-doffing here) before putting the game to bed. What’s more, they were performances we could take pride in.
The ‘Welcome Back’ balloon I brought with me to this reunion with enjoyment is pumped with helium and tied tightly to my wrist. I can only hope that it still looks in such good condition after the four away games in nine days that await us, beginning next Saturday at Farnborough.