Havant and Waterlooville Vs Staines Town – Westleigh Park 28th April 2012
Football is a game of questions; a constant state of flux in which certainty is a rare commodity. The first question of the day after a wet and miserable week was would the game go ahead? According to someone on the Havant and Waterlooville hawks.net forum late in the morning the pitch was ok though doubts began to occur on my way to the Westleigh Park as I notched my windscreen wipers up another level with the spray thrown up by the forward motion of car wheels on the M27 making it particularly hard to see what was going on up ahead.
Amongst the queue at the tea-hut more questions were being aired; who would be the new manager following the departure of Shaun Gale and when would they be unveiled? Someone ventured they’d heard the person would be in the stand watching the game. The other main questions being asked around the ground concerned the prospects of survival and the feelings this stirred up. “Nervous?” asked one Havant & Waterlooville supporter as he approached a group of others.
The Hawks at least maintain some control over their future being ahead of Maidenhead by one point and a superior goal difference. This meant that If arch rivals Eastleigh could beat Maidenhead the result at Westleigh Park would be irrelevant, whilst a draw in that game would mean Havant would require a point to survive. However, despite being above Maidenhead by 8 places in the table Eastleigh had been limping to the finish line with a poor run of form so their ability to do Havant & Waterlooville a favour was itself in question.
A bigger question to be asked is how Havant & Waterlooville have found themselves in this predicament. Most famously the team was adopted as the FA cup plucky-underdog giant-killers during the 2007-8 campaign and actually, unlike many others, lived up to some of hype despatching Notts County and Swansea City before taking the lead twice against Liverpool in the fourth round. The cup run netted the club a reported £500 000. With average attendances amongst the upper reaches of their league it has to be asked why the Hawks aren’t contenders for promotion.
The referees whistle answers the first question of the day the game was now very much on. The opening exchanges were positive for Havant & Waterlooville. Christian Nanetti who had been unveiled as player of the month just prior to kick off produced a save from Danny Potter. A tricky winger with a penchant for flicks and dribbles- a flamboyance hinted at by his unorthodox bushy mohawk hairdo, Nanetti would trouble Staines and in particular give Staines right back Jeffrey Imudia a tough afternoon.
Staines early attacks failed due to a breakdown in communication with questioning balls into open space finding no one to pick them up letting the Havant defence off the hook and resulting in some frayed tempers among the Staines forward line. They eventually did get it right on 19 minutes with a through-ball which split the Havant defence. Ali Chabaan through on goal converted cooly ensuring the despair of the home support.
The goal led to the game exploding into life as Havant & Waterlooville fought for their survival. Their equaliser came soon after with Scott Jones heading in a cross on 22 minutes. This equilibrium would though be short lived as Staines struck back immediately bypassing the fragile looking Havant & Waterlooville defensive line from the re-start- this time Kyle Vassell applying the finishing touch. The balls less than emphatic journey to the net all the more painful than Chabaan’s earlier more measured effort.
The Hawks were thrown a lifeline shortly after Imudia struggling to contain Nanetti brought the winger down in the area earning a penalty and yellow card. Potter set out to out-psyche Nanetti, who had picked himself up for the kick, by standing off to the kickers left of his goal and gesturing above the bar, but If Imudia felt any relief when the ball flashed low past the outside of the right post he would be mistaken.
Staines with the particularly impressive Dave Wheeler in midfield were beginning to control the game as half-time approached however, Just before half time Ollie Palmer sent in a strike which reading the script for the afternoon dramatically ricochet in off the post to level for the Hawks. With Maidenhead 2-1 up as things stood it was not enough but it provided an undoubted psychological lift going into half time.
Despite the announcer also referring to Delia Smith’s infamous ‘lets be ‘avin you speech’ The start of the second half saw a period of muted stalemate between the sides lasting until Imudia penalised for a handball on 65 minutes received a second yellow card.
Down to 10 men Staines attacking threat was blunted opening the door for Havant & Waterlooville to apply the pressure for the remainder of the game. Staines however, would prove stubbornly resistant. The pressure at not getting the breakthrough could be seen among the Havant players who at one point failed to take advantage of an opportunity presented by Potter slipping in the mud as he kicked the ball out. Too busy heatedly debating the broken down attack, as the ball bobbled dangerously loose behind their heels only the Staines defence were switched on and hurriedly cleared the danger.
Meanwhile things were going Havant & Waterlooville’s way at Maidenhead with Eastleigh equalising and then taking the lead on 65 minutes. As the game drew on a strange feeling now hovered over the ground, much like after the Titanic had scraped the iceberg the atmosphere was a mixture of confusion, curiosity, complacency with just a little bit of anxiety. The news from Maidenhead was slowly and unevenly filtering through the ground and it seemed that things would be ok, wouldn’t they? Certainly one Hawks supporter who’d been subjecting Havant forward Ollie Palmer to foul mouthed tirades for much of the second half felt secure enough to get up out of his seat and leave before the end.
What he missed was the thrilling finale. Although not everyone in the ground was aware of it in Maidenhead had dramatically scored a last-gasp winner against Eastleigh at York Road and were celebrating their survival. Certainty in football being a rare commodity the celebrations would soon be cruelly extinguished.
After making several late saves which varied from the lucky to the spectacular the Staines goalkeeper Potter fluffed a kick in injury time. Unlike earlier Havant were quick to react. With only one Staines defender back in time to provide cover their backpedalled challenge only saw the ball fall loose to former Staines man Joe Dolan who bundled the ball home.
Throwing his shirt to the ground as he celebrated in front of the euphoric Havant & Waterlooville fans the beaten Potter provided some comedy by wandering over, pulling down his shorts and wiping Dolan’s discarded shirt across his bottom. Both players promptly entered the referee’s book.
Havant were almost certainly safe now the Maidenhead result didn’t matter.
The final whistle blew. One more question answered, but still, as always, more remaining.