After around half an hour of Bank Holiday Monday’s SCFL Premier clash between Haywards Heath Town and Uckfield Town, away defender Dom Clarke finally snapped and rounded on his team mates. “What are you doing,” he questioned, face like thunder. “They’re playing, but you’re watching!” There may be the odd expletive missing from this statement, but none of those looking on, whether from the pitch or from Hanbury Park’s imposing old grandstand, could argue that Dom was incorrect in his summing up. That said, at this point the only important statistic read 0-0.
Newly promoted Heath came into the SCFL Premier Division on the back of a record breaking season; champions by Easter, undefeated in the league from August to April. They’d started the new season with the same swagger they’d demonstrated in the previous campaign, registering three straight victories and scoring thirteen goals in the process. Their opponents, the Uckers, were safely in mid table after experiencing every possible outcome in their three matches, whilst not scoring many but conceding even fewer. Home manager Shaun Saunders had spoken about how he expected a tough game, and by goodness he got one.
Heath were on the attack from the off, and unsurprisingly seemed full of confidence. That they weren’t ahead long before Clarke gave vent to his feelings was mainly down to a mixture of dogged defending and a tendency from the home attackers either to shoot wildly or overplay when in a dangerous position, regularly delivering an extra pass where a shot would have done or placing the ball far to close to Uckfield keeper Matt Dann. That said, there was much for Saunders to be happy about; the link up play between his front two, Kane Louis and Ryan Warwick- in for the rested Max Miller- was delightful, whilst Karl Akehurst seemed to be in almost total control of the midfield. Yet as Louis fired wide, Warwick made Dann’s life far easier than it should have been and Akehurst fired a shot that was so high and wide people in the penthouse flat behind the goal feared for their double-glazing, it didn’t seem to matter that home keeper Nic Taylor could have gone for a pint in the clubhouse without being missed. As the old adage goes, you need to score when you’re on top. Heath ended the first half having dominated almost totally yet failed to put the ball in the net, and they could easily have been made to pay.
The Uckfield Town team that re-entered the fray under the noon sun seemed rejuvenated, and perhaps should soon have been ahead, Alex Saunders firing just wide of the left hand post three minutes after the restart. A midfield battle ensued, but it was the visitors who again might have gone ahead on the hour, as a goalmouth scramble caused panic in the Heath defence and required a goal line clearance. The ball once again fell to Alex Saunders, and he fired a first time shot that Taylor was relieved to see drift just wide of his right hand post.
Heath should have been ahead three minutes later. A terrible back pass left Matt Dann stranded at the edge of his box whilst Kane Louis hared past him, and the striker rolled the ball towards an empty net only for Craig Norman to appear from nowhere and hook the ball off the line. Had Louis struck the ball more fiercely then Norman would have had no chance, but the defender deserved great credit for his perseverance and Louis rolled his eyes in disgust.
With twenty minutes to go the home side finally took the lead. Jamie Weston took a corner from the right, and it curled beautifully towards the back post where, having evaded his marker, Josh Spinks was able to head powerfully over the line for his first goal in Heath colours. This was surely the cue for the home side to play some keep-ball, but instead they took every opportunity to let Uckfield back into the game, to the annoyance of their manager and- particularly- their goalkeeper.
Nic Taylor, former Shoreham keeper and Monserrat international, had spent most of the first seventy minutes as a virtual spectator. There was hardly a moment when he couldn’t be heard issuing instructions, even if it seemed he may just be attempting to keep himself awake, but generally he’d been otherwise unemployed. For the last twenty minutes, however, he took centre stage. This wasn’t, a couple of decent saves apart, for his goalkeeping; more for his rising annoyance with the comparative youngsters in front of him who refused to follow his advice.
Taylor was very keen that his teammates worked to hold on to what they had, and let them know. Loudly and repeatedly. Unfortunately they had other ideas. No measured possession play for Heath, rather a continued attempt to press followed by fairly ragged defending, as Uckfield counter attacked with a rather direct style they could hardly be blamed for at this stage of the match and which almost paid dividends. A header from a free kick flew over the bar with the keeper beaten, and then another long ball set Andy Dalhouse, who was built more like the proverbial outhouse, clear only to find Taylor at full stretch to deny him. All the while Taylor was falling on balls he could have simply caught, insisting on fetching balls that went out of play when others were closer, and generally giving voice to his exasperation as his colleagues, with Callum Saunders perhaps the worst culprit, ignored his instructions to slow down and hold the ball and instead continued to charge forward at every opportunity. As the referee allowed an inexplicable nine additional minutes the home fans must have understood their keepers ire, with Uckfield firing the ball into the Heath box every time they regained possession.
The whistle blew with Heath still top of the league on goal difference, one of three clubs to take maximum points from their first four matches with title favourites Shoreham- and Eastbourne United- on their heels. Uckfield, who finished last season in fifteenth place, certainly look strong enough to improve on that outcome this time around.
Will Heath manage a second successive promotion? You’d have to say that the team looks to have the ability, but they may need to be a little less naïve in future. A number of them may not want to hear it, but Taylor was right.
Published on in Steps 3-6.