This match between East Grinstead Town and Hastings United taught us two things. The first, that the gap between the top five and bottom five in the Ryman South is not necessarily large. The second, that in footballing terms anyway, geography is relative. This was brought into focus quite sharply in the thirteenth minute when, after a rather robust challenge, a collection of visitors from The Pilot Field referred to the home side, in a rather more disparaging way than related here, as ‘Dirty Northerners.’
It perhaps taught us something else, too. That the difference between success and failure often comes down to having one player who can conjure something special, unexpected, even beautiful. In Billy Medlock, who now has eighteen league goals for the season, Hastings have such a player. How the Wasps could have done with their own Medlock this season.
This match was important to both sides. For United, a win would lift them into the play-off places. For East Grinstead it would be another step further away from the trapdoor; a trapdoor which had remained closed mainly because rivals Walton and Hersham had contrived to lose their last nine matches. Whilst the Wasps had only won once during the same period they had a five point cushion with only four matches to go, which at least gave them a little security. Unless Walton suddenly bring in Jamie Vardy on loan you’d have to think that their escape is unlikely, yet the fact that East Grinstead have to visit The Swans Stompond Lane on the last day of the season adds a little spice to the statistics.
There was plenty of spice on the field too. Despite the protestations of the Hastings faithful, much of it was provided by their team, who as well as showing a great deal of flair were on occasions rather robust. By half time East Grinstead had suffered two injuries that left players needing to be helped from the field; Leo Mazzone on a stretcher and Luke May in the arms of two members of the coaching staff (it seemed that the stretcher was still in use). By this point Hastings were ahead, and despite Wasps pressure it was a lead they were able to hold on to, even if they weren’t able to extend it.
From the very first moments the match was a defensive battle. Both sides were looking to break quickly and in strength, but some wayward long distance shooting and a tendency to try to use the flanks for every attack -despite the fact that both flanks were more suitable for a wallowing hippopotamus than for football- hampered attacking progress for much of the first half. It seemed likely that if a breakthrough was to come then Medlock would be its provider, and indeed that is exactly how it turned out. A hopeful ball forward from Jerome Smith in the 25th minute was flicked into the air by Kevant Serbony, and the Wasps defence stepped forward, claiming offside. Medlock, however, charged into the gap they left, controlled and lifted a lovely finish over Jack Howard before wheeling away to celebrate. The East Grinstead fans behind the Hastings goal attempted to rally their team with a GAC Stadium version of the Pompey Chimes, and perhaps they may have been successful had more than three of them joined in.
Seven minutes later Howard was forced to make a save from Chris Cumming-Bart, turning a first time shot around the post, but this was a rare opportunity. Whilst both sides demonstrated both strength and guile every move seemed to break down around the edge of the box. The half time whistle blew with Hastings ahead and with the Wasps yet to register a shot on target.
The second half was a much better contest, lacking only one thing- a goal. East Grinstead supporters would probably have felt that they deserved that goal, and indeed they piled on the majority of the pressure, yet a lack of a cutting edge cost them dear. First, in the 53rd minute, Trevor McCreadie left two U’s defenders trailing in his wake as he charged into the box, but eventually ran out of pitch and the ball went for a goal kick. Three minutes later a shot from the ever-industrious Travis Gregory was deflected wide of the keepers left hand post, leading to a short corner which was so badly botched that the Wasps were lucky to win a throw in from the resulting mess. At the other end, centre half George Benner left two United attackers trailing in his wake at the edge of his own box before seemingly stopping to admire his own artistry and almost losing possession. It was that kind of game; it seemed almost compulsory that every moment of quality had to be followed by one of ineptitude.
United brought on Sam Cruttwell for Cumming-Bart, and Gary Wilson and his team immediately began instructing the U’s to “give Crutt the ball.” With twenty five minutes to go they finally did just that, and Cruttwell bobbled his way through two chances before firing a shot that seemed destined for the corner of the net, before a defender flung himself in the way just in the nick of time. A shot from Medlock forced Howard into a diving save soon afterwards, then as we entered the final fifteen minutes the home side finally took control.
For all of their effort, a shot on target was still conspicuous by its absence even by the 77th minute. That changed as McCreadie charged into the box, but Joe Taylor was similarly quick and managed to make a save with his legs. Two penalty appeals followed as the ball pinged around, but both were waved away by the referee, seemingly correctly but to the annoyance of the Wasps faithful. A moment later a weaving run by Danny Leonard forced Jerome Smith to make a saving tackle just as the shot was being prepared, and suddenly a team which had earlier demonstrated about as much penetration as Pele without his little blue tablets looked likely to grab an equaliser. As the final whistle approached a cross was just too high for McCreadie, who headed wide, Taylor attempted to make a hash of a shot from Gregory but managed to clear at the second attempt, and Medlock had to clear off the line, and you felt that if the game was to continue for just five more minutes the home side might get their reward. Sadly, however, by this time the referee had already played five minutes over the ninety, and the whistle blew to scenes of jubilation from the away side- and relief from their supporters.
The fight for the last two playoff places looks to be between Worthing, Faversham, Corinthian Casuals, Molesey and Hastings. Each of these look rather evenly matched, which promises a nail-biting end to the season for the U’s. The Wasps will be hoping for rather less drama. On the basis of this performance, they should have enough quality to prevent them from being overhauled at the bottom. So long as they remember where the goal is for more than fifteen minutes a match, anyway.
East Grinstead Town play Whitstable Town (H) 9th April, Faversham Town (H) 16th April, and Walton & Hersham (A) 23rd April.
Hastings United play Molesey (H) 9th April, Ramsgate (A) 16th April, and Herne Bay (H) 23rd April.
Published on in Steps 3-6.