Can Hawks boss Doswell pull off an incredible achievement in his first season at Westleigh Park?
Hawks boss Paul Doswell is no stranger to non-league promotions.
He masterminded three in a row at Eastleigh in the first half of the noughties - from the Wessex League to what is now National League South in the virtual blink of an eye (well, 2002/03 to 2004/05 inclusive) - and twice achieved promotion during his time at Sutton United.
During his 11 years with the latter, he also suffered play-off heartache no fewer than five times.
The last was in 2017/18 when Doswell led Sutton to a third place finish in the National League - just three points behind Tranmere who were eventually promoted via the play-offs and are now rubbing shoulders with Pompey in League 1.
That was 12 months after the manager had enjoyed his Warholian 15 minutes of national fame, guiding Sutton to the fifth round of the FA Cup - humiliating three divisions higher Leeds en route - and a glamour home tie with Arsenal.
So armed that sort of non-league CV, Doswell was an obvious candidate to replace Lee Bradbury when Hawks were searching for a new boss in the aftermath of last season’s National League relegation.
A first-ever dabble on the highest rung of the non-league ladder had lasted just 12 months - winning just nine games out of 46 and finishing four points adrift of safety.
But having had a taste of the ‘big time’, Hawks were desperate to find the man who could guide them back there.
For Hampshire-based Doswell, seeking a new challenge after resigning as Sutton boss after 11 years at Gander Green Lane, it was perfect timing too.
He duly signed a three-year contract, but has put pressure on himself to deliver promotion from National League South at the first time of asking.
Speaking after last weekend’s 0-0 draw with Dulwich which left Hawks eight points adrift of leaders Wealdstone, he was philosophical.
‘It won’t be suicide if we don’t go up this year,’ he said. ‘If we don’t, we will be in a better position next season to go for it.’
But make no mistake - Doswell is targeting his sixth promotion in 18 seasons come the end of April. Ideally his second sixth tier title too, having led Sutton to the National League South silverware four years ago.
It would be a remarkable achievement if he achieved it, either automatically or via the play-offs he knows so well.
After all, he is aiming to win promotion with virtually a brand new squad. And how often has that been done at any level of football?
Only one automatic promotion place is up for grabs, with one other team going up via the play-offs. It could be the runners-up, or the team who finish seventh. Doswell calls the system ‘archaic’ and he is spot on – but that is the system and everyone knows the rules.
This weekend, the Hawks visit fellow promotion hopefuls Slough. The difference between the two squads, the two dugouts, is huge.
Slough’s management team of Jon Underwood and Neil Baker have been in situ since 2013. Of the Rebels’ starting XI last weekend, two - Guy Hollis and Warren Harris - have been at Arbour Park the same length of time as their joint-bosses.
Only one player, ex-Pompey striker Ryan Bird, was not at the club in 2018/19 and only three have been signed in the last two seasons.
Compare that to Hawks’ starting XI against Dulwich - ALL of whom were signed by Doswell. Indeed, of the 14 players who appeared in the last game of last season against Barnet, only three are still at Westleigh Park.
They are Wes Fogden, Alfie Rutherford and Chris Paul - all of whom were on the bench last weekend. Paul has only made one league start all season.
Doswell, as many managers are prone to do - especially at non-league level - has brought in players ‘I know I can trust.’
A lot of his signings played for him at Sutton, and most are highly experienced.
Of the starting XI against Dulwich, seven were in their thirties - Danny Kedwell (36), Andy Drury (36), Nicky Bailey (35), Simon Walton (32), Anthony Straker (31), latest signing Bedsente Gomis (31) and keeper Ross Worner (30). Fogden, aged 31, came on at the interval. Dean Beckwith, another 36-year-old, was an unused sub.
Clearly, and stating the obvious, this is not a squad for the long-term; it is one pieced together with the short-term aim of getting Hawks back into the National League, and ideally sooner rather than later.
But it is not purely a Dad’s Army squad. Strikers Jonah Ayunga (22) and Rutherford (21) are joined by Josh Taylor and Brad Tarbuck (both 24) in having their best years ahead of them.
In addition, Benny Read - 21 - has been a huge success since Doswell signed him from three divisions lower Horndean last summer. The right-back has easily made the large step up from Wessex football, and only a dislocated shoulder has stopped him from appearing in every NLS squad.
Which brings us nicely on to the subject of injuries. For Doswell has certainly been unlucky in that respect as he plots Hawks’ return to the fifth tier against clubs whose managers and squads have been together much longer, had more time to gel together.
The manager openly admits he went with ‘quality not quantity’ when building his squad ahead of a 42-game regular league season including seven games in August and 11 - over a quarter of the campaign - by the end of September.
Hawks played as many league games in 12 days in late August and early September as they did in the whole of October and November combined. Ridiculous, really, but that’s non-league football for you.
Such a punishing start could have contributed to Roarie Deacon - another ex-Sutton signing - being sidelined with a quad muscle injury since the end of September. Having recently completed a week’s training, he could be available again come mid-March.
Elsewhere, fit-again defender Craig Robson started his first game since before Christmas against Dulwich, while the influential Fodgen missed the whole of October and November due to injury. He, too, has only just returned from another knock.
Veteran striker Kedwell suffered a medial ligament injury in pre-season, and missed the first six league games. His first start didn’t come until the end of September, but since then he has netted 10 league goals in 17 successive NSL appearances.
Ex-Pompey defender Sam Magri missed the Dulwich draw through injury - the first NSL match he’s missed all season - while another centre half Joe Cook, the teenager on loan at Bognor, is also currently injured.
Doswell has been in the game too long to use injuries as an excuse, but they haven’t helped at a time when he is trying to guide a hastily-assembled squad towards promotion.
This weekend’s trip to Slough is the first of two games against the Rebels in the space of a fortnight, as the Berkshire side return to Westleigh Park on Wednesday, February 26.
‘Return’ is the operative word for a side who have only lost two out of their last 15 league games - and one of them was at table-topping Wealdstone. For almost certainly it would be three defeats in 16 had their initial visit not been controversially abandoned in early November.
With Hawks having just gone 2-0 ahead with 20 minutes to go - after Ayunga capitalised on a back pass stopping up short on a heavy, rain-sodden pitch - visiting players and management put enough pressure on referee Ali Ajibola.
Hawks were furious.
Doswell was further angered by the reaction of the Slough players in their dressing room following the abandonment.
'They were singing and banging on our doors as if they had won the game,’ he remarked at the time.
'It was totally disrespectful of them and not something that I expected.
'It will certainly make the replaying of the game a little bit tastier.’
Indeed it will. Footballers are like elephants in that respect - they rarely forget. And the two forthcoming games should certainly be tasty affairs. Both camps could well try to downplay the ill-feeling caused last November, but within the confines of the changing rooms it will undoubtedly be different.
But Doswell will be hoping his experienced players keep their heads, as he can ill-afford any more suspensions at a crucial stage.
He will be without both midfielder Gomis and centre half Walton this weekend after they were sent off against Weymouth and Dulwich respectively in the last two games.
But Hawks showed their character to pick up four points from those matches, and Doswell said he was ‘proud’ of his players for the way they responded to adversity.
That is, in a way, no surprise; after all, Hawks are still unbeaten away from home in league action this season, a record they share only with Liverpool in the top six tiers of English football.
At any level, it takes character to go 14 away league games without losing.
More will undoubtedly be needed if that proud record is to be extended this weekend, and in the remaining 13 league games after that.
A third of the season remains. Once the final ball is kicked, will Doswell have made it a double hat-trick of promotions …?