COMMENT: Hawks’ club record Boxing Day defeat at Dorking Wanderers in real danger of defining National League South season as wait to end winless streak goes on

They say bad luck comes in threes, but Hawks will be hoping to avoid setting a third unwanted club record in the space of just 54 days on Saturday.

By Simon Carter
Friday, 18th February 2022, 8:27 am
Alfie Whittingham is one of four new signings in recent weeks in a bid to halt Hawks' alarming run of results.
Picture: Dave Haines
Alfie Whittingham is one of four new signings in recent weeks in a bid to halt Hawks' alarming run of results. Picture: Dave Haines

One of the worst runs in their near 24-year history has left them in danger of being sucked into the bottom seven of the National League South.

Considering a top seven finish was the minimum aim of everyone at Westleigh Park this season, the current table makes for dismal reading.

It was all so different ahead of the Boxing Day visit to Dorking Wanderers. As the teams kicked off, Hawks were sixth - in the play-off zone - just four points off top spot. They led Dorking on goal difference.

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Michael Green signed for Hawks last summer but come November he had retired from the game.

Not for much longer they didn’t. Within five minutes, Hawks were 2-0 down, reduced to 10 men following Paul Rooney’s sending off. Within 35 minutes they were losing 5-0, ex-Hawk Alfie Rutherford having plundered a hat-trick; after 90 minutes they had been hammered 9-0, the heaviest defeat in their history.

Shell-shocked boss Paul Doswell faced the media after that horror result and insisted the result should not define Hawks’ season.

However, that is exactly what looks like happening.

Since that day, Hawks have played eight more league games and failed to win any of them. In total, they have taken three points out of a possible 27 - and two of them, via draws with Tonbridge and Billericay, were against teams in the bottom four.

Ben Williamson scores Concord's third goal past Ross Worner last weekend. Picture: Dave Haines.

From being level with Rutherford and his Dorking mates on Boxing Day, Hawks are now 24 points adrift of them. It is a scarcely believable scenario, but it has happened.

Failure to beat Dartford in their last Westleigh Park outing on February 9 extended Hawks’ winless home league run to nine matches - a club record.

Sadly, failure to beat Ebbsfleet United on home (artificial) turf on Saturday will equal another unwanted record. A 10th game without success will draw them level with the record set by Billy Gilbert’s men during the club’s debut Southern League Premier Division season in 1999/2000.

Last Saturday’s trip to Canvey Island to face Concord offered - on paper - a good chance to end the winless sequence. After all, the hosts had scored just four times in failing to win any of their previous seven league games.

James Roberts shone in the FA Cup win against higher tier Torquay, but has recently been loaned out to Hampton & Richmond. Picture: Dave Haines

But no. A 3-1 defeat, their fourth in a row, saw Hawks slip to the bottom of the NLS form table - taking in the last 10 games, a quarter of the entire season.

While also being among the worst runs of Hawks’ history, it is also one of the worst Doswell has ever presided over in his impressive non-league managerial career.

Only once, since the start of the 2002/03 season when his Eastleigh side won the Wessex League at a canter, has a Doswell team finished in the bottom half of a league table.

And only once, during that same period, has he ever gone nine league matches without a win. That was the opening nine games of 2012/13, the season where his Sutton United side then won their last eight matches to just miss out on the play-offs.

Paul Doswell, right, and Ebbsfleet boss Dennis Kutrieb have a heated discussion prior to their red cards in February 2021 in what turned out to be the last league game of the National League South season. Picture: Dave Haines

Hawks need to arrest their alarming slump with an equally impressive run of wins if they are to just miss out on the play-offs this season, let alone finish in them.

Prior to the home game with Tonbridge on January 26, Doswell predicted his side would need to win 12 of their last 20 games to stand a chance of claiming a top seven finish. The stats over the course of the last 10 completed seasons backed him up.

But a late equaliser prevented Hawks from beating Tonbridge, and they have lost the four since then. Simple maths, therefore, tells you Hawks need 12 wins from their final 15 matches - a big ask, gargantuan even, when you haven’t won at all since December 11 and not in front of your own supporters since October 9.

Inevitably, given the world we now live in, a quick glance at social media finds calls from disgruntled fans calling for Doswell to go. No doubt they expected Hawks, with one of the top six budgets in the division, to be contesting the play-offs, not having to look over their shoulders at dropping even further.

They would not be alone. Doswell would have expected it, the Hawks board would have expected it. The players too. There were high hopes last August for a reason.

In today’s game, a nine-game unbeaten run at any level can indeed spell curtains for a manager. Quite often, it’s a lot less.

Dorking's Alfie Rutherford completes his Boxing Day hat-trick against his former club. Picture: Dave Haines

In the ferocious spotlight of the Premier League, Nuno Espirito Santo was sacked by Tottenham after three defeats in four games, having won his previous three matches prior to that run.

At Aston Villa, Dean Smith was sacked after five straight defeats, though he had won two of his previous three.

Down in League Two, Derek Adams was sacked by Bradford this week having won four of his previous 10 games. Had Doswell won four of his last 10, Hawks would be just outside the play-offs.

Ex-Pompey midfielder Hayden Mullins was axed by Colchester after five straight losses, and no wins in seven.

Even in non-league, where the media spotlight doesn’t burn so brightly but there is pressure nonetheless, losing runs aren’t tolerated. Even short ones.

Ben Strevens was sacked by Eastleigh recently after four straight defeats - all away from home and three of them at Stockport, Halifax and Notts County. It was the fourth, a 1-0 loss at a Dover side who hadn’t won all season in the league, that was the final straw. But prior to those four away games, Strevens had won five out of seven.

Of course, there are mitigating circumstances surrounding what is turning out to be Hawks’ worst season at sixth tier level since they were relegated in 2015/16.

Injuries is the most obvious one, and Doswell has been plagued with horrendously bad luck on that score for most of the campaign. Even his harshest social media critics must agree with that.

Back in November and December there were times when he struggled to name a full complement of subs. At Charlton in the FA Cup, numbers were so short sub keeper Charlie Searle was used as an outfielder.

Most of last season’s signings - Rooney, Jamie Collins, Alex Wall, Scott Rendell, Jake McCarthy, Joss Passley - have been sidelined for periods, some lengthy, through injury.

First choice keeper Ross Worner was sidelined for over two months and, most seriously of all, centre half Sam Magri was ruled out for the season after suffering a severe knee injury at Charlton.

Doswell has been forced into the loan market, and has had little luck there either: centre half Manny Adebowale, recruited from Crawley, didn’t play again after October due to injury; midfielder Leon Chambers-Parillon never shone for health reasons and his Oxford United loan was cut short.

Last month Hawks signed another central defender Guy Hollis, who promptly got injured on his debut at Billericay and hasn’t played since.

Elsewhere, experienced full back Michael Green - recruited from Eastleigh last summer - decided in November he wanted to retire. It never rains …

The list goes on. Take James Roberts, a proven performer at the sixth tier and an ex-pro at Oxford United. When Hawks beat higher division Torquay in the FA Cup he played a starring role. Yet within weeks he seemed to have lost confidence. Being hooked after 10 minutes at Dorking when Doswell chose to bring on a defender to replace Rooney probably didn’t help. He is now on loan at divisional rivals Hampton & Richmond.

A few weeks ago, Doswell decided to freshen things up with a host of new arrivals. Something, after all, had to be done.

Strikers Stefan Payne (on loan from Chesterfield) and Manny Duku along with midfielder Alfy Whittingham (on loan from Aldershot) were handed debuts in the 1-0 home loss to St Albans.

There was another new face at Concord, winger Sam Smart (on loan from Eastleigh).

Fresh blood can provide fresh impetus, but Doswell’s problem is blending all his new signings into a winning formula.

It is a very tough ask - the new faces haven’t been playing regularly; if they had, they wouldn’t have been deemed surplus to requirements. Players are available at this stage of the season for a reason.

Smart has only made two league starts this season, Payne just nine and Duku (for Inverness Caledonian) 10. They all need time to blend in, that’s only fair, but in a bid to make the play-offs that is something Hawks are not blessed with. Treading water in the sixth tier is not where the club see themselves.

A look at the squad shows a list of players many NLS clubs would love to have on their payroll. Many have proved themselves in the pro game or in the top tier of National League football.

This is not a squad of ageing ex-pros with their best days behind them, nor is it one overly reliant upon inexperienced youngsters. Hawks, on paper, have a very strong squad, even if it’s not the biggest. Yes, injuries have not helped but results were still good in November and December when playing numbers were at their thinnest.

The current squad, should still be good enough to beat Tonbridge and Concord, that is the bottom line. That is the most worrying thing.

Perhaps the 8-0 spanking at Dorking has had a profound effect, more than anyone at Hawks would publicly admit to. Unless they make the play-offs, Boxing Day WILL define the club’s season. BD and AD - before and after Dorking.

A year ago, almost to the day, Ebbsfleet racked up at Westleigh Park. In a bad-tempered game, played behind closed doors, there were five red cards - including ones for both Doswell and his Fleet counterpart Dennis Kutrieb.

It was a sour end to a miserable Covid-scarred campaign, with clubs voting to pull the curtain down on 2020/21 a few days later. No-one at Hawks was sorry to see the season end so early with the club ninth, nine points adrift of the play-offs (but with games in hand).

No-one would also ever have thought that in a year’s time, as Ebbsfleet prepare to return, Hawks would be in an even lower position, and still nine points off the top seven ...

Alfie Rutherford celebrates his Boxing Day hat-trick in the first of Hawks' nine National League South games without a win. Picture: Dave Haines