Smiles better! Hawks’ long wait for a National League South win over following four-goal romp against Ebbsfleet

‘It’s been’, Hawks player coach Jamie Collins stated in the wake of the 4-2 success against Ebbsfleet, ‘a long time coming.’

By Simon Carter
Sunday, 20th February 2022, 12:45 pm
Billy Clifford celebrates after scoring Hawks' fourth goal. Picture by Dave Haines.
Billy Clifford celebrates after scoring Hawks' fourth goal. Picture by Dave Haines.

He wasn’t wrong. One hundred and thirty one days, in fact, in terms of waiting for a home National League South win. Sixty eight days in terms of any league victory.

Sixty eight days which must, at times, have felt like a near eternity as Hawks collapsed from a place in the play-off zone, four points off top spot on Christmas Day, down to 14th place.

In the process, they had taken just three points from nine games and collected two unwanted club records - an 8-0 Boxing Day loss at Dorking and a nine-game winless home run at Westleigh Park.

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Billy Clifford scores Hawks' fourth goal. Picture by Dave Haines.

And failure to beat fifth-placed Ebbsfleet would have equalled the club’s all-time winless league record of 10 games, set in the latter stages of 1999/2000 - only the Hawks’ second ever season.

But three goals in a stunning 11-minute period in the second half brought the smiles flooding back. On the pitch, in the home dugout, in the directors’ seats, in the stand and on the terraces.

Entering the game, Hawks had the second worst home record in the NLS in terms of points - just 10 in 12 matches. They had scored the fewest goals of any club in the top 16. They were aiming to avoid losing five sixth tier games in a row for the first time since 2015. Boss Paul Doswell was aiming to avoid a 10-game winless run at this level for the first time in his managerial career.

Those were ominous stats, but there was still hope - Ebbsfleet racked up with the fourth worst away defensive record in the division. They had conceded 26, including five at Dorking and Dulwich and four at Maidstone. Now, after shipping another four, only Bath (32) and Welling (36) have conceded more on their travels.

Joe Oastler, left, scores Hawks' third goal. Picture by Dave Haines.

Doswell made one change from the previous week’s dismal loss at Concord, who were bottom of the form table prior to Hawks taking over that slot.

Collins returned to partner skipper Joe Oastler in central defence with recently recruited strikers Stefan Payne and Manny Duku again up front in a 4-4-2. Hawks also had three attackers on the bench - Tommy Wright, Alex Wall and Scott Rendell.

It was Payne who fired Hawks into a seventh minute lead from the penalty spot.

After loanee Sam Smart had been brought down, referee Andrew Humphries initially awarded a free-kick. But, after consulting with his linesman, he changed his mind and (correctly) pointed to the spot.

Manny Duku has just put Hawks 2-1 up. Picture: Dave Haines.

Payne, having scored his first competitive goal for over a year at Concord, quickly snatched the ball and, backing up his confidence, netted an unstoppable effort into the top corner.

It was only the third time in their nine-game winless streak that Hawks had actually taken the lead, but it didn’t last long.

After Fleet striker Dominic Poleon had screwed a shot wide from a good position, a quick break ended with Craig Tanner - unmarked on the edge of the 18-yard box - producing a fine finish into the corner on 12 minutes.

It was the visitors who looked the livelier side going forward throughout the first half, with large gaps in Hawks’ midfield and defence opening up when Fleet broke.

Manny Duku wears a broad smile after coming off following his goal. Also pictured are Hawks assistant boss Ian Baird, left, and manager Paul Doswell. Picture: Dave Haines.

Keeper Ross Worner twice came to his side’s rescue. On 17 minutes Poleon was put through just seconds after Jake McCarthy had seen a shot blocked by a defender on the edge of the Fleet 18-yard box, but Worner saved well.

Just after the half-hour mark Hawks were cut open again on the counter, Tanner putting Alfie Egan through in the right side channel, but again Worner was there.

Egan set up Jack Paxman to drag a shot wide and Poleon’s shot from the edge of the area was blocked by Oastler as Fleet continued to pour forward.

Hawks enjoyed a good mini-period in the build-up to half-time - McCarthy’s header from a Billy Clifford corner headed off the line by a defender before Duku’s 20-yard took a deflection off a defender and forced keeper Louie Moulden to fingertip over. From the subsequent short corner move, Smart stood up a cross to the back post where Collins thumped a volley over the bar.

Duku arrived at Westleigh Park earlier this month having failed to score in 20 Scottish League outings for Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

He had also failed to net in his first three Hawks appearances, but ended his long wait for a goal - stretching back to a Scottish League Cup strike last July - on 59 minutes.

Jake McCarthy (7) about to see his header cleared off the line. Picture by Dave Haines.

This time it was Hawks breaking quickly on a counter, with Duku striding down the left side channel and into the Fleet area before unleashing a shot that whistled past Moulden into the net in front of the travelling fans.

The Fleet supporters were segregated behind the car park end goal as Hawks had received reports that some visiting fans would try and stand by Hawks’ dugout and jeer Doswell, who had been sent off in the corresponding fixture almost a year earlier to the day along with Fleet boss Dennis Kutrieb.

Prior to scoring, Duku was about to be taken off and replaced by Wright. As it was, the switch was made on 64 minutes - and within six minutes Hawks were remarkably 4-1 up.

On 68 minutes Clifford aimed a free-kick from 10 yards inside the Fleet half to the back post where Collins nodded the ball back into the danger area. After one effort was blocked, Oastler was there to net from close range.

It was the first time Hawks had scored more than twice in a league game since winning 3-2 at Chelmsford in late October.

Two minutes later, they had struck four in a NLS fixture for the first time since beating Hungerford 4-2 in early January 2020.

Again, Hawks scored after a quick counter which had started with Oastler winning the ball with a fine sliding tackle just outside his own half. A swift exchange of passes ended with Clifford, stood five yards outside the 18-yard box, curling a beautiful shot into the top corner - a goal worthy of several tiers higher for sure.

So, three goals in 11 minutes. Equalling the amount of goals Hawks had scored in their previous SIX home league games.

Three goals in 11 minutes, compared to three in nine hours spanning losses to Bath City, Dorking, St Albans and Dartford and draws with Hemel and Tonbridge.

The corresponding fixture in 2020/21 had produced five red cards, including both managers, with nine-man Fleet beating 10-man Hawks 2-1.

This time, Humphries kept his cards in his pocket until late on. There was only one caution for either side with Payne seeing yellow for protesting vehemently that the official had missed an elbow which left him on the deck.

Instead of continuing to attack, seeking even more goals, Hawks sat back and invited Fleet pressure which inevitably arrived.

Adam Mekki was continually left in space on the left side and, from his 80th minute cross, fellow sub Shaquile Couthirst sidefooted home at the near post.

Fleet enjoyed most of the possession but Hawks denied them many chances - the only other one of note coming when Toby Adebayo-Rowling lashed a shot over the bar.

Thanks to Storm Eunice, this was one of only two matches in the top six tiers of non-league football to take place in the Portsmouth area, along with Gosport v Truro.

Even this one was almost off, with club officials having to clear scaffolding and other debris off the pitch following the previous day’s high winds.

Patio patio furniture had also been blown over the covered terrace to the right of the main grandstand and onto the pitch.

Players had turned up at the ground on the Friday ready to train on the pitch, but were unable to.

No doubt the weather, and Hawks’ form, both contributed to the official crowd figure being 858. In better conditions, with a better league position, the attendance would normally have been four figures.

But the Hawks fans who turned up were - finally - given a home league win to cheer for the first time since October 9. It was only the third of the league season at Westleigh Park, but now all has changed in an instant. Well, in the 11 minutes it took to score three second-half goals.

Of course we do not know if this win will be a turning point. Ask again in a few weeks time. But, for now, the smiles are back. And, at any football club, that is crucial.

Hawks: Worner, Read, Newton, Oastler, Collins, McCarthy, Clifford, Whittingham, Smart (Andrews, 85), Duku (Wright, 64), Payne (Wall, 88).

Ebbsfleet: Moulden, Adebayo-Rowling, Jornbati, N’Guessan. Poleon, Paxman, Tanner, Solly, Chapman, Egan, Nathaniel-George. Subs used: Mekki, Coulthirst, Romain.

Attendance: 858

Stefan Payne hit the post with this effort, but they flag had been raised for offside. Picture by Dave Haines.
Stefan Payne (middle) has just put Hawks ahead from the penalty spot. Picture: Dave Haines
Manny Duku lifts a shot over the bar in the win against Ebbsfleet. Picture: Dave Haines