Stunning save denies Hawks a place in National League South play-offs after entertaining draw with Billericay

Hawks were denied a place in the National League South play-offs by a stunning late save from Billericay’s Zaki Oualah.

By Simon Carter
Sunday, 27th March 2022, 11:57 am
Manny Duku, left, with Tommy Wright after putting Hawks 2-1 up against Billericay. Picture: Alex Shute
Manny Duku, left, with Tommy Wright after putting Hawks 2-1 up against Billericay. Picture: Alex Shute

The AFC Wimbledon loanee plunged to his right to keep out an 88th minute header from Joe Oastler that was arrowing towards the bottom corner.

Had it gone in, Hawks would have been celebrating a fifth win in seven games. A month or so on from being nine points adrift of the top seven, they would have been sitting pretty in it.

As it was, a 2-2 draw against a Billericay side that moved off the bottom on goal difference kept Hawks a point behind seventh-placed Dulwich - and still with a game in hand.

Tommy Wright on the attack against Billericay. Picture: Alex Shute

Despite extending their unbeaten run to seven games, Hawks dropped a place to 10th - Hungerford are now above them by virtue of a better goal difference (of just one) - but the stage is set for a thrilling run-in.

Pre-game, the hype centred around the fact that Hawks topped the NLS form table while Billericay were second. Having won only three of their first 28 games, they arrived at Westleigh Park on the back of successive wins against three top 10 teams, Hungerford, St Albans and Oxford City.

It was not hard to see why. The Essex side had no intentions of putting 10 men behind the ball, instead deploying a 3-4-3 formation. As a result, the match lived up to its hype - a lively, entertaining affair.

All the goals came in the first half when Billericay had a strong wind in their favour attacking the carpark end of the stadium. The visitors looked anything but a relegation-threatened side.

Stefan Payne, right, with Alex Wall after putting Hawks 1-0 up against Billericay. Picture: Alex Shute

After the break, Hawks dominated. If any team deserved the three points, it was certainly them - and but for Oualah, one of many players brought in by boss Jody Brown in the last two months, they would have pocketed them.

Ironically, the goalkeeper was one of the smallest players - only 5ft 9in - in what is a very big side. Hawks are a strong, physical outfit; Billericay the same. But Oualah still managed to claw Oastler’s header out.

Billericay could have taken a second minute lead, Henry Ochieng’s miss-hit shot going across the face of Ross Worner’s six-yard box with Niko Muir, stretching, just unable to get a foot to the loose ball.

Hawks were given a warning when defender Michael Chambers - the tallest player on the pitch - got in a header from a long throw which Worner pushed behind for a corner. After Hawks failed to clear, Chambers netted - only for a raised flag to cut short the celebrations of a noisy band of travelling supporters (who contributed to one of the best atmospheres at the ground this season).

Hawks striker Alex Wall in action against Billericay. Picture: Alex Shute

Hawks took the lead on 18 minutes with a goal that owed everything to Manny Duku’s perseverance and skill on the right flank. Winning possession virtually on the touchline, he whipped in a sumptuous cross which Stefan Payne nodded in.

Seven minutes later, the Blues were level. A delicious pass from Ebbsfleet loanee Kresh Krasniqi allowed Dylan Gavin - on loan from Charlton - to beat Worner with a low shot.

This was as good a half of NLS football as I’ve seen at Westleigh Park this season, and Hawks were back in front six minutes before the break.

Alex Wall put in a low cross from the left which Chambers should have cleared, but instead he allowed Duku to claim possession inside the six-yard box, cut inside on his left foot and bury a low shot.

Hawks v Billericay. Picture: Alex Shute

Based on the balance of play, Billericay didn’t really deserve to be losing - and three minutes into injury time they levelled again.

Payne appeared to have been fouled in front of the visiting bench, but referee Stephen Parkinson - a mid-season promotee from step 3 football - allowed play to go on. Within seconds, a few quick passes ended with Femi Akinwande sweeping home a first-time shot.

If the first 45 minutes had been end to end, the second was mainly spent with Hawks swarming forward in search of a winner.

They certainly had the chances to claim a fourth straight home win.

A long Payne throw-in was allowed to bounce in the Billericay penalty area, Tommy Wright shooting just wide.

Wall found himself in a great position on the right hand side of the six-yard box on 56 minutes, but screwed a shot wide.

Hawks boss Paul Doswell made his first change just after the hour, putting Paul Rooney in midfield and taking Wall off. That allowed Wright - without a goal in 13 league games since a leveller at Billericay in January - to move up front.

The second change, on 66 minutes, saw a home debut for centre half Guy Hollis, whose only other appearance - at Billericay - saw him come off injured after just 18 minutes.

Hollis almost made an instant impact, but with his hands rather than feet. He possesses a Rory Delap-esque throw-in, and from the grandstand side he propelled a ball in which was only cleared to Billy Clifford lurking with intent just inside the 18-yard box.

Clifford showed fantastic technique to produce a first-time volley which Oualah fingertips over for a corner. It was the first real save of note from either keeper.

Ex-Pompey defender Greg Halford required treatment following an off-the-ball incident that was missed by the referee. Payne protested his innocence, and duly escaped any cards, but Halford was furious, squaring up to him when he had returned to the action.

Virtually nothing was seen of Billericay as an attacking force in the second period, with their first real shot - from Krasniqi - flashing across the face of goal and ending up near the linesman on the far side.

Hawks are a real danger from set pieces, and it was from a free-kick that Oaster rose unchallenged to get in his 88th minute header. The skipper had netted twice at the same end in Hawks’ previous home game against Hungerford, but the diving Oualah prevented what would have been wild celebrations.

Still, as Doswell was quick to point out afterwards, ‘if you’re not going to win, it’s important you don’t lose’ and Hawks, after the break, never looked like losing this one.

Hawks, crucially, still have the momentum - 15 points from 21, no defeats in seven, ahead of next Saturday’s game at leaders Maidstone United.

Hawks: Worner, Read (Hollis, 66), Newton, Oastler, Shroll, Clifford (Roberts, 83), McCarthy, Wright, Wall (Rooney, 61), Payne, Duku.

Billericay: Oualah, Ekpiteta, Chambers, Halford, Graham (Hinds, 59), Ochieng, Wright, Krasniqi, Muir (Ekumah, 83), Akinwande, Gavin (Jeffrey, 89).

Attendance: 1,117