The business end of the season – assessing the promotion hopes of Hawks, Gosport Borough, Horndean and Baffins Milton Rovers

It is getting towards the business end of the 2021/22 football season.

By Simon Carter
Thursday, 24th February 2022, 11:36 am
Gosport Borough beat title challengers Farnborough 1-0 at Privett Park recently and have gone six league games unbeaten. But they slipped out of the Southern League Premier South play-off zone in midweek with other clubs holding games in hand on them.  Picture: Tom Phillips
Gosport Borough beat title challengers Farnborough 1-0 at Privett Park recently and have gone six league games unbeaten. But they slipped out of the Southern League Premier South play-off zone in midweek with other clubs holding games in hand on them. Picture: Tom Phillips

Thankfully, none of the eight Portsmouth area clubs in the top five tiers of the non-league pyramid have relegation issues.

A handful still harbour promotion hopes, mainly via the lottery of the play-offs - Hawks, Gosport Borough, Horndean and Baffins. Some of those hopes may be more realistic than others.

Elsewhere, AFC Portchester (2), Moneyfields and Fareham Town have cup semi-finals to look forward to.

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Billy Clifford scores Hawks' fourth goal during last weekend's 4-2 home win over Ebbsfleet - ending a run of nine National League South games without a victory. Picture: Dave Haines.

That just leaves US Portsmouth with nothing tangible to play for, but they have done superbly well in their debut Wessex League Premier campaign bearing in mind they lost the majority of their FA Vase final squad to Moneyfields last summer.

Here, we take a closer look at the league programme …

National League South

Players, management, directors and supporters of Havant & Waterlooville sat down to their Christmas Day dinner two months ago today no doubt satisfied with the league table.

Luke Dempsey scores for Horndean in a 4-2 home Wessex League win over Bashley last month - but the New Forest club have since won seven in a row to emerge as another of Hamworthy's title contenders. Picture: Martyn White

Despite a horrendous run of injuries, Hawks were in the play-off zone and just four points off top spot.

No-one could have expected what was to follow. A day later, Dorking hammered them 8-0, Hawks’ record league defeat.

That festive nightmare kickstarted a run of nine league games without a win, a desperate time which resulted in just three points.

A 4-2 success against Ebbsfleet last weekend ensured Hawks avoided equalling the club’s all-time record for league games without a win.

Baffins Milton Rovers celebrate a goal during their 2-1 Wessex home win against leaders Hamworthy on December 4 - the only league game the Dorset club have lost out of 30. Rovers, meanwhile, have won just one of their last eight games to crash out of realistic title contention. Picture: Neil Marshall

That would have been a further unwanted statistic, given that the nine-game winless home run which was ended against Fleet had set another club record.

Given that background, it would be a truly remarkable achievement if Paul Doswell’s men finished in the play-off zone.

Ahead of this Saturday’s trip to Slough, Hawks are eight points behind seventh-placed St Albans - occupying the final play-off place - having played two games more and with an inferior goal difference.

However, hope springs eternal in football - it has to - and sixth-placed Dulwich are also eight points ahead, but Hawks have a game in hand.

Doswell believes his men need 30 points from the 42 left available to them to finish in the play-offs.

To achieve that, Hawks could do with setting another club record, and one worth having - that of most successive league wins.

At present, their record is six - set by Lee Bradbury’s men en route to the Ryman League title in 2016/17.

The following season, Bradbury’s side won 10, drew three and lost one of their last 14 matches to pip Dartford to the National League South title on goal difference.

A similar run is now what is needed. In football, you can never say never. Hawks’ task appears huge - for a reason, it IS huge - but Doswell still believes.

Among their remaining 14 games, are trips to play-off occupying Dulwich, Dartford and Maidstone. After Slough, they are actually Hawks’ next three away games. By the evening of April 2, the day of Maidstone away, we should know whether Doswell’s men have built stunning momentum, or whether the play-offs are a pipe dream.

In the other 11 matches against teams currently in the top seven, Hawks have won just twice - both against Ebbsfleet - and lost twice to Dorking, Oxford and St Albans.

But to finish in the top seven, it is not just against the top teams Hawks will need good results. Put simply, they need them against everyone - top, middle and bottom.

REMAINING GAMES

Home - Chelmsford, Hungerford, Billericay, Braintree, Eastbourne, Hampton, Chippenham.

Away - Slough, Dulwich, Dartford, Maidstone, Bath, Welling, Hemel.

Southern League Premier South

Gosport Borough are enjoying their best league season since 2014/15.

Back then, they finished sixth in the National League South - just three points behind a Hawks side who claimed the fourth and final play-off spot. (Sutton, currently bidding for promotion to League One, were 15th - football fortunes can change so quickly)

Alex Pike’s Boro were ninth the following season, but then off-field financial woes hit hard and the club were relegated in 2017.

In their first two seasons back at Southern League level, Gosport continued to struggle badly - finishing second bottom, with a goal difference of minus 101, and fourth bottom.

The recovery began under Lee Molyneaux with Boro mid-table when the 2019/20 season was halted by the pandemic.

Successor Shaun Gale has carried on the improvements and Boro currently were occupying fifth place, the final play-off slot, before Tuesday evening.

They began 2021/22 well, with seven wins in their opening nine games.

Most teams hit a bad patch at some point, though, and Gosport’s came in November and December with just a solitary win in eight matches. Among that run were home draws with lowly Kings Langley and Dorchester and home losses to lower mid-table Swindon Supermarine and Hartley Wintney. A 2-1 loss at Wimborne a week before Christmas was a seasonal low point.

2022 has brought a big improvement in results, and Gale’s men have shown they can mix it with the division’s best. Boro’s 1-1 home draw with Truro last weekend extended their current unbeaten run to six games, including victory over long-time leaders Farnborough, a 3-3 draw at high-fliers Met Police and a 1-1 draw at new table-toppers Hayes & Yeading.

Despite that, Boro dropped out of the play-off zone on Tuesday when Chesham won one of their two games in hand. Gosport will be well aware Weston-super-Mare and Yate are breathing heavily down their necks. Yate are just two points adrift with five games in hand and Weston trail by the same amount with four games in hand. Elsewhere, Truro are six behind with four games in hand.

Though they only have nine games left, Gosport still have to welcome Weston to Privett Park and travel to Chesham and Yate (on the last day, April 23). Safe to say, Boro will need points from all of those matches to keep their dream alive.

It will need an unlikely sequence of results, and that’s putting it mildly, for Yate and Weston not to nudge Gale’s squad further away from the top five.

At present, Boro certainly remain in the promotion picture, though having played more games than their rivals they can’t afford too many slip-ups. Only one of their last nine games is against a team currently above them (Taunton), but based on previous results this season that might not be a good thing.

But even if they do miss out on the top five - and their destiny is not in their own hands - it has been a season of undoubted progress at Privett Park. Interest in the club is up, with attendances virtually doubling compared to a few seasons ago.

After a few years in the doldrums, Gosport Borough are looking up once again.

REMAINING GAMES

Home - Hendon, Taunton, Weston SM, Salisbury.

Away - Beaconsfield, Merthyr, Kings Langley, Chesham, Yate.

Wessex League Premier Division

A few weeks ago, two clubs were in with a good chance of becoming the first Portsmouth region winners of the Wessex since Gosport Borough in 2006/07. Indeed, Borough’s win that season is one of only two occasions a Portsmouth area club has ever won the league which was formed in the mid-1980s (Havant Town, in 1991, the other).

But while Horndean remain in title contention, a dismal run of results have left Baffins Milton Rovers wondering what might have been.

Going into this weekend’s round of games, second-placed Horndean trail Hamworthy by four points having played a game more.

They are three points ahead of Brockenhurst - this Saturday’s visitors to Five Head Parks - having played two games more than the New Forest club.

In the Wessex Premier, only the champions are automatically promoted to the Southern League with the runners-up, for the first time ever, taking part in a play-off match against a step 4 club. Win that, and they go up as well.

Hamworthy certainly have the look of champions-elect. They have only lost once in 30 games and six of their last 10 games are on home (artificial) turf. And they are superb at home - having only dropped two points in 14 matches so far this season. They have only conceded three goals in those games. Put another way, that’s three goals in 21 hours. Both Horndean (v Fareham) and Baffins (also v Fareham) have conceded five at home in one match.

The Hammers have three massive home Wessex games in eight days next month - against fourth-placed Bashley (March 15), Horndean (March 19) and sixth-placed Shaftesbury (March 22). Bashley, on the back of a seven-game winning run, could end up being Hamworthy’s main title rivals. They currently trail by nine points - and are 22 behind on goal difference - but have two games in hand.

Michael Birmingham’s Horndean have a huge period coming up. After hosting Brockenhurst on Saturday, they face them again in the return fixture the following weekend. A six-point return would see the Deans nine ahead of Brock, having played two games more. But two losses would be a hammer blow to hopes of finishing in the play-off place.

With one win and just five points in their last eight games, Shaun Wilkinson’s Baffins have saved their worst run of the season for the worst possible time. They were seven minutes away from taking over top spot as recently as January 26; now they trail Hamworthy by 12 points having played a game more. They have kissed their title chances goodbye.

Rovers are eight adrift of Horndean, with both clubs having nine games left. And Baffins still have to go to Bashley and Hamworthy and welcome Brockenhurst and Shaftesbury.

Realistically, the best Wilkinson and co could manage is to beat their best ever Wessex Premier finish of fifth place in 2018/19.

Horndean, meanwhile, could finish runners-up in successive completed seasons, having done so in 2018/19, before Covid was ever heard of.

REMAINING GAMES

Horndean

Home - Brockenhurst, Shaftesbury, Cowes, Bournemouth

Away - Brockenhurst, Hythe, Hamworthy, Portland, Alresford

Baffins

Home - Brockenhurst, Alton, Shaftesbury, Hamble.

Away - AFC Portchester, Bashley, Blackfield, Hamworthy, Hythe.