After nine months and thirty-nine matches, then, it all came down to ninety minutes on the final day of the season in the Ryman League Division One South yesterday. That it did came down to an incident on the opening day of the league season. Whitehawk FC played an ineligible player in their first match at Maidstone United and were deducted three points for their troubles. Had this not happened, they would already have been crowned as champions of the division. As things stand, though, they take the field at East Brighton Park for their final home league match of the season against Chipstead knowing that, although they need a win to guarantee winning the league title, their fate is at least in their own hands.
As such, there is now need for anybody at East Brighton Park to be frantically checking their mobile phones for score updates from elsewhere this afternoon. Should they slip up, Dulwich Hamlet can lift the league title if they can win against second from bottom Burgess Hill Town, but Burgess Hill need a win to safeguard themselves from relegation. Should both Whitehawk and Dulwich fail to win, then third placed Bognor Regis Town can lift the title with a win away to Maidstone United. It’s the sort of convoluted state of affairs that statisticians love. For Whitehawk supporters, however, all that matters is that a win for their team this afternoon renders all other considerations irrelevant.
The weather gods certainly aren’t smiling on anybody this afternoon. The wind is high and swirling, with regular gusts blowing down the pitch in the direction of the sea. Playing into this stiff breeze, Whitehawk take twenty minutes or so to settle and adjust to their conditions and Chipstead, who have brought a small number of supporters down to the coast this afternoon even though their mid-table league position means that they have little riding on this afternoon’s result, give it a good go in the opening stages, dominating possession without looking much like scoring, but Whitehawk weather both the literal and metaphorical storms, and take the lead after twenty-eight minutes when a crisp, low shot from Joe Keehan from twenty-five yards catches the Chipstead goalkeeper flat-footed and sails into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal, and with a couple of minutes of the half left to play James Fraser works himself some space on the right, draws the goalkeeper out and slides it past him to place one hand on the championship trophy.
It is this goal that puts the result of the match and the destination of the championship trophy beyond much reasonable doubt. With the wind behind them in the second half, Whitehawk dominate possession and add a further two goals, through Sam Gargan and Lee Newman, have another disallowed and miss a hatful of other chances as Chipstead fail to manage much more than some dogged defending and the occasional punt in the direction of the other end of the pitch. As such, there is little of the feeling of tension that usually accompanies these end of season matches and when the final whistle blows the celebrations are a little muted by the weather, although they are at least noisy, thanks to a succession of fireworks and, in accordance with the football rules relating to the end of the non-league football season, a crackly rendition of “We Are The Champions” played over the public address system which reminds those present that – and we may have to seek clarification of this from FIFA’s statutes – that Whitehawk FC are, in fact, “…the champions of the world.”
Curiously, there is no trophy presentation. An overheard conversation in the toilet – try not to dwell on that – suggests that the Ryman League had told the club that they wouldn’t be able to get the trophy down to East Brighton Park before eight o’clock in the evening, which seems odd when we consider that the team, which had won fourteen of its previous seventeen matches in all competitions, only had to beat a mid-table side in order to win the title and surely began the day as long odds-on favourites to end the day in the position in which they started it. Would it have been too much to have the trophy there for the captain to lift at the end of the match? It seems difficult to believe that it would have been.
At East Brighton Park, there are peripheral signs of the continuing ambition of Whitehawk FC in the form of a large pile of green tip-up seats, cordoned off by the entrance to the ground. These are familiar seats to anybody familiar with football in Brighton, having been moved there from the former home of Brighton & Hove Albion, Withdean Stadium. Yet this ambition gives cause for concern. Whitehawk’s benefactors are continuing to invest heavily in the club’s ascent through the divisions but, even if we take into account the inclement conditions, it remains the case that this success has not been matched with the team grasping the imagination of the local population. Despite the near-guarantee of a title win, the crowd for this match was only two hundred and eighty-seven people. To put this into perspective, ten miles up the road, Lewes FC managed to entice a crowd four times the size to The Dripping Pan for their final league match of the season in the Ryman League Premier Division against Harrow Borough. If Whitehawk FC is to succeed in the long-term, this is a problem that needs to be addressed. Self-sustainability has to be a medium-term aim if the club is not to plummet back towards the county leagues again at some point in the future.
Such considerations, however, are perhaps for another day. On the pitch, Whitehawk have been good value for their league title win this season and East Brighton Park remains well worth a visit, if for no other reason than that the ground offers amongst the most spectacular views imaginable of the South Downs. Yesterday afternoon, however, a home team that took a while to adjust to the conditions ended up showing off some pretty spectacular views of its own. Whitehawk are going up – the exquisite agony of the play-offs awaits Dulwich Hamlet and Bognor Regis Town.
You can see our gallery of photographs from yesterday’s match between Whitehawk and Chipstead, as inexpertly taken as ever, here.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.