It was an evening of football dramatic enough to be thoroughly fitting, when we consider what was at stake, for the occasion. A capacity crowd of just over 4,000 people was at The Pilot Field last night to see Hastings United of the Ryman League Premier Division play off against Harrogate Town of the Blue Square Bet North, and the relative underdogs from East Sussex eventually won through after a gripping – if somewhat unsophisticated – one hundred and twenty minutes of football ended in a one-all draw, before the home side won the resulting penalty shoot-out.
Hastings took the lead ninety seconds into the second half Lee Carey’s penalty after Matt Bloomer had fouled Zac Attwood. A slightly soft penalty, perhaps, but (as the saying goes) we’ve all seen them given for less. The visitors clawed themselves level with a far post shot from close range by Tom Platt from a corner with just a couple of minutes left on the clock. Once the shootout began, both teams missed a kick each before the home side eventually squeezed through in sudden death, but the real importance of this match probably shouldn’t be judged by the minutiae of what happened on the pitch, rather on the spoils of victory for the winners.
When we visited The Pilot Field for Non-League Day in 2010, we found a club in a little difficulty, if not in crisis by the standards normally applied in non-league football to that much overused word. The visitors that afternoon, Carshalton Athletic, won comfortably that day to leave Hastings teetering around the relegation places in the Ryman League Premier Division table, but the visit did at least offer a glimpse at a more grandiose past, as well as a sense of what might be possible if the club could only start winning matches again – a considerable amount of this coming in the form of the architecture of The Pilot Field itself.
Along the length of one side of the pitch runs a large main stand, of the sort once commonly seen at lower league grounds, whilst behind the goal sits a cavernous covered terrace, all crumbling concrete and crush barriers. Both of these must be very expensive to maintain, and the sense of faded glamour about the place seemed to extend to the pitch, where a lethargic team performance was greeted with familiar eyeball rolling from the terraces. Last night, however, could not have been any more different. A packed ground peering across a disused greyhound track to see their local team join the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in the Third Round of the competition.
We could talk about the money, and there is no question that the sums involved could be critical to a club that plays at the third tier of the non-league game. For Hastings United, there is something less easily definable than a lump sum of cold, hard cash about this run which may turn out to be just as important as that in the long term. For the die hard three or four hundred or so who turn out at The Pilot Field every other week, these are the nights of which dreams are made and there can be little question that they will be walking on air until into the new year, but what of the other 3,700 or so? It’s very easy to criticise ‘glory hunters’ who turn out only for the biggest matches, but it might only take a fraction of those people to get bitten by the bug for the club’s financial position to be significantly improved.
Adding, say, fifty regulars to those that already go week in week out to see Hastings United play would likely add a five figure sum to the club’s balance sheet over the course of a year. If the people of the town, or even just a few more of them, turn out to persuaded that their local club is worth their time on a more regular basis, the benefits to the club could be significant in the long term. This is something that the club seemed to have noted in making 750 tickets available free of charge to under 21s for last night’s match. Every one of these tickets was hoovered up, not only a great gesture from the club towards its local community, but also perhaps a smart bit of business if some of those younger supporters decide to return.
Perhaps the point is that we can all become too consumed by the technicalities and practicalities of football, but romance can occasionally shine its way through our cynicism in its purest form. Hastings United have already gone two rounds further than they did when they last made the competition proper ten years ago this year, and their supporters will have a very happy Christmas and new year, daring to dream something approaching the impossible. The scale of their task in the next round of the competition, away to a Middlesbrough team that has been showing signs of being capable of returning to the Premier League at the end of this season, is massive, but they have won a victory of sorts already in this year’s FA Cup. They will receive a tidy sum of money, may pick up some new supporters and national media attention along the way and a trip to The Riverside Stadium will be a day that the supporters of Hastings United Football Club will surely never forget. Even the most optimistic of Hastings supporters surely wouldn’t have believed all of this to be likely at the start of the season.
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