At the Withdean Stadium this afternoon, all the fun of the fair was on display, with two goals in the last few minutes and a win that keep Brighton & Hove Albion at the top of League One. This success is well deserved, but there is a knock-on effect of sorts going on just up the road at Whitehawk. Promoted from the Sussex County League at the end of last season, they are still being subsidised and are now in third place in the First Division South of the Ryman League, but their home attendances still struggle to get into three figures. There are just eighty people here today, and a good quarter of them have made the journey down to the south coast from Whyteleafe. If Whitehawk are to survive in the long-term at this level or above it, this is a matter that they will need to address.
To whom we should attribute the first usage of that most hardy of perennial clichés, “it’s a game of two halves”, appears to have been lost to the mists of time, but were reminded of it during the second half of this match. A tedious, tepid, goalless first half had passed us by with just a single long-range shot tipped acrobatically over the crossbar to awaken us from our slumber. What, we might reasonably have asked ourselves, is the difference between these two sides? The visitors had given as good as they had got in the first half, their support is noisy and rambunctious – why are Whitehawk in third place in the table, while Whyteleafe are sixth from bottom in the league?
In the opening stages of the second half they continue to hold the home team at bay, but thirteen minutes in their defences are finally breached with a free-kick from Richard Carpenter that curls around and over the wall before dipping into the bottom left hand corner of the goal. With that, Whyteleafe collapse. Paul Armstrong adds a second, whilst a hilarious own goal, Sam Gargan and Paul Godfrey add a final flourish to a match that has somehow managed to transform itself from a reasonably tight battle between two evenly matched if limited teams into an absolute rout. By the time of the final whistle, Whyteleafe are punch drunk, swaying listlessly against the ropes, begging for the final whistle. If we might have thought that their shoulders couldn’t drop any lower, they do with the announcement of four minutes stoppage time at the end of the ninety minutes and with the final whistle there is a sense of relief that the remorseless battering of the last half an hour so has finally somehow come to an end.
The nature of Whitehawk’s ground means that, for the second half, we are very close to the action. We’re three or four yards from the goal-line, and we can hear every shout coming from the Whyteleafe defence. The first goal is followed by a torrent of swearing that sends the birds from the birds from the trees. By the time of the fifth, there is a quiet hint of resignation about it all. “Don’t concede five! Let’s keep some pride!”, shouts one defender as the players line up for a corner as the clock ticks close to ninety minutes. The ball is sent over into the middle, whereupon Paul Godfrey turns up to head a fifth goal.
We may never know how Whyteleafe managed to have the life sucked from them so completely during the second half (our own ruminations on the subject, “Their half-time refreshments were a double brandy, a Hamlet cigar and a hit each on a bong”, were presumably as wide of the mark as some of the marking at set pieces in the final minutes of the match). The question of where their energy went in the closing half hour, however, is probably a valid one. It would be unrealistic to suggest that part-time players should carry anything like the energy levels of professional players, but the controlled exertion of their energy is probably a reasonable expectation in the Ryman League. Whyteleafe seemed to simply run out of steam this afternoon with more than a quarter of the match still to play. Even taking this into account, however, on the basis of their first-half performance alone they were better value than the final scoreline might suggest.
There remains a sense of unease about Whitehawk’s currently meteoric rise. Costs will only increase should they progress through the divisions and there are no signs that they have particularly caught the imagination of the Brighton public yet. The opening of Brighton & Hove Albion’s new stadium may further stymie their development and they are looking to play at Withdean for the next two years while they carry out redevelopment work at Wilson Avenue. Do the owners have the will to see this through, even if the club can’t hugely increase their fanbase? Time will tell, but things are likely to have to change if Whitehawk are not to join football’s boom and bust cycle in the fullness of time.
You can see a small selection of photos from our trip to Whitehawk here.
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