Brilliant Hassocks hold leaders Saltdean United to draw

Alfie Loversidge netted for Hassocks in their excellent draw with top-of-the-table Saltdean. Picture by Chris NealAlfie Loversidge netted for Hassocks in their excellent draw with top-of-the-table Saltdean. Picture by Chris Neal
Alfie Loversidge netted for Hassocks in their excellent draw with top-of-the-table Saltdean. Picture by Chris Neal
Ever the optimists, one Hassocks fan turned to another in the clubhouse before kick off as the Robins hosted Southern Combination League Premier Division leaders and said: “This could be worse than the cricket.”

Christmas though is the season for miracles. England desperately need one in Australia. Hassocks got one in Mid Sussex, drawing 1-1 with an outstanding Tigers side who had walloped them 6-0 earlier in the campaign.

You could understand the pessimism amongst the home support. Saltdean arrived having put nine unanswered goals past East Preston seven days earlier.

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They then went and eliminated Conference South side Eastbourne Borough from the Sussex Senior Cup in midweek.

Tigers manager Bryan O’Toole has built a squad that reads like a who’s who of recent Southern Combination title winners and right now, they are playing at the peak of their powers as those previous two results evidence.

Hassocks meanwhile are ravaged by injury and illness to key players. Josh Short and Dan Turner were the latest notable omissions, joining long-term absentees like Andy Whittingham, Bradley Bant, Lucas Tyrrell, Jack Gardner and Spencer Slaughter on the missing list.

Brad Sweetman opted to replace Turner and Short with experience, turning to Jordan Badger and Jack Troak. Both have endured stop-start campaigns and were making only their fifth and third starts of the season respectively.

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Saltdean made a fast start on their way to scoring six goals last time these sides met, opening the scoring inside of 120 seconds on that balmy August evening at Hill Park.

It took them a little longer to get going on this occasion. 15 minutes had elapsed when Trevor McCreadie - so often a thorn in Hassocks’ side during his Haywards Heath Town days - latched onto a ball over the top.

Alex Harris was quick off his line and did well to shut the danger down, resulting in McCreadie lifting his effort over the bar.

Hassocks registered their first chance shortly after. Sam Smith was making his home debut and he had a good sight 25 yards out but his effort lacked the required power to trouble former Hassocks favourite James Broadbent in the Tigers goal.

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Saltdean took the lead on 20 minutes via an elegant strike from Tom Caplin. Hassocks were unable to clear their lines and Caplin needed no second invitation when the ball fell to him 22 yards out, driving a clinical effort into the bottom corner.

Hassocks were dealt a blow seven minutes later when Smith limped out of the action, adding to the Robins’ injury woes.

Joe Bull seemed the obvious replacement but Sweetman instead opted to bring Josh Hawkes on up front.

Hawkes has been in good scoring form recently for the under-23s, but he cannot have been asked to lead the line many times in his senior career - as the look on his face of a man whose Christmases had all come at once eluded to.

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It turned out to be an inspired decision and on the stroke of half time, Hawkes was denied what appeared a stonewall penalty.

Arthur Rawlingson went charging forward from right back to deliver the perfect cross which Hawkes looked set to get his chin on until he was clumsily tripped by a Saltdean defender. Remarkably, referee Ian Moore waved play on.

Undeterred, Hassocks continued to take the game to their visitors at the start of the second half. A quick counter inside the opening five minutes ended with Troak whistling a half volley over.

The Robins got the goal they deserved a few minutes later. Troak had a shot blocked but the ball fell kindly to Alfie Loversidge who slammed home from eight yards out for his eighth goal of the season.

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Jack Baden was the next Hassocks player depart injured, Charlie Tuck coming on at left back in a straight swap.

It did not take Tuck long to make an impression. A Badger slip let in McCreadie and the Robins looked bang in trouble until Tuck appeared from nowhere, producing one of the best tackles that the Beacon has seen in many years to snuff out the danger.

Saltdean continued to pour forward in the final 15 minutes and it was all hands on deck for Hassocks.

The Tigers had the ball in the net with five of normal time left to play but a tight offside call correctly went the Robins’ way.

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Harris repelled a Saltdean header with a fine save before Hassocks made their final change, the tireless Lewis Westlake making way for Luke Marshall as another defender was chucked on to try and help preserve the point.

Hassocks got there after what must have felt like an endless amount of time added on. The reaction of the players at the end told its own story about what a big result this was. Move over Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey - there is a new Christmas miracle in town.