In recent years Church Road has proved notorious for United coming away with nothing but Craig Stone’s towering header midway through the first-half, and Louis Rogers’ finger-tip save, was enough to secure the win in a fractious game.
Whilst New Year’s Day saw a free-flowing United beat bottom club East Grinstead 5-1 at the Pilot Field, their trip to Whyteleafe was expected to be a close hard-fought encounter, and so it proved.
After the early exchanges it was United who created the first chance on six minutes. Jake Elliott and Lanre Azeez turned defence into attack with a one-two, then the ball into Daniel Ajakaiye’s feet was played back to Azeez to scamper in on goal. His shot flicked off the goalkeeper’s body and over the bar. After successive corners Stone’s close-range header was saved.
Whyteleafe went straight down the other end and fashioned their own chance with a shot straight at Rogers, a comfortable save. A minute later and another opportunity for the home team also ended with a shot straight at United’s keeper. Whyteleafe demonstrating their speed in attack.
Though it was United who took the lead on eighteen minutes. Jack Dixon was fouled midway in the opposition half which Ryan Worrall lofted into the area, and there was Stone, leaping like the proverbial salmon, to power home a header into the bottom right corner from twelve yards.
The hosts stirred again and Corie Andrews, Whyteleafe’s pacy winger, almost created and finished an equaliser. He cut inside from the right wing, rode two tackles across the edge of the area and saw his shot half-blocked by Rogers but have enough momentum to roll towards the goal. Only Gary Elphick’s last-ditch intervention preserved the ‘U’s lead.
With five minutes of the half remaining United came close to doubling their lead. A throw into the box was headed away and the Whyteleafe crossbar felt the full force of Ajakaiye’s acrobatic bicycle-kick. Twelve yards out, central, hit with great power, that would have been some goal.
Whyteleafe began the second-half on the front foot. In the first minute, after a break down the left, Rogers was called upon to make a superb double save at his near post.
As the half progressed so did the fractious nature of the game with both teams (and supporters) appealing for any indiscretion, however minor. Midfield battles intensified, and both defences worked hard to quell attacks.
United broke the shackles when Elliott made a great tackle on the edge of his own area and drove to halfway. Ben Pope took over and turned a clever ball around the corner for Azeez who drilled a low cross which missed the arriving Ajakaiye by a fraction.
The skirmishes continued but neither goalkeeper was called into action until the final minutes.
In the 90yh minute Kenny Pogue had a chance to seal the win, after being played in by James Pool, but his shot was saved by the keepers’ legs. Rogers then did brilliantly to grab a deep cross off the top of the onrushing Junior Aikhionbare’s head.
The striker ending up in the back of the net instead of the ball. And in the ninety-sixth minute Whyteleafe won a free-kick, twenty-two yards out, struck well by Peter Wedgeworth and magnificently tipped onto the bar by Rogers to safeguard the three points.
Playing quality football is not always about goals scored, and this was a result United had to grind out. Centre-backs Elphick and Stone certainly earn the plaudits for their defensive display, second-half especially, but overall this was an impressive team performance. The boisterous travelling supporters, who constituted over half the crowd, certainly enjoyed this one.
Hastings United: Rogers, Elphick, Stone, Elliott, Ajakaiye (90’ Black), Pope (83’ Pogue), Beale, Worrall, Lovatt (10’ Pool), Azeez, Dixon (Unused subs: Hull, Barlow)
Whyteleafe: McCarthy, O’Donoghue, Duru, Mensah, Thompson, McGeoghegan, Andrews (69’ Clarke), Hamilton (69’ Orome), Sobowale, Aikhionbare, Walker-Barth (60’ Wedgeworth) (Unused subs: Adebayo, Sontan)
Next game: Tuesday 7th January away to Burgess Hill Town in the Velocity Sports Trophy, kick-off 7:30pm