The Hawks fell to a disappointing 2-1 defeat at Moatside yesterday when they missed out on yet another chance to make top spot their own. A win would have sent them a point clear of Bognor Regis Town, still having a game in hand over the Rocks, but instead the Hawks remain two points off the league leaders. Although the Hawks will still overtake the Rocks if they win their game in hand, there is now also the problem of Leiston, who will go top of the Ryman League Premier if they win their two games in hand over the Hawks. As Lee Bradbury looks at the league table over the next week, he will not be able to banish the thought that the Hawks have missed a great opportunity against 18th place.
And, for me, Bradbury has to take some responsibility for the defeat. His tactics and team selection were surprising, considering the make-up of the opposition. The Hawks boss stuck with the 3-5-2 system which worked so well against Staines Town, employing Andreas Robinson, Lee Molyneaux, and Ed Harris as his back three with Dan Strugnell and Rory Williams pushing on as wing-backs. This was where I felt the game was lost, with the Merstham wingers, Dan Bennett and Dan Hector, reaking havoc whenever they got the ball. Against a side which is so reliant on their wingers, it seemed crazy not to play standard fullbacks. The other questionable part of the team selection was the decision to partner Alfie Rutherford and James Hayter together up front. The pair are the shortest of the four strikers available to the Hawks and I felt they were dominated by the huge Merstham defenders. In my opinion the game was calling out for a 4-4-2 system made up of Jason Prior and Matt Patterson up front, with Ben Swallow and Wes Fogden on the wings.
Having said all that, the Hawks could easily have won the game anyway. The first half saw a flurry of early chances for the Hawks, with Rutherford and Lewis having shots saved by Phil Wilson in the Merstham goal. However, Wes Fogden went down injured for the visitors after about 20 minutes which seemed to kill the Hawks’ early momentum as he had to be replaced by George Barker. The game went very flat for the next ten minutes, until a bad error from Andreas Robinson allowed Dan Bennett to open the scoring for the hosts. It was an example of the Hawks’ formation going against them, as an angled ball released Alex Addai in the space on Havant’s right wing. The ball should have been cut out by Robinson, but he slipped and allowed Addai to exploit the space out wide before cutting it back for Bennett to slot past Ryan Young. The goal seemed to give the Hawks a wake-up call for a time, and Dan Strugnell came close to equalising on two occasions before half-time. Two corners were met by the right-back and sent over the crossbar, the second of which was a great chance as the ex-Bournemouth man lost his man and had a free header six yards out from the goal. Rory Williams also headed wide before the break, and the players went down the tunnel to murmurs of discontent from the travelling supporters.
Bradbury made one change at half-time, with Ben Swallow replacing Ed Harris. This signalled the end of the 3-5-2 formation, with Swallow and Barker reverting to traditional wingers and Molyneaux partnering Robinson at the back, with Strugnell and Williams playing as more conservative fullbacks. Straight away the changes paid dividends, as Swallow drove at his man before squaring Rutherford at the far post who slid the equaliser into the bottom corner. Swallow proved to be a menace for the entire second half, and the Merstham left-back clearly had no answer to his close control and skill in tight areas. James Hayter came close to putting the Hawks in front on the hour mark when Swallow’s cross fell agonisingly out of his reach, and Rutherford almost doubled his tally when a good piece of improvisation saw him turn his defender in the box but was unable to get a shot away. However, once again, the performance went flat as the second half went on and Havant lulled back into their pedestrian passing style of play and didn’t seem in any hurry to look for a winner. Jason Prior came off the bench with 15 minutes to go in place of Hayter, who was ineffective despite his hard working display, and several set-pieces were aimed towards the ex-Newcastle trialist as Havant pushed for a late goal. However, he was only able to get one shot away on goal; a rather tame header into the ‘keeper’s arms. Theo Lewis also saw a header saved as the full-time whistle neared. It was the hosts, however, who had the last laugh as a poor pass from Brian Stock allowed Calum Willock to break through the defence and slot past Young seven minutes from time. The visitors failed to create any more clear chances and were resigned to a disappointing defeat as they made their way back to the south coast.
As i said earlier, Bradbury has to take some responsibility for the result as his 3-5-2 formation was simply the wrong tactic to use against a team whose play revolves around their wingers. However, the players must also question why they fell to a defeat, as the second half performance was simply not good enough after Bradbury amended his set up. After the equaliser early in the second half I was certain that the visitors would go onto win, as Ben Swallow was terrorising the defence and the Hawks were playing with a really high intensity, but the team just seemed unable to maintain that level of performance for more than a few minutes at a time. It is something that will worry Bradbury as, with only the winners of the league gaining automatic promotion in the Ryman League Premier, the Hawks need to solve their problems or they will be in for the lottery of the play-offs. One positive is that the Hawks host Grays Athletic on Saturday, which will give them the perfect opportunity to try and reassert their title credentials and show that they are truly the team to beat this season.