The Hawks’ 2016 Boxing Day fixture saw them undergo the short trip to Nyewood Lane to take on local rivals, Bognor Regis Town.  Not only was the match a derby of sorts, but it was also a very important match as far as league positions were concerned, with the Rocks going into the match in second and the Hawks in third.  With only the winner of the league going up automatically, a win for either side would have been vital and neither will have been overly disappointed with a draw.

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The Hawks lined up with a 3-5-2 system which I criticised last time I saw Havant play at Merstham, but I have to say the system was the perfect way to play against Bognor.  The Rocks have a very small team which meant that the partnership of Jason Prior and Alfie Rutherford up front, along with James Hayter in behind them, was able to dominate the Bognor defence.  The two wing-backs, Dan Strugnell and Rory Williams, were also very effective and caused trouble for the Bognor wingers who didn’t know whether to track them or not.  It was clear that Lee Bradbury had instructed his team to get the ball into the box at every opportunity and this really seemed to work, with the wing-backs crossing the ball in and the three attackers challenging for the ball along with any midfield runners.

The Hawks certainly started the better, with James Hayter seeing his diving header fly just wide of the post in the first minute of the game after a good cross in from Dan Strugnell.  The Hawks were then almost gifted a golden opportunity when a scuffed goal kick fell to Alfie Rutherford, but Sami El-Abd was able to avert the danger before Rutherford could score against his former club.  The Hawks’ striker partnership of Rutherford and Prior registered over 70 times for the Rocks last season before leaving to Westleigh Park, and the Bognor fans did not seem to have forgiven the pair for leaving, with Prior in particular on the receiving end of some stick.

The Hawks had clearly made it part of their game plan to get the ball into the penalty area as often as possible, possibly because they had identified a weakness in the goalkeeper, Dan Lincoln, to come off his line.  A series of corners resulted in near misses for the Hawks, with a couple of balls having to be hacked away from ear the goal line and Lee Molyneaux heading against the post, although he was adjudged to have fouled his man in the process.  Dan Strugnell almost saw his cross loop over Lincoln and into the net after the Rocks’ keeper misjudged the flight of the ball, but he managed to recover and push the ball over the bar to save his blushes.  However, from the resulting corner he was in trouble again, when he came for Rory Williams’ cross but could only flap the ball as far as Ryan Woodford, who looped a header over him and into the net via the desperate lunge of Doug Tuck.  That meant that the Hawks went in at half-time with a well deserved lead and Lee Bradbury will surely just have asked for more of the same.

The second half was a far more even contest, with chances coming to both teams in the early stages.  Theo Lewis saw a shot from a decent position deflected behind for a corner, before Ollie Pearce dragged a shot wide of Ryan Young’s goal from a promising position at the other end.  The game started to become slightly scrappier and more physical, with Calvin Davies performing well in the midfield to make up for his lack of height with an aggressive performance for the Rocks.  After a quiet spell in which there were more fouls than chances, the hosts equalised when the Hawks failed to clear a ball into their area and Ed Sanders was able to squeeze the ball under Ryan Young from six yards out.

Soon after the equaliser, Lee Bradbury opted for a change in formation with James Hayter and Andreas Robinson making way for George Barer and Ben Swallow, as he Hawks reverted to a more traditional 4-4-2.  The introduction of Swallow instantly almost produced a goal, as he twisted Harvey Whyte inside out before cutting the ball back for Rutherford but the ex-Portsmouth striker was unable to keep his shot down.  The Hawks then had half-hearted appeals for a penalty turned down when Swallow beat his man and broke into the area before going down under a challenge, but had a penalty been given it would have been very soft.

The Rocks then had a spell of dominance as they tested the Hawks’ defence for the first time in the match.  Twice it looked like they were going to take the lead but were thwarted by Ryan Young.  First the Hawks ‘keeper was able to save and hold Jimmy Wild’s effort from inside the area after some good build up play, then he showed lightning reflexes to tip over a goalbound shot from Ollie Pearce to keep the score at one all.  As the match approached the final stages, it was the Hawks who looked more dangerous, and with the last throw of the dice Bradbury brought on Matt Patterson for Rutherford with seven minutes left.

The visitors thought they had won the match when a clipped ball in by Brian Stock found Lee Molyneaux free in the area to lash a volley into the bottom corner, but the linesman’s flag signalled offside.  Although Molyneaux was insistent that the referee had made the wrong decision in disallowing the goal, the officials were probably correct as Molyneaux doesn’t possess the pace required to manufacture that amount of space for himself from an onside position.  Theo Lewis almost got on the scoresheet late on after meeting Rory Williams’ cross with a header, but he was unable to generate the power required and the ball bobbled straight to Lincoln.  The visitors had a great opportunity to win the match in the dying seconds when Prior was played in down the left by some good work from Swallow, but the ex-Bognor man sliced his cross harmlessly out for a goal kick to ensure that the spoils were shared by the promotion rivals.

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On the whole I think a draw was just about a fair result, although the Hawks will have been very disappointed not to have gone onto win after taking the lead.  The performance from Bradbury’s side was undoubtedly a good one and thy will need to build on that in the coming games to step up their promotion chase.  The Hawks still sit in third place, with the Rocks remaining in second and both sides still in with a chance of winning the league.  If Bognor win their games in hand over Needham Market they will have 52 points after 25 games, if the Hawks win their games in hand they will be on 53 points after 25 games, and if Leiston win all their games in hand they will also be on 53 points after 25 matches played.  It is very tight at the top of the Ryman League and every point matters, so with that in mind I reckon both sides will be relatively pleased with yesterday’s result.