As an unashamed part time Hawks fan, I’m sure some will feel that I am not qualified to be able to cast an eye back on the past season and share in the success of the team’s promotion. However, seeing as I have a wordpress account and access to the internet, I will do so all the same. Havant were pushed all the way by Bognor Regis Town, who finished the season two points behind their South Coast rivals and will now be contesting the play-offs. The title went down to the final day of the season, when the Hawks travelled to Kingstonian and the Rocks hosted Metropolitan Police. Both matches ended in draws, meaning the Hawks won the league by two points.
It is well documented that Havant have one of the more generous budgets in the division and so were expected to win promotion at the start of the season, but they must still be praised for the way they dealt with all the pressure that was heaped upon them. Credit must also go to the chairman and the board at the club, who kept faith with Lee Bradbury after last season’s unexpected relegation and gave him the money to put together an almost entirely new squad over the summer. The Hawks were heavily criticised last season for their team being made up of mercenary ex-Football League players, whereas this season the squad is largely based on the South Coast. It is claimed – and I cannot help but agree – that having a local pool of players to pick from leads to the players having more motivation and being more driven for success than players such as Marvin Morgan, who have come from far and wide to play for the Hawks.
It is noticeable that the current Havant squad includes several ex-Pompey players who have played on the South for a large proportion of their careers on the South Coast, including other non-league teams in the area. The past summer saw the arrivals of Ryan Woodford (who has played for Gosport as well as a previous spell as captain of the Hawks), Jason Prior and Alfie Rutherford from Bognor, with Rutherford previously having spent time with Pompey’s academy, Wes Fogden (who has previously played for Havant, as well as spending time in the Football League with Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Brighton), Bradley Tarbuck (who came through Portsmouth’s youth system before spending time with Dorchester Town), Mike Carter (having played for Gosport), and Jordan Rose who has been a South Coast non-league journeyman with spells at the likes of Eastleigh, Weymouth, and Whitehawk.
There is also a very strong Gosport contingent, with Rory Williams, Ryan Woodford, Matt Patterson, Lee Molyneaux, George Barker, Andreas Robinson, and Mike Carter all having played for Borough in recent seasons, meaning that the team did not necessarily need to blend together as so many of them have played together in the past, even though there has been a turnover of players recently. The other obviously plus side of having so many ex-Gosport and ex-Portsmouth and Bournemouth players is that almost all the players have experience of playing at either this level or a higher in the past. Alfie Rutherford and Jason Prior scored over 60 goals between them for Bognor last season in the Ryman Premier League while Brian Stock, Ryan Young and James Hayter are seasoned professionals well into their 30s who have made plenty of appearances at a higher level throughout their careers. This can only help the squad as a whole as they have been able to help the younger players improve and learn from them. This has been especially evident on the occasions when James Hayter has partnered Alfie Rutherford up front, as Rutherford has been able to learn from a player who is a full 20 years older than him.
In my opinion the Hawks have benefitted greatly from the relative consistency of the team selection and, especially, the tactics played by Lee Bradbury this season. A sticky mid-season spell led to the Hawks switching to a 3-5-2 system which saw them moving away from the 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 formations used for much of last season’s campaign. This has to go down as a masterstroke from the manager, as seeing three at the back in non-league is very rare and often takes some getting used to. The decision was also made more difficult because it meant that Ben Swallow, George Barker, and Bradley Tarbuck saw themselves out of the side for long periods due to the fact that Bradbury’s style left no place for conventional wingers, while Wes Fogden was forced to play a more central role than he has occupied in the past. However, the title win has undoubtedly seen Bradbury’s gamble pay off. The three at the back system has done a very good job of utilising the wing-backs, who are arguably two of the better players currently with the Hawks. Rory Williams is a leading candidate for the Hawks’ player of the season at left wing-back, while Dan Strugnell has always been regarded as one of the better players at the club, even when they were challenging for promotion to the National League.
The team selection has also been handled well by the manager, with players being given long runs in the side wherever possible, rather than the constant chopping and changing which was seen at times last season. Ryan Young and Rory Williams have been ever-presents this season, while Theo Lewis has hardly missed any matches over the past year. Bradley Tarbuck was another who benefitted from a run in the team when he was brought in to play as a right wing-back to cover for the injured Strugnell, something which culminated in a string of great performances which saw him win player of the month for February and even score a hat-trick against AFC Sudbury in March. Even Lee Molyneaux, who I have criticised at times for his needless defensive errors, has been given considerable runs in the side through the season which shows that Bradbury trusts all his players – something which was not necessarily the case last term.
There are star players in any promotion team, and this Hawks side is no different. Rory Williams has been the pick of the bunch for me, while Ryan Young has been making vital saves ever since he joined the club. Jason Prior has also more than played his part, finishing as the club’s top scorer with 22 goals in all competitions. However, a man who is often not given the credit he deserves in my opinion is Theo Lewis. Not only has he scored 14 times this season from the centre of midfield, but he is also a dynamic influence on the rest of the team and is capable of playing in a holding role as well as behind the strikers. He, like Williams, is one of the driving forces behind the team and the energy he brings to the side is fantastic, especially when one considers that he is often played with Brian Stock who is becoming less mobile with every year that goes by. Another who has a galvanising effect on his teammates is Wes Fogden, who was the club’s marquee signing this summer. The manager often describes him as infectious, and it is noticeable that the team does seem more inclined to press when they can see him haring around the field with his unorthodox running style like there is no tomorrow. If it wasn’t for Fogden’s horrific injury record promotion might not have been such a close run thing.
Managers are quick to insist that all games are big games and that there is three point reward for every win throughout the season, but there are always some matches which live longer in the memory and have longer lasting consequences when supporters look back at the end of the season. The obvious one is the penultimate match of the 2016-17 season, when the Hawks hosted Bognor Regis at Westleigh Park in a top of the table clash which went a long way to deciding the title. The sides went into the game with the Rocks one point ahead and top of the league, and would have secured the league title with a win. However, Havant pulled off a great performance to come away with a 1-0 win courtesy of Wes Fogden, and with both teams drawing their final game the league finished with the Hawks two points above their friendly South Coast rivals. Another game which fans will have no trouble recalling is another South Coast derby when Havant hosted Worthing Town in September. On that occasion the Hawks found themselves 2-0 down at half-time but managed to fight back to secure a 3-2 win, which was earned by Lee Molyneaux with the last kick of the match. It is possible to argue that this is where we see the benefits of having a largely southern based squad, as the Hawks remain undefeated from all four of their games against local opposition.
On the whole, the season has to go down as a very successful one for the Hawks as they achieved their aim of returning to the National League South at the first attempt. While they have to be thankful for the contributions of the likes of Williams, it is fair to say that the entire squad played their part in this season’s success, not to mention Bradbury, who masterminded the league title win. The Hawks have earned their success and, in my view, it is richly deserved. If they can keep the majority of their squad together ahead of next season while making the right additions, it could be possible for them to challenge for the play-offs as they aim to work their way up the non-league pyramid. For now, however, it is important for everybody to enjoy their success and rest up over the summer ahead of next season.