Hastings United 0 – 0 Haywards Heath Town
On a bright and crisp spring day, they came in their thousands, hoping to cheer United to the South-East Division title. But they left largely frustrated and disappointed, after a tense goalless draw left the U’s still needing one more point before they can call themselves champions.
Hastings certainly haven’t drawn many games this term. Indeed, this was only their third draw of a season that has now spanned 44 matches. Nor are United accustomed to not scoring, and Haywards Heath can proudly boast to being not only the solitary side to have kept a clean sheet against the U’s throughout the campaign, but to have now done so twice, speaking volumes about the strength of their own promotion ambitions.
An expectant crowd of over 3,000 was treated to an early glimpse of the flowing football that had seen United ease to a string of nine consecutive wins. A fine crossfield move ended with Danny Parish cutting in from the left hand side and drilling a low shot straight at keeper Billy Collings.
But the game soon settled into a less familiar pattern, with Heath adopting an ‘attack is the best form of defence’ motto, pressing high up the pitch and forcing the U’s to largely play a counter-attacking game that gave the distinct impression that the visitors were very much in control.
Ben Pope’s tenacious challenge in the centre circle sprung Parish clear on one such break, but with almost too much time to size up the opening, Parish delayed his effort long enough for Billings to smother the shot at close quarters.
For all their dominance of possession though, Heath found opportunities of their own hard to come by, with Harry Lafflin’s instinctive overhead kick that flashed narrowly wide after a poorly defended corner being their sole true sight of goal in the opening period.
And despite struggling to gain a foothold in the contest, United continued to look far more dangerous than the visitors when in their opponents’ half, Craig Stone’s long ball sending Sam Adams clear down the inside left channel, only for the evergreen midfield general to send his attempted lob of the committed Billings high and wide of an inviting target.
A half littered with stoppages for increasingly petulant fouls then drew to a close with the U’s inches away from taking the lead, as Sam Hasler’s near post corner presented the unmarked Finn O’Mara with a golden chance, but his header flashed across the face of goal and just the wrong side of the far post.
The second period began with Heath creating their best opportunity of the contest, Billings’ sending a long ball towards Alahady Jalloh down the left hand side, the winger getting a favourable bounce to race clear of Tom Chalmers, but his luck ran out there, as Louis Rogers narrowed the angle and blocked his shot with an outstretched left boot.
Ben Holden’s header from an Oliver Allen free kick then flew straight at Rogers, but as the match wore on, the visitors began to retreat more and more into their own half, inviting their hosts to try and break them down.
For a ten minute spell just past the hour mark, United seemed very happy to oblige. Parish sending Pope clear, only for Billings to race quickly from his area to clear, while the keeper’s next intervention was to produce the save of the match, a tremendous reaction block to deny Parish yet again, after the striker stuck out his right foot to divert Hasler’s twenty-five yard strike from a short free kick, so nearly wrongfooting Billings, but not quite.
Moments later, Stone delivered a hanging cross from near the corner flag on the U’s left, which appeared to catch Billings in two minds, and seemed to drop from the sky perfectly for Parish to volley home from barely six yards out, only for him to miss his kick completely as another glorious chance went begging.
Having survived that flurry of activity in and around their penalty area, Heath rediscovered their composure in the final quarter, and not even the late introduction of attacking reinforcements in the guises of James Hull and Kenny Pogue was able to lift the U’s to grandstand finish.
Four minutes of added time brought with it one final push for a winning goal to send the hoards home happy, but Hasler’s dead ball delivery skills deserted him in the final moments, and honours ended even.
As news of two late goals for Ashford filtered through the masses, it was suddenly clear that the promotion party would have to be postponed and the champagne returned to the cupboard for another week at least. But if they can avoid defeat just once in any of their remaining four fixtures, United will win the title. Roll on Faversham in seven days’ time.