Hastings United (0) 1 – 2 (0) Sevenoaks Town
One week after being presented with the South-East Division trophy in front of 2,000 adoring home supporters, United returned to the Pilot Field for their final game of the season but slid to defeat against a bang-in-form Sevenoaks Town side that made it seven straight wins in a row at the end of a campaign in which they appeared to be nothing but relegation fodder until a change of manager inspired a transformation that led them to a mid-table finish.
Of course, the U’s have their own story to tell about how a new face in the dugout resulted in a sudden upturn in fortunes, although the wider circumstances could hardly have been more different. However, the run of nineteen wins and only one defeat in twenty-three league games that has been overseen by Gary Elphick since the back end of November could scarcely have been considered credible when he inherited a side struggling to hang on to the early season pace-setters, despite their admirable FA Cup exploits under former boss Chris Agutter.
The news that Elphick had committed to a new two year contract was announced to supporters before kick off, as United prepared to bid farewell to Step Four after nine fallow years, the last two of which had been abandoned due to the Covid pandemic with the U’s top of the league at the point of each annulment.
They were sadly unable to go out on a winning note this term though, Yahaya Bamba scoring a second half brace to help Sevenoaks claim all three points, netting either side of Knory Scott’s second goal for United, and his first at the Pilot Field, which had given the U’s hope of at least claiming a draw until Bamba struck his ninth goal in seven matches with just thirteen minutes of the season remaining.
After making full use of his squad in Easter Monday’s victory at Lancing, there was a more familiar feel to Elphick’s line-up this afternoon, with Ollie Black, Ryan Worrall, Finn O’Mara, Sam Hasler and Scott all returning to the starting eleven. And within three minutes, it seemed that normal service had resumed, as Tom Chalmers broke quickly and exchanged passes with Scott, before setting up Hasler for a glorious chance that was ruined by an unfortunate bobble just as he swung his normally lethal left foot at the ball.
Much of the first half appeared to be played at walking pace, but it was punctuated by periods of United pressure and occasional opportunities to break the deadlock. Ben Pope flicked a near post shot wide from a Scott cross, while Jack Dixon couldn’t quite stretch far enough to make a proper connection when O’Mara headed a Hasler free kick across goal, the skipper’s toe-poked effort drifting over the bar.
Craig Stone’s astute pass sent Marcus Goldsmith clear in the area, but the full back sliced an attempted shot into the side netting when a pass would surely have been a better option. Scott then forced Tyler McCarthy into action with a twenty-five yard strike, but the keeper was able to save comfortably.
The visitors had offered little attacking threat during the opening period, although Bamba did serve notice of what was to follow with one fine turn and a powerful shot from a narrow angle that flew over the top. And while Tolulope Jonah’s long throws may not have quite travelled the same distance as Ollie Black’s, they certainly caused a similar amount of concern and confusion on more than one occasion.
Within two minutes of the restart though, Sevenoaks took a surprise lead, catching United cold and with their collective minds still perhaps focused on their half time cups of tea. Defensively, the U’s appeared to freeze as Samuel Johnson chased a pass into the right hand side of the area, and with Louis Rogers caught out of position, the right winger’s low cross was turned in by the onrushing Bamba.
It took barely five minutes for the U’s to respond in kind. Rogers’ long pass attempted to send Scott clear down the right, but left back Charles Banya was alert to the danger and beat the Bermudan to the ball. Unfortunately for the visitors though, he then ruined his good work by underhitting his pass back to McCarthy, allowing Scott to close in on the keeper and to block his clearance, before rolling the ball into an empty net.
The contest settled back down after that rush of activity, with nothing to excite the statisticians aside from a couple of cautions and a trio of substitutions. The contest woke up again in the final quarter of an hour though, when a Black long throw resulted in a penalty area scramble that ended with Stone curling a shot onto the roof of the net.
That incident provided false hope of a grandstand finish from United, as Sevenoaks retook the lead less than sixty seconds later, Bradley Wilson picking Chalmers’ pocket just outside the U’s area and squaring for Bamba to fire low past Rogers and into the bottom corner. Try as they undoubtedly did to find a second equaliser, the closest that United came was from a Hasler corner that O’Mara met with a typically towering header, but which he was unable to direct on target.
And so, a season that began with a disappointing home draw duly ended with an even more disappointing home defeat. However, much of what occurred in between times will be fondly remembered by the many thousands of spectators to have witnessed the U’s first promotion since 2007, and their first title winning season since 2002.
Best wishes to all for the summer break and we look forward to seeing thousands more of you when the Premier Division challenge at Step Three commences in August.
Report by Sean Adams