This was my first visit to watch football at Hastings United’s The Pilot Field. It also threatened to be a seriously competitive tie, with both sides having had a good start to the season.
Cray Valley Paper Mills, managed by the experienced Kevin Watson, sit at the top of the highly competitive Isthmian League (South East). Guyanese international, Marcel Barrington is Cray Valley Paper Mills’ top scorer with ten goals.
Hastings United sit just outside the top six, with 19 points from 10 games. However they have games in hand on their rivals and are poised dangerously. A win in this big tie, at home to the league leaders would make the gap to the top seem a lot closer.
The game had added significance as this was Hastings United’s new manager’s first game in charge. Gary Elphick joined the club in 2019 after a long playing career which saw him play league football at Brighton and Hove Albion, as well as a spell as joint manager at Worthing. Following the shock resignation of Chris Agutter, who had led the Hastings team to top the tables in both of the unfinished lockdown years, the club have invested their trust and direction in the hands of Elphick.
The Pilot Field was opened in 1922 and holds a capacity 4050 with seating for 800. Hastings have a vocal support, who I have previously encountered on my travels at Faversham and Hythe Town.
The main stand is imposing and runs all along the side of the pitch, holding 800 seats. The club have a bar, refreshment stands and a club shop. There were a lot of staff (four turnstiles manned which is rare at this level) and a real atmosphere even before kick off. The Pilot Ground is not modern but has good covered stands behind each goal. The grass bank along one side of the pitch is now inaccessible but this is still a club with a high level of resource and a lot of potential. This was my 100th ground visited and I was suitably impressed with the experience that the century ground offered. This is a location well worth a visit. (I also had a great view of the sea front coming down the hill towards the ground, which in all my many visits to Hastings previously I had never seen).
The Hastings United team sheet showed they played a pretty much full strength side with the manager starting himself at number four. Club veteran, Sam Adams, with 143 goals in 569 appearances was on the U’s bench today.
Kevin Watson’s match day team looked to be equally strong, with Barrington and Rory Hill leading an impressive frontline, which also includes veteran striker Babalola, who boasts 37 goals from 96 Millers appearances, to date.
A huge non league crowd, of 1003, made sure that the teams came out to a real noise and created a hostile atmosphere for the visiting team.
The game was evenly fought for the opening fifteen minutes until Cray Valley’s Barrington broke and fired a fine shot from the edge of the box, which was saved low to the Hasting United keeper’s right.
Hastings United had their own golden opportunity on 32 minutes when, after confusion from a throw in, Jack Dixon the number 8 blazed the ball over the bar, when a goal seemed on the cards.
All was even until the last minute of the half when the number 11, for Cray Valley Paper Mills, Francis Babalola, went through on goal, firing his shot narrowly wide.
After the break Cray Valley Paper Mills came out on the attack with growing confidence and on 50 minutes Babalola factored a great goal, cutting in from the left, to squeeze the ball past Louis Rogers, in the Hastings United goal.
The goal seemed to revitalise Hastings and in the 58th minute, Jack Dixon equalised for Hastings United, with a well placed headed goal into the corner of the Cray Valley net.
Hastings United then had the best chances of the rest of the half, with opportunities to take the lead. When the referee indicated six additional minutes of time it really looked as if Cray Valley Paper Mills were hanging on to get a draw.
As if to remind everyone that football is a magical game where anything can happen, Cray Valley had a late chance when Barrington broke through on goal and in a tussle with Hasting’s Tom Chalmers, somehow squeezed the ball to Ade Adeyemo who finished to put Cray Valley Paper Mills into, what had looked to be, an unlikely lead.
Hasting United’s captain Sam Adams was sent off for verbal abuse of the referee as he remonstrated, about what he felt was a Barrington foul on his teammate, in the build up to the goal.
At the final whistle Cray Valley Paper Mills manager, Kevin Watson left very happy that his team had come away to such a cauldron of non league football and were leaving with three points and still in place at the top of the league. Hasting’s manager Gary Elphick, must have been delighted with the fight his team showed to claw themselves back into the match, but would be desperately frustrated to lose such a big game in the 94th minute.