Hastings United moved to within three points of leaders Cray Wanderers after this ultimately comfortable victory over Dom Di Paola’s Hornets. Perennially named among those clubs expected to succeed, the Arrows look good to finally fulfil their potential and earn a first promotion in eleven years if they can maintain their early season form that has seen them lose just once in all competitions. Central to their efforts this term is striker Daniel Ajakaiye, who took his goal tally to sixteen to all but wrap up the points with more than half an hour to go after skipper Sam Adams had given the home side a first half lead.
It was a shame that the goal should come via an individual error, after Horsham had defended resolutely throughout the night, but few could argue against Hastings deservingly taking the points, having been quicker, more confident, composed and – crucially – clinical in front of goal than their opponents.
The Hornets made three changes to the side that recorded that thrilling come-from-behind FA Cup win against Heybridge Swifts at the weekend with Harvey Sparks making his first competitive start in place of Lee Harding, Jack Brivio coming in for Daryl Coleman, and Steve Metcalf rested to the bench in favour of James McElligott. Hastings, themselves involved in a seven goal cracker at Leiston on Saturday, brought in Tom Climpson, Dayshonne Golding, Emmanuel Mensah and Jack Dixon for Sinn’kaye Christie, Adam Lovatt, Kelvin Ogboe and Jamie Fielding who were all named among the substitutes.
Horsham kicked off proceedings and it was they who made the brightest start when Brivio carried the ball out of defence before off-loading to Chris Smith and his excellent cross was only a fraction too high for striker partner Rob O’Toole. That was, though, an isolated opening for the Hornets and for either side, in fact, for the opening quarter of an hour with Dixon’s wild twenty-five yard free-kick that flashed harmlessly above Josh Pelling’s goal the best the hosts could muster in that time. But with a striker as fleet-footed and nippy as Ajakaiye, the match wouldn’t stay goalless for long and when he tricked his way into the box and struck a low shot against the far post, Adams was there to thump in the rebound to give Hastings an eighteenth minute lead. Horsham might have had a fortunate leveller, five minutes later, when O’Toole’s cross was missed by the first defender and hit the heels of a second, sending the ball straight into the arms of ‘keeper Charlie Horlock.
It needed all the positional awareness of Lewis Hyde to prevent Golding from adding to the lead when he dashed across to cover in the nick of time after McElligott had been caught in possession and then Charlie Harris fired a thirty yard free-kick directly at Horlock, following an incident that saw Dixon join Harris himself in Dartford referee Daniel Proctor’s notebook for the foul. It was from a set-piece of their own that Hastings went close to scoring a second when Sam Beale’s goalbound shot was deflected behind for a third corner in quick succession as Pelling’s goal came under concerted pressure. The ‘keeper, back on his old stomping ground, was required to save just a couple of minutes later when Golding and Adams combined to put Ajakaiye through on goal but Pelling was out quickly to swoop with a sliding save at the forward’s feet. The follow-up shot by Adams was whacked away from danger by Joe Shelley.
Minutes before half-time, Golding felt he should have had a penalty when his attempted cross appeared to be blocked – entirely accidentally – by Joey Taylor’s outstretched arm but the appeals were surprisingly muted by the home players and supporters and, from the resulting corner, the ball dropped fortuitously for Dixon who turned and shot over the bar. Then, a minute before the break, Pelling denied Ajakaiye once again with a fine low save when the number nine looked certain to score.
H/T Hastings United 1 Horsham 0
Di Paola made a change at the break, sending on another former Arrow Tyrell Richardson-Brown in place of Will Hoare, but the pattern of the first half play continued immediately with Pelling denying Ajakaiye for a third time, albeit the striker hitting a powerful drive straight at the Horsham goalkeeper. Dixon then hit another effort wide after a good spell of possession before disaster struck for the Hornets when Hyde dallied on his clearance and succeeded only in smashing the ball against an opponent, sending the ball straight back to the feet of the predatory Ajakaiye who finally got the better of Pelling by smashing it straight into the top corner of the net for 2-0.
Game over, we thought, and we were right although Smith fashioned a chance out of nothing and was only a yard or two wide of the upright from the edge of the box. With memories of Horsham’s recovery from a two goal deficit in last season’s corresponding fixture, not to mention Saturday’s spirited fightback, a goal then might have put an altogether different complexion on the match and Hastings tried their best to set up an exciting finale when a square pass by the full-back gifted the ball straight to Richardson-Brown but the substitute’s attempt to slip Smith in on goal was overhit allowing Horlock to push the ball away to safety. Moments later, Richardson-Brown was through again, racing away down the right to retrieve a long ball from Shelley, but his cutback failed to find either Smith or O’Toole and the chance was lost, to the audible frustration of coach Adam Westwood.
Harris was then withdrawn in favour of George Hayward as the match became momentarily fractious with McElligott cautioned for a foul and Smith and Climpson booked for a scuffle following a late challenge by the Horsham man.
The visitors continued to look for something in the closing stages but when a Metcalf throw saw McElligott and O’Toole work an opening for Brivio, the midfielder could barely dig the ball from beneath his feet and sent a scuffed shot into the air where it was comfortably claimed by Horlock. Antonio Walker-Barth went for the spectacular, curling an angled effort beyond Pelling’s left-hand post with Arrows sub Ogboe going equally as close with virtually his first touch. Ajakaiye then showed that he has no little skill to go with his goalcoring prowess when he skilfully evaded Metcalf and Shelley in the space of a few yards, tight to the byeline, only to slightly overrun the ball enabling Pelling to save at his feet.
A late flourish by Hastings saw Dixon shoot just wide from an acute angle but then, in the final minute, came arguably Horlock’s first meaningful save of the match when he got down smartly to stop Richardson-Brown from snatching a late consolation.
The result leaves Horsham in fourteenth place with a return to cup action this coming Saturday when they make the long journey to Bury Town in the Buildbase FA Trophy.
Match photos, here, courtesy of John Lines