Every now and again a game will come along that can define a season, define a football club and define a group of players. A game that is still only 90 minutes long, and which has the same amount of points available win or draw as all the other games before or after it, but the ramifications of a defeat can ruin a season of hard work. It is fair to say that the managers, players and supporters of Havant and Waterlooville and Bognor Regis Town have known for quite a number of weeks now that their respective clubs were heading for a showdown on Easter Monday that was likely to determine which of these two clubs could put themselves one giant step towards promotion and a league title to boot. The last few weeks have been like a chess game where each club makes their moves but the other counters that move with neither club able to play a move that proves decisive.
At the start of the season, Havant and Waterlooville were expected to be challenging for promotion with a big name manager in former Portsmouth striker Lee Bradbury, who very much had the budget to match those ambitions. Meanwhile back along the A27, Bognor Regis Town and their manager Jamie Howell were still reeling from having the heart of their successful 2015/16 squad picked apart by their neighbours and rivals Havant, who signed two of their players; top scorer Jason Prior and his striker partner, Alfie Rutherford. Nevertheless, Jamie Howell managed to secure the services of James Fraser, a well-travelled striker who had previously spent time at Nyewood Lane, and crucially Howell was also able to keep hold of centre-half Sami El-Abd, a towering figure at the back at Nyewood Lane.
At the start of the season not many Bognor supporters expected this current Bognor Regis Town team to be challenging again for promotion, having gone almightily close last season, but Jamie Howell and his assistant, Darin Kilpatrick, have fostered a team spirit and determination in a group of players who never quite know when they’re beaten and who want to achieve what they came so desperately close to last season. The 1-1 draw as recently as March, at play-off chasing Leiston where Bognor scored deep into second-half injury time, was case in point of this team never quite knowing when they’re beaten.
It has certainly been an interesting last few months in the battle for supremacy at the top of the Ryman Premier League, with both Havant and Bognor both spending time at the top, and at one stage the gap had grown to 7 points in Bognor’s favour, but Havant did have games in hand. However, since suffering a 3-0 away defeat against Dulwich Hamlet in late March, the Hawks have slowly closed the gap to Bognor with a run of four wins and a draw. Meanwhile, Bognor themselves haven’t exactly been faltering but their one and only defeat in their last seven games against Enfield Town meant a four-point gap was reduced to just one point, meaning the clash between the clubs on the penultimate weekend of the season had suddenly become a fixture both clubs dare not lose.
Monday 17th April 2017 – Ryman Premier League – Havant & Waterlooville 1 v 0 Bognor Regis Town – Westleigh Park – Att 3455
On Easter Friday, Havant had briefly gone to the top of the table with a vital 2-1 win away at relegation threatened Canvey Island, whilst Bognor had to wait another 24 hours before they could kick-off against playoff chasing Harlow Town on Saturday. A defeat against Harlow for Bognor would mean Havant could possibly win the title by beating their south Coast rivals, but Bognor kept their discipline, unlike their opponents Harlow, who were reduced to 9 men, and a 3-0 win meant Bognor reclaimed top spot and kept the gap to one point going into the clash at Westleigh Park. Suddenly now Bognor not only had the opportunity to end Havant’s hopes of automatic promotion with a win, a win would also mean the league title would be secured in their distance neighbours back yard.
A big crowd was expected at Westleigh Park and the massive queues snaking around the local roads leading to the ground meant the kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes, as the supporters of both clubs turned out in big numbers to cheer on their heroes. The game already had a lot riding on it before kick-off, but the added spice of Jason Prior and Alfie Rutherford playing against their former club was another intriguing slot plot to this match.
The game kicked off under dull and overcast skies with Havant attacking down the gentle slope towards the packed South Terrace as both sets of supporters were scattered throughout the ground and without the need for segregation. The Bognor manager was without the services of influential utility man Gary Charman, who had suffered an injury in the previous game, and he also decided to leave out pacy winger Ollie Pearce. The striking partnership of little and large pair Jimmy Muitt and Jimmy Wild looked to run into the channels and pull the Havant back line apart, as James Fraser and Doug Tuck did the dirty work in the middle of the park.
It was a cagey affair in the early exchanges as both teams looked to avoid conceding a goal rather than go forward and play on the front foot. The first real chance of the game was created in the 7th minute by Theo Lewis who crossed for ex-Bognor man Rutherford who headed straight at Dan Lincoln in the Bognor goal. Rutherford then returned the favour seven minutes later when he crossed for Lewis, but Lewis’ header deflected wide for a corner. As the half wore on, Bognor started to find some space in midfield with James Fraser driving forward and it was the ex-Whitehawk man who won a free kick in promoting a promising position. Dylan Barnett swung in a good ball which Sami El-Abd beat the Havant keeper too, but no Bognor player was on hand to pick up the loose ball.
Former Bognor man Rutherford was causing his old club plenty of problems and he was unlucky not to open the scoring when Chad Field blocked a goal-bound shot. The game was now opening up and the home team looking the more likely of the two teams to find that vital breakthrough. Bognor defended well though and showed why they had only conceded 40 goals, the least amount in the division. A 0-0 score line at half time meant Bradbury and Howell could be pleased their teams had kept a clean sheet in the first half but the game needed a goal to give the big crowd something to cheer.
The second half began in much the same manner as the first had ended, but the home side were starting to find their rhythm. Rutherford again came close to breaking the deadlock for the home team when he fired just wide of the post from a half clearance by Bognor six minutes into the half. Bognor goalkeeper Dan Lincoln then had to be at his best to push away a dangerous cross. However, from the resulting corner, the former Braintree stopper could do nothing to stop Wes Fogden from opening the scoring. A quick one-two with the corner taker saw Fogden find space in the box, he then wrong-footed the defender and fired a superb shot into the far corner of the net. The home supporters were ecstatic with joy as the Bognor support suddenly started to feel a case of déjà vu after the dramas of last season.
The goal had galvanised the home side, but for Bognor, the game plan of containing Havant had been undone and now they had to open up more and come forward which meant move space for Havant to exploit going forward. That’s not to say Bognor weren’t a threat when they were in and around the Havant box, and it was the tall Jimmy Wild who almost equalised a few minutes later only for a great clearance from under the crossbar by a Havant defender. Jamie Howell decided it was time for a change on the hour mark and Ollie Pearce was brought on to replace Muitt. Bognor then almost found themselves 2-0 down when Lincoln saved a close-range header from a dangerous cross.
James Fraser was looking the man most likely to grab the goal Bognor now needed, but his shot from 20 yards out with twenty minutes remaining cleared the crossbar. Fogden was the next to go close for the home side, but like Fraser, his shot from outside the area was high, wide and not very handsome. A flurry of corners for both teams came to nothing, and when Fraser’s deflected shot crept just past the post with about ten minutes remaining came to nothing you started to get the sense this just wasn’t going to be Bognor’s day.
The away support raised the noise level and tried to encourage the Bognor players to one last effort at finding a crucial equaliser when the fourth official signalled five minutes of injury time would be played, but in truth, it was Havant that looked the most likely to score with Prior and sub Tarbuck going close late on.
The final whistle signalled a huge roar from the home support as Havant moved to the top of the table with a two-point gap over Bognor with just one more game to play. It was a disappointing afternoon for Howell and his players who knew a win would see the team clinch the title and promotion. The West Sussex club must now beat relegation-threatened Met Police at home on the final day and pray that another relegated-threatened team Kingstonian beat Havant to let them back in. If Havant do what is required, then Bognor will have to settle for a third play-off appearance in four seasons with likes of Enfield Town and Dulwich Hamlet waiting to inflict yet more play-off heartache if Bognor are not at their best.
A small band of Bognor supporters stayed behind in the ground long after the final whistle to sing and chant despite the crushing disappointment of defeat. They all knew this had been a pivotal day in the promotion and title race, but they were determined to try to show how proud they were of their heroes who had defied the odds to even be in this position at this stage of the season. Eventually, assistant manager Darin Kilpatrick came out to acknowledge to fantastic support and many will be hoping he and Jamie can still inspire this group of players to great heights even if the play-offs now look the most likely route for promotion to step 2. If one club deserves a promotion after a couple of near misses its Bognor, but in sport, much like in life, you don’t always get what you want or deserve.
Click the link for a full set of snaps from the match – Havant v Bognor