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Monday 3rd January 2022 ko 15:00

Isthmian League – South East Division

WHITEHAWK 0

Splatt sent off 61 (violent conduct)

Malins sent off 84 (violent conduct)

THREE BRIDGES 1 (Leighton 20)

Leighton sent off 61 (violent conduct)

Stone sent off 61 (violent conduct)

Villavencio sent off 90 (serious foul play)

Att 424

Entry £10

Programme online only, non downloadable

Teamsheet FREE

It was Good Friday 2001 and my girlfriend of the time decided I was going to have Easter away from football. She decided we were going to Brighton and booked a campsite near to the Marina, at one end of the Volks Railway. I immediately negotiated a pass out on the Monday to watch Brighton & Hove Albion beat Darlington 2-0 at the Withdean Stadium to celebrate the League Division 3 (now League 2) Championship.

But this was a couple of days before all of that, and after we pitched the tent the girlfriend dived into a book not to be heard of for the next couple of hours at least, so I went for a walk and soon heard the unmistakable sound of players warming up. I’d stumbled on Whitehawk’s Enclosed Ground and had a happy afternoon watching Whitehawk’s Reserves lose 2-1 to Hassocks Reserves. In fact I enjoyed myself so much I returned the next day to watch the first XI lose 1-0 to Pagham in the Sussex County League. I honestly don’t remember what the ex-girlfriend made of it all, only that in the here and now I know Robyn my wife would have loved it.

 A lot has changed in those 20 or so years, back then the only significant stadium furniture was the stand, and the only seating was a solitary chair randomly placed in there presumably for the benefit of someone who needed it. But the club progressed through the divisions and eventually reached the National League South. All that needed stadium improvements and the club took full advantage of Brighton & Hove Albion vacating the Withdean and all those green seats and scaffolding becoming available. It was odd to think that last time I saw these seats I watched Richard Carpenter and Bobby Zamora score for the Seagulls. Sadly they were relegated twice in two successive seasons from 2017-18. 

But the biggest change in Whitehawk is that they’ve cultivated a fanbase. The blueprint is very much along the St Pauli and Clapton Ultras lines, although I’d observe they seem less overtly political than in East London. What they are is numerous, loud, and at all times inclusive, with a strong LGBT+ thread there. And in Brighton of all places being an inclusive club should be part of the DNA shouldn’t it? I for one greatly enjoyed their presence. They’ve certainly turned Whitehawk into a colourful vibrant club with a strong community focus, and one whose example could and should be used by others. If only those Motörhead/Whitehawk Ultras T-shirts were available in groundhopper sizes….!

But I don’t live in a hermitically sealed groundhopping bubble, so I’m more than aware that this game will be remembered more for what happened on the pitch rather than all the wonderful things that happened away from it. What I saw was two teams who started by being as poor in front of goal as I’ve seen in many a long year.

Some will point to two potential penalties that could and maybe should have been given; they weren’t and if either side had finished of the chances they’d created with any poise at all then they’d have won this one easily. As it was the sole goal was the net result of Whitehawk keeper Nathan Stroomberg-Clarke’s weak pass being intercepted by Noel Leighton and he simply passed into an open net. 

Sadly frustrations manifested in players going to ground far too easily, and the tetchy nature of the game exploded when Whitehawk’s Joe Stone and Three Bridges’ Bryan Villavicencio challenged for a ball. The visiting player ended up in a crumpled heap on the touchline despite having no injury that would have seen him substituted. An almighty fracas was the result with Stone seeing red, with compatriot Jamie Splatt and goalscorer Leighton joining him.

Now you may see this as just one of those things, and yes I’ve seen worse, at Caernarfon for example, but look at two of my photos of the fight. You see the young lad with Leon on the back of his shirt? What message were these players sending to him? And after all that’s good that happens elsewhere too. You send out one message, then see it destroyed in an instant.

It got no better either; Three Bridges Michael Wilson tried to grab the ball to time waste, and was rugby-tackled by Alex Malin for another dismissal that was unarguable. The histrionics and playacting continued but worse was to follow in the final minute. The ball was roughly where the fight started, but that ball was irrelevant as Villavicencio’s tackle was high, late and horrible to watch. It was probably the worst challenge I’ve seen in over 3,000 games watched and watching the player trying to claim he’d either slipped, or got the ball was sickening. His was the most deserved red card of a set of 5 that were all obvious. 

Whitehawk threw everything forward in search of an equaliser and they did have a numerical playing advantage but once again terrible finishing and a little luck saw Three Bridges prevail in a game that neither side deserved to take anything from save for five 3 game suspensions and a slew of fines. I’ve included footage from the club’s YouTube channel so you can judge for yourself.

I’ve seen plenty of comment on social media as to what happened, including a comparison with the infamous Sheffield United vs West Bromwich Albion “Battle of Bramall Lane” in 2002; I’d observe that game only saw 3 sent off….

The way I’ll remember it is as the worst game of football I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen plenty that were far less entertaining, and this held the attention in much the same as a car crash would. But as an advert for Association Football it was dreadful, and I’d hope those in authority would think long and hard as to what happened and how a reoccurrence can be avoided. 

For the tragedy of the piece is here is club doing so much that should be applauded and encouraged. I’m very aware I caught them on a bad day, but this was as difficult to watch as it was to write about.