Back-to-back league titles have propelled the Hampshire side to the highest level in their 21-year history, but it has proved a bigger step than their tightly-knit team anticipated
27 March ~ Havant & Waterlooville’s Westleigh Park ground is in the south-east corner of Hampshire, the Portsmouth-supporting half of the county. Getting the attention of the local media can be a challenge, but the Hawks have met it a few times in recent years.
This season marks their first in the National League. Attendances are up and if they can end the season having climbed out of the relegation zone it would constitute success; but as club secretary Trevor Brock explains, the standard has come as a surprise. “It’s even more difficult than we realised,” he said. “It’s the sheer physicality of the league.” As one of only a handful of truly part-time clubs in the division, their players spend the majority of the week in jobs varying from estate agents to tree surgeons, while their opponents are busy bench pressing and chiselling their abs. “We considered going full time,” Brock says, “but the players couldn’t do it and we didn’t want to lose them.”
This isn’t down to sentiment. The club were reluctant to recruit contract players from too far afield, because the commitment of some in the past, particularly during their relegation from the National League South in 2016, was called into question by fans. They didn’t want to lose the experience of a tight-knit squad either, which was formed after choosing to bring in the best local players, so the nucleus of the team that won back-to-back titles, starting with the Isthmian League in 2017, remains. In the long term it’s unlikely they will be able to maintain part-time status, but as a new documentary by local film company Millstream demonstrates, they are used to defying expectations one way or another.
The club began life in 1998, when Southern League Waterlooville’s financial difficulties brought about a discussion of a merger with local rivals Havant Town. Not everyone was positive. The first meeting took place between the two sets of fans at Havant’s bar, with some arguing over what colour strip the new team would wear (Havant wore yellow and black, Waterlooville white and blue, which became the principal colours of the merged club). Then Waterlooville manager Billy Gilbert set the tone, telling them they “could play in purple if they wanted, it’s what’s in here that counts”, while pointing to his chest.
The Southern League Southern Division title was won in their first season, although they are best known for their FA Cup run during 2007-08 while in the Conference South; knocking out two Football League opponents and twice leading their fourth-round tie at Anfield, before Liverpool secured a 5-2 win. They then had the foresight to reinvest most of their £1 million Cup windfall into developing their ground to Football League standard; so much so that by 2010, Portsmouth, whose owners at the time had been somewhat less scrupulous when it came to finances, were planning to groundshare with their neighbours had they gone into liquidation.
Memorable as that Cup run was, in some ways it was a millstone. Expectations had risen, not just those of fans, but some players too, who haggled for more money. Within 18 months not a single player from that period remained. Relegation to the Isthmian in 2016 came after being tipped for promotion. Manager Lee Bradbury repaid the faith kept in him by steering the club to the league title, and though a mid-table finish was earmarked on their return to the National League South, five second-half goals at East Thurrock in their penultimate fixture put them in the driving seat for the title, which appeared in their grasp when they went 2-0 up at home to Concord Rangers on the final day. Then Concord drew level with ten minutes left.
Brock’s role as secretary includes manning the PA system. As someone who once took to the field at half time during a must-win game against Staines in 2013 for his own Delia Smith “Let’s be having you” moment, he remained the consummate professional, announcing the opponents’ equaliser with the tone of a neutral. As the name left his lips so too it seemed their promotion chances. Then with a minute left Jason Prior scored Hawks’ winner, sealing the title ahead of Dartford on goal difference – arguably an achievement to rival their famous Cup run. Consolidating a position in the National League would in many ways exceed it. Mark Sanderson
Photo by Paul Paxford