Just 24 hours before Hassocks’ trip to Saltdean United, Hill Park resembled a mountain in the Alps as a blanket of thick snow covered the pitch nestled against the South Downs.
The Robins probably wish it had stayed that way as they were on the end of a bruising 4-1 defeat against a Tigers outfit who returned to form after several disappointing weeks.
Damion Freeman’s side came into the clash with their title hopes hanging by a thread after a run of just three wins from their past ten games.
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But they rewarded the efforts of those who helped clear the pitch of snow with a scintillating performance once they’d weathered a Hassocks storm in the opening half-hour.
Mark Dalgleish’s side had their opponents pinned in their own half in that time, fashioning a succession of chances as they dominated possession with a helpful wind blowing behind their backs.
There was something of a surprise in the way that the Robins lined up. Harry Mills was relieved of his normal defence-minded duties to take up a box-to-box midfield role and he looked brilliant doing so, even managing to get on the score-sheet.
That came on 27 minutes, a Joe Bull corner from the left being knocked down in the box by the chest of Phil Johnson, leaving Mills to produce a poacher’s finish low and hard into the bottom corner.
Mills was clearly delighted with the goal as he celebrated with a cartwheel and forward role combo which, although unlikely to attract the attentions of British gymnastics anytime soon, was the least that Hassocks deserved for the start they’d made.
Before Mills’ opener, former Robins goalkeeper Nathan Stroomberg had to be alert to save twice from Johnson, the Hassocks captain producing a troublesome low shot after collecting a Jordan Badger pass and then glancing a header goal wards from a huge Bradley Tighe free kick.
Mills had also gone close in between those two Johnson efforts, another delivery from Tighe resulting in a game of head tennis with Johnson flicking onto Mills whose header looked to be dropping in until it was well claimed by a stretching Stroomberg.
Mills’ goal seemed to stir Saltdean into life and Hassocks’ under-18s goalkeeper Toby Fisher, deputising for the absent Josh Green, did well to push a free-kick around the post.
Fisher then dealt with a low shot from the edge of the box and Bull went close at the other end after a dangerous run ended with an effort that drifted just wide with Stroomberg beaten.
Hassocks lost their intensity somewhat in the final ten minutes of the half and seemed to tire, which proved to be fatal to their chances of taking their lead into the break as United scored twice in the final five minutes.
Curtis Gayler notched the first, a fine shot which the midfielder curled into the top corner from the edge of the box but really, the opportunity should never have existed in the first place as Mills’ pressing wasn’t being followed by his team-mates who backed off and backed off, allowing Gayler the time and space he needed to beat Fisher.
It was in the final minute of the half that Saltdean took the lead, Dan Jacques’ attempts to get out of the way of a shot seeing him only succeed in blocking it with his hand.
Although clearly not deliberate, Hassocks could have few arguments about referee Andrew Senior’s decision to award a penalty which was confidently dispatched by Gayler off the post.
Hassocks managed to fashion a chance for an equaliser straight from kick-off, the lively Bull again tricking his way past a couple of defenders with Stroomberg punching the resulting cross straight to Johnson who caught the ball cleanly but with a little too much lift as it whistled agonisingly over the bar.
Saltdean dominated the second-half and it was effectively game over when they added their third on 61 minutes.
Mills, Tighe and Will Broomfield were all in attendance as a Bailie Rogers cross bobbled across the box to Robin Keen but the striker was still free to tap in at the back post.
A calamity pass from Broomfield then gifted Rogers possession but rather than head for Fisher’s goal, he inexplicably tore off towards the corner flag from where he tried to claim a penalty despite the ball hitting the recovering Broomfield in the side.
Stroomberg made two good saves in the space of a minute, turning a Harvey Blake effort behind and then flying across goal to push away a Broomfield volley from the resulting corner.
Saltdean’s fourth came with ten minutes remaining, a long corner flying to the back post where substitute Will Berry was waiting for a free header.
There was one final opportunity to pull one back for Hassocks in the closing stages, a quick free kick from Spencer Slaughter being cleverly missed by Jack Baden which allowed Harvey Enticknap to get a shot away but again Stroomberg was equal to it.
Hassocks: Fisher, Tighe (Baden), Broomfield, Jacques, Badger, Blake, Slaughter, Mills (Enticknap), Bull (Stokes), Benson, Johnson.