Tears on the terrace. Fans on the floor. Heads in hands. That was the reaction to Havant & Waterlooville being relegated from the National League South. They had just drawn 1 – 1 with Weston-Super-Mare, but it wasn’t enough to save them.
Relegation always hurts, but being sent down on goal difference must have made it extra painful for the Hampshire club and its fans.
Just eight months later, things are different, as the Hawks are flying high in the Isthmian League. They’ve lost on just four occasions so far, as they aim to get back to the level where they feel they belong.
However, despite the mood around Westleigh Park being a far more positive one these days, manager Lee Bradbury still doesn’t hide the heartbreak that he felt on that fateful day in April.
“It was awful,” Bradbury says. “We found ourselves in a position that, myself included up until about five games to go, didn’t think we’d ever be in.
“On the day we made mistakes but we made lots of mistakes over that season and we weren’t good enough. The table doesn’t lie.”
Bradbury has been Havant manager since 2012, and had reached the semi-finals of the FA Trophy, the National League South play-offs and won the Hampshire Senior Cup before last year’s disappointment.
It’s clear that Westleigh Park has become home for the ex-Bournemouth player and manager, and he is adamant that walking away from the club after relegation never crossed his mind.
“That just isn’t me. I don’t give up on anything. I stayed because I felt I owed it to the club to try and get it back where it belongs, which is Conference South and higher.
“You learn more in the times of adversity than you do when things are going well for you, I think. I certainly learnt a lot more last season about myself and about the game of football and the people in it than I did the two seasons before that when things were good.”
Although a few players were able to come out of last season with some pride – Scott Donnelly and James Hayter scored 31 goals between them – other members of the team failed to impress the gaffer.
“We had some good players last year but I just felt we got let down a little bit. Hence why, during the summer, I changed seven or eight bodies and put some fresh lads in here.”
One of those fresh lads is Jason Prior, a local striker who was pinched from promotion rivals Bognor Regis Town. The 27-year-old has already reached double figures in the scoring charts, having netted 19 times in league and cup.
“He’s won us games. But Jase will be the first one to say that it’s not down to him, it’s down to the team getting him the opportunities and keeping the clean sheets. He’s just the diamond in the crown.”
Prior’s goals have helped matters significantly, but Bradbury, who spent time at Portsmouth and Manchester City during his playing career, says that the fans have also got a hand in the club’s resurgence.
“Any good club in their times of need stick together and all pull in the same direction. Sometimes I don’t realise how much of an effect the fans can have. They don’t realise how much of an effect they can have.
“It’s really big that they keep supporting us through thick and thin and hopefully this year we can give them something to cheer about.”
While the support from the fans off the pitch has been unfaltering, the players on the pitch have had to adapt the way they play in order to suit the Isthmian League.
“Some teams play football, as in get the ball down and play passing football. Other teams go back to front pretty quickly with a big, strong, physical side. So you get all different aspects of the game which you have to deal with week in and week out, and that’s part of the test.
“No league is easy, certainly this one, and all we’ve concentrated on is game after game just trying to get the best out of the players and the team, and so far they’ve responded great.
“We’ve got our eye on coming as high as possible and that’s obviously first. We’ve looked out to achieve that since day one of pre-season and all of the boys have been geared up to pull towards that.”