Five new opponents will feature on Eastbourne Borough’s fixture list when the new National South season opens, but who on earth will they play on Boxing Day?
The relegation of Sussex rivals Whitehawk and Bognor Regis Town has left the Sports without a local derby – and indeed, no National South opposition within fifty miles of Priory Lane. The Hawks, and before them Lewes, have provided the festive football opposition in recent seasons, but this time round, Borough may be looking at a trip to Dulwich Hamlet in South London, or to Dartford or Welling United up in North Kent.
The massively supported Hamlet, together with the massively funded Billericay Town, arrive as promoted clubs from the Bostik Premier. They are joined by Slough Town, up from the Southern League, and by two big names from the National League. Old adversaries Woking slipped to relegation on the last day of the season, while Torquay United have floundered their way down the leagues to National South.
The visit of the Gulls will revive special memories of one of Priory Lane’s great nights – a marvellous match under floodlights in December 2008 when the Sports, with Ashley Barnes on fire, demolished Torquay 4-2 in the then Conference Premier. A decade on, Jamie Howell’s current Borough side will find themselves with something to live up to….
Relegated along with the Hawks and the Rocks are Poole Town. Havant go up as champions, joined by Braintree Town, who finished seventh - seventeen points adrift of second-placed Dartford - but edged out Hampton and Richmond on penalties in last Sunday's play-off final.
Borough’s players – and of course their faithful travelling supporters – will clock up well over 5,000 miles on the road next season.
Meanwhile, back at base camp, manager Howell will be busy reshaping his squad. “We know where and how we want to strengthen,” said Jamie this week. “Things are happening behind the scenes but we won’t be rushing headlong, and the club never speculates before deals are finalised. So the fans will need to be patient with us!”
Howell was encouraged last week by a surge in potential recruits for the club’s Academy, which he himself heads alongside Ian Simpemba. “We have had over forty lads attending the trials and it’s an exciting time. I can also confirm that the club is making active plans to field an Under-21 side next season, which would profitably bridge the gap between Academy and the National South side. Players do not suddenly stop developing and learning at eighteen, and Under-21s would be a logical next step.”
Updated 23:16 - 17 May 2018 by Tom Harris