Sports held in another Priory Lane thriller
Exciting on the eye, costly on the league placings. Eastbourne Borough conceded a late goal at Priory Lane on Saturday, to share the points with Hampton and Richmond Borough in a pulsating 2-2 draw.
Yet again, the Sports gained a little less than they deserved. Beaten only once now in seven, they should be climbing the National South table - but drawn games are leaving them wading against the tide. It is hollow consolation that, once again, the Sports proved easily as good as a side with play-off ambitions. The table shows only results.
Ahead of Tuesday's scheduled visit to Whitehawk, the result left Borough in a sort of perfect balance, thirteen points above the relegation places and thirteen short of the play-offs. Relegation is irrelevant, for other clubs are in freefall while Tommy Widdrington's side are in really good shape. But the Borough manager knows that recent results have damaged, and possibly even scuppered, the chances of a big finish to the season.
"How many times have I said it? My team will always score goals, but we have to find a better solution to keeping the ball out of the back of our goal. I've just said to them in the dressing room, if they don't want to do the ugly bits, don't turn up for selection next week!
"We had put ourselves in a really good position, with the opportunity to push on. But as in other recent games we have given points back to the opposition."
Mid-table, perhaps. Mediocrity, certainly not. A cracking ninety minutes of football, swaying back and forth, gave the 581 spectators rich entertainment. Hampton - also chasing a play-off place - played a full part and on balance they were worth their point. The standard of National South football has never been higher, and the new Priory Lane surface is enhancing creative passing football. "Who needs the Amex?" asked one Sports regular with a grin as spectators trooped away.
Just two minutes in, a dazzling Miguel Baptista run set up Alex Smith for a cross-shot which fizzed past the far post. Then former Borough player Nathan Collier did well to clear a long cross after more great work by Baptista and Josh Hare.
Elliott Romain pounded clear of the Beavers defence but keeper Sam Howes snatched the ball from him right on the 18-yard line. And Christian Oxlade-Chamberlain - who enjoyed his best game yet in a Borough shirt - broke from defence on a superb ghosting fifty-yard run, but from it Ryan Case hit the cross too long.
Hampton, although on the back foot in these early minutes, were defending well and starting to counter. Shaquille Hippolyte-Patrick, who might just have the longest name in football, also has long legs and lots of pace, and his driving run on the right won a corner for Beavers, claimed bravely by Jordan Holmes under some painful pressure from Hampton's squadron of six-footers. Referee Howard saw no foul, but Holmes needed treatment before continuing.
Back and forth swung the game, and a sublime pass from the Ox freed Hare, whose low cross was met by Smith with a goalbound shot, deflected for a corner off a defender's boot. When would the breakthrough come, and at which end?
Hampton, swift, athletic and always happy to play long, set striker Christian Jolley clean through - aided by what looked like a foul by his partner Alfie Pavey on Ian Simpemba - but Holmes saved the day with a terrific double save as the Sports scrambled back. Then Shaquille won a dubious free-kick which the busy Holmes punched clear.
The list of marginal decisions was getting longer, and on 34 minutes Brendan Kiernan wove into the home penalty area and found a convenient leg to tumble over. Contact seemed minimal, if at all - and even a Hampton official called the decision generous - but referee Paul Howard awarded the spot kick. Tom Jelley sent Holmes the wrong way, and the Beavers were 1-0 up.
Borough responded strongly, and a minute before half-time they were level. Just as last week at Hemel, Mark Hughes met a Baptista corner with an emphatic header. Hughes has richly repaid Widdrington's decision to sign him in the summer - not least with his goals - and this was another influential game for the combative midfielder.
But in another, more disquieting echo of the Hemel game, Baptista was again to be the target for some crude challenges by opponents, twice needing second-half treatment after heavy challenges - the second not actually given as a foul.
As play resumed after the break, the Sports were quick to pick up momentum again. Nat Pinney conjured his way into the box and reached the goal-line but chipped his effort into the keeper's arms. Then after Romain was fouled in the D, Hare's free-kick was blocked and the recycled cross was headed too high by Hughes.
There had to be a goal soon. Another Baptista corner swung right across an inviting goalmouth but nobody got the touch. At the other end, Hare cleared Jolley's goalbound shot with inches to spare, but overall the force was with Borough.
On 69 minutes, Hughes sent Smith racing clear with a lovely diagonal ball, and the winger's cross was headed brilliantly back across goal by Pinney to put the Sports 2-1 ahead.
A Hampton double substitution brought fresh legs up front - including former Whitehawk front man Duncan Culley, a ruffler of feathers who immediately managed unpunished fouls on both Borough centre-backs. Meanwhile Beavers midfielder Harold Odametey, already booked, escaped a second yellow by the skin of his teeth after a deliberate spoiling foul on Elliott Romain, as the Sports threatened another swift attacking move.
By now Widdrington and his touchline staff were smouldering - even at one point turning in despair to the press bench, as if to say - tell it plain to the public out there...!
Certainly, Tom. Referees are only human, but they do owe managers and players consistency and good judgement. And all parties owe each other honesty. Officials at this level, without replay analysis, are the victims of players - some, not all - who play-act, con referees and win cheap free-kicks. The Sports are among the few exceptions, and thankfully we do not see the likes of Pinney, Taylor or Romain taking tumbles. But that honesty, with fallible refereeing, is costing the team precious points....
There were late chances for Romain and substitute Craig Stone to seal a Borough victory, but, later still, the visitors snatched their point. On 89 minutes, a right-wing corner was cleared but hooked by Federico straight back into the danger zone, where Culley flicked a header into the top right corner, despite the desperate clawing efforts of Holmes.
In stoppage time, Hampton might even have stolen all three points. Culley struck a fierce volley with winning goal stamped on it, but this time Holmes stretched up and across to pull off a magnificent save. Only a draw, then. Never mind the width, feel the quality.
Borough: Holmes; Hare, Simpemba, Khinda-John, Case; Baptista (Stone 83), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Hughes, Smith; Pinney, Romain. Unused subs: Street, Carey, Hobson, Bosma.
Referee: Paul Howard Att: 581
Borough MoM: Mark Hughes - once again the team's driving force
(This report is the personal view of correspondent Kevin Anderson, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the club.)