Only Woe in Essex
Eastbourne Borough slipped to the season's heaviest League defeat on Saturday, well beaten by 5-1 at promotion chasers Chelmsford City on an afternoon to forget.
To be precise, (writes Kevin Anderson) it was Borough's equal heaviest defeat - having lost by exactly the same score at Priory Lane in September. With an aggregate of 10-2, Arsenal and FC Bayern come to mind. To compound an unhappy day, manager Tommy Widdrington was sent off for protesting a decision just after half-time, and centre-back Kiran Khinda-John earned a second yellow after the final whistle.
Scratching for the positives is about as rewarding as looking for the plastic toy in the cereal packet. Two of Chelmsford's five goals did come directly from refereeing errors, while the Sports had only one goal to show from a number of well-crafted chances. But on the overall balance of play, Borough were second best.
Melbourne Park, lovingly called the Gulag by the City regulars, is an odd place to play football. The club boasts more blazers than most, as well as a mix of genial and knowledgeable spectators in the grandstand and a more volatile behind-the-goal crew. An athletics stadium ringed by high forbidding fences, towered over by a huge clanking-metal grandstand, with one of the goals jostling for position with a hammer cage, it can feel quite intimidating; and the tight, bumpy playing surface does not favour pretty football.
But the locals this season are loving it. Manager Rod Stringer has assembled a side designed for promotion - big, experienced, uncompromising - and there were times on Saturday when Borough must have felt blown away.
Without the unavailable Elliott Romain, Tommy paired Jamie Taylor up front with Nat Pinney, and for Gavin McCallum there was a first start since recovering from last Novermber's broken elbow. While City's starting line-up included nine six-footers, the Sports had just three - one of whom, Bouwe Bosma, lasted only three minutes before a leg injury at an early Borough corner forced his substitution by Ryan Worrall.
Ryan held his own alongside Mark Hughes but - as elsewhere in the team - the youth-experience balance was a precarious one. Much has been said, quite correctly, about the excellent progress of younger squad members this season. This is a young, often exciting side, but the National South can be tough and unforgiving.
The Clarets drew first blood on just eight minutes. Elliott Buchanan's half-hit shot from a long throw was scudding wide until Dickson appeared from behind the defence to scramble it into the net at the back post.
For the next half-hour the Sports at least kept an even keel. Pinney's centre was neatly set up by Taylor for Baptista, whose shot was charged down. Then Gavin conjured another superb cross from the left to the far post, where full-back Bagasan Graham stop-volleyed it into the hands of goalkeeper Ross Fitzsimons. A back-pass ruling might have been harsh, but - on an afternoon when all the marginal decisions went against Borough - it was a close one.
Referee Paul Kelly, having run the game without a single free-kick for the first 23 minutes, now started making amends, bizarrely penalising Shaun Hobson for a foul when he was clearly the injured party. Cue chuckles all round from the friendly locals, but only scowls from the Eastbourne technical area. It was to get worse later...
But on 37 minutes Borough self-destructed. Indecision between Hobson and Carey on a high bouncing ball permitted Dickson to steal in and knock the ball past them and into an empty net. This match was already a tough enough assignment without gifting goals to the home side.
In fairness, although Lewis Carey was to concede five by the end of the afternoon, he also had five superb saves to his name. The first had come just before that second goal with a breathtaking reflex stop from Josh Rees, and there were more to come in the second half.
The closing minutes of the first half had seen golden chances at each end, Dickson hitting the post when clean through, and then Pinney one-on-one with Fitzsimons, who gambled right and denied the Borough striker with a flung-out arm.
Two goals down at the break, and still battling manfully, the Sports were certainly still afloat. But four minutes into the second half, they were holed below the waterline when - right in front of the dug-outs - Kiran Khinda-John took the ball cleanly with a text-book tackle, Buchanan fell over him, and Mr Kelly ludicrously awarded a Chelmsford free-kick. It was, simply, an incorrect decision, but from Willmoth's wicked free-kick Dickson nipped ahead of Carey and put City 3-0 up. An incensed Widdrington volleyed his opinions at Mr Kelly and was immediately sent off.
Eastbourne's response on the pitch was brave. Mark Hughes - battling as ever, on one of his former grounds - had burrowed his way right through the defence and was stopped by a goalmouth tackle. Then Taylor, through on the left, was stopped at the expense of a Chelmsford yellow card, and Baptista's searching free-kick only earned a corner.
There was a Borough goal on this agenda, and it came on 62 minutes. Good work by Hare and Baptista on the right produced a diagonal cross, deflected on the way through, which McCallum converted at the back post for 3-1. A moment of cheer, at least, for the dedicated two dozen Borough fans who had made the trip - but as the Spring sunshine weakened, the goal was only a false dawn.
City had wobbled just a little, but that man Dickson restored the three-goal lead with a rasping solo goal, running on to a perfect diagonal pass beyond a stretched Borough back line and shooting across Carey into the far left corner.
And with three substitutes repopulating the Land of Claret Giants, Chelmsford never loosened their grip. As the game entered stoppage time, Carey made a fabulous point-blank stop from Louie Theophanous and the ball was cleared out of play off a City player - but the throw-in went incorrectly to the home side and at the second attempt Theophanous did beat Carey for 5-1, making Chelmsford the fourth opposing club for whom the wandering striker has scored against the Sports.
It should have been all over, but after the final whistle Khinda-John - booked earlier in the game - exchanged opinions with Mr Kelly and was sent off, condemned to exit the field through the Melbourne Stadium's Walk of Shame - an iron-fenced passageway from pitch to dressing rooms, with massed home fans pressed against the railings and hurling their scorn.
An afternoon best forgotten, then. Borough's better side has been often on show in recent games, with enterprising, creative play. But you do, as they say, have to earn the right to play, and against formidable opposition like Chelmsford, it was a task too far.
Borough: Carey; Hare, Khinda-John, Hobson, Stone; Baptista (Street 84), Hughes, Bosma (Worrall 6), McCallum (Oxlade-Chamberlain 66); Pinney, Taylor. Unused subs: Simpemba, Horlock.
Referee: Paul Kelly Att 821
Borough MoM: Mark Hughes - an old head in the youthful ranks.
(This report is the personal view of the game by correspondent Kevin Anderson, and does not necessarily reflect the views of EBFC)