Sports hopes dashed at Dartford
Terrific fightback not quite enough to save a point
Life after Widdrington? Eastbourne Borough were anything but lifeless in a cracking contest at Dartford on Saturday, coming home with nothing to show for their efforts in a pulsating 4-3 defeat.
With only 13 fit senior players, including two goalkeepers, coach Hugo Langton had limited options and the starting eleven virtually picked itself. Kiran Khinda-John slotted across to full-back and Ian Simpemba returned at centre-back. Up front Reece Connolly had his first start, and in goal Lewis Carey replaced Jordan Holmes, a concussion victim the previous week against Wealdstone.
It was the Darts, eager to secure a play-off place, who struck early. An offside decision, incorrectly given against the inactive Taylor through an apparent misunderstanding between referee and assistant, gifted the home side a free-kick, and as the move developed, Andy Pugh was played in all too easily to stroke a shot inside the left-hand post.
Ten minutes gone and already a goal down, Borough needed to show some steel, but it was not easy. Dartford are not the flashiest side but they are quick, strong and effective. A basic 4-4-2 serves them well, with the right players in the right places, and wide players Wanadio and Hayes have the pace to turn any opponent.
But it got steadily better for the Sports. Gavin McCallum, tireless all afternoon and the best player on either side, hit one range-finder wide of the left post, and then he combined with Stone to set up a fierce Ryan Worrall strike from the D, which deflected into the arms of Gibraltar international keeper Derren Ibrahim.
Then just past the half-hour the Sports nicked an equaliser. Taylor exchanged neat passes with Oxlade-Chamberlain and jinked into the left side of the box to strike a low shot which Ibrahim should have covered, but Mark Hughes nipped ahead of him to score. In a free-scoring, often exhilarating season this was Borough's 100th competitive goal, and in the spirit of recent weeks, they wanted more...
McCallum carved his own path from halfway line to penalty area and smashed a rising shot which Ibrahim brilliantly touched away from the top corner, and a shaken Dartford side suddenly realised they were in a very real contest. But just three minutes before the break, Borough’s defensive failings undermined their fightback. Luke Wanadio skipped in from the left touchline, and with no defender closing him down he curled the sweetest of shot into the top right corner.
With Bosma on for Oxlade-Chamberlain, Eastbourne came back out strongly, passing and keeping the ball much better, and Worrall nipped behind the home defence for a cross which was hooked away. Then from Stone’s throw the home centre-backs fluffed their clearance straight to McCallum, who miscued.
But the great come-back stalled almost before it had started. Hayes robbed Stone on half-way, and Dartford raced forward three-on-three, and with the Borough trio frantically regrouping Hayes surged on and on to strike a low shot past Carey from the edge of the box.
Two minutes later it was 4-1. Another weaving Hayes run had the Borough defence all a-scramble, and Elliott Bradbrook pounced to stab the ball in from very close range and give his side what should have been a decisive lead.
Should have been. But the Sports, at a crossroads in the match and possibly even in the season’s run-in, produced a splendid and spirited final half-hour. Travelling supporters who briefly feared a cave-in were heartened to see their heroes playing, well, heroically.
It started with a reshuffle, switching Stone from left to right, reshaping the back line, and giving McCallum the freedom of midfield. And it was McCallum – showing how the side missed him during his long injury lay-off – who lit the blue touch-paper. Winning the ball in the centre circle, he shimmied right, veered left and fizzed a shot across the keeper and into the bottom right corner.
4-2, and still plenty of time. Just two minutes later Hobson – who enjoyed a terrific second half – drilled in a deep diagonal cross from the left and Connolly was sent flying by centre-back Tom Bonner for a nailed-on penalty and a yellow card. It was rueful justice for the big Borough striker, who had spent all afternoon pinned in armlocks and pincer holds by the home centre-backs – and who had a very credible penalty appeal turned down just before Dartford’s fourth goal. Ian Rathbone is best described as a light-touch referee, perhaps looking to let a game flow, but in practice giving players licence to foul.
But this time, at least, Mr Rathbone was spot on, and so was Ryan Worrall, stepping up to despatch the penalty confidently into the corner. 4-3 now, and a bemused Dartford side were still trying to figure out, as an American President might say, what the hell was going on. As Borough pressed forward for the equaliser, Darts manager Tony Burman finally twigged, and reshaped his own side into a 4-5-1 to contain McCallum and the Borough warriors around him.
That equaliser should actually have come within two minutes of the penalty, Jamie Taylor ghosting his way into the area from the right but finishing with a tame left-footed shot which Ibrahim collected easily. Taylor, now in the thick of it, was fouled for a free-kick which Connolly headed wide, and then JT tortured the home defence into conceding a corner, which Worrall sent fizzing right across the goalmouth without any player getting a touch.
Dartford responded with two corners of their own, but that was only a brief respite from the storm of Borough attacks. Mark Hughes fired over when Ibrahim could only punch out a Stone cross, but still the Darts protected their paper-thin lead.
Into stoppage time we went, and the drained but relentless Sports somehow conjured three more chances in the three added minutes. McCallum almost replicated his earlier goal but fired a foot wide of the post, Taylor was played in with only the keeper to beat but could not get a clean touch as the ball bounced, and Simpemba headed Carey’s free-kick wide.
The final whistle brought relief for the home side, but only acclaim for the battling Sports players, out on their feet, empty-handed, but proud of a performance which had won back their self-respect.
Borough: Carey; Khinda-John, Simpemba, Hobson, Stone; Oxlade-Chamberlain (Bosma 46), Hughes, Worrall, McCallum; Connolly, Taylor. Unused subs: Horlock, Ransom, Tate, Crittenden.
Referee: Ian Rathbone Att: 958
Borough MoM: Gavin McCallum – back to his talented best