Sports Win Through in Hunger Games
Some games are won with style, flair or brilliance – and some just have to be ground out.....
.....Eastbourne Borough’s victory at Hungerford on Saturday was definitely one of the latter sort.
The simple scoreline of a football match does not always tell the story. 1-0, and a penalty to decide the outcome. Starved of goals in Hungerford? Well, this was no feast of football, but there were enough tasty and contentious moments to keep supporters entertained – and the final phase was genuinely exciting.
With McCallum and Odubade both still injured, Jamie Howell named an unchanged starting line-up for the first time this season. Drage and Khinda-John were assured at centre-back: Kiran is sometimes the forgotten man of the Sports line-up, but he adds stature in every sense and is playing still beyond his years. Full-backs Hendon and Redwood both enjoyed their share of foraging forward. Torres drove the side fearlessly from central midfield, with Wills and Harris either side of him. The Taylor-Dawes partnership continued up front, with Willard wide.
Hungerford – at under 6,000 the smallest community to host National South football – is a photogenic and quietly affluent town, but the coach ride through its pleasant High Street comes to a shuddering halt when you reach the park and the football ground, for this was the scene of a dreadful massacre on a peaceful August day in 1987, when Michael Ryan took sixteen innocent lives with his shotgun. A muted memorial on the park gates reminds us that football is never more important than life or death.
The football club itself is modest and homely, and its quirky Bulpit Lane ground is a total hotch-potch of non-League architecture. A slope from top right to bottom left is a little gentler than Whitehawk’s, but still a challenge to visiting teams, and the groundsman has left the grass lush and long. A couple of dozen Borough loyalists have made the journey, to supplement a crowd of not much over 200. And so the scene is set: what about that story?
Well, whatever the respective managers had planned, the script was torn up after just five minutes. The home defence was already reeling from a thunderous Sports attack as Jamie Taylor retrieved his own first blocked shot and cracked a second volley that was bound for the top corner until the raised arm of Diak John stopped it: a clear penalty, but the Crusaders were aghast when referee Robert Massey-Ellis produced a red card. Under current guidelines he was fully justified, but it was hard for Hungerford to take.
Up stepped Lloyd Dawes, whose right-foot shot was splendidly saved by Lewis Ward, Town’s towering giant of a goalkeeper on loan from Reading. It was a lifebelt in the current for Hungerford, who now had a mere 85 minutes to hold out with ten men.
For almost all of that time, Borough now stormed the Crusaders’ citadel – but with no breakthrough. Half a dozen golden chances before half-time, and a clutch of half-chances, underlined their dominance, but the Borough finishing was often wayward. “That’s actually a good, chiselled-out victory. We controlled the match and had enough chances to win three matches,” commented Howell afterwards. “But there were times when you could have thrown three balls on to the pitch at once and we’d not have put one of them in the net.”
It was not for want of trying. Hungerford found Harley Willard’s pace a nightmare to contain, and his supply from the left was menacing but the finishing touch from his strikers was missing. Willard himself missed a good chance in each half, blazing both efforts too high. Dawes also shook off the penalty miss and was proving a real handful, curling one sweet volley just past the back post.
Matt Drage, joining the party from centre-back, finished off a 20-pass move with a low shot that was blocked, and he then played in Taylor – who was a model of tight control and invention all afternoon – but Ward was out smartly to smother the striker’s shot.
The home keeper saved his best for the end of the first half, stretching to push Charlie Harris’s missile of a shot away from the top corner – an unbelievable save. And right on half-time, with Borough starting to wonder if they would ever get the breakthrough, Torres found Dawes, who caught Ward stranded out of his box with an inventive forty-yarder, but it cleared the crossbar by inches.
Willard opened the second half with the second of his high-and-over attempts, and then a minute later he was on target, but found Ward in just the right place. The Sports won a dozen corners in total – to Hungerford’s two – and five of them came in five minutes just after half-time, but delivery was often faulty, and the manager will no doubt have made a note for some work in training this week…
Leon Redwood produced a magnificent intercepting tackle to prevent the Crusaders from pinching a shock lead on a rare home break-out, and both Redwood and Will Hendon were lively in the wide positions as they strove to support their forwards. Willard’s cross was knocked down to Dawes, whose volley drew yet another fine save from Ward, and then JT felled Gareth Thomas with a piledriver shot into the centre-half’s midriff. Taking one for the team? It was like the Alamo.
But the minutes were draining away, and Hungerford were glimpsing an unlikely point. In a box full of bodies, Taylor somehow conjured space for a shot on the turn but only found the side netting, and Ryan Worrall, on for Harris, struck a low shot wide from a Dawes set. The final fifteen minutes – and then high drama.
Taylor’s ball across the goalmouth found Torres eight yards out, and the Borough skipper was bundled over from behind by Ian Herring. It looked a clear penalty – but tell that to the locals. Amid scathing abuse, Mr Massey-Ellis booked Herring and then also Rhys Tyler, and after an achingly long delay Drage stepped up and whacked the spot-kick into the bottom corner.
So, finally, the Crusaders were put to the sword. But the final minutes saw the Sports under pressure as never before in the match. Howell steeled his defensive midfield with substitutes Simpemba and Ransom, Bailey Vose was secure and confident in goal, and despite a couple of close calls Borough held on for the victory. Just get the coach engine running, Jim…
Borough: Vose; Hendon, Khinda-John, Drage, Redwood; Wills, Torres, Harris; Dawes, Taylor, Willard. Unused subs: Plummer, Charman.
Referee: Rob Massey-Ellis Att: 227
Borough MoM: Matt Drage – strong in defence and held his nerve for the penalty