Another Defeat for the Sports
Borough fail to get off the runway at Concord in a 2-1 defeat
Well, at least it keeps the season alive. Eastbourne Borough, once coasting in mid-table, edged closer to the National South relegation quicksand with a narrow defeat at Concord Rangers on Saturday – and from now, they are fighting for their National South lives.
Concord, no title candidates themselves, are an effective, uncomplicated side with plenty of self-belief – in fact, most things that Borough currently are not – and they extended their impressive league form, one defeat in the last fourteen games, with two early goals and some in-depth defending.
Concord's Aspect Arena is, perhaps, the National South's version of the Allianz Arena. You wind your way through housing estates to the ground, on the edge of Canvey Island, and the stiff breeze meets you from off the Estuary - indeed, the cameraman's scaffolding looks decidedly precarious on the far side of the pitch. With a ladder and some glasses, you can see to 'Ackney Marshes... No executive boxes, but there is a fine view of the action for any of the mobile-home owners whose properties overlook the playing area. Never mind: like Langney Sports, the Beachboys have grown from modest roots and there is a homely welcome from a club refreshingly free of airs and graces. And on the pitch, there is no denying the strong playing record of a home team who have lowered the colours of a number of top clubs this season.
Deprived of Jim Haran through suspension, Jamie deployed Haŕry Ransom at centre back, slotted Gavin McCallum into midfield, and gave debut to young Charlton Athletic pro Archie Edwards - who responded with a sensible display, growing into the game as it unfolded. It should have been a solid shape, designed not to concede. But, after an opening phase of probing and range-finding, the plans were undermined on just 12 minutes.
Rightly or wrongly, the focus was on referee Will Finnie. Every official makes judgement calls, and in the absence of clever VAR technology, we rely on them and always respect them. That doesn't quite mean that we always agree with them.... A Level Four referee at only 18, and promoted to the National South list this season at the age of just 22, Will is clearly being fast-tracked and you will hear his name again. On Saturday, his two penalty calls were brave ones.
Kiran Khinda-John's pass into midfield was cut out, and a smart ball in behind him found Ben Greenhalgh sprinting down the right. There was contact at shoulder height with Khinda-John, but no evident trip or tangled feet. In fact Greenhalgh appeared to stand on the ball, and Kiran nicked it away. But Mr Finnie must have seen something which others missed - including his assistant, whose flag did not flicker - and he blew instantly. Cricketers sometimes call it "triggered out..."
Greenhalgh himself despatched the penalty, and for the next few minutes Borough were up against it. Mark Smith -whose afternoon was close to faultless - saved excellently one-handed from Steve Cawley, and two successive corners were stoutly defended, but there was little forward progress other than one angled shot from Lloyd Dawes, well saved at the expense of a corner.
But Rangers were not to be denied, and on 22 minutes they doubled their lead. With the Sports seriously stretched at the back, Femi Akinwande raced down the left and found Cawley, whose shot was jointly blocked by Edwards and Smith but fell just right for Greenhalgh, and the Rangers striker smashed it into the net from ten yards out. You could almost hear the Borough hearts sinking like bricks in a water-butt.
The two dozen travelling loyalists, wearily used to seeing their heroes concede three or four in a game, feared the worst – but that proved to be the end of the Concord scoring. The remaining seventy minutes saw plenty of gutsy, if improvised, defending and a number of excellent saves by Mark Smith, who continues to earn his corn week by week in the keeper's jersey.
It was going forward that the Sports were a disappointment. They searched relentlessly for openings, moving the ball side to side, but passing football was hard work on a sticky surface, and Concord's deep-sitting midfield closed all the alleyways. When the Sports played longer, Lloyd Dawes chased his socks off, but partner Shaun Okojie made less impression, and was to be replaced at half-time by Yemi Odubade.
In fact Shaun's major moment came on 27 minutes, when he forced his way into the box and looked to be hauled down by a desperate defender, but Mr Finnie decided it was not enough to merit a penalty. Cue disbelief from the Eastbourne bench, and amused surprise from the home supporters.
A better spell of possession before half-time, with Torres and Wills busting a gut to get their team back in the game, did not disguise Borough's first half failings. Never mind second best, lamented one travelling fan - round about fifth best would be a better description. But with Odubade bringing immediate energy to the front line, the Sports began the second half with encouraging spirit.
Indeed, the half was to produce nine viable scoring chances, but only the last of those – on 87 minutes – found the net. Gavin McCallum's driving, veering run took him wide of the centre-backs and then in on goal. His low shot beat goalkeeper Louie Wells and was helped over the line by a defender.
Prior to that too-little-too-late strike, Wells had pulled off two magnificent saves, from Torres and then Dawes, and several merely excellent ones, to deny Borough a route back into the match. Even an enterprising change of shape, with Harris on for Simpemba, was not quite enough to retrieve a game that had essentially been lost in the first twenty minutes. So: a game of two halves, one dispiriting and the other quite spirited. A game of two penalties, one awarded and the other denied. But football is often about fine margins.
Trawl back through Borough's traumatic season so far, and you will struggle to find a single game won undeservedly, a single point gained on a faulty refereeing decision, or even a single game-changing decision which went their way. At a pinch, you might point to the late 1-0 winners at Truro City and at Bognor – but those were the reward for teamwork and tenacity. By contrast, a lot of key calls and marginal moments have gone against the Sports – including in very recent games. If Lady Luck had ever been riding shotgun alongside Howell, she jumped off the wagon a long way back.
However true that may be, Howell and his team must get back to forging their own luck. February brings four matches, all against bottom-half teams and a decent haul of points would be a huge step to safety. Nothing like a challenge, lads...