Sports Stand Up Strong at East Thurrock
Rain, wind, mud - and a vital point - for Borough as the youngsters shine at Rookery Hill
The beautiful game was unglamorous and rather mud-spattered at a wintry East Thurrock on Saturday, where Eastbourne Borough battled to another precious point towards survival in a 0-0 draw.
East Thurrock United have punched above their weight since gaining promotion to National South, and good for them. A division which has historically been dominated by clubs with grandiose plans, and thousands of pounds to spend on the wage budget, is all the better for clubs like the Rocks – the modest but friendly face of non-League. How many other clubs welcome travel-weary away fans with a great big tray of chicken and chips, on the house?
Through the Dartford Tunnel we had rumbled, for the umpteenth time this season. Then a swift right turn, out across the flatlands of the Essex Estuary, with giant silhouetted cranes and skeletal power pylons, stark against the sky like an LS Lowry painting or a Fritz Lang movie. The unassuming Rookery Hill ground is tucked away just off the dual carriageway: blink and you miss it. And Big John at the wheel of the supporters' minibus must have blinked, so the Borough loyalists enjoyed a second viewing of the landscape as John missed the turn and had to trundle round again.... (Oh and yes, that's Rookery Hill/The Futurefuel Stadium in the photo at the top. We just had a slightly smaller crowd!)
Rocks boss John Coventry had admitted in his match preview that he expected Borough to be up for this one – but that they might find the pitch a challenge! He was not wrong. Even before kick-off, the surface looked a grimy mix of green and brown, and it was already cutting up in the players' warm-up – not to mention the Under 10s match mascots and their penalty games in the goalmouth. In the absence of floodlights until after half-time, it created a gloomy parks-football scene. But once under way, the teams did their level best to light up the action.
Highlights? Of a 0-0 draw in mud, driving wind and pouring rain? Well, considering the battering that both the pitch and the players were taking, the match actually wasn't that bad. There was a lot of effort and a fair amount of excitement, and both sides earned credit for taking on the conditions. Referee Wayne Cartmel, another of the new generation of fresh-faced young officials, was assured on the whistle. There were no yellow cards, and the total fouls count did not reach double figures.
Many of Borough's failings this season have been at the back, but Jamie Howell's bold selection of the youngest back five in National South was impressively successful. A full debut at right back for Matt Pickering, who kept his nerve admirably and grew stronger by the minute; a classy and enterprising Archie Edwards at left-back, the best game yet for the Charlton loanee; and a centre-half pairing of Harry Ransom and James Haran who played like experienced pros, confident and commanding. And behind them, keeper Mark Smith, a veteran at 22, who looks week by week as if he could stop a runaway bus with one hand while holding a mug of tea in the other.
In front of them, Borough certainly edged it on possession and pressure and probably on chances, although East Thurrock came to life in shortish spells - including stoppage time, which was a genuinely heart-s...topping four minutes! The whole midfield were busy, Kane Wills and Sergio Torres doing the gritty stuff, Gavin McCallum terrific on the left (and for some spells the right) in conditions not ideal for him, and Charlie Harris getting more right than wrong. Yemi Odubade and Lloyd Dawes foraged persistently, and on another day both would have been on the scoresheet.
First-half failings: persistently hitting the passes too long with a stiff following wind, and careless delivery into the box from promising positions. One Smith clearance almost qualified as a shot on goal... It's also a postage stamp of a pitch at Rookery Hill, and the home side are naturally more used to its dimensions! Second-half failings: none really, except perhaps a couple of moments of hesitation or over-complication in front of goal.
Best chances: not many in the first half, for either side. The Rocks boast the division's top marksman in the bulky figure of Sam Higgins, who may not be the nippiest of strikers, but if someone forges the bullets, Sam will fire them. With the lively Lewis Smith alongside, Higgins had one good chance blocked on 27 minutes, but he otherwise failed to trouble the scorers until midway through the second half, when Mark Smith pulled off a terrific stop from his angled blaster.
The Sports came close early on when Ransom's header from a Harris free-kick was deflected wide, and on the half-hour the pass of the match from Wills, a sweeping forty-yarder out to the left, found McCallum skipping into the box, but his flick to Odubade was intercepted. And Wills himself hit a screamer from distance just wide of the left post.
After half-time there were several openings, getting closer and closer as the match went on. With conditions worsening by the minute, the home forwards had by now abandoned artistry for a thundering-hooves direct approach, and they did create two or three scary moments for Smith and his defenders on breakaways.
But it was the Sports who were pressing for a winner. Jamie Taylor – on for Yemi in an impressive final quarter – teed himself up for a low skimming shot from 25 yards which was arrowing inside the left post, until the cloying mud slowed it just enough for Lidakevicius to push the ball round the post at full stretch. Gavin - right-footed! - was a fraction wide of the same post with Lithuanian Lid beaten.
Stoppage time arrived, and suddenly both teams were going for broke. Substitute striker Shaun Okojie had two efforts blocked for corners and one glancing header hacked away. Then East Thurrock fluffed two half-chances before - on 93 minutes - Gavin broke, cut in from the right and hit an absolute scorcher which drew a super reflex save from Lidakevicius, touching it onto the crossbar. All matches have a might-have-been moment, and that was it.
If there is such a thing as a winning-draw, this was one. Ominously, three or four other clubs below and around Borough picked up points - but this was a well-earned point from a tough trip, and the squad is in great heart and great shape. Onward to Poole Town next weekend.
Borough: Smith; Pickering, Ransom, Haran, Edwards; Harris (Johnson 88), Wills, Torres, McCallum; Dawes (Okojie 81), Odubade (Taylor 75). Unused subs: Simpemba, Khinda-John.
Referee: Wayne Cartmel Att: a hardy 215 including two dozen from Borough
Borough MoM: Harry Ransom – old head on young shoulders