Hapless in Herts: Sports Slip to Away Defeat
Borough caught cold at rampant Hemel Hempstead
End of the season? The sooner the better. Oil those stoolball bats, string the tennis racquets; even a spot of beach cricket will be welcome relief for Jamie Howell's Eastbourne Borough after another defeat in the National South on Saturday.
In fairness, there is – at time of writing – one more very important fixture to fulfil, when Chelmsford City visit the Lane. Without the slightest doubt, Jamie's men will be professional to the core – and, given the ups and downs of the season – nobody would rule out a dramatic end to the season, and even the sort of stoppage-time excitement which brought last season to a close. (Remember St Albans? 2-2 and seconds to play? And the Ox in the box strikes a brilliant winner! We'll settle for something like that, boys....)
A 3-0 reverse at promotion-chasing Hemel Hempstead was actually far from a rout, but it was typical of many Sports performances since last August: good football undermined by crucial slips in both penalty areas. They have fast become everyone's favourite opponents, as one Hemel director expressed on Saturday: "You are very nice people, you played plenty of lovely football, but you didn't really scare us."
The Sports have often played well, occasionally very well, and Howell visibly has the core of a successful team. His side owe this season's league survival to a few scintillating home displays and a greater number of spirited and hard-working away victories. But this wasn't one of them.
Although Eastbourne's National South status had been secured in midweek, this game was absolutely not a dead rubber. Hemel are among the form teams, with just one defeat (away to Dartford) in the last twelve games – and desperate to finish as high in the play-off places as possible. They were like racehorses straining at the tape, and this would be no end-of-season canter. Borough had no option but to stay with whatever pace they set.
Deprived of Gavin McCallum with a thigh strain, Jamie Howell had some tricky selection options. Start with three strikers? Or focus on a bolstered defensive screen across the midfield? Wisdom after the event is all too clever (and this reporter is not claiming any special wisdom) but neither option had a proper answer to the Hemel threat. The Sports began with Charlie Harris and Yemi Odubade in the wider midfield positions, and Jamie Taylor partnering Lloyd Dawes up front. There was some decent place-changing, with Yemi often spearing forward and with JT – who put in a real shift – sometimes looking to conjure something from midfield.
But it was at the back that Borough suffered. Young right-back Matt Pickering was frequently left unprotected and trying to handle two attackers, as the Tudors poured forward again and again on their left flank. Some may feel that Pickering, isolated and a long way from the Borough technical area, deserved better. All the Hemel goals – including the third which was a very late, scrambled irrelevance – came from that left flank.
Motorway closures had meant a gruelling journey to Hertfordshire, and then the kick-off was bizarrely delayed when – with the teams lined up and ready – the ground staff struggled in vain to switch off the massive sprinklers which had been soaking the lower half of the Hemel slope for the previous half-hour.
Ominously, the home side chose to play down that favoured slope, and within four minutes they were ahead. A swift move down the left produced a dangerous cross which Borough headed out, but only to the foot of Stuart McCall, whose immaculate volley seared across Mark Smith and just inside the left post.
Conceding an early goal is never in the game plan, and the Sports looked really rocky for a while. But they steadily winched themselves back into the game and should have been level when Jamie Taylor broke like lightning to play in Yemi Odubade, whose scorching cross-shot marginally missed the far post.
Even so, the signs were encouraging. Kane Wills was at the hub of two useful moves both of which ended with overpassing, when a shot on goal looked the better option.
Hemel, though, were full of pace especially on their left flank, where young Borough full-back Matt Pickering was repeatedly being exposed two-to-one. On the half-hour, before Eastbourne could find an answer, another left-wing delivery found Jordan Parkes racing in with a power header for 2-0.
Parks, once again showing the consummate skills which make him arguably the best midfielder in the division, was running the show for the home side, and the last minutes of the first half saw Borough struggling even to get out of their own half.
Something had to change, and it did. Howell replaced Pickering and James Haran with Ian Simpemba and Kiran Khinda-John, and the extra leadership and physical presence gave the Sports a better shape and strength. For most of the second half, they controlled the ball and probed repeatedly for an opening back into the game.
Lloyd Dawes had been only a shadow of a striker before the break, but he now looked much livelier and drew a good save from home keeper Walker with a surging run and shot. Then a foraging Khinda-John forced two successive corners, and the Sports seemed to be inching back into the game. A huge chance came, and went, on 74 minutes, when Odubade's inch-perfect cross beat the centre-back and found substitute Shaun Okojie – who glanced his header just inches wide. Then Taylor saw his missile of a shot from 25 yards punched away by Walker.
After the pallid first 45 minutes, this had been several notches better. But Hemel now needed only to sit tight and claim the precious play-off points, but they added insult to injury with a final goal on 81 minutes, Alex Osborn scrambling the ball in from within the six-yard box after Joe Howe had squeezed a pass through defenders' legs from the byline.
It had not exactly been a feast of football, and that scrubby goal summed it up. Despite some Tudors time-wasting, genial referee Matty Buonassissi marred a flawless afternoon on the whistle by allowing barely two minutes of stoppage time – but truthfully, nobody minded.
Borough: Smith; Pickering (Khinda-John 46), Ransom, Haran (Simpemba 46), Hendon; Harris (Okojie 65), Wills, Torres, Odubade; Dawes, Taylor. Unused subs: Briggs, Platt.
Referee: Matty Buonassissi Att: 583
Borough MoM: Sergio Torres