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1st XI - Match centre

Dartford
Eastbourne Borough
Sat 8 Sep 15:00 - The Vanarama National League - Vanarama National League South Full time Attendance 1,005

Stoppage-time Goal Thwarts the Sports

A point is scant reward for Borough's accomplished team performance

Every minute counts. Leading 2-1 into stoppage time, Eastbourne Borough saw two points cruelly snatched from them by hosts Dartford, who forced a 93rd minute equaliser.

The better side, yes, with the better chances, and more of them. Despite another penalty misfortune, as well as a buffeting from a home side who collected five cautions – including a double yellow for Charlie Sheringham – Borough had kept their heads through the ninety minutes. But from one last corner-kick, an almighty goalmouth scramble allowed Elliott Bradbrook to hook in the equaliser.

“When that Dartford goal goes in, you only feel deflation,” rued manager Jamie Howell afterwards. “We paid a price for not killing the game off at 2-1. But put it in perspective – this is a really difficult place to come, and those were really tough opponents out there. If you’d offered me a point beforehand, I’d have taken it.”

The truth is that Howell’s team are setting the bar higher now. Beaten just once in nine starts, they have long since shaken off the no-hopers tag, and expectations have risen. The fifty or sixty travelling supporters, seasoned and philosophical after years of following the Borough, would dearly have loved the three points this time. But, in this new Howell era, the fans are fully onside, and there was warm appreciation at the final whistle.

The Howell style of quick movement and smart, angled passing often plays to fine margins, but – especially on fast flat September surfaces – it is working well. Dartford are not the first opponents this season to be made to look cumbersome and flat-footed when Borough have the ball. And as a spectacle, it beats the long-ball game any day.

After a few early minutes of probing, the Sports struck first. As Dartford tried to clear a cross from the right, David Martin whipped in like lightning to dispossess Ben Greenhalgh on the edge of the box and fire a howitzer into the top right corner, with a deflection off the shoulder of centre-back Billy Roast but with keeper Ibrahim already beaten.

1-0 and just 12 minutes played – and Martin himself, back at one of his former clubs, was to terrorise the Darts, and full-back Chez Isaac in particular, with a sensational display which made him, if not Man of the Match, certainly Man of the Half. Isaac fouled him more than once and then copped a yellow card for an intentional handball – his only desperate way of stopping another run on goal by Martin, who has torn up touchlines everywhere from Whitehawk to Wembley.

In fact, there are five or six thirty-somethings in the current Borough side. Torres once again led by example; Dean Cox and Yemi Odubade both ran tirelessly and with that canny intelligent movement that only experience buys; Ryan Hall put in another classy shift – rewarded, incidentally with a contract extension which will keep him at the Lane for the season. Oh, and Marvin is simply Marvin. But what they have in common is that they cover more miles in a game than most teams of teenagers.

Can’t win anything with kids? Stylish once again at left-back, Kristian Campbell is only 21, and Mark Smith is all grown up at 22. Harry Ransom has not yet turned 19, but you’d never know it. Alongside Mr Steady, Tom Gardiner, and up against one of the best strikers in non-league, Harry was a young warrior – and later in the afternoon, he would have some battle-scars to prove it.

But back to the action. Holding a 1-0 lead for the remaining 78 minutes was not impossible but improbable, against a Dartford side desperate for a good home performance. One slick move down the right produced a fine Greenhalgh cross, but caught Sheringham offside – and Smith saved his effort anyway. Then, on 24 minutes, the Darts were level.

From a corner on the left, Ryan Hall’s low clearance made clean contact with the ball and looked fully legal. Lee Noble took a tumble over Hall’s outstretched leg and referee Rob Massey-Ellis – with a poor angle on the incident – instantly blew for a penalty. Sheringham smashed in the spot-kick, and yet again a dubious penalty award had undermined Borough’s early season.

It was a tough call, and for Mr Massey-Ellis the afternoon would not get any easier. It’s a universal truth that any penalty awarded to your own team is nailed-on, while any spot-kick against you is decidedly dodgy. But Borough cannot look back on these first weeks of the season without reflecting that four, arguably five, of those match-changing decisions have all gone against them. Slings and arrows, Hamlet called them. But less poetically, it’s like your toast falling buttered side down on the kitchen floor….

For the rest of the first half the two teams traded attacking moves and chances. Ransom rose splendidly to meet a right-wing corner, but could not quite keep his header on target. Then Dartford should have gone ahead on 32 minutes with an incisive move down the right, but from Amadou Ba’s low cross, Tom Knowles put his shot wide of the back post.

And just before the interval, Lloyd Dawes stormed clear on a breakaway, but his narrow-angle shot was saved by Derren Ibrahim – and more alarmingly, the Sports striker crumpled with a muscle injury. There were murmurs of a pulled hamstring, but the post-match bulletin suggested something less serious. Either way, Dawes was replaced by Yemi Odubade for the second half.

Within two minutes of the restart Borough were ahead – with the rarity of an uncontroversial penalty. Lee Noble caught the ankle of Sergio Torres, only just inside the box but certainly a foul, and Yemi’s confident kick made it 2-1 from the spot.

Just a minute later, Sheringham – who had seemed to escape punishment for an apparent similar incident before half-time – led with his forearm to clatter Harry Ransom and collect the first of his yellow cards. The home side were getting few sights of goal, and getting edgy. When, on the hour, a superb long cross found Greenhalgh for a header at the far post, Mark Smith pulled off a wonderful save and Campbell whacked the loose ball to safety.

Odubade, cleverly supplied by Dean Cox, contrived a lightning run forward but saw his shot blocked, only for Cox to retrieve the loose ball and set Sergio for a pile-driving shot which pole-axed an extremely brave defender – fortunately without serious damage. There was time for two decent efforts from Hall and from the tireless Kane Wills, before, with fifteen minutes left, the game exploded.

Sheringham yet again led with the arm against Ransom, who this time collapsed to the ground. Mr Massey-Ellis waited some three or four seconds before blowing – by which time Harry was clearly in distress and bleeding from the nose and lip. With Dad Teddy watching from the stands, son Charlie was sent packing. His protests of innocent accidental contact might have been valid, but the earlier incidents had pointed to aggression, or at least recklessness. Ransom, replaced by Ian Simpemba, was helped shakily off and given prompt and expert attention, with six stitches inserted by the Darts club doctor, and typically the young man tweeted his grateful thanks later in the evening.

Dartford tempers were high – although fortunately now channelled into the quest for an equaliser, rather than any belligerent response. But their triumphant last hurrah in stoppage time should have been irrelevant – for three times in the final minutes, the Sports missed glorious chances to seal the game. Charlie Walker, returning from injury, struck one difficult volley too high and then pulled a simpler chance across the face of goal, and Martin found only the side netting from a third swift break.

And so, at the tenth time of asking, Borough failed to clinch a win at Princes Park. It felt like a defeat – but the single point was some reward at least, for a strong and committed performance.

Borough: Smith; Hamilton, Gardner, Ransom (Simpemba 78), Campbell; Wills, Torres, Hall, Martin; Cox (Walker 82); Dawes (Odubade 44). Unused subs: Pollard, Day.

Referee: a testing afternoon for Rob Massey-Ellis
Att: 1005
Borough MoM: Dean Cox with his best game back in a Borough shirt

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