Defeat in Dulwich
Sports are only supporting cast as Hamlet re-claim their Champion Hill stage....
Another defeat for Eastbourne Borough: a resurgent Dulwich Hamlet proved an irresistible force as they reclaimed their coveted Champion Hill ground and claimed a 2-1 victory in front of three thousand jubilant fans in South London.
Boxing Day football is a British tradition, and there was a sense of history as eager supporters filled the busy roads surrounding Champion Hill. In fairness, they have truly taken arms against a sea of troubles. Hamlet’s home ground, a proud and rather worn stadium with more weathered concrete than shiny plate-glass, had been scrubbed up and unlocked after a traumatic ten-month stand-off with the club’s landlords.
In the months of showdown, Dulwich had gathered support from all quarters, including a debate in the House of Lords, and their buoyant, noisy followers were now in full voice. Terraces were bedecked with banners proclaiming “We Live Here” and “This Meadow is Ours”. The game was all-ticket, and although the gate was diplomatically announced as an officially sanctioned 3,000 exactly, there must have been a few more nodded through.
This would always be a challenging day. Without, of course, the faintest hint of hostility, the huge swell of Hamlet support carried their team into this game with a sense of destiny. Borough were simply bystanders or, at best, supporting cast. A win for the visitors would have been an impertinence.
And yet this was far from a poor performance by Howell’s team. They never looked particularly unnerved, and they played with purpose and organisation. Only the chronic lack of finishing had denied them a first half lead, before the home side powered through to victory in the last phase of the game.
Dulwich were first to threaten, with an alert Tom Gardiner heading clear from a right wing cross. Both Gardiner and Harry Ransom were given a busy afternoon by home strikers Thompson and Clunis, who did give Borough some nervous moments.
But Eastbourne’s response was positive. Joel Rollinson, on fire on the right flank, sliced Dulwich open and fed Lloyd Dawes, whose shot from the edge of the box was sky-high – the first of several off-target attempts by Borough players. Then Ryan Hall produced the pass of the match, a raking diagonal ball from his own half, to release Rollinson again, but the young winger’s cross into the box was hacked clear.
Back came Hamlet with two incisive moves through the middle, the first cleared by Kris Campbell and the second intercepted by Tobi Adebayo-Rowling – both full-backs doing their stuff at the back as well as creating lively openings going forward.
Fifteen minutes in, the Sports should have been ahead. Dean Cox sent Rollinson racing clear on the break, exchanging passes with Lloyd Dawes, and then whacking a final shot wildly over the crossbar when a return ball to Cox – who had sprinted the length of the field – was the better option.
The next to break clear was Dawes, in a four man move which ended with an overhit cross. Twenty minutes in, probably 4-2 on chances, but no goals for either side. And now Hamlet were wresting back control, with Gardner’s crucial clearance from Dan Thompson, and Nathan Green lofting an effort too high on the end of a long throw.
Just past the half-hour, a brilliant reaction save by Mark Smith kept out Thompson’s header from a free-kick, and then at the opposite end Campbell won a corner from which Ransom planted a powerful header too high.
Hamlet’s game was not always beautiful. Michael Chambers copped a yellow card for cynically hauling back Torres as the Borough skipper burst through, and his midfield partner Jason Banton might even have seen red if his bulldozing challenge on Ryan Hall had fully connected, but fortunately for both players, Hall skipped sideways to evade a full collision.
Right through until half-time, the two sides traded chance for chance, and in added time Cox did finally find the net from a Torres pass – but an offside flag correctly cut short any celebrations.
Three minutes after the break, Dawes chased through the inside-right channel but was stopped at the expense of a corner, from which Rollinson smacked his shot too high. Then in a penalty area scrabble, Sergio appeared to have his ankle whipped away but referee Matt Russell – whose overall control of a heady afternoon was intelligent and cool – either disagreed or did not see the rogue challenge.
It was a pivotal moment, for within minutes, Hamlet had seized the breakthrough. Neatly set up by Clunis, Ashley Carew planted a low side-footed shot from fully 25 yards which at first looked wide. Possibly wrong-footed by a deflection, Smith’s dive was late and despairing as the ball scudded inches inside the foot of the left post. The entire ground erupted into one dancing, tumbling fiesta of chocolate and pink – and it was a full two minutes before play could restart.
With half an hour to rescue the match, the Sports needed to get their own game back on its feet, but now they were wading against the tide. A crunching collision saw Kane Wills needing lengthy treatment, but the Borough midfielder evidently feels no pain and he battled on as his team searched for a way back.
But it was Dulwich who nailed the match. On 74 minutes a well flighted cross from the right touchline cut out both centre-backs and found Nyren Clunis rising to meet it with a perfect header back across the keeper for 2-0. Cue another round of tumult on the terraces, and – as we all assumed – a fifteen-minute stroll to three points for their returning heroes.
Due credit to the Sports, though, for they made a real fight of it. Hall’s free-kick almost caught out keeper Preston Edwards, and Mr Russell ignored another penalty appeal, more spectacular but less convincing than the first, when substitute Charlie Walker took a tumble. A video replay actually lent weight to Walker's case, with Carew clearly upending Charlie, but it was probably accident rather than intent. In between, Borough themselves had survived a frenetic barrage when Hamlet created four scoring chances in literally less than a minute, all denied by blocks and tackles, and by one full-stretch save by Smudge.
Then, as we entered stoppage time, Hamlet switched off at a Borough free-kick, Tobi drilled a low cross in from the right, and Charlie Walker turned it past Edwards. And for a further five minutes Dulwich clung to their precious lead, resisting two Borough set-pieces with Mark Smith added to the frantic penalty-area mix.
Words, words, words - but in the end four defeats in a row, for Jamie Howell’s men. Maybe we must still reserve judgement. Other than the Dorchester disaster, the team performances have been respectable, hard-working, but fruitless. In a nutshell: only goals win football matches.
Borough: Smith; Adebayo-Rowling, Gardiner, Ransom, Campbell (Adebowale 90+5); Rollinson (Walker 81), Wills, Torres, Hall; Cox; Dawes (Liddle 56). Unused subs: Briggs, Blackmore.
Referee: Matt Russell Att: 3,000
Borough MoM: Kristian Campbell