No points, few chances and a match that will not live long in the memory: Eastbourne Borough slipped to a 2-1 home defeat to visitors Bath City on Saturday.
The Romans are beating everyone at the moment, and if not very pretty, they were pretty effective: a solid defence, a plan to close down quickly, and two foraging front men in Nick McCootie and Shawn McCoulsky. And against them, the slickly patterned play which Borough can often produce was fatally undermined by errors and misplaced passes.
There is a feeling that the Sports do not play well against big and physical teams. But does anyone? It may be too simplistic. One national reporter watching our friends at AFC Bournemouth on Saturday commented that the Cherries – who had just claimed an important 2-0 victory – had “found the grit to go with their aesthetics”. If the Sports – a mere five steps further down the football pyramid – can do the same, they can yet end the season strongly.
Tommy Widdrington was rueful rather than wrathful. “You always know you might have one or two players who are slightly off their game on a given day. But today we had six or seven players off colour – how do you get over that? It is one of the issues that comes with having an essentially young team. Credit to Bath, who are a decent side, and we were never really allowed to find our rhythm.”
Eastbourne had started brightly on a chilly, blustery afternoon, but it was soon clear that they were up against strong, vigorous opponents who were swift to close them down. The gale at Borough’s backs was proving a false ally, with over-hit passes repeatedly catching the wind and flying out of play.
A drifting run by Christian Oxlade-Chamberlain earned the first corner of the game, but Ian Simpemba’s power header from Baptista’s flag kick was just wide of the back post.
But Simpemba and his young centre-back colleague Shaun Hobson were in the thick of repeated City attacks at the other end, with several brave blocks and interceptions. Behind them, Lewis Carey was alert and agile, and his near-post save from Nick McCootie’s narrow-angled shot was the nearest that either side came to breaking the deadlock in an untidy first half.
Mark Hughes had turned an ankle defending a Bath corner on the half-hour, and he did not come out after the break – Gavin McCallum replacing him in one of a sequence of second-half reshuffles as Widdrington was forced to make and mend.
If the game had a pivotal moment, it came just two minutes into the second half. City’s two Macs had been looking to buy free-kicks, and a trademark striker’s crumple was enough for referee Chris Pollard to penalise a genuinely surprised Shaun Hobson, for what had looked a fair challenge. From 25 yards, Billy Murphy floated the free-kick just in behind despairing defenders and McCoulsky’s header glanced the ball just inside the left-hand post.
The Sports survived a similar free kick two minutes later, and then forged their own decent chance to equalise. McCallum and Pinney neatly worked through into the D, but a defensive block stopped Taylor as he shot. Then from a quick free-kick Baptista hit a curler from just outside the box, but a City head knocked it clear.
Newly-signed striker Reece Connolly was introduced up front - and gave notice that he can add a new attacking dimension and impetus - with Jamie Taylor dropping back to open up a whole new career phase, perhaps, as a rather impressive midfield enforcer. Certainly the Sports were on the front foot for a spell and sniffing for chances.
But those chances raised false hopes. McCootie and Watkins combined to cut Borough open down the right wing, but Simpemba’s heroic clearance saved the day at the price of a corner. Then within five minutes an identical move allowed McCootie to arrow a low cross which Hobson, with Watkins on his heels, could only turn into his own net.
It was cruel on the young Bournemouth centre-back, who did more right than wrong at the heart of a combative game. But the National South’s competitive arena gives priceless experience to Shaun, as well as to Christian Oxlade-Chamberlain. The young Pompey midfielder’s skills and sleight of foot, so often a whisker away from brilliance, were rarely effective on Saturday, but he surely will prove the trump card in some game soon.
Just past the 80 minute mark, with Bath thinking themselves in cruise control, the match flared back into life. Connolly plundered clear on to a long ball and last-defender George Rigg brought him down. Off went Rigg, and in off the post went Baptista’s glorious arching free-kick to halve the deficit.
It was a briefly dazzling moment of class to light up a grey afternoon, but it was to prove too little, too late. Ten minutes left, and only ten City men to defend the newly precarious 2-1 lead: but in a frantic finish Taylor popped one shot over the Mick Green Stand, Baptista’s perfect inswinging corner somehow missed everyone in a packed goalmouth, and then a couple of misplaced passes took the sting out of Borough’s final attacks.
Widdrington’s squad now have their own mini-season to complete: eight games, including two tasty away trips to promotion-chasing Ebbsfleet and Dartford, and 24 points to be claimed. Fifteen or more of those points would see Borough to a top ten finish: a fair and not unrealistic target.
Borough: Carey; Hare, Simpemba, Hobson, Stone (Tate 83); Baptista, Hughes (McCallum 46), Worrall, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Connolly 56); Pinney, Taylor. Unused subs: Ramsden, Horlock.
Referee: Chris Pollard Att: 504
Borough MoM: Ian Simpemba – led by example
Updated 15:52 - 20 Mar 2017 by Kevin Anderson