Eastbourne Borough’s prospects of National South survival were dealt a cruel blow at Hemel Hempstead on Saturday, where the home side snatched a 3-2 victory with a stoppage-time free-kick.
With 92 minutes on the clock, a controversial handball decision earned the Tudors a free-kick, on the edge of the penalty area, and skipper Jordan Parkes – non-League’s David Beckham of the Dead Ball – stepped up to place an exquisite dipping strike over the wall, under the bar and right into the hearts of the disbelieving Sports.
In possibly the most one-sided game of their season, the Sports had dominated almost from start to finish. Football isn’t always fair.
Truthfully, some Borough games this season have been about as rewarding as watching a punctured paddling pool deflate slowly. This one was eventful, lively and well contested – but the result left the players and supporters alike bewildered and disbelieving.
The match stats gave a graphic picture. The Sports had 18 attempts on goal, but scored with only two, while Hemel scored with their only three efforts on target. The corner count of 13 to three was equally one-sided, and the only tally which saw the rather streetwise Tudors ahead was a home total of 17 fouls.
But only one statistic really matters: Eastbourne came away with nothing. The winless run now stretches to 12 games, and this Saturday’s home fixture with fellow strugglers Gloucester City takes on massive importance.
Mark McGhee set up with an attack-minded 4-3-3, Charlie Walker taking up a role between big strikers Stefan Ljubicic and Josh Bingham. At the back, Mark Smith completed his loan spell from Billericay, while young AFC Bournemouth centre-back Corey Jordan once again looked accomplished alongside Tom Gardiner.
It was hard to fault Saturday’s effort, or indeed the overall standard of play. Borough under McGhee are looking fit, focused and fully committed. Picking up swiftly from an impressive display against Bath the previous week, they were on the front foot from the very start, with Walker volleying a Kane Wills cross past the back post and then Ljubicic caught marginally offside from Walker’s feed.
Then the vigorous Bingham won a corner on the right, which Gardiner headed against the cross bar, and Kris Campbell foraged forward but was crowded out on the edge of the box.
After fifteen minutes of this sustained Eastbourne pressure, they fell to a sucker goal. Home keeper Laurie Walker managed a big punch on a Borough free-kick and, with both centre-backs still up for the set-piece, Hemel streaked away four on three, switching the ball quickly to Dan Rowe on the left flank. Cutting in, he struck a low shot past Mark Smith into the far corner.
It was to be the Tudors’ only goal attempt of the first half, but Borough – furious with themselves – kept their heads and resumed control. Ljubicic shot over from the influential Mike West’s free-kick. Laurie Walker produced his best save of the afternoon – when Parkes deflected another West free-kick goalwards.
Still the chances came and went. Ljubicic had two more efforts, one wide and one saved, and both Campbell and Tobi Adebayo-Rowling were carving up Hemel down the wings. The Tudor castle, under such relentless siege, would surely be breached.
Then, with the half-time whistle on the referee’s lips, Borough were level. West’s corner from the left was perfectly met by Walker’s glancing header across the goalkeeper for 1-1. It was the least they deserved, and a perfect platform for victory.
A swift cup of tea, and the Sports resumed where they had left off, although now playing up the Vauxhall Road slope. Bingham’s 20-yarder was well saved, and then West’s finish lacked power after a sweet left-wing passing move. Then on 57 minutes Borough finally took the lead: a fluent move through midfield and a perfectly weighted pass by Wills saw Walker racing through the right channel and firing past his namesake.
Within two minutes, though, elation turned to deflation. The Tudors won a left-wing corner, which took a freakish deflection off a defender’s leg and rebounded to the lurking Arel Amu, whose simple close-range finish beat Smith for 2-2.
Half an hour to secure the three points. Walker struck just wide of the left post and then the enterprising Campbell finished off a swerving, elastic run with a clean strike which Laurie Walker saved. If there was a fault with Borough’s finishing, it was a failure to stretch the big keeper: too many shots were too comfortable for him.
With the clock ticking, the Gaffer tweaked his team: first, a freshly cautioned Bingham gave way and Marvin Hamilton was introduced in the back four, allowing Tobi scope to get forward on the right flank. And then just six minutes later a double change saw Dean Cox replace Tobi, while – perhaps surprisingly – the two-goal Charlie Walker was withdrawn and David Martin took over.
At this stage, the home side would surely have settled for a cheaply-earned point, and even for Borough a 2-2 would have been better than nowt. But the plot had a final twist. Two minutes into stoppage time, a shot from just outside the area was charged down by the stretching Kane Wills, whose half-turned body blocked the ball: think back to Manchester United’s late winner at PSG. Referee Rob Massey-Ellis – who in fairness had enjoyed an excellent game on the whistle – instantly blew for a handball which could not have been deliberate.
No matter: it was the Tudors' third and final glimpse of goal, and it was all that Jordan Parkes needed. A sublime strike, and a damaging blow to Borough’s plans for National South survival.
Borough: Smith; Adebayo-Rowling (Cox 75), Gardiner, Jordan, Campbell; West, Wills, Torres; Walker (Martin 75), Ljubicic, Bingham (Hamilton 68). Unused subs: Howes, Ransom.
Referee: Rob Massey-Ellis Att: 486
Borough MoM: Charlie Walker – two fine goals and a sparky performance