Eastbourne Borough return home to Priory Lane tomorrow (Saturday) after some gruelling away trips – and manager Jamie cannot wait to get his teeth into an FA Trophy campaign.
National South rivals Dartford are the visitors, and the Gaffer has no complaints with the draw. “They are tough opponents and they’ll bring good support,” said Howell. “But you always want a home tie and I think we can really get at them.”
Defeats on the road at Concord Rangers and Bath City did not show Borough at their best, he feels. “We’ve played well in patches recently. The final third has undermined us. Needless to say, goals change games, and conceding from three set pieces at Concord, and one at Bath, tells a story. We are playing some lovely football, but we have to be able to withstand physical pressure and at the moment we are not doing that well enough.”
Howell signed two loanees from Reading ahead of the Bath trip, and both made an instant impression. Wide man Joel Rollinson had a useful hour, and rangy striker Adam Liddle was causing havoc in the Bath City defence within minutes – before an ankle injury from a 10th minute heavy tackle curtailed his pace.
“Adam will hopefully be fit again and play a role on Saturday, and Joel played increasingly well as game progressed. They are talented and eager, and they give us something different. From having been frustrated by injuries, I might suddenly be spoiled for choice now. Lloyd Dawes is in full training and he will have played – along with Yemi Odubade and Mike West – in the Under-23 fixture last night (Thursday). Lloyd gives us a different dimension.”
If a turbo-charged Dawes does return against Dartford, there will be a sense of full circle – for it was at Princes Park in September that he pulled up with a hamstring injury, which has kept him out ever since.
“We are almost there with the squad and we know what we need to bring in. Everyone saw when Alfie Rutherford came in (on loan from Havant) that one or two players can make a huge difference, in terms of finishing off the excellent play going forward.
“But it’s easy to get obsessed with the next new signing and the next target. We already have a squad that sparkles with ability. The supporters this season have many times seen our bright side, and the mood at the whole club is massively upbeat, on the field and off it.”
Jamie, of course, has history with the FA Trophy, having taken Bognor Regis Town to the semi-finals in 2016. “I love it as a competition. The FA Cup is still the ultimate dream for a non-League club, but the Trophy is reality. Literally every club in the tournament can see a pathway through to Wembley.
“The National League clubs do not enter yet, but even they are not unbeatable. Slough Town, who knocked us in the FA Cup, took out Sutton United on Tuesday. The margins are small. That Bognor side simply kept raising their game in each round.”
Saturday's final qualifying round marks the first involvement of National South and North teams - although the competition actually began in September, with some lower-ranked clubs having battled through four rounds just to get this far. Interestingly, this round includes six all-Nat South ties, which - with one or two upsets, no doubt - also means that a quite high number of Step Three and Step Four clubs will be in Monday's draw for the First Round Proper.
The Darts are a long-established and well respected club at our level, having defied gravity for an incredible fourteen years without a home ground after they lost their Watling Street home in 1992. Princes Park is a smashing venue, one of the most admired in Non-League, and Dartford remain one of the best-supported clubs at Step Two or indeed Step One.
Matches between our two clubs have rarely gone Borough's way in recent years, but they have almost always been tight. Regulars at the Lane will recall the surreal meeting two seasons ago, when the fog descended like some alien invading spaceship, rolling in and totally enveloping the ground. I believe Dartford won that one 3-2, but I can only go on hearsay, since from the press bench it was hard to see beyond the near touchline. Anyway, you good folk always complain that reporters must have been watching a different game...
Dartford always carry a threat and a strong reputation, but the North Kent club is still undergoing major surgery on the playing side after a change of management in the summer. They arrive at Priory Lane on the back of mixed, but improving, results and they carry real threats – not least in Charlie Sheringham.
The classy striker, son of England international Teddy, actually scored six goals in a single game at the Lane – for a League representative side managed by Tommy Widdrington two seasons ago. More recently, he earned a red card against the Sports in the 2-2 draw at Princes Park for a forearm foul on Harry Ransom. Borough had led twice, through David Martin and Sergio Torres, but were pegged back by a highly dubious Darts penalty and then a 94th minute equaliser. League points dropped – and a Trophy point to prove on Saturday.