A decade of success: from County League to Conference

When Steve Richardson walked out on Langney Sports in February 1999, chairman Len Smith turned to a one-time Scotland youth international still smarting from his sacking by Hastings 12 months previously.

The ambitious 35-year-old Garry Wilson, who had surprisingly been jettisoned from the Pilot Field by lottery winning owner Mark Gardiner, clearly felt Sports were ripe for taking through the leagues.

And together with assistant Nick Greenwood, they did exactly that, transforming the underachieving Langney Sports into an Eastbourne Borough side now among the best non-league clubs in the country.

A home defeat to Redhill in the pair's first game in charge was an inauspicious start. But patience has been the key to Wilson and Greenwood's success story and that summer they assembled an experienced squad which bludgeoned the County League into submission.

Sports lost just one league match (at Sidley United) and giant-killed Harrow Borough and Havant and Waterlooville in the FA Cup, with John Snelgrove's goal clinching the title in reigning champions Burgess Hill's backyard – and with it promotion to the Southern League.

Sports began life in the Eastern Division with two creditable mid-table finishes (and a narrow FA Trophy loss to Conference high-flyers Dagenham) before mounting another promotion push in 2002-03, by which time the club had morphed into Eastbourne Borough.

Wilson's side outlasted rivals Salisbury, Stamford and Bashley to clinch second place – while they again ran a Conference side close in the Trophy, losing 1-0 at home to Farnborough.

In 2003-04, the club's first season in the Dr Martens Premier, the goal was a top 13 finish to ensure founder membership of the new Conference South division.

It was achieved with a 1-1 draw at Newport – a game Wilson missed, having snapped his Achilles tendon in a charity match!

A poor start to the first Conference South season had the doubters crowing but Wilson won two manager of the month awards as he masterminded Boro's unlikely late assault on the play-offs.

They were helped into the top five by the capture of ex-Eastbourne Town hotshot Yemi Odubade from Yeovil. His goals, plus wins over Thurrock and Cambridge City, fired Eastbourne into the biggest game of their lives – a north/south clash against Altrincham for a place in the Conference National.

Boro' froze on the day and Alty deserved their 2-1 win, but it would give Lee Hook, Ben Austin, Darren Baker, Matt Smart, Matt Crabb and Andy Atkin a taste of things to come.

The brush with the big time appeared to be fleeting as Boro' had to dig deep the following season to avoid relegation, but they also finally reached the FA Cup first round proper.

A twice-taken Ollie Rowland spot-kick, captured by the Match of the Day cameras, earned a replay against League Two Oxford. Steve Basham ended the dream with a hat-trick in the replay – but it wouldn't be long before the sides met again, on a more level playing field.

Borough were mixing it at the right end of the table in 2006-07, despite a shock Cup exit to Haverhill Rovers, and just missed out on the play-offs after an exhausting run-in and lengthy injury list.

But it proved a mere warm-up for the superb 2007-08 campaign – surely the most successful of Wilson's 10 years in charge. His side went on a 20-match unbeaten run until a New Year's Day defeat to Lewes, as the two Sussex thoroughbreds galloped towards the finishing line neck and neck.

The Rooks had the greater firepower and deservedly won the title. But Boro' rallied for one final push and in a memorable play-off final at Stevenage, late strikes from Nathan Crabb and Paul Armstrong meant Wilson had achieved his original target – a whole year early.

And whisper it quietly, but Wilson and Greenwood appear to have kept Boro' in non-league's top flight, an incredible feat given the club's resources and part-time status. Wherever they find themselves in another 10 years, both Wilson and Eastbourne Borough can look back on a decade of which they can be immensely proud.