With the jaws of defeat about to snap shut, a wonderful late strike by midfielder Matt Aldred snatched a point for Eastbourne Borough in a thrilling finale at Gosport on Saturday.
The clock had just moved into the ninetieth minute when Aldred strode forward on to a neat ball from Dean Sinclair and, from almost 30 yards, released a steam-hammer of a shot that found the top corner of the net before home keeper Nathan Ashmore had even moved.
Six games now unbeaten – and this was the fifth time this season that the Sports have either won or rescued a game in the last five minutes: a testament to the resilience and belief that runs through Tommy Widdrington’s squad these days. And this time, it was the least that Borough deserved.
Less than three minutes in, full-back Rory Williams advanced on the left, and his cross – too far out for Lewis Carey to claim – fell between the centre backs, for Matt Patterson to exchange quick passes with Steve Ramsey and then fire an instant swerving shot into the left-hand corner.
Borough looked flustered and unnerved, and for a few minutes Gosport were rampant, winning virtually every header and imposing themselves physically all over the field. But it didn’t last.
By the half-hour, Eastbourne’s better ball possession had taken the pressure off, but they were still not creating many clear chances. Inaccurate – and often overhit – crosses were undermining good approach work. One Charles header flew too high and another was saved by Ambrose, while McCallum struck two shots wide.
Meanwhile Gosport’s only sniff of goal was a swift break through the middle by top scorer Justin Bennett, who was clear on goal but hauled back by a marginal offside flag.
It hadn’t been a riveting first half. Gosport, now 45 minutes from a dull but workmanlike victory, had no interest in changing anything, and it was up to Borough to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
And to their credit, the Sports did so. Keeping the tempo high and persisting with pass-and-move rather than heavy stuff, they first nibbled around the edges of the home defence, and then began to bite. Beale and Aldred combined to force two successive corners, and from the second an almighty scramble on the goal-line somehow prevented Lok from equalising.
Widdrington renewed his strike force with Richard Pacquette and James Walker off the bench, and the plot took a new turn – with referee John O’Brien the unwelcome central character.
Referees rarely have an easy life, berated by managers and targeted by fans, but they carry a duty to be consistent and correct. It must be said that Mr O’Brien was neither: his decision-making was haphazard and he seemed to struggle to judge a foul challenge from a fair one.
Both sides had been on the wrong end of surprising calls, and Gosport were furious when a flimsy ankle-tap on Walker incurred an 81st minute penalty.
But the striker’s spot kick grazed the outside of the right hand post, and the home side were briefly elated – only for midfielder Mike Carter to cop two cheap yellow cards within seconds of each other and reduce Gosport to ten men.
The Sports attacked with new vigour. Tommy changed the shape and poured players forward – and up stepped Aldred to thunder home that equaliser. The final minutes were frantic: another, far more obvious, penalty for a shove on Walker was denied and Gosport were reduced to last-ditch defending to cling on to their single point. And ironically, only Mr O’Brien’s final whistle saved them.
Gosport: Ashmore, Forbes, Williams, Carter, Poate, Pearce, Ramsey (Mason 59), Smith, Patterson (Wort 80), Bennett (Dunford 83), Wooden.
Subs not used: Matthews, Wilde.
Borough: Carey, Hamilton, Beale, Aldred, Simpemba, Lovett, McCallum, Sinclair, Charles (Pacquette 71), Johnson, Lok (Walker 71).
Subs not used: Khinda-John, Foot, Parsons.
MoM: Matt Aldred - fine goal capped a fine performance