Under-achieving side? Frustrated supporters? Whispers of discontent and even a palace revolution? Or none of the above? Eastbourne Borough silenced the doubters with a startlingly good performance at Dover on Boxing Day.
Borough have not lost on the road since November 5, and they played with composure and commitment, often taking the game to a Dover side who fancy their chances among the Conference South front-runners.
Taking an early lead and holding it for a good hour, Borough even had a claim to have pinched all three points.
Manager Garry Wilson was not helped by injuries to key defenders Gary Elphick and Sam Cole, as well as midfielder Eddie Hutchinson. Former Albion youngster James Smith was drafted in on vacation from his US university to slot in at left back, and played like a full-time pro.
Former Albion favourite Nicky Forster, who took over the manager’s job at Dover two months ago, has shaped a strong attacking side who came into Monday’s game off the back of two high-scoring victories.
But from the start Eastbourne looked organised and confident. Within minutes they had the measures of Dover’s attacking formation and were imposing themselves in midfield. Clark Masters made one excellent double save from Paul Southam and Walker, but otherwise it was Borough who looked the likelier scorers. And on 17 minutes Eastbourne took the lead. Matt Crabb’s inswinging corner from the right was headed on by Gary Hart and Carl Rook thumped it in at the back post.
For the rest of the first half Borough commanded the pattern of play, blanketing out Dover’s efforts to create any forward moves and keeping possession intelligently and determinedly. When they won the ball, there was impressive width to their play, with an electric Steve Brinkhurst leaving defenders for dead and, on the opposite wing, Matt Crabb combining slickly with Smith.
Gary Charman and Crabb each had shots narrowly wide, and referee Stuart Butler turned down a credible penalty appeal when Charman’s goalbound shot was handled. The 1-0 half-time scoreline was the least that Borough deserved.
After the break, the home side upped the pace and Masters had to be at his best to deal with shots from Walker and former Borough striker George Purcell.
But ironically Dover’s equaliser on 61 minutes came from a breakaway move, with Borough pressing at the other end. Substitute Terry Dixon raced through an open midfield and squared to Barry Cogan and his rasping low shot from just inside the box found the far corner.
The last half hour saw some thrilling end to end stuff, with Steven Brinkhurst denied only by a brilliant save from home keeper Mikhael Ruiz, and Simon Johnson - who had a superb game in the Borough midfield – billowed a shot too high after great approach work.
Even stoppage time had its breathless moments, with corners at both ends desperately cleared. But in the end, the shared honours were just about right, and the teams must renew their efforts in the New Year return next Monday at Priory Lane. Perhaps Wilson should put his side in their yellow away strip and fix for them to arrive by coach.
Dover Athletic: Ruiz; Starkey, Harris, Huke, Wynter; Cogan, Corcoran, Southam; Walker, Bricknell (sub: Dixon 59min), Purcell.
Booked: Bricknell and Wynter
Eastbourne Borough: Masters 7; Baker 7, Rowe 7, Austin 7, Smith 7; Brinkhurst 7, Johnson 8*, Charman 6, Crabb 8; Hart 7, Rook 7 (sub: Camara 74min, 6). Subs not used: Strevett, Smart, Watson, Treleaven. Booked: Smith and Crabb Referee: Mr Stuart Butler 7
Attendance: 1072 MOM: Simon Johnson (always central to the action)