The promotion chase went down to the wire but ultimately, Eastbourne United ran out of time and steam as a 1-0 defeat to Rustington condemned them to another season in the Sussex County League Division Two.
A second-half James Bennett penalty was enough for ten-man Rustington to secure the three points that ensured United’s season ended with defeat and disappointment.
However, even a victory over the Division Two strugglers wouldn’t have been enough to promote Paul Daubeney’s men as rivals Little Common beat champions Littlehampton to secure the sought-after third spot, leaving Eastbourne in fourth place.
United were far from their dominant, free-scoring selves at the Oval on Saturday and played out a flat opening 45 minutes against a side battling at the bottom of the table.
One of the best opportunities of the half fell to the division’s top-scorer Liam Baitup, who missed the chance to take his tally to 40 as the ball just escaped him in the six-yard box.
Things picked up in the second half but not in favour of the home side who, despite dominating the opening exchanges, found themselves 1-0 down on 67 minutes after the referee pointed to the spot following a challenge by Grant Harrison.
James Bennett got up, brushed himself down and duly slotted the spot-kick home to gift his side a slim, albeit precious lead.
The visitors were reduced to ten men not long after as Tim Leach was shown a straight red for tussling with and eventually squaring up to substitute Simon Catt. He could have few complaints about his dismissal.
United were desperate to make the numerical advantage count and pressed forward in search of an equaliser. They thought they’d got it with ten minutes left to go as Nick Barden’s cross found Pete Cooper, whose header bounced off the underside of the crossbar.
The home faithful were adamant the rebound had crossed the line but the referee waved play on among a chorus of disgruntled players and fans.
Luck wasn’t on United’s side as they failed to score for the first time in seven matches - inconveniently when they’d needed a win most.
It wasn’t to be though and the final whistle blew, calling time on the game and on United’s season.
This was the second successive time the club have fallen just short of promotion but Paul Daubeney will hope his men can make it third time lucky as they come back more determined in Sussex County Division Two again next year.
United: Sargent; Simmonds, Harrison, Sherriff, Newby, Stracey, Del-Gaudio, Bunn (Catt 58), Cooper, Baitup, Divall (Barden, 60)
See Friday’s Herald for pictures, reaction from the Oval and a full Sussex County League division one and two 2012-13 season review.