A gripping Bank Holiday encounter at Slough saw Eastbourne Borough secure their National South status – a 95th minute equaliser from substitute Nico Cotton clinching a 1-1 draw.
With just one league fixture remaining – at home to Concord Rangers next Saturday – the single point was enough to lift the Sports beyond the reach of all the rivals below them. But it was breathlessly close.
As a tight match entered the final minutes, still goalless, the live scores from around the country seemed to be going Borough’s way. But with late goals for fellow strugglers Gloucester, Truro and Hungerford, the relegation trapdoor was suddenly creaking open once again.
And as hosts Slough Town – themselves desperate for a win to maintain their play-off chase – piled the bodies into a teeming Borough area, a linesman’s flag signalled a handball. After fevered disputes and lengthy consultation, referee Phil Steynings awarded a penalty – although, it emerged later, he had given the spot kick for a push and not for a handball. Either way, the Sports were incensed, but the officials were not for turning.
In front of a raucous home crowd, Billy Clifford sent keeper Sam Howes the wrong way from the spot – and potentially sent Eastbourne spinning out of the division. But the high drama was still to reach its climax.
Manager Mark McGhee sent centre-back Harry Ransom up as an extra striker, and – perhaps fuelled by indignation – Borough stormed forward. Ransom got his head powerfully to a cross, and the ball fell to Charlie Walker, whose fiery shot was pushed way by keeper Jack Turner. Following up, young substitute Nico Cotton danced his way around the legs of flailing Slough defenders and rammed in a shot at the far post.
The equaliser had come almost six minutes into stoppage time – and in the seventh, Walker was achingly close to grabbing an audacious winner, his cross-shot beating Turner but skimming past the back post. The near miss did not matter, though: the Sports had done enough.
A scorching Bank Holiday afternoon had begun brightly for Borough, who almost grabbed a first-minute lead, Turner needing all his agility to keep out Josh Bingham’s header from a Tobi Adebayo-Rowling cross. And the visitors continued to dictate play, stretching the Slough back line and winning three corners.
But the Rebels – whp knocked Borough out of the FA Cup in October and have made a strong impact this season – battled back and were a persistent threat from set-pieces, notably the enormous throws of Guy Hollis. Sports keeper Sam Howes, though, was in commanding form – including a wonderful fingertip save from a Manny Williams curler – and we reached half-time goalless.
The second half settled into a pattern of Slough pressure and Sports resistance. Lee Togwell side-footed wide in front of a virtually open goal, and George Wells also put a header wide from a corner. But otherwise they found Howes in absolutely breathtaking form, pulling off a string of saves that ranged from the merely excellent to the quite incredible.
In front of him, Borough were sticking to the task with the spirit and discipline of a team which has rediscovered self-belief. Up front, Walker was often a lone striker but still as hard to hold as a live firework, while the five-man midfield combined the steel of Wills and Torres with the style of Mike West and David Martin.
A point each – more useful to Borough than to the Rebels – was looking the likeliest sharing of spoils, as the clock ticked towards ninety minutes. But the real action was only just beginning….
Borough: Howes; Gardiner, Jordan, Ransom, Adebayo-Rowling; Bingham (Cotton 59), West, Wills, Torres, Martin (Briggs 84); Walker. Unused subs: Blackmore, Shaw, Ayman.
Referee: Phil Staynings Att: 905
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