Eastbourne Borough stalwart Austin deserves his day in the sun
If the optimistic forecast holds, there will be Sunshine Over Langney on Sunday – and a warm, delighted reunion for local fans, at Ben Austin’s Testimonial Game.
The former Eastbourne Borough stalwart, now first team coach at Priory Lane, has been granted the testimonial, and his team of Sports legends will take on a squad of Brighton and Hove Albion former professionals, assembled by Dean Cox, at 1.00pm on Sunday.
After a bright early career at the Saffrons, the hugely popular Austin spent twelve seasons at the Lane as a cornerstone of Garry Wilson’s outstanding side. Leaving just after Wilson in 2012, with the club in a state of flux, Ben did not quite get the send-off he deserved. Now, he gets his testimonial nine years late!
It will be a reunion of the clans, and a homecoming for supporters. For fourteen long months, local football followers have lived off scraps. After the drastic shutdown and lockdown of March 2020, sports grounds became sad, hollow places – and players at amateur and semi-pro level were reduced to endless solitary training runs or keepie-uppie in the back garden.
Supporters, meanwhile, were starved. Yes, there have been hours of televised football, and other sports. At local level, clubs have inventively pioneered the live streaming route, with some success. Late summer and autumn did see some opening up, but by Christmas the gates were firmly locked and by February the National South season was curtailed.
With the Wretched Virus still darkly stalking, it was probably unavoidable. But oh, the cost – in social contact and mental health and the well-being of those hundreds of ordinary folk, who have missed their sporting fix and their chance to catch up on the terraces, at the tea bar and in the clubhouse.
Well, catch up they can, at 1.00pm this Sunday afternoon at a hopefully sunny Priory Lane. The 25% capacity rule will permit up to a thousand spectators through the turnstiles. You need to secure your ticket online, via the Borough club website – and it must surely be the best tenner in town.
THE MAIN MAN
A big guy, a huge heart, a huge and wise and generous personality. A giant of a player and a wonderful clubman and servant of the Sports. His name is Ben Austin.
Shoulders of giants? They were a big side, Garry’s boys, and at times they seemed mountainous as they scaled the heights of non-League football. Well, perhaps not Matty and Nathan Crabb, nor midfield creator Paul Armstrong. And Lee Hook, one of the shortest of professional keepers, couldn’t quite have looked Joe Hart or Joe Corrigan in the eye.
But stature is not just physical: it’s in the body language and in the mentality. And Ben has always been a big guy in all those respects.
Certainly on the field he was towering – a commanding captain from centre-back or a terrifying plunderer from full-back, storming forward down that right flank. Or, of course, showing strikers Andy Atkin or Scott Ramsay how it’s done at set pieces. Remember that awesome strike up at Cambridge City in the 2006 play-off ? It sparked a 3-0 victory and one of the finest ever Borough team performances.
Among that band of brothers that Garry and Nick put together, Ben arrived – from the Saffrons – as one of the younger brothers, but a decade later he was the leader among men. The total of 479 appearances would actually have climbed far above the 500 mark, but for a maddening injury that cost Austin almost the whole of one season.
Now, in training or from the technical area, Ben still commands. There is a genial confidence in the body language, and in the wisdom he passes on as a coach.
PE teacher by day, mentor on a Saturday or a Tuesday night. Ben brings, of course the same professionalism and inspiration to his day job as to his football. But I asked him the other week, what’s the difference between taking these Borough lads in training, and a bunch of reluctant Year 10s on a wet Monday afternoon. The answer was instant. “The difference is, this lot can play! Whatever standards I set, I know they will reach them. That’s the reward for a coach – seeing your ideas put into action.”
Austin’s coaching sessions genuinely are a master class. Tight, organised, vigorous, never without a touch of humour, but always with the perception of a man who was always the thinking man’s centre-back. After his playing career, Ben has always stayed in touch at the Lane over the years, often spotted in the directors’ seats and, I happen to know, always available to managers or chairmen on the end of a phone.
I did wonder about drawing a veil over the managerial career, but he didn’t pay me enough. Blink and you’d have missed it! To be fair, it comes out dead level, one win, one defeat, but the scruffy Senior Cup win at Lewes in the Senior Cup didn’t totally balance out that surreal afternoon at Tonbridge Angels.
The first game for over a decade without Wilson and Greenwood. A huge away following, singing like a Welsh Rugby Choir, and a swirl of emotions. Not that Ben had ever asked for the caretaker role, but when chairman Len Smith called, he answered. My own Herald match report, from that pivotal 2012 week, records:
“Austin’s passion for the club was clearly shared by his team, and loudly echoed by a remarkable travelling army, who gave the players an ecstatic welcome as they took the field.
“That, sadly, was as good as it got…. From the kick-off Tonbridge knocked a high ball forward, Austin and (striker) Ade Olorunda clashed heads and both crumpled. In almost a freeze-frame sequence, the ball fell to Fran Collin, who took one touch and drilled it past Clark Masters into the bottom corner.
“One down in fourteen seconds, and it was as if someone had lit the touch paper too early on the fireworks display of a game which followed….”
Borough fans with long memories probably know the rest. Five goals conceded, with only a single Crabby strike in reply. Two red cards for a couple of the most volatile and loose-cannon players ever to wear the red and black shirt (neither of them invited back for the testimonial!). But even amid that carnage, the final minute of the game saw a defiant header ping off the Tonbridge crossbar from – you guessed it – player-manager Austin.
It’s brilliant that Austin is back at the heart of local football. But really he’s never been away. Like all the old team-mates returning for this wonderful Bank Holiday football fiesta, you never quite leave the Lane. An awesome collection of talent in both playing squads will do him justice on Sunday afternoon. Thanks, Ben, not just for the memories but for the here and now. Sport at our level is shaped and driven by committed and inspirational people, none more than Mr Ben Austin.
Well, they might just have lost a yard of pace, but they’ll be happy to show that they’ve lost none of their class.
It’s ex-Borough versus Ex-Albion, with such a long list of names that it should really be a game of three halves. After the recent poll to find the Sports’ best ever XI, Ben has coaxed ten of them back – the only missing link being Premier League striker Ashley Barnes, who had a loan spell at the Lane as an 18 year old and scored goals like a kid in the playground. Barnes cannot make the day, but he has donated a Burnley FC shirt to be raffled.
Cox, himself still a key member of Bloor’s current side, has pulled together a wonderful squad: not the stellar names of Graham Potter’s current team, of course, but they are all people’s players, the sort that Albion fans always did, and still can, identify with. Gary Hart, Ian Chapman, Nicky Forster, Gary Chivers, Adam El-Abd, Jake Robinson and a host of other well-known names are expected to turn out. Former Albion boss Martin Hinshelwood will manage the Seagulls.
And as always on these occasions, the match will really be one massive excuse for the craic and the catch-ups and all the “do you remember whens”! The Sports clubhouse is open again now, so it could be quite an after-party….