By Kevin Anderson
A National South football season lasts a gruelling nine months, about 5,000 playing minutes and - for Eastbourne Borough - well over 4,000 miles on the road. And we are only just about at the half-way point.
Far back in a blazing early August, the Sports season opened with a flourish. The newly-laid 3G pitch saw some dazzling action as Borough swept aside hapless Hemel Hempstead. A 3-0 scoreline - Elliott Romain notching all three - was a poor reflection of Borough’s total dominance, and the bar was set high for the season to come.
Was it a false dawn? Following that intoxicating start, two away defeats quickly gave the Sports a sobering dose of reality, and those early results set a pattern of inconsistency which they have never really shaken off. A splendid 55 goals have been scored, in all competitions, but almost as many conceded.
Home form has been generally good, although there is just a suspicion that, while playing and training on 3G raises the standard of play, it turns the away games into a fresh challenge. Raising your game on a muddy midwinter surface at Oxford City is never easy, and Widdrington will need to steer his team through a few more of those challenges in the New Year.
But let’s track back again to the autumn. September saw mixed results, including a fabulous annihilation of Oxford as well as a disastrous implosion at home to Chelmsford City, who took ruthless advantage of two red cards for centre-backs Simpemba and Dutton to run out with a 5-1 victory. Tommy had stiffened the squad with the arrival on loan of Shaun Cooper and Craig McAllister, but ironically when they returned to parent club Sutton United, results actually took an upturn.
October, indeed, was expertly navigated: all six games unbeaten, including a stunning victory at Aldershot Town which took Borough into the First Round Proper for the first time in seven seasons. The manager, always a man to plot and plan and tweak the tactics, was finding a settled shape for his starting line-ups: 4-4-2 had more often become 3-5-2 - and Kiran Khinda-John, a frequent substitute in early season, had now become a key figure as that third centre-back.
And so it was - on Guy Fawkes Night, no less - that the Sports set off for Essex to put a bonfire under Braintree in the FA Cup. Hopes were high, the supporters’ coaches were full, and this reporter declared the tie to be “definitely winnable”. Oh dear: never mind sack the manager, it was time to sack the reporter too. Braintree scored three goals in the first 15 minutes and, although Borough then steadied the ship, a late cascade saw them suffer the heaviest defeat since County League days, 7-0.
Three days later Widdrington took his punch-drunk team to Crawley Down in the Sussex Senior Cup, and they responded with a consummate 9-0 victory, Yes, it was against lower-level opponents, but goodness, it repaired the wounds.
And since then? Well, the ride hasn’t got much smoother. We have seen three or four impressive wins, including an excellent 4-1 at Wealdstone, on a dodgy pitch. And on Boxing Day, in an absolute thriller, the Sports deservedly came out on top against under-achieving Whitehawk. In between, they were unlucky to lose at St Albans and their hopes of an FA Trophy run disappeared into the fog against Leiston, on one of the strangest Priory Lane has ever seen. Or not seen....
That Boxing Day triumph will have felt good, and Tommy will be frustrated by Sunday’s postponement of the scheduled return fixture at the Enclosed Ground. It was a telling reflection on two clubs, twenty miles apart but a million miles in terms of philosophy. Whatever happens in East Brighton, there surely seems a bizarre imbalance between spending on the wage bill and investment in the ground and facilities.
By contrast, Priory Lane still represents a tangible, lasting testament to wise planning. Can the progress be mirrored in playing performance and results?
Tommy took one or two bold decisions in the summer, significantly re-shaping his team around experienced signings like Mark Hughes, Brian Dutton and the retained Jamie Taylor, while also putting faith in the relative youth of players like Khinda-John, Josh Hare and Alex Smith. There was much close-season talk of an increased playing budget, but in truth I would be surprised if the manager is spending a lot more than last season.
Some supporters - at least those who voice their views on social media - are restless at Borough’s failure, in five years of Widdrington’s tenure, to mount a sustained promotion challenge. There are worse places than the National South to be playing and watching your football, but yes, every club wants to look upwards, and above all to keep the season alive. There are a dozen league games to play between now and the end of February. Whisper it softly: if they yielded, say, 22 points, Borough would have the play-offs clearly in their gun-sights. But it’s all about consistency.