By Ken McEwan
A rare managerial change was the most significant development at Priory Lane during 2017, but you would need a large pair of rose-tinted spectacles to pretend it has been anything but a disappointing year for Eastbourne Borough.
The golden years that were master-minded by Garry Wilson and Nick Greenwood came to an end in 2009 with the appointment of Tommy Widdrington to the hot seat. Widdrington appeared to be building a solid foundation for more good times to come with the obvious ambition to take the club back to the top of the non-league tree.
But out-of-the-blue came an offer that provided the chance for the Borough boss to become head of Recruitment at Coventry City.
Although he had his critics, nobody could doubt Widdrington’s determination to get results. Players not appearing to be pulling their weight were subjected to public dressing-downs during matches; referees and their assistants were given a torrid time.
There could be no real arguments against the appointment of Jamie Howell who got the nod ahead of the popular Hugo Langton.
Howell arrived at Priory Lane in May with impressive credentials, having just guided Bognor Regis to National League South. He was only the fifth manager in Borough’s history. There were those who wondered why he had not chosen to continue his good work in West Sussex, bearing in mind that a move to Priory Lane would leave him in exactly the same league. To say things have not exactly gone smoothly for Howell would be an understatement as today Borough find themselves mid-table, with only bottom-of-the-table Whitehawk having a worse defensive record.
The year started promisingly enough with the first seven games of 2017 producing just one defeat, by the odd goal in five at Dartford in a game barely visible due to fog. My colleague Kevin Anderson saw little of the game but found the perfect poetic phrase to sum up the situation. ‘Above the north stand a huge bank of fog was hovering almost eerily, like some ghastly science-fiction movie where the alien spaceship is about to descent. And descend it did, rolling menacing and remorseless over the roof of the stand and down to pitch level – a witches’ brew of dense silent grey.’ Poetic words indeed from a man who has covered Borough the length and breadth of the country come rain, shine - or fog!
The Sports were serving up some attractive football, albeit drawing too many games. They proved capable of competing with the best but their all-too-often failure to secure maximum points left a play-off place more of an ambition than a reality.
A third appearance in a Sussex Senior Cup final at the Amex was their best hope of a slice of mini-glory and they were desperately unlucky to make their exit in a 4-3 thriller at the hands of Brighton & Hove Albion, fighting back to cancel out a 2-0 deficit and leading 3-2 with only minutes remaining.
As the season headed for its final flings Borough managed to finally annihilate Welling 7-3, a Jamie Taylor hat-trick sealing the points after the sides had been level at 3-3.
But while the results did not always go the way they wanted, Borough fans were certainly getting their money’s worth in terms of entertainment, their 42 league games producing more goals than any other club, for and against!
But in March the club suffered a major setback with the departure of Elliott Romain to Daagenham, the one player capable of turning half-chances into goals on a consistent basis.
So following the May appointment of Jamie Howell Borough fans were prepared for changes, but a flurry of red and yellow cards did nothing to help the early-season cause.
But one hugely welcome move was the return of Yemi Odubade, the player responsible for the club’s record transfer fee to Oxford back in 2005.
However, after scoring twice against Oxford City in early-September, Odubade limped off the field for an absence that was to last more than two months. It was no coincidence that results deteriorated rapidly. And with Nat Pinney signing for St Alban’s and more latterly Whitehawk, goals were suddenly hard to come by.
Ironically, hopes of an FA Cup run ended in the third qualifying round at the hands of Howell’s former club Bognor who Borough had beaten by a solitary goal in the league on bank holiday Monday.
The FA Trophy produced a triumphant sudden death penalty decider at Royston Town but further progress came to an abrupt halt at National League front-runners Dover Athletic.
The biggest worry during the first half of the season has been defensive frailties. Twice in seven weeks, four goals have been conceded at home, against Poole and Havant & Waterlooville, while five were shipped in Somerset, at the hands of Weston-super-Mare.
The Boxing Day win at Whitehawk came as a huge relief, an Odubade penalty separating the two teams.
But if Borough think they have problems, they only have to take a look along the coast where the Hawks, still without a win, have managed just four points in 22 league games.
Four players made their home debut against Havant while a fit Odubade and the return to the fold of Simon Johnson are hopeful signs that a climb up the table is not far away. One also has to remember that much hard work is going on behind the scenes. The club has a thriving academy where local youngsters are doing their utmost, under the guidance of Howell and Ian Simpemba.
As Howell begins the second half of his first full season in charge, the Borough boss will need the support of all players and supporters if he is to achieve the success he is striving for. A happy and successful New Year would soon bring the smiles back to Priory Lane.