By Kevin Anderson
On a goalless afternoon where the blistering weather was the real winner, Eastbourne Borough came away from Oxford City with a doggedly earned point – and a sense of relief.
The match itself might have gone either way, but after a frustrating close season – and a few gloomy predictions from outside the camp – Jamie Howell’s men closed ranks and battled for each other.
“To come away with a point on the board is very good, and I thought our team display was excellent. Both sides had chances, and credit to all the players out there for coping with the incredible heat.
“I always knew that two or three extra signings could make a huge difference to us and so it proved. I thought Tom Gardiner was superb and the partnership he quickly formed with Harry Ransom was remarkable. Kristian Campbell likewise was real quality, and the fantastic block he made early on was a match-saver, because neither side wanted to be chasing the game in those conditions.
“Anyone who watched us – and credit to the great travelling support – will see our progress. We are headed in the right direction. We won’t get there in a single step, but if we maintain the desire and the hard work which we saw today, it will stand us in good stead for the season.”
Howell’s team-building plans fell into place just in time. Of his four late signings, Dean Cox was unavailable but the other three pitched in with huge contributions.
Ryan Hall was influential in midfield, while Tom Gardiner – meeting his new team-mates for the first time – formed a flawless centre-back partnership with Harry Ransom, and Kristian Campbell produced an inspired full-back performance, fluent, intelligent and including the tackle of the game to prevent an Oxford opening goal.
City manager Mark Jones had watched Borough implode in the friendly at Lewes, but if he expected a smooth ride on the Marsh Farm 3G pitch, he must have been taken by surprise. The Sports were organised and resilient, with no sign of the defensive fragility of pre-season – and with cooler finishing they would have taken all three points.
After a first few minutes of phoney war, it was the Hoops who launched the first assaults on goal. Eddie Jones carved himself a good overlap on the right, but the cross was charged down, and then striker Matt Paterson tried to lob Mark Smith but the effort bounced harmlessly wide. The Sports responded with a smart one-two between Lloyd Dawes and Charlie Walker, but Lloyd’s shot was deflected away for a corner.
Then, on 13 minutes, a key moment: with Zac McEachran clear through the inside left channel and the goal at his mercy, Campbell saved the day with an immaculate tackle to deny City. If a Man of the Match award can ever be clinched in a single moment, this was it.
Minutes later McEachran – looking offside – was through again but screwed his shot wide of the left-hand post. But that little spell was as close as City ever came, at least until very late in the game.
A robust challenge – and either an arm or an elbow – from Paterson felled Ransom, surprisingly escaping a yellow card from referee Mark Howes, who might still have been in that forgiving pre-season mode. By the end of the action, a generally competent Mr Howes was to switch up a couple of gears, with three second-half yellows for Borough, including two in stoppage time for innocuous obstruction offences by Torres and Wills.
Nip and tuck tactical battles were emerging. City’s 3-5-2 was producing lots of width in their play forward, but Hamilton and Campbell were alert to it, and with Kane Wills effectively protecting the Sports back four, and Martin and Hall checking back when needed, the threat was negated.
Conversely, the Borough front men were moving constantly, intelligently and never in straight lines, and the home back three looked stretched. The half-hour mark saw a good spell of Borough pressure, Torres heading too high from a Ryan Hall cross, and then a minute later the roles were reversed as Hall was off target at the end of a Sergio-inspired move.
Ransom and Gardiner were growing into their partnership, the latter producing a string of excellent defensive headers, and neither goal was seriously threatened as half-time approached.
We had seen one very sensible drinks break, but both teams must have welcomed their respite from the parching sun. With the rubberised base of the 3G holding the heat, a centre-circle thermometer reading showed an alarming 42 degrees before the players emerged to resume the action.
If City had shaded the early phases, it was the Sports who enjoyed slightly the better of the second half. Wills and Torres were confidently steering the midfield, Dawes – correctly carded on 48 minutes for a stretching tackle, was an ever-bustling threat, and Charlie Walker was running his socks off. Two openings in three minutes fell to Walker: played in by first Ryan Hall and then Kristian Campbell, he had to take both chances quickly and slightly off-balance, and struck both wide.
Meanwhile, City’s only sight of goal was snuffed out by Marvin Hamilton’s excellent interception, and managers and supporters alike began to resign themselves to a point a piece. With Harry Pollard on for an injured Hamilton, and the fresh legs of Yemi Odubade replacing Dawes, Borough were managing the game, and the heat, pretty well.
Finally, with 13 minutes left, Mark Smith found himself with his first shot to save, the Viking figure of Rob Sinclair rampaging through but shooting straight at the big keeper. At the other end Mike West, replacing David Martin, conjured a terrific cross from the right, and Hall met it beyond the far post with a thumping shot that cleared the crossbar.
Into the added minutes, then – and still time for those two soft yellows, and for a fine double save by Smith, the first from Reece Fleet and the follow-up from substitute Kabongo Tschimanga. So a point apiece it stayed, and that was the least that either team deserved. The long-term weather forecast must surely be a little cooler, and the prospects for Howell’s team may be brighter than some had expected.
Borough: Smith; Hamilton (Pollard 66), Gardiner, Ransom, Campbell; Hall, Wills, Torres, Martin (West 78); Walker, Dawes (Odubade 69). Unused subs: Briggs, Simpemba.
Referee: Mark Howes
Borough MoM: Kristian Campbell - 90 fine minutes, and one special tackle….