A goal up, and then a man down. Borough’s last – and shortest – away trip of the season saw the points shared in an eventful night at Tonbridge on Tuesday.
Mellow evening sunlight gave a glow to the Longmead Stadium, and an enormous marquee was freshly erected for the local Beerfest. A sizeable Borough following mingled affably with the Angels fans, and we were all set for a pleasant non-league occasion.
But there was another agenda. Eastbourne may have been now released from the slight but nagging danger of relegation, but Tonbridge – captained by Priory Lane favourite Gary Elphick - were still on edge: a point would be enough to secure their Conference South status, but they would have to battle for it.
Caught between caution and urgency, the Angels opened with a flurry – young full-back Henry Muggeridge burst through but fluffed his chance, and then Ollie Schulz headed against the post from a free-kick. But then the home attacks fizzled into a predictable pattern, channelled mainly through massive centre-forward Mikel Suarez.
Borough steadied the ship and went on to have the better of an unremarkable first half. Gary Hart and Jamie Smith were busy and creative, while Matt Aldred yet again turned in the solid, unflustered performance which has made him the lynch-pin of Borough’s late-season revival.
But it was only after half-time that the game ignited. Six minutes in, Jamie Smith collected a ball in the inside left channel, checked back inside and cracked a perfect rising 20-yarder into the near top corner. One-nil, and suddenly Tonbridge had slipped just a little nearer to the Ryman Premier.
The home side’s response was frantic but blunt. Eastbourne’s defence were looking as if they could hold out for ever, until an explosive incident on the hour turned the game. Tangling with Schulz, skipper Ollie Rowe wrested himself free as referee Paul Harris blew for a free-kick to Borough. But the two players went chest to chest and Schulz crumpled as if hit by a stun gun.
From the far distance of the press benches, it looked fleetingly like a head-butt. Out came Mr Harris’s red card and off went Rowe. But most spectators nearer to the action, including many partisan home fans, seemed to think that the Tonbridge player had made something out of nothing.
Either way, the Angels had new belief. The outstanding Danny Potter kept the lead intact with three excellent saves, and his defenders were digging really deep.
A superb pass-and-move breakaway by Darren Lok and Jonte Smith should have doubled the lead, but Smith pulled his final shot wide. Then on 75 minutes Tonbridge were level, David Ijaha swerving a slightly mishit shot into the top corner after a long throw.
With safety now in sight, we had the bizarre sight of a home side running the game down at 1-1; but they had what they needed. Borough, still smarting from the sending off, finished the game on the front foot but could not clinch a winner, and at the final whistle their nearest Conference South neighbours had survived.
Tonbridge Angels: Worgan, Muggeridge, Green, Browning, Elphick, Schulz, Miles, Ijaha, Suarez, Collin, Lovell. Subs: Walder, Piper, Gayle, Davis, Chalmers.
Borough: Potter 8; Adelsbury 7, Rowe 7, Watts 7, Cole 7 (Jonti Smith 45min, 7); Hart 8, Aldred 8*, Raymond 7, Jamie Smith 8 (Uddin 63min, 7); Lok 7, Charles 7. Subs not used: Ehui, Fenwick, Gorman.
MoM: Matt Aldred – unsung hero in midfield
Referee: Paul Harris 6
Attendance: 624 including a vocal 150 from Borough