Eastbourne Borough suffered another fruitless away trip on Saturday after a single goal eight minutes from time, by old warhorse Jefferson Louis, claimed the points for Oxford City.
With the season almost half over, Tommy Widdrington’s side need to put together some positive results if a play-off challenge is to be launched.
But these are matches they can ill afford to lose. On the day, Borough were probably the better side and had the better of the fairly few scoring chances on offer, but that counts for nothing in the National South league table.
It was a grim, grey afternoon in North Oxford, and the football was just as colourless. On a difficult pitch - slippery in patches, cloying in others and uneven all over - both teams struggled to put a passing game together, and in a cluttered midfield the Sports and City largely cancelled each other out.
A goalless draw seemed increasingly likely, but as the minutes drained away it was the home side who stole the three points.
The winning goal was unconvincing. A linesman’s flag caught Oxford’s Stephane Ngamvoulou offside, but referee Mark Whaley allowed Borough an apparent advantage - only for City to instantly regain possession and feed Ngamvoulou a second time. The City substitute, still looking suspiciously offside, gratefully crossed for Louis to hook the ball past a despairing Charlie Horlock from close range. A scruffy goal to settle a scruffy game.
This reporter’s notes recorded more than a dozen threatening attacks for Borough which might have produced a goal, but none of them did. City, apart from their goal, had just two genuine chances, but Horlock excellently saved both of them: one finger-tip save from a Scott Davies free-kick - ironically for the Khinda-John handball that wasn’t - and one brave smother at the feet of Jefferson Louis in stoppage time.
The first 45 minutes saw two good openings apiece for Nat Pinney and Elliott Romain. On 11 minutes Pinney, set up by Oxlade-Chamberlain, had to snatch his shot from the edge of the box and it cleared the left post. And late in the half, an exquisite lob by the striker beat the advancing keeper, but defender Godfrey Poku raced back and heroically cleared off the line.
Meanwhile Romain found himself with a lot of goal to shoot at from Pinney’s pass, but with his weaker left foot his shot only found keeper Bedford’s midriff. And just before half-time Romain chose to shoot from a narrow angle when a pass might have been the better option.
It was not for want of trying. After half-time the tireless prompting of Mark Hughes looked likely to carve a breakthrough, with Pinney, Simpemba and Hughes himself all getting a sniff of goal, and Alex Smith curling a free-kick too high from just outside the box. Widdrington sent on Taylor for Romain to conjure some magic.
The match was shuffling towards a goalless and soulless draw, until Jefferson Louis seized his chance. Even then the Sports came achingly close to reclaiming a stoppage-time point, when Taylor brilliantly controlled a long ball, danced between defenders and hit a goalbound rocket - only for Bedford to pull off a breathtaking save. A moment of class, from both players, that was rather out of keeping with the afternoon.
Even for the disappointed Sports supporters, it was hard not to feel for their team. On the Priory Lane 3G in September, they had been as rampant as the US Cavalry, trouncing City 4-0.
On even a half-decent surface they might have expected a similar score. But on Saturday, the cavalry never quite materialised, just draining trench warfare. A turbulent Whitehawk are up next, on Boxing Day.
Borough: Horlock; Simpemba, Khinda-John (Murphy 82), Stone; Hare, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Hughes, Dutton, Smith; Pinney, Romain (Taylor 69).
Unused subs: Baptista, O’Reilly, Worrall.
Referee: Mark Whaley