By Kevin Anderson
A single goal by a former player, deep in extra time, sent Eastbourne Borough slithering out of the Sussex Senior Cup at Burgess Hill on Tuesday.
The mood was as gloomy as the Mid-Sussex night at the Green Elephant Stadium, as Borough failed to make pressure and chances count, and when Dan Beck drilled in the winner from a tangle of desperate bodies, the misery was complete.
There was something fatalistic about the whole evening. Just a fortnight ago, in the original tie, Borough had zipped into a 2-0 lead to set them on course for the semi-final, before the match was abandoned for floodlight failure. Bizarrely, it was the second successive reprieve for the Hillians, who had been heading out by the same scoreline at Pagham in the previous round before the lights went out.
But Burgess Hill rode their considerable luck, and they invested it with interest into a hugely committed performance. They were robust and occasionally rough-edged, and on a bumpy pitch their direct style never allowed Borough to settle.
Jamie Howell is currently like a tailor with no cloth. From a small squad, injuries had already side-lined Sergio Torres, Dean Cox and Adebayo-Rowling, loan players Stefan Ljubicic and Corey Jordan were ineligible, and youth players Andrew Briggs and Dan Blackmore lined up in midfield. And just after half-time, when Charlie Walker limped off with an ankle injury, Sports legend – and Under-23 coach – Matt Crabb came off the bench to roll back the years.
And yet Borough did have their chances, outshooting their Bostik Premier hosts by at least two to one, and ironically looking the stronger side at the start of extra-time. But the Hillians’ dogged defence and no-nonsense tactics rode out Eastbourne pressure, and gave them a platform for Beck’s late winner.
Back to the start. Lloyd Dawes twice made early inroads into the Burgess Hill box, but was crowded out, and then Ryan Hall struck two shots, one just wide and the other blocked out. It set a pattern for the first half, with the Sports generally on top and Hillians defending resolutely.
At the other end keeper Sam Howes was under-employed, but five minutes before the break he produced a splendid save from former Borough favourite Pat Harding’s goalbound header.
More of the same in the second half? So far, genuine scoring chances had been as rare a green elephants. This was the sort of tie to be settled with a slip, a single scruffy goal, a sudden break. But it was all more clout than class, and any creativity – most of it from Borough – was swiftly kicked into touch in both senses. Hill midfielder Aiden Enver was cautioned for an alarming late challenge on the excellent Ransom, and was a little lucky to stay on the field for a second snapping foul soon afterwards.
In the middle of the half the home side enjoyed their best spell, Enver winning a 22-yard free-kick which Howes easily saved, and the tall and mobile figure of Aaron Smith-Joseph was proving a handful up front.
The loss of Walker had drawn some of Borough’s sting, but the visitors steadily regained the upper hand and Briggs rattled the crossbar with a great strike from Dawes’s feed. Then Tom Gardiner had a free header from a right-wing corner but only found the gloves of keeper Bromage.
And in the night’s most bizarre moment, Tom Cadman’s grappling head-lock prevented Lloyd Dawes from reaching a perfect ball in from the left, but referee Greg Walker, with the clearest view in the stadium, ducked the decision.
Into extra-time, then, and the Sports enjoyed a good spell of pressure but still failed to trouble the scorers. And on 110 minutes the Hillians finally broke through. Smith-Joseph’s stampeding run in from the left finished with a low shot, beaten out by Howes but only as far as Dan Beck, who drove the loose ball triumphantly into a welcoming net.
Borough drained, Burgess Hill delirious. Sometimes the course of cup competitions is written in the stars. Or the floodlights.
Borough: Howes; Hamilton, Ransom, Gardiner, Campbell; Briggs (Santos 113), Wills, Blackmore, Hall (West 80); Walker (Crabb 55), Dawes. Unused sub: Gharbaoui
Borough MoM: Harry Ransom