A first-half penalty by Yemi Odubade, and some solid defending, earned Eastbourne Borough three valuable points at bottom club Whitehawk on a damp and murky Boxing Day.
If the result was not hard to predict, the game itself was no classic. You pitch together two rival clubs, one deep in the relegation quicksand and the other nervously close to it – and with the two leakiest defences in National South. And, ironically, you get a colourless encounter decided by a single penalty kick.
Well, it wasn’t quite that grim. We saw effort, movement, invention on both sides, and some breathless moments in both penalty areas. But in the end this game was decided by discipline and tactical smartness. The Hawks were lively and often dangerous, but also careless with passing and finishing, while the Sports kept their shape and defended a single-goal lead for well over an hour.
Whitehawk should have been ahead with just three minutes played. A through pass from midfield sent Gold Omotayo clear of a flat Borough defence, but with the goal at his mercy he planted his shot wide of the right hand post. The home side would not get a clearer chance in the remaining 87 minutes.
Let off the hook, Borough took a tighter grip and controlled the next phase of the game. Gavin McCallum – free of defensive duties – was tormenting the home defence on the left and Hawks were strugging to defend a string of crosses as Eastbourne powered down the Enclosed Ground slope.
And on 20 minutes a moment of Whitehawk madness presented Borough with the lead. Keeper Dieng punched away a dangerous set-piece from the left, but as it was clipped back in, he crazily shoved Ian Simpemba in the back and referee Ian Fissenden had the simplest of decisions in awarding a penalty.
Yemi Odubade stepped up, sent Dieng the wrong way and gave the Sports not just a crucial lead but also a vital confidence boost. The Hawks, conversely, saw their self-belief burst like a Christmas party balloon. Manager Steve King, who has entirely rebuilt the East Brighton side since taking over, twelve games into the season, had surely targeted this match as the one that could turn his season. But now they had it all to do.
Both Hawks wide men were asking questions of the Sports defence, but lazy control in midfield undermined several promising moves and Mark Smith was only once seriously troubled in the first half. Omotayo, weaving his rangy figure in from the left flank, created himself a super chance, but delayed slightly too long and was thwarted by Smith’s brave and perfectly timed interception at his feet.
Meanwhile McCallum was untameable. After one 25-yard volley dipped, but not quite enough to squeeze under the Hawks crossbar, he went one better and fired a dipper-and-swerver which left the angle of post and crossbar shuddering. He also rode out one illegal challenge which looked worth a second penalty.
But despite constant pressure, Whitehawk survived until half-time and turned around with hopes of a come-back down the infamous slope. It was not to be. Actually, the wind and rain, sweeping now in off the Channel and glistening in the bright December floodlights, gave Eastbourne an unexpected edge.
The home side were making inroads and piling on the aerial bombardment, but it was often blanket bombing rather than pin-point artillery, and Simpemba’s well marshalled back line stood up mightily strong – the best Borough defending for some weeks, in fact.
For the two heroes changing colours, there were contrasting fortunes. King’s new signing Nat Pinney – seen as surplus to requirements by Jamie Howell – flashed into first-half action a couple of times but never quite got the sort of service he needed, and was substituted soon after half-time. But Sergio Torres, the returning Whitehawk warrior, was at his foraging and battling best in the Eastbourne midfield – and was given the warmest of acclaim by both sets of supporters at the end of the match.
The final phase, in fact, saw only Borough chances – Odubade and substitute Lloyd Dawes both breaking clear but not finding the final pass or touch which would have made the game safe. The day belonged to the visitors, and Whitehawk must try again at Priory Lane.
Borough: Smith, Udoji (Khind-John 55), Haran, Simpemba, Hendon, Wills, Ransom, Torres, Okojie, Odubade (Dawes 65, Johnson 85), McCallum. Unused subs: Richards, Armstrong-Ford.
Referee: Ian Fissenden Att: a meagre 259 including 80 from Borough
Borough MoM: Gavin McCallum