Three hours around the M25, and then three points dropped in a shapeless, forgettable game on Saturday as Eastbourne Borough were beaten 3-1 by relegation battlers St Albans City.
Losing is not in Tommy Widdrington’s DNA - or certainly not writing off an “end-of-season” game. He expects the best possible performance from every game, and his players share that commitment. At 5.00pm on Saturday, the mood and the body language in the Borough camp bristled with frustration, and skipper Ian Simpemba summed it up afterwards: “We knew exactly what to expect from St Albans, but we just didn’t deal with it. We allowed them to put their game on us. The games are still coming thick and fast, and the great thing is that football always gives you another chance to put it right.”
Borough still harbour a slim chance of the play-offs, so every point is priceless, and in an unpredictable National South season there is no such thing as mid-table. Leaders Ebbsfleet have seen a healthy lead whittled away, and probably only two clubs - Sutton and Maidstone - can be confident about play-off places. And at the foot of the table, clubs once doomed are now scrabbling clear of the relegation quicksand. Every match matters.
Of course, it takes two to contest a football match, and St Albans City were formidable opponents on the day: third from bottom, but you’d never have known it. Since canny, experienced Ian Allinson took over as manager last month, the Saints have gained purpose, organisation and a belief that they can survive in the division, and Saturday’s victory was their fifth in six games. And on a blustery, unsettled day, Borough’s best efforts to put their game together were blown away.
Without injured midfielders Evans and Collier, Tommy deployed Craig Stone alongside Ryan Worrall at the heart of midfield. There were starts once again for loanees Callum Buckley and Jake Sheppard, with the newest recruit from AFC Bournemouth, George Worthington, on the bench.
Eastbourne had the best possible start. Two minutes in, Nat Pinney popped a ball beyond the home defence for Jamie Taylor, whose shot was parried by keeper Welch. Gavin McCallum, following up, kept his head and used his head, and Borough were 1-0 up.
But the lead came at a high price. In the process, Taylor had been clattered by defender Eddie Oshodi, whose awful challenge went unpunished by referee Elliott Kaye - perhaps on the flawed logic that the goal itself was sufficient compensation for losing a key striker. Ironically Oshodi was to grab a goal of his own later in the game, but after three minutes’ fruitless treatment Jamie hobbled off to be substituted by Elliott Romain.
The next exchanges were pretty even, with McCallum looking tasty on the ball but the home side winning more of the ball and disrupting Borough’s passing game. Their most potent threat came from skipper Lee Chappell, whose phenomenal long throws were raining on the Sports goalmouth like artillery shells.
Combative midfield action saw tit-for-tat yellows from Mr Kaye - for Chappell and Worrall. Young Ryan’s caution, in fact, was one of only two fouls committed by Borough all afternoon, the second being awarded against Craig Stone in stoppage time: the oddest statistic of the day, with City meanwhile managing to chalk up 15 fouls.
On 22 minutes the Saints were level. A difficult swinging high ball from the left was cleared by Sam Beale, but only to Louie Theophanous, whose low shot from the edge of the box was well saved by a diving, partly unsighted Lewis Carey. But the ball squirmed loose and Charlie Macdonald was quickest to reach it and score from a couple of yards out.
The next few minutes brought a testing ordeal by bombardment from a relentless home team, in their best spell of the whole afternoon. But to their credit Borough hung on tenaciously and the Saints’ closest effort, a goalbound header from giant centre-half Ben Martin, was coolly cleared off the line by Beale.
The Sports themselves were often unco-ordinated going forward, but from a Worrall corner Romain’s perfect header was superbly saved by Welch, clawing the ball out as it arced towards the very top corner. Then with Haysman’s smart low drive fumbled around the near post by Welch, we reached half-time all square.
Simpemba, his features and physique etched in granite, was giving his best example to his troops and made few mistakes - but as one rueful fan commented, his first, involuntary error had come before kick-off - in losing the toss. Get the call right, Ian.... The first half breeze at Eastbourne’s backs was now turning fiercer by the minute as the weather closed in, and the Sports emerged from the dressing rooms to face a driving wind which spurred St Albans on like a racing clipper skimming the ocean. It wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t need to be. The Saints drove forward, getting the ball into Borough’s box as often and as early as possible. A wickedly swinging corner was nodded only just wide by Thalassitis, and from Chappell’s persistent long-throw bombardment you sensed that City only had to get lucky once.
That moment came on 67 minutes when Eddie Oshodi - he of the unpunished foul - rose higher than his marker to meet the longest throw of the afternoon in the very middle of the goalmouth, heading inside the back post with Carey still trying to guard the front.
At this stage, all was not lost. Tommy had already introduced Worthington, who, without turning the game around, did show some impressive touches. He still had Darren Lok up his sleeve for a late flurry, and Romain was always athletic and dangerous, breaking once beyond the defence but chopped down by full-back Bender at cost of a yellow card. But with Pinney tightly marked, the Sports had no more than fleeting sight of an equaliser, and fifteen minutes from time the Saints effectively claimed the points with a stunning third goal.
Theophanous - who always seems to score against Borough, whichever club colours he is wearing - picked up a ball wide on the left, checked back on his right foot, and from the edge of the box he struck the most sublime of strikes across Carey and, with the wind curling the ball just nicely, it nestled in the top far corner.
Game, set and three points. Ahead of the Bank Holiday fixture with Havant and Waterlooville, it left Borough still six points short of the final play-off place, although with other contenders also losing, the National South season lurches on. The Sports - players, staff, travelling supporters - did not enjoy Saturday, but they know there is plenty still to play for.
St Albans: Welch, Oshodi, Bender, Thomas (Corcoran 59), Udoji, Martin, Anderson, Thalassitis (Gibson 83), Theophanous, Macdonald, Chappell.
Borough: Carey; Sheppard, Simpemba, Buckley, Beale; McCallum, Worrall (Lok 78), Stone, Haysman (Worthington 59); Pinney, Taylor (Romain 5). Unused subs: Khinda-John, Bosma.
Referee: Elliott Kaye
Borough MoM: Ian Simpemba - broad shoulders on a tough day