A damp and blustery Saturday, a long haul down the M4, and a scrap for crucial points: no glamour, but the gritty reality of National South survival for Eastbourne Borough.
Interim boss Mark McGhee takes his Eastbourne squad to face lowly Hungerford Town, looking for a first league win since mid-January but buoyed by two successive battling draws, against Hampton and Richmond Borough and Chelmsford.
Home fans were certainly impressed with Borough’s commitment against high-riding Chelmsford City last weekend. “Better football, better atmosphere, more enjoyable” was one social media comment, while another Priory Lane loyalist called it “the best performance we’ve seen in a long while.” Albion loanee Stefan Ljubicic notched a fine goal, and only a freakish wind-assisted equaliser from a corner denied Borough all three points.
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McGhee and coach Charlie Oatway have brought no special magic to the Lane, but they are clearly restoring the players’ self-belief and tight teamwork. The mood is good and the signs are promising – and a victory at Hungerford would do wonders for both the morale and the league standing.
When the season opened – way back in the searing heatwave of last August – each of the 22 clubs in National South had its objectives. At the front of the field, we always expected Woking and Torquay United to be powerful forces. Two well-supported clubs, injured and a bit indignant to find themselves relegated, and looking to bounce straight back. And so it has turned out, with the Cards and the Gulls currently dead level at the top.
The other likely title contenders, Billericay Town, have suffered all sorts of upheavals but are still up there with the likes of Dartford, Chelmsford and Bath, in a strong chasing pack which once – at a very early stage – we thought might include Borough. So much for optimism.
But at the back of the convoy, the usual suspects have been struggling all season to keep up. Weston, East Thurrock and Hungerford all finished below the Sports last season, and they currently occupy the relegation places. A seven-point buffer separates Borough from the drop zone, with three other clubs – Gloucester, Truro and Dulwich – in between.
McGhee is taking the pragmatic view. “I came in with eleven games to play, and I’m looking to gather as many points as we can. I’ve not targeted any specific fixtures.” Hungerford will be at least as hungry for the win, but the Sports look unlikely to build a barricade. “By instinct I am not a manager who wants to park the bus,” says the experienced Scot.
“We want to win every game, and when we defend, we defend from the front.”
McGhee has added just one new face to the squad inherited from Jamie Howell – but that signing may prove pivotal. Striker Josh Bingham arrives from New South Wales with pace, appetite and a 6’3” presence which Borough have so often lacked this season.
Bingham’s strike partnership with Ljubicic looked potent against Chelmsford, and travelling supporters will hope to see more of the same on Saturday.
Otherwise McGhee is happy to work with what he has. With Sam Howes still suspended, the ebullient figure of Mark Smith continues in goal. Charlie Walker’s sore ankle had improved enough for a place on the bench last week, while Sergio Torres is understood to be closing in on a return to action.
The Borough skipper has not kicked a ball in anger for two months due to an injury,