United blast into last 16

Eastbourne United celebrate
Eastbourne United celebrate

End-to-end excitement, nine goals – five of them in extra time – and a hailstorm that stopped play: just another episode in Eastbourne United’s FA Vase adventure

Hosts Hanworth Villa, not a club or a team to stand on ceremony, had fancied their own chances of pitching United into touch along the Wembley way, but their Sussex visitors stood firm, and came out winners on both character and quality.

Ironically, the weather worked in Simon Rowland’s favour as the United manager was able to call on dual-registered Sean Ray (Kingstonian) and Jamie Crellin (Peacehaven), whose league games were both called off on Saturday morning.

And both players made massive contributions to United’s performance.

Ray was a tower of strength alongside Shaun Loft at the back, and the former Hastings boss headed United into a 21st minute lead from Joe Dryer’s corner. Within three minutes Dryer himself – who was on fire all afternoon down the left – had doubled the lead, firing in from Ryan McBride’s knockdown.

Vill, who had fizzed briefly early on when Grant Young saved superbly from Joe Johnson, now looked groggy from the double strike. United, with a blustery wind largely at their backs, could have increased the lead with further efforts from Dryer and McBride.

2-0 was a useful half-time margin but not in itself a winning lead. As the teams changed around, so did the weather. In minutes it had turned dramatically from sharp winter sun and a buffeting breeze to black clouds, storm force wind and drenching rain – on an already soft and muddy pitch.

With the gale at their backs, and the fresh impetus of lively substitute striker Ross Cheetham, Hanworth poured forward. United, defending very deep and unable to find outlets going forward, were under pressure for the first time in the match. On 65 minutes Andy Turner finally beat the impressive Young with a low shot on the turn, and eight minutes later Villa were level, Cheetham skeltering through with all the composure of a dog on a skateboard and just reaching a gale-driven through ball, to nudge it past Young.

By now, the wind was up to dangerous levels, the roof was blown off the beer tent, and the pounding rain had turned to hail.

Off went the teams and into the clubhouse squeezed the 300 spectators - leaving only a BBC reporter desperately shielding his equipment from the deluge.

We feared an abandonment, but then the hail eased and the sky lightened enough to permit a resumption of play until the allotted 90 minutes.

Extra time: who had the heart, the legs or the inspiration to claim the game? There was only one winner.

McBride slid in a low cross at the back post for 3-2, and almost at once Scott Dartnell scored a fabulous solo goal, beating four opponents to put daylight – well, at least murky half-light – between the two teams.

Dryer added two more, and in the final minute Wes Tate struck home a penalty after Richard Greenfield was sliced down by home skipper Lee Morley.

Come hell or high water: an epic afternoon had seen top performances all over the pitch for United, and their Wembley dream is still alive.

United: Young, Featherstone, Dartnell, Loft, Ray, Franklin, Tate, Maclean, McBride, Crellin, Dryer. Subs: Aston, Ben Dartnell, Divall, Greenfield, Kneller

More reaction and pictures in Friday’s Herald