On paper, it had looked a tough opening fixture. But on Oxford City’s burning-hot 3G on Saturday, Eastbourne Borough moved straight up through the gears and finished in cruise control at 3-1.
Borough players and supporters had endured over four hours on the motorways in tarmac-melting temperatures, but they had shaken off the journey within three minutes of kick-off. Leone Gravata took James Hammond’s diagonal pass in his stride and fired a blistering shot, deflected inches wide for a corner. The flag kick was hung up all too temptingly, and a flailing Oxford hand conceded a penalty – despatched confidently by Hammo for a gift of an early lead.
The home side needed a response, and it came in robust form. Gravata’s reward for his lively start was a steamroller foul between the shoulder-blades by Andre Burley – earning only words of advice – but no caution – from referee Oliver Mackey, who by the 90 minute mark had actually dealt three yellow cards to Borough players and given twenty fouls against the visitors. More sinned against than sinning? Certainly City players were not slow to go to ground under challenges.
But the Sports were still dominant as we reached the mid-point of the first half, and they were rewarded with two goals in four minutes. Hammond’s curling, tantalising corner once again created the chance – knocked back across goal by Jake Elliott and stabbed in from fully two yards (but with a very neat turn) by Mitch Dickenson. Who needs strikers, when the defenders can do the business?
Well, the big guys may bundle in their goals from two yards out – but spearhead Greg Luer hits howitzers from anywhere. Greg has been in sizzling pre-season form, and when an Oxford defender under-hit a pass across the area, he seized on the ball, took two strides and two touches, and drilled a ferocious shot into the top left corner with keeper Ben Dudzinski helpless. The fierce heat was humming, but Borough were simply buzzing.
Gravata, still full of spins and turns and lightning skills, has added a bit more muscle to his game over the past twelve months, and City were unsure how to cope with him. On the oppo-site flank Shiloh Remy was showing quick feet and a quick brain, and both full-backs Elliott and Kai Innocent were supporting and showing an eye for the overlap.
With Hammond and James Vaughan confident in central midfield, Danny Bloor has given his 22-23 Sports a powerful engine-room. Chris Whelpdale, a towering force in front of them, deftly swapped passes on the left with the outstanding Gravata and fizzed a swerving shot that Dudzinski brilliantly palmed around the near post. The Hoops responded with their best chance of the half, Lewis Coyle striking a dipping effort from the edge of the D, just over the crossbar. Other than that, Sports keeper Lee Worgan enjoyed an untroubled first half. In front of him, Dickenson and centre-back partner Alex Wynter – the very coolest man on a blazing afternoon – were untouchable.
City, in truth, had not been hopeless. Manager Ross Jenkins has recruited a very useful squad for the new season, but on this evidence they need a couple more matches to click as a team. But they came out for the second half with purpose, and gained immediate reward.
A swift left flank break saw the experienced Joe Iacofani, turning from striker to provider, play a ball across the 18-yard line. Zac McEachran profited from a fortunate ricochet off Vaughan and moved it on to Klaidi Lolos, whose excellent close control prised a gap between defenders and his shot found the bottom right corner for 3-1.
This, genuinely, was now a contest once again. The Hoops looked more fluent than before the break, and they were suddenly posing problems for Borough. McEachran scampered in from the left to set up Reece Fleet, whose scuffed shot was blocked. Then Iacofani cut in from the right but, from a decent angle, failed to beat the perfectly positioned Lee Worgan.
And, in the draining heat, it was the Sports who controlled the final phase. Jake Hutchinson, on for his first 20 minutes in a Borough shirt, gave a tiring home defence nightmares – and will surely play a key role as the season unfolds. There was time for a bright right-flank cameo by Milly Scarlett, and Eastbourne ended the afternoon as they had begun, dictating the play. Just another 45 games to play, then…
Borough: Worgan; Elliott, Wynter, Dickenson, Innocent; Hammond, Vaughan; Remy (Scar-lett), Whelpdale, Gravata; Luer (Hutchinson). Unused subs: Walker, Mbonkwi, Holter.
Man of the Match: Leone Gravata – a defender’s nightmare
Referee: Oliver Mackey Attendance: 351