It gets more dramatic by the week. Scarcely recovered from a scarcely believable defeat to Bath City, the Sports saw defeat snatched once again from the jaws of victory, as Ebbsfleet United stole the points on Tuesday night.
Borough had surprised and dominated the title favourites from North Kent, leading 2-1 with just ten minutes left, before the ten-man visitors drilled holes in the home defence to win 3-2 and leave Sports players, manager and supporters in crumpled, exhausted disbelief.
The blistering heat of Saturday had eased by Tuesday night, replaced by a serene August evening with a canvas of rich reds and yellows in the western sky above the SO Legal Stadium. The beautiful game, in a glorious setting. A 1400 crowd, both clubs well represented, all ages and genial mood – and at kick-off, few hints of the drama about to unfold.
Danny Bloor put freshly signed Bradley Barry straight into the side at right back, as he looked to keep the team fresh after that gruelling Bath City game. And Brad made an instant impact before injury forced him off in the second half. Otherwise, the line-up had the same balanced look, and the home side opened confidently.
It didn’t escape notice that Fleet manager Dennis Kutrieb had made seven changes from his (winning) line-up on Saturday. With a huge squad of full-time players, they will clearly be the National South pace-setters, and the team to beat.
But not unbeatable. The Sports were on the front foot, and with Whelpdale majestic in the number 10 role, the home forwards were persistently looking to turn the Ebbsfleet defence. Whelps pierced the Fleet penalty area with a perfect pass for Barry’s run behind the full-back, but nobody could get a final touch to the new recruit’s ball across the six-yard line. Then James Vaughan reached Hammond’s free-kick with a flashing header that arrowed just over the crossbar. And keeper Haigh was just out of his goal in time to deny Gravata running on to a through ball.
No goals, but a really buoyant opening phase for the Sports. The visitors responded with a three man move from the right, which found Dom Poleon – who, for a big guy, has incredibly quick feet but, this time, slightly scuffed his final shot past the left hand post. Then McQueen again from the right wing created a chance for Coulthirst, whose effort was easily gathered by Worgan.
Then, just past the half-hour, Borough claimed reward for their superiority. Hutchinson released Shiloh Remy down the right touchline, and the winger played a perfect ball for Whelpdale, with the Ebbsfleet defence as vacant as a rail platform on a strike day. Whelps laid it across for the pounding Gravata to sweep the ball home first-touch. A magnificent goal.
Perhaps someone should invent a grading and weighting system for goals scored. If Eastbourne’s opener had been A*, the Fleet equaliser, a couple of minutes before half-time, just about scraped a C. But the home defenders bore much of the blame, allowing a quick short corner on the left to be slotted across the face of goal, where Poleon flicked it past Worgan for 1-1.
Scant reward, then, for the Sports after a dominant first half. But within five minutes of the restart they were again ahead. Hammond’s free kick from wide right was knocked back by Mitch Dickenson and Alex Wynter clipped it in – just – after rebounding down off the crossbar.
This time, the Sports needed to consolidate. But the next scoring chances fell to Ebbsfleet: Finney just past the right post, Tanner rasping a great effort off the top of the crossbar, and then Poleon – after a handball in the build-up -scooping a great chance over the bar.
And then it suddenly grew stormy. Not the mellow evening weather, but the fiery action on the pitch. At half-time Charlie Walker had replaced Whelpdale – a little hamstring tweak – and perhaps the Borough skipper was still adjusting to the pace of the game when he sliced down Cundie on the touchline in front of the Peter Fountain Stand. The caution was on the orange side of yellow, a forgettable moment in a memorable game.
Then, with 20 minutes left and all still to play for, came the sort of clash that makes you hide your eyes. A long ball out of defence sent Hutch pounding up the left touchline, a yard clear of the two defenders, and into the Fleet half. Chris Haigh had flown out of goal and his desperate swipe for the ball connected only with the Eastbourne striker’s ankle.
Both players floored and in trouble, and referee Shelby Elson with an impossible decision to make. There was an argument for a Haigh red card, as last man, but it was Hutchinson who copped the yellow card while the stricken Fleet keeper was carried off. A broken ankle was later diagnosed, and all at Priory Lane will wish him a full recovery.
Meanwhile the visitors, with all three subs already used, needed a hero – and Ben Chapman, not the biggest of players but the best of clubmen, pulled on the jersey and went in goal.
A goal down, a man down, Ebbsfleet should surely have been looking for damage limitation – but on this craziest and most dramatic of nights, they took control.
Those seven team changes might have raised supporters’ eyebrows, but they had turned into a Dennis Kutrieb Meisterstreich. The Sports had finished the previous game – against Bath City – defeated and drained in sub-Saharan heat, and now they had little left. Instead, the Fleet took control.
With nine minutes to play, Solly slipped in from the right and prodded a ball across goal which somehow evaded defenders and goalkeeper, and thudded apologetically into the net off the base of the far post. An awful goal to concede, but Ebbsfleet were concerned only with the width of the goal-line and not the quality of the goal.
With visiting fans going crazy behind Worgan’s goal, the final line of script was surely already written. A left-wing corner found O’Neill coming off his marker and diverting a header into goal for 3-2. The visitors were in delirium, the home side in despair.
Mr Elson had indicated a minimum of seven added minutes but actually blew early. There had still been time for N’Guessan to collect a second yellow, for delaying a corner – but no time for a Borough equaliser. And as the floodlights went out at the River End – a fault, by the way, and absolutely not an act of spite – the SO Legal Stadium had staged its second dramatic contest in four days.
Twelve goals, but seven of them conceded. Of the allotted 180 minutes, the Sports had trailed for just six minutes – one against Bath City, five against Ebbsfleet United. Six minutes, six points lost. No matter: it may have been a couple of defeats, but it wasn’t war. And you can bet the supporters of both clubs will be back for more.