Game after game, year after year, season after season. Wilson’s teams and Widdrington’s teams, and all others since, the Sports have never conquered the Fleet until now. In the second week of the current season, they had come achingly close on a heart-stopping Tuesday night at the Lane, when the ten-man Kent side trailed 2-1 with ten minutes to go – and still came back to grab the National South points.
This encounter, at Ebbsfleet’s Kuflink Stadium, was far less dramatic: a neutral would barely have given it three stars out of five. Eastbourne’s winner came relatively early, on 20 minutes, and they managed the rest of the game efficiently with few moments of drama. But players and management had done the job, as Sports assistant manager Ben Austin reflected afterwards.
“This was the toughest draw we could have been given, in this round of the Trophy – the strongest club in the Southern half of the draw, away from home. They had a lot of the ball in the second half, but we defended our box really well, and took our fourth clean sheet in a row. So yes, we are really pleased!”
Ebbsfleet will rightly reflect that they have other fish to fry, with promotion the club’s main objective and a live home game in the FA Cup in their gunsights this coming Sunday. Dennis Kutrieb, their shrewd and experienced manager, made seven changes to his line-up, and actually changed his team shape to deny giving too much away to the watching Fleetwood Town scouts. But the Kent club have a phenomenally strong full-time squad, and this was no makeshift Ebbsfleet line-up.
Danny Bloor’s team has a settled look, and they started the match on the front foot, creating two openings in the first five minutes, both conjured by the excellent Chris Whelpdale. First Whelps won possession and looked to play Greg Luer in behind, but the pass was just too long; and then he finessed his way past three defenders, for Hutchinson to strike a useful effort that just cleared the back post.
Ebbsfleet levered their way back into the game and created a couple of chances of their own – the best, a snap shot from Kieron Monlouis, drew a fine reflex save from Lee Worgan. The Sports, though, were unflustered and undaunted in their attacking intent – and it bore fruit on 20 minutes. Whelpdale’s swerving low shot drew a fine sprawling save from keeper Mark Cousins for a left-wing corner – duly pushed over by keeper Mark Cousins for another flag-kick on the right. Kai Innocent pinged this one to the front post, where it was cleared straight back to him: this time he played it to Whelps, whose exquisite up-and-downer cleared the packed goalmouth and found the commanding figure of Hutchinson for a neat back-post header into the net.
The softest goal of the season, one home reporter labelled it, but from a Borough view it was inventive, sweetly executed and confidently finished. And it gave Ebbsfleet seventy minutes to chase the game. They certainly had chances as we approached the break: Darren McQueen’s drilled cross was blocked by the excellent Alex Wynter, and then Sido Jombati flashed a header too high. Then Franklin Domi, easily Ebbsfleet’s best player, curled a low shot goalwards but Innocent – who is really back into terrific form at left-back – cleared the effort smartly off the line.
But the most serious blow to Borough came when Mitch Dickenson crumpled under pressure with a blow to the head. Continuing after treatment, the Sports skipper suffered another collision and was clearly struggling – to be replaced a minute before half-time by Jack Burchell, who would rise splendidly to the second-half challenges as the home barrage resumed.
Home possession, home pressure, but no home breakthrough. Eastbourne were organised and alert, and they managed the tempo of the game to blunt the home side. Plaudits for the whole team, and special mention for James Hammond’s tireless midfield direction. With two minutes left, the Fleet thought they had equalized when Worgan beat out Tanner’s shot and Coulthirst popped in the rebound – but from an offside position.
Added time brought more defensive heroics – but also a serious blow as Alex Wynter copped a painful knee injury and had to be helped off – to face further treatment and possibly a fairly long lay-off. Best wishes to the Gentleman of the Borough Back Line.
But the victory was secure – and the Stonebridge Road hoodoo is finally laid to rest.
Borough: Worgan; Barry, Wynter, Dickenson (Burchell 44), Innocent; Hammond, Perez; Luer, Whelpdale (Walker 66), Gravata; Hutchinson (Remy 71).
Unused subs: Holter, Mbonkwi, Bull, Scarlett. Att: 829 Referee: Robert Claussen
Borough MoM: a tough call in a whole-team performance, but James Hammond’s director-general role was a key to the victory