While the rest of Britain was freezing its socks off, the little fringe of weather map that is Eastbourne’s Sunshine Coast was enjoying the crispest and brightest of afternoons – and at least one degree above zero! Even as the game, and a pale blue sky turned to glorious red and then sombre navy, conditions were fine and nobody was complaining.
The match-up was always going to be very close. The Hoops were enjoying a six-game unbeaten run, but half of those were draws, and the Sports were needing to get their stability back after a sub-par midweek performance at Tonbridge. And so it turned out.
City, always busy and compact, had set up with three centre-backs, a solid midfield and Josh Parker alone up top. Borough, on the other hand, began on the front foot, and they genuinely might have won the match in the first quarter-hour.
Millie Scarlett launched a lovely curling ball from the right, met by Chris Whelpdale’s perfectly timed header, which bounced off the crossbar and over – although referee Sam Read appeared, rather puzzlingly, to have penalised the Borough playmaker for a shove on his marker.
The actual breakthrough was not long coming, though. Shiloh Remy drilled a pathway in from the right and laid off to Kai Innocent, whose cross was met by Leone Gravata’s header against the right-hand post. With the City defence all a-scramble, Whelpdale reacted quickest and slid the ball in from a tightish angle: 1-0.
Within just a couple of minutes the lead should have been doubled. An alert Charlie Walker pounced on dithering keeper Ben Dudzinski, finessed the ball away from him – but only planted it into the right-hand side netting.
In between, smart work by Josh Ashby from a quick free-kick had laid on a tempting chance for Parker, but the City striker leaned back and stroked his effort smoothly over crossbar…
Meanwhile the Sports continued their run of achingly close scoring efforts: more dither in the Hoops defence, this time by defender Andre Burley, as Gravata brilliantly nicked the ball and struck for goal – but the defender redeemed himself with a partial block which just deflected Leone’s shot past the left post.
Borough were still not done. The industrious James Hammond found Walker in space on the left, and the skipper’s curling cross reached Whelpdale – who teased the ball up and over Dudzinski, and just too high to squeeze under the City crossbar.
And the teams turned round at 1-0 – rather than a three or four-goal advantage – and Oxford were somehow still in the match. They began the second half with real purpose. Zak McEachran skidded a 25-yarder just past the right hand post, and then Burley trotted up from the back, on one of those defenders’ excursions that every centre-back loves, and powered his header just too high from the long throw.
With Dickenson and Burchell cementing their increasingly sound partnership at centre-back, Borough wobbled only briefly but in fairness they didn’t buckle. Indeed, the next bit of crumpling came from Scarlett, whose one-two with Hammond, and lightning run, saw him darting into the penalty area – to be upended pretty crudely by Ashby for a nailed-on penalty.
Up stepped Shiloh Remy – who had clinched Borough’s victory over Chippenham from the spot last week. But this time, Dudzinski read the Shiloh Shimmy correctly and dived to his right to save. It was to prove pivotal to the match.
Within minutes Oxford were level. A slick right-wing move caught the home defence flat-footed and seasoned striker Joe Iaciofano – just introduced off the bench – slotted it in at the back post. Grrrrr. A simple sucker punch to undermine Borough’s afternoon of dominance.
In truth, City only grew stronger in the final phases, and only a marginal – but correct – offside flag against Iaciofano chalked off a possible winning goal. It would have been a little more than Oxford deserved; but the Sports had paid a pretty high price for their first-half extravagance in front of goal. A fair result.
Borough: Worgan; Scarlett, Burchell, Dickenson, Innocent; Hammond, Vaughan; Remy, Whelpdale (Hutchinson 69), Gravata (Luer 85). Unused subs: Holter, Perez, Bull.
Referee: Sam Read Att: 730
Borough Sponsors’ MoM: Charlie Walker