It was by no means a simple stroll at the Lane, as the Crusaders remained combative throughout and played their full part in a lively and enjoyable contest. The spirit was great and the victory was still in the balance almost to the very end – Leone Gravata’s 88th minute strike finally putting paid to the visitors’ hopes.
Brilliant, pin-sharp sunshine greeted the four-figure crowd, and even the biting easterly wind off the Marshes eased as the action began. A good smattering of blue & white Albion scarves mingled cheerfully with the red & black and the black & white. This was non-league as it always should be. Hungerford arrived as the division’s absolute tail-enders with only four league wins all season. Resigned to relegation? “Not a bit of it,” responded the chairman’s wife before kick-off, “the Great Escape starts here!”
In the event, Hungerford came off second best. We know that their team, under upbeat manager Danny Robinson, will carry on the crusade – and we especially wish them well in their FA Trophy campaign. If they can make Wembley, Borough should be raising a charabanc from the South Coast….
But Saturday was about league points, deservedly claimed by the Sports. Four goals, a saved penalty, lots of other scoring chances, and over a thousand happy punters. A couple of Hungerford yellow cards, but even those were of the totting-up variety, and not for anything seriously aggressive. Indeed it was good to see Jack Packman, on the whistle, running the show with sound judgement and good spirit. We sometimes forget that referees are entitled to enjoy the game as the rest of us do.
Danny Bloor gave an immediate start to Alfie Bendle, and the young AFC Wimbledon loanee responded with an impressive performance, imposing himself in midfield, taking a number of dead-ball kicks and indeed setting up the opening goal after ten minutes. His left-wing corner was met at the back post by Charlie Walker, whose confident headed finish was just the start of an accomplished display by the Borough club captain.
And that early grip on the game never really loosened. Not a single home player failed to play his part. Dickenson and Burchell proved once again how well they are slotting together. Scarlett and Innocent were reliable in the wide spaces and intelligent in support of their forwards. James Hammond was back in his usual groove. Greg Luer, as easy to under-rate by the casual observer as he is difficult to pick up by opposing defenders, was a subtle false nine, while Walker was a proper bustling nine. And in Gravata and Remy, Bloor has two lethal wide men who frighten opponents every time they get possession. No pressure, lads – but you sense this team could go on another run before the season is out.
In the first half the Sports had been playing into a low, dazzling January sun, but as the teams turned around it was disappearing behind the Mick Green Stand and conditions were perfect for both sides. And just four minutes after the break, the home side doubled their lead. Quick thinking by Shiloh Remy and Greg Luer produced a short corner and a wicked cross which keeper Jed Ward pushed upwards. It brushed the crossbar and bounced down for a misclearance off a Hungerford boot, a couple more pinball-pings in the goal area, and a final touch into the net off James Hammond. Three yards or thirty yards, they all count.
Was that the decisive blow? By no means. Hungerford worked really hard and turned this game into an entertaining back-and-forth tussle. Ward conjured a breathtaking save to deny Luer’s goalbound strike, and then – on 66 minutes – the visitors were offered a pathway back into the match. Jack Burchell, whose centre-back play had been immaculate throughout, was unfortunate to be penalised for handball when a Matt Berry-Hargreaves shot struck him from a yard away.
But when Jake Evans attempted the stuttering double-bluff run-up, Worgan read him correctly and saved the spot-kick. A bit of poetic justice, perhaps.
Still both these teams were playing without a reverse gear. No cynical time-wasting, No crumpled bodies turning minor knocks into long stoppages. Why can’t football always be this much fun? And the Crusaders were not surrendering yet. With thirteen minutes left, Louis McGrory advanced from full-back, picked up a square ball forty yards out, got slightly lucky with a ricochet off Bendle, and then got luckier as his shot from just outside the box caught the slightest of deflections between the Borough centre-backs, and found the net past a wrong-footed Worgan.
Now then, we were braced for a barnstorming final assault by the men in white and black. But the guys in red and black were unshaken and, after one routine save by Worgs from a free-kick, it was Borough who struck the coup de grace. Smart work on the right by subs Norman Wabo and Jaden Perez produced a fizzing shot by the latter player which pinged back off the left post into the path of Gravata, whose jubilant finish gave the final scoreline a fairer reflection of the match.
Over the ridge of the Downs, away to the west, a gorgeous Sussex sunset glowed crimson and painted the winter sky in every shade of red. It was a night when even the Almighty wore a replica Borough shirt…
Borough: Worgan; Scarlett, Burchell, Dickenson, Innocent; Hammond, Bendle; Remy (Perez 71), Luer, Gravata; Walker (Wabo 85). Unused subs: Whelpdale, Holter, Bull.
Referee: Jack Packham Att: 1021
Borough MoM: Jack Burchell