The magic of the cup.
An overused phrase for a competition which loses its shine the further it progresses, but a phrase which, nonetheless, is entirely appropriate when you’re a Non League side with hopes of glory. Last night’s match at The Oval –no, not that one- was a pulsating cup tie which did the old tournament great credit, with the two teams busting a gut to come out on top. Goals, determination, attacking verve and a few rather tasty challenges along with some handbags after the final whistle (and apparently some more in the tunnel), this was a match you couldn’t take your eyes off for the entirety of its ninety-seven minutes.
On Saturday Eastbourne United and Tunbridge Wells played out a hard fought 1-1 draw at the Culverden Stadium. So it was off to the Eastbourne Oval for this Extra-Preliminary Round replay, and a considerable number of travelling fans managed to find the ground, for which they must have been grateful to Mr. Google-Maps because it is entirely unsignposted, unless you count the two foot by one foot sign on the gates of the ground itself, fifty yards behind Channel View Road. There may well be people on the other side of Channel View Road itself who don’t know where it is, such are the efforts of the local authority (who own it) to advertise its presence. United certainly won’t pick up a great deal of passing trade.
Neither side have a particular cup pedigree. United had twice made the 4th Qualifying Round, the last occasion being in 1978, whilst Wells had gone further, having twice reached the Second Round proper, however the last of those successes was around the time that Hitler was still looking at Austria and wondering whether it might be nice to move nearer his family. That said, the away side have had some recent knockout tournament success, reaching the final of the FA Vase in 2013, and are also in the record books for the longest ever FA Cup penalty shootout, a 16-15 victory over Littlehampton Town which took forty penalties to complete, in the Preliminary Round of 2005-06.
The teams walked out to the rather strangulated tones of the ubiquitous ‘Sussex by the Sea’- a comment on the PA system rather than the quality of the musicians. The PA Announcer read out the teams, but for those at the far side of the ground he may as well have been broadcasting the sound of his indigestion, as all we heard was a continual rumbling noise with the odd half-intelligible word. Luckily he was soon drowned out by the musical accompaniment of the Tunbridge Wells Male Voice Choir, advising us that their town was full of Lawyers, Doctors and Architects. It was slightly disappointing that they missed out stationary traffic, but never mind. Shortly after kick off an ambulance sped by on the nearby seafront, and none of the lawyers left to chase it. They are a disgrace to their profession.
It was the away side that had the best of the early exchanges, attacking the ‘Big Top’ end (a travelling circus was pitched in the park behind the goal). Twice long throws into the box caused consternation only to come to naught despite panic in the home penalty area, which rightly angered keeper Phil Hawkins. Then, in the sixth minute, a wayward pass across the edge of his own box by Scott Chamberlain was pounced on by Tunbridge number nine Richard Atkins, but the striker was unable to control it and Hawkins got down to smother. By this point the keeper must have thought he had clowns to the left of him, jokers to the right. A minute later, and at the other end, Chamberlain ran into an immobile Jason Hollick and the home bench yelled for a penalty, which the referee wisely waved away.
The action pulsated from end to end, with United number eleven Bailo Camara and Wells midfielder Ryan Crandley vying for supremacy. Camara, with a haircut reminiscent of a D-Day paratrooper, marauded from wing to wing looking for an opening through which to jump, whilst Crandley looked to move his team forward courtesy of some incisive passing, whilst at the same time searching for an opportunity himself, twice forcing Hawkins into saves. The away fans were by this point advising their United counterparts that they were going “home with your granny, we’re going home with your granny.” Unfortunately we were never advised how that episode of Blind Date turned out, because shortly afterwards we were distracted by a foul on Camara which brought the first yellow card of the evening. Ollie Bankole dwelt far too long on the ball and was robbed by Camara, and in trying to regain possession went over the ball and connected with the shin of the opposition winger.
The two teams had contrasting styles. The home side were happy to mix it up, with long diagonal balls towards the strikers as well as feeding the attempts of Camara to run at the opposition, whilst Wells preferred a short, passing game. The away supporters had just finished an attempt at irony (“the beautiful game, the beautiful game, up in the air, the beautiful game”) when a chip over their defence and a beautifully timed run from Peter Cooper saw them fall behind. Cooper delivered an exceptional finish despite the attentions of the defenders trying to catch him, leaving keeper Steve Lawrence with no chance. Prior to this the away team had manufactured the best chances, three times forcing home keeper Hawkins to punch clear, but they hadn’t taken them and now they were counting the cost. Cooper could have had an almost identical goal only a minute later, but on this occasion Lawrence was equal to it, holding well. The half petered out with United ahead.
The second half started with a great deal of endeavour but little penetration. In the 55th minute Wells earned what should have been a dangerous free quick, from around 22 yards, but like most of their set pieces during the evening it was taken badly, fired directly at the Eastbourne wall. The home side broke immediately down the right wing, and the ball was pulled back to find Steve Dallaway, who eluded the defence and kept his head to fire home. On balance of play Wells certainly didn’t deserve to be two down, but two down they were, and they needed a quick response. It wasn’t forthcoming, and striker Atkins was perhaps slightly lucky to receive only a yellow card three minutes later, after a challenge where he was later than a Southern Rail commuter and clattered Cooper. His protests that it was a genuine attempt for the ball seemed hollow; it seemed a challenge entirely fashioned from frustration. And he had every reason to be frustrated.
The visitors should have got back into the game in the sixty second minute. Good work from Atkins saw him play the ball to an unmarked Tom Lawrence inside the left hand side of the box. Lawrence steadied himself, swung his leg, and managed to scuff his shot wide of the keepers right hand post. Wells continued to press, however, and eventually got their reward in the 75th minute when a dreadful corner was somehow missed by a crowd of United defenders and seemed to hit Bankole before dropping over the line.
Wells continued to pour forward, putting immense pressure on the home defence but leaving themselves susceptible to a quick break. During one of these Dallaway should have done better, pulling his shot past the post after racing clear of the defence. Camara and Crandley remained at the heart of the action, the former breaking out of defence to fire a shot which Lawrence did well to hold before the latter drove past two United defenders before earning a corner in the 85th minute. The corner was again dreadful, but somehow the ball bounced through to Atkins, whose fierce drive was deflected over for another. Which was also wasted.
In the last minute of normal time Eastbourne went down to ten men, as substitute Danny Andrews was shown a straight red for a foul on Bankole right in front of the United dugout. It was certainly a foul, but a red card seemed rather harsh, and Wells sensed an opportunity. Six minutes of added time saw wave after wave of red shirted attacks, with occasional ripostes from Camara, who showed a little naivety by continually attempting to set up chances whilst his supporters willed him to take the ball into the corner, and keep it there. But, after what seemed like an eternity, the whistle blew, and it was United who progressed to the next round, where Newhaven or Rochester United will be the visitors to the Oval.
Published on in Cup.