Ten minutes of the second half had passed when the Eastbourne Town saxophonist sent the refrain from Careless Whisper wafting around Crabtree Park, home of Wick and Barnham United. On the pitch his team were also doing their best George Michael impression, delivering a performance which in many ways resembled a car crash.
Before the match the outcome had seemed hardly in doubt. Town were top of the league, and unbeaten in seven matches during which they’d scored twenty three goals. Wick and Barnham United, in contrast, were four places from the bottom of the Southern Combination Football League, had won only one of their previous eight, and had conceded twenty two goals in the process. Only the programme seller seemed confident of success, and according to his colleague on the turnstile this devil-may-care attitude may simply have been a medical reaction to eating six burgers.
Yet there was one dark cloud on the horizon for Eastbourne. Wick had won only six matches all season. They had managed to score only thirty nine goals- twenty eight of which had come from striker Dan Simmonds- whilst conceding ninety two. But four of those goals had come in a crushing whilst improbable victory at The Saffrons in the reverse fixture back in November. Perhaps the programme seller might not be simply be suffering from processed meat-related madness, after all.
For the first twenty minutes of the match it seemed as if only one team had been woken up and told to go-go. The home side belied their lowly status and piled on the pressure from the off, Simmonds testing Nessling in the Town goal as early as the first minute, before almost profiting from a 50/50 ball sixty seconds later as the Eastbourne defenders looked at each other in windswept bemusement. Four minutes later an incisive pass from Michael Austin allowed Ben Gray to charge down the left and deliver a cross which a defender could only block, and from the resulting corner Jake Daniels was able to power the ball home, entirely unmarked whilst the defence looked at each other as if unable to work out what had happened.
If United had been two goals to the good three minutes later it wouldn’t have been an injustice. Simmonds again worked the away defence before setting up strike partner Joe Matthews from around twelve yards, but Matthews tried to curl it past the keeper without applying enough power and Nessling was able to save to his left without too much trouble, This sparked the Town band into their first song of the day, as we all learned that “Eastbourne Town is wonderful, it’s full of old people and seagulls.”
The band, known rather wittily as ‘Pier Pressure,’ were everything their team managed not to be. Sporting a collection of drums, a handbell, a megaphone and a saxophone they managed to make a good natured racket throughout the game, attempting to gently wind up the home keeper whilst insulting the referee by calling him a ‘Tory.’ The referee, Lucasz Sipior, seemed unfazed by this, and indeed deserved praise for being perhaps the stand-out performer of what was a rather fractious affair. He gave out five yellow cards to the home team during the first half, and issued a further card to each side after the break, but the fact that this match ended with the same number of players it started with was undoubtedly down to his calm head and common sense.
He was first called into action in the eighteenth minute, when the two number tens came together. Town captain Kenny Pogue, who was the victim of a rather poor tackle, then attempted to exact his own retribution whilst a sixteen player melee ensued and the away fans screamed for a red card. It seemed as if two red cards wouldn’t be out of the question, one for the challenge and another for the violent reaction, but Mr Sipior contented himself with a yellow for the initial offence and let play restart with a free kick. For the rest of the half he may as well have kept the card in his hand, as over zealous challenges from the home side- along with a significant collection of moaning- led to him waving it another four times.
The Town band broke into a song about how much they adore their neighbours at Priory Lane- they won’t be sending an Easter card, it would appear- and, strangely, how much they love Whitehawk. A lady with a dog walked round and round the perimeter, as if a football ground was a perfectly normal place to exercise a Jack Russell, whilst down by the corner flag a chocolate Labrador showed far more interest in the ball than a number of the players in yellow. Town were attempting to apply pressure on the United defence whilst never really fashioning a chance, whilst the home side continued to look dangerous on the break. Then came the chance of an equaliser. In the thirty-ninth minute United centre back Kieron Playle-Howard fell whilst attempting a clearance-perhaps unbalanced by the weight of his own name- and a goalbound shot hit him on the arm. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, whilst dismissing claims from the away support that a red card should be brandished. Once more the official was correct, as the prostrate KPH was not in a position to get his arm out of the way. Jason Taylor stepped up for Town and Pier Pressure roared their support, only for their number seven to send a weak shot far too close to Jordan Matthews in the home goal, who was able to save without difficulty. The half petered out with no further chances.
The second half had more quality but less incident. Captain Pogue was so frustrated by the way the match was going that he was a yellow card waiting to happen, and indeed it did happen, when he was booked for a a challenge on Rob Madden. Town applied most of the pressure, yet Wick looked extremely dangerous on the break, with Greg Nessling by far the most active of the two keepers. If bonus points could have been given for whinging, however, neither side would have left empty handed, with Jake Daniels of the home side particularly proficient. At times the tantrums resembled Iain Duncan Smith on budget day.
Most of the chances came in the last five minutes of the match. First, with three minutes left on the clock, Jordan Matthews looked to have carried the ball over the line after claiming a Town corner under pressure, but as the away fans howled for a goal the referee gave the keeper a free kick. Again, this looked the correct decision. Into added time and further Town pressure led to Pogue shooting wide, before a collection of crosses and corners created pandemonium in the home defence, the best chance falling to Town substitute Brett Patton who could only head wide with United praying for time.
The final whistle went with the away side downbeat, fearing that perhaps rivals Horsham had closed the gap at the top- as indeed they had. Wick, understandably, demonstrated rather different emotions. They’ve had a mixed season, but perhaps they’ve now turned a different corner and might just be able to climb clear of the drop zone. Now wouldn’t that be amazing?
Wick & Barnham Utd v Eastbourne Town album -click the link for the full set of photographs.
Published on in Steps 3-6.